EMMET LARKIN et al 1206 XL


By the time you read this the latest Irish episode in the ongoing Euro saga will have taken place – the referendum on May 31 on the European Stability Treaty. More about that later.

But first I must acknowledge the sad  passing of Emmet Larkin, whose memorial service at the University of Chicago was the day before Ireland voted. With Emmet’s death, Chicago, Ireland and Irish America has lost a great character and friend.

Emmet Larkin came to the University of Chicago in 1966, where he was Professor of British and Irish History until his retirement in 2006. Together with his friend Professor Larry McCaffrey, he was a seminal figure in promoting Irish studies in the USA through the American Conference for Irish Studies, which they founded in 1960.

Irish studies in the USA are now booming, due in no small part to the ACIS and its founders and Emmet’s role should not be forgotten. It should not be forgotten either that it was the same year,1960,  that the first Irish Catholic was elected U.S. President and that the huge Irish American community took its rightful place in American life.

Emmet’s academic speciality was the Catholic Church in 19th Century Ireland of which he had a deep and erudite understanding, expressed in many books. It is interesting, at a time when the Irish Church is embattled, to recall his friend, Larry McCaffrey’s summation of Emmet’s conclusions on its role and influence in post-Famine Ireland:  the Church“provided an impoverished and oppressed people with consolation, hope, discipline, and cultural and national identity. It also has offered them social, medical and educational services when the state was indifferent to their poverty and ignorance.” Amen to that.

I recall discussing the Great Famine with him in the context of historical revisionism. One observation he made has stayed with me. “ It would not have been allowed to happen in Surrey, or any other part of England.” I first met Emmet in 1973, and last saw him, together with my wife, when we were his guests for  Thanksgiving 2006. My sincere condolences go to his widow, Dianne, and his family.

Back to the Referendum.  Up to early May the issue and the outcome seemed fairly clear. Rejection would paint us out of the certainty of being able to avail of cheap loans from an enhanced bailout fund should more borrowing, i.e. a second bailout, become necessary. The quid pro quo was to tie us into future budgetary constraints. Furthermore rejection would not hold up the treaty: we would be left behind the other Euro member states.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, many have seen the whole treaty as little more than a Potemkin exercise designed to allay the fears of German voters and as contributing little to any overall long term solution to the Euro crisis– another example of a political remedy for an economic problem. We seem now to be steaming towards another Potemkin add-on with an attempt by the heavy hitters among Europe’s politicians to head off popular dissatisfaction  with tough economic measures by tacking on some form of economic stimulus package to the treaty; it is being put together as I write.

The Government  made a judgement call,  “bravely “in my view, (as Yes Minister would put it) to hold the referendum early rather than late. This despite the flak they were getting over the modest  household charge of around $130 per annum. Registration and payments are currently running at around 57%, indicating massive non –compliance.  A near fiasco over the details  of the latest planned stealth tax – water charges – did not improve the public mood. A cynic would suggest that, since there is worse to come – the small print of the pending property tax, for example – it was better to try to get the referendum over with early.

The polls up to now show  a solid majority in favour of the treaty, less because of the efforts of the Yes side, than because the No side were unable to provide any reasonable suggestion of where the $400 million a week needed to run the country would come from were Ireland to vote No. Sloganizing from the Left about increased and new taxes on the rich sounded hollow, if only because, even if they worked, the time delay to net an effective yield would involve a serious period of real privation and hardship which the ordinary punters would not stomach. The second No argument – that ultimately “our gallant allies in Europe” would not see us short, while perhaps containing an element of truth, was not something to bet the house on.

Recent developments elsewhere in Europe  have served to muddy the waters to some extent though not, on the face of it, to affect seriously the referendum outcome, at least according to the latest polls. France has elected a Socialist president, who has spent the time since his election rowing back on his earlier campaign stances. The last one, in 1983, was forced to abandon the free spending policies which got him elected and implement a sharp “austerity turn”. Plus ca change?

The Dutch government has shipped water and  a cobbled together temporary coalition is casting around for politically palatable budgetary measures. Even in Germany the latest regional elections have seen reverses for the government. And in Spain, the fourth of the big four Eurozone countries, the banking and unemployment situations are moving to critical.

It’s fairly clear that ordinary citizens in Europe are exasperated and  frustrated that the decades of rising living standards are over for now at least and virtually every government has taken a pasting at the polls since 2008 (the only exception being Estonia). But at the margin, among the PIGS, the issue of how to manage a fiscal crisis rather  than a mere annoyance has immediate relevance. Ireland is in a bail-out situation, and thus far is handling it without fuss or real hardship (belt tightening does not constitute hardship!).

It is hardly surprising therefore that the principle that seems to work with the Irish voter at referendum time, “When in doubt vote No” appears on this occasion to be working in favour of the Yes side. While the treaty is not exactly palatable, rejection without a clear visible alternative seems just too risky. The hard won progress of the last three years is not for discarding easily. Again, the spectacle of Greece continues to concentrate minds. The Greek voters  decisively rejected its bail – out deal and the country is currently in political crisis and eyeball-to eyeball  with its paymasters in Germany.

While the economic stimulus package proposal has potentially handed the No lobby another weapon by casting doubt on the wisdom of the May vote, of itself it should not suffice to defeat the treaty. A far greater threat would be  the perception that the contest was won, with a consequent low turnout on the Yes side. This was what happened at Nice One.

Whatever the vote in Ireland, or the eventual  outcome in Greece, the Eurozone is lurching again, hopefully in a forward direction. The pieces may be on the table, but putting the jigsaw together will not be done overnight.


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