A MILLION REFUGEES – AND MORE TO COME 1512 LXXXII

A MILLION REFUGEES – AND MORE TO COME

2015 has seen much of the empty rhetoric surrounding the “ European Project” and the falsely labelled “European Union” put to the test and found wanting . As the year ends fissures are becoming evident which have the potential to derail the slow groping progress towards a federal Europe. One issue dominates.

Who now gives a second thought to Europe’s early 2015 preoccupation with Greek debt ? The Migrant Crisis – ongoing and threatening to get much worse in 2016 – has very much upset Europe’s applecart and now occupies centre stage with its separate elements of the numbers and types involved, the destinations actual and desired, the disarray and disagreement over burden sharing between countries and the dark spectacle of a terrorist threat.

A million plus people have flooded into Europe in 2015, most in the second half of the year. I wrote in my June column “ Europe’s Rio Grande,” about the rising flood of migrants along the traditional route into Europe, across the Mediterranean to the Italian islands via traffickers operating leaky vessels from the Libyan coast. Even then this route was being supplanted big time by a new wave of migrants, many from war-torn Syria and Iraq, arriving on the Greek islands of the Eastern Mediterranean after making the shorter and less perilous sea journey from Turkey. What started as a trickle became a torrent within a few short weeks.

As with the USA there is constant migration into and out of Europe. Much of it is legal and regulated. But a lot isn’t, representing the efforts of desperate people, overwhelmingly poor, simply born in the wrong place, to gain access to the zone of prosperity, peace and stability represented by the First World.

There IS an avenue in, sanctioned by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which guarantees sanctuary to those fleeing political or social upheaval or a well-founded fear of persecution. For some, claiming asylum is relatively straightforward and easily established. For many others verifying the claim can be lengthy and complicated, with some left for years in residential limbo, their circumstances and opportunities limited. The convenient collective name for these is “Asylum Seekers.”

Others will simply never meet the criteria and, are dubbed, again for convenience, “Economic Migrants.” In practice this has become a pejorative term confined to people from the Third World trying to enter the First World but lacking the qualifying criteria for political asylum. Thus the undocumented crossing the Rio Grande into the USA, plus many of the Africans and Asians seeking to enter Europe by whatever route.

And there’s the rub. Economic Migrants ( which includes those refused political asylum) have no rights of residence and are liable to be deported at the individual whim of countries. In practice most have been allowed to stay up to now for one or other humanitarian reason. In some countries – like the USA – it’s having a child a citizen; in others it could be family circumstances, or hardship, or what could await at home, or even demographic factors producing a local demand for immigrants. Worldwide the system is a mess, with lines blurred and inconsistencies in plenty.

But here’s the other rub. Most of the current Asylum Seekers or Economic Migrants arriving at Europe’s borders are not just poor but of different racial, religious or cultural backgrounds to the Europeans. A process of adjustment is needed on both sides. The balance is a delicate one and, as the numbers of immigrants have risen, so also has opposition, particularly in Northern Europe, manifested by sporadic attacks on immigrants and the rise of political parties opposed to immigration. Think the “Know Nothings” of the 1840s transmuted to a European canvas. To their credit the mainstream political parties have held the line – until now.

Enter 2015. One million migrants should be easily manageable in an EU of 500 million ( Ireland, for example, absorbed 45,000 in five years at the turn of the Millennium). However, the million has arrived in four months, is adding to migrant numbers already here and has impacted disproportionately on several countries, with only token burden sharing, so that Germany, Sweden, Italy and Greece are struggling to cope. Moreover there are forecasts of three times as many preparing to come, with fears that Europe may close its doors adding to the migrant surge.

Refugee children trying to enter Europe have been drowning by the score in the Mediterranean for years with token sympathy but not much else. However, the striking images of a drowned toddler washed up on a Greek island in September provoked a qualitatively different reaction, coming hard on footage of an abandoned truck off an Austrian motorway containing seventy one suffocated migrants.

A wave of sympathy and desire to help surged through European public opinion, one which continued and intensified as the boats arrived on islands like Kos and Lesbos, disgorging tens of thousands, including many whole families, all claiming to be fleeing war and persecution, from the Middle East, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Their destinations of preference were Germany and Sweden, both countries with a reputation for welcoming refugees (not wholly altruistic – Germany needs immigrants to bolster its numerically declining workforce) .
When Germany declared it would accept all refugees from Syria, and the responsible Government Minister suggested that 800,000 could arrive in 2015, the flows intensified and are continuing as I write, often exceeding 10,000 a day. Stunning daily TV coverage showed thousands on the march to Germany via Greece, through the Balkans, Hungary and Austria, bypassing, incidentally, EU border controls at entry.
As the transit countries tried to cope separately with the multitudes passing through, Hungary was the first to break ranks, building a fence to regulate entry and exclude migrants. As Germany filled up, with officials struggling to manage the flow, bottlenecks built up elsewhere with border controls reintroduced within the theoretically borderless Schengen zone . Sweden faces 190,000 new arrivals this year, in a country of under ten million. The latest arrivals are being housed in tents as winter beckons.

Public sympathy for the migrants, while still considerable, has begun to ebb, amid suspicions that a large percentage are economic migrants rather than refugees and fears that unregulated entry may have allowed some terrorists in. With no end in sight there is also growing public concern at how to absorb and cater for possible future flows on top of coping with those already arrived. Attempts to agree burden sharing among European countries have met with very limited success.

Ireland will take 4,000 over time, Britain 20,000. Several countries have refused to take any or to take any non-Christians. Collectively and nationally Europe is in disarray, with friction developing between neighbours. The European Union is nonplussed on the issue of what to do, with no consensus in sight beyond suggestions that that those found to be economic migrants be rapidly deported.

And still they come. I wrote last June that, in the age of the smart phone and the internet, the world’s poor and less privileged were not going to remain spectators at the feast, particularly those just outside the banqueting hall. They want in. This is now happening. 2016 promises to be interesting.

19/11

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THE FINAL THROW OF THE DICE ? 1511 LXXXI

THE FINAL THROW OF THE DICE?

Two tragedies, next year’s budget and uncertainty over the general election date made for an interesting time politically in October. The tragedies in particular brought into focus the fact that there is more to life than politics and economics.

The first was a disastrous fire at a Traveller halting site in south Dublin which claimed the lives of eleven, including some very young children. Public shock at the deplorable living conditions at the site was compounded several days later when a proposed temporary halting site nearby to house those rendered “homeless” by the tragedy was opposed by local residents, who, as I write, continue to block access.

There can be few not already aware of the living conditions of many Travellers, with the attendant implications for social disadvantage; it remains to be seen whether these deaths will prompt remedial action. The stance of the local residents underlines that NIMBYism is alive and well and flourishing in Ireland; and that will be a tough nut to crack. One protester remarked that he didn’t see many hands raised to have Travellers living nearby .

The next day an unarmed Garda was shot dead by a republican dissident when answering a domestic incident in Omeath, near the Border. The murderer used a Glock pistol and critically wounded his partner before killing himself. It transpired that he was out on bail charged with IRA membership. The murder caused outrage and raised questions about the granting of bail, the adequacy of protection for what remains an unarmed police force and the adequacy of policing in Border areas where guns are plentiful and smuggling and organised crime by paramilitaries endemic.

Both issues, writ on a national scale, are likely to be among those to be aired during the forthcoming general election campaign. Lobby groups for the homeless have been pointing up the growing homeless crisis around Dublin in particular, with hundreds, including families with children, housed – at public expense – in temporary accommodation like hotels and guest houses, the situation created by a lack of affordable housing. Add in the inadequacy of accommodation available to Travellers, the meagre quantity of new housing under construction and planned and the anticipated arrival of more refugees and asylum seekers and the whole issue of housing is likely to generate much political heat, and many political promises, this side of the election.

Crime will also feature on the doorsteps. The inexorable rise in, and growing savagery of, burglaries by gangs operating across the country – an unforeseen curse of an expanding motorway network – has generated considerable public disquiet. October’s budget has promised more police – an essential – but there remains considerable public dissatisfaction over both the easy availability of bail and the leniency of sentences handed down to those found guilty There is also a perceived need to tackle as a priority organised crime in border areas.

It remains to be seen, however, what impact either issue will have in terms of swaying voters in an election likely to be dominated by mundane bread and butter issues like jobs, taxes and disposable income.

The General Election is set for the New Year, probably late February or early March. Yet for several weeks speculation was rife that it might take place this November. Speculation began when a mid-September poll showed Fine Gael at 28%, back at its support level of six months before, and Labour at last back in double figures at 10%. These figures were still well short of those needed to gain re-election, with Labour in particular lagging at half its 2011 support. However with Fine Gael support at 75% of its 2011 figure, and seemingly steady, and with the promise of a giveaway budget to come, noises began to emanate from Fine Gael to the effect that it might be better to go early, soon after the budget, lest some banana skin crop up over the winter, even if this meant cutting Labour adrift.

The curious logic behind this was that Labour were unlikely to improve very much before March – if they did it would be a bonus – that opposition parties would be wrong-footed ( waiting until March gave them five months to prepare), and that in the aftermath of a giveaway budget Fine Gael would be able to set the election agenda, concentrating heavily on the achievement of turning the economy around and the need for continued stable government. Given there appeared no realistic alternative government, the expectation was, presumably, that even a reduced Fine Gael, combined with a reduced Labour – which had nowhere else to go – plus one or two of the newer smaller parties and/or amenable independents would be enough to win.

Even more curious was the belief, underpinning this, that, with the economic indicators all positive, and rising employment to boot, the electorate would recognise, appreciate and reward the government for the economic recovery. Ministers, Backbenchers and Candidates suddenly appeared in the media parroting the line of recovery and stability. The Taoiseach, heretofore firm that the Government would run its full term, seemed to equivocate. There was consternation in Labour, which wanted to hang on in the hope of regaining some support after a post budget boost and which appeared to be edging towards some form of (mutually beneficial) voting pact with Fine Gael. The bookies priced a November poll at 3 to 1 on.

There was much wishful thinking here. Voters may want stability. They may see signs of recovery. But they are not stupid. The Irish reality is that virtually nobody earning under €60,000 gross has felt economic recovery in the form of more disposable income. This category includes most of the ordinary punters. To go for an election before the benefits from a giveaway budget are actually felt in people’s pockets bears out the capacity for politicians to self-delude, particularly if they are comfortably off and cocooned from reality. Then, for whatever reason, a dawning of reality, wiser counselling ,or pressure from Labour, the Taoiseach had a rethink and backed off. The election will be in 2016.

The Budget days later was virtually anticlimactic. Most of it had been leaked beforehand. There was something for everyone, including a major cut in the Universal Social Charge levy, and small hikes in state pensions and child benefit. After years of taking,“ for this relief much thanks.” The benefits to come into effect on New Year’s Day, apart that is from the one bit of bad news, a 50 cent hike in cigarette prices, effective immediately. That cigarette price rise may ultimately boost public health; in the short term it will certainly boost the already considerable cross-border smuggling trade.

The country is now in election mode, with a lengthy campaign ahead. For the moment the initiative is with the Government, the strain between the partner parties gone and the opposition somewhat in disarray. This may change. Irish Water remains a festering sore. A crisis unforeseen may blow up. But not so far. A telling sign perhaps was that, for the first time in years, there were no protests outside the Dail on Budget Day. The Government can now definitely set the election agenda. Stability anyone? Re-election anyone?

20/10

TO BE A TAOISEACH : HAUGHEY PART II: THE FIRST ADMINISTRATION 1510 LXXX

TO BE A TAOISEACH: HAUGHEY PART II: THE FIRST  ADMINISTRATION

It is virtually impossible at this distance of thirty plus years to view Haughey’s first administration other than through the prism of the later revelations about his finances. At the very  time  he was lecturing the nation about belt-tightening and living “away beyond our means” he had by 1980 clocked up a staggering  debt of IR£1.14 million to his bank. This was partially written off by the bank and the rest paid by a property developer friend. These and the other revelations about Haughey’s unorthodox finances for the most part only emerged  much later after he had departed office.  However, much was rumoured and suspected at the time and dogged journalists were uncovering the truth.

Haughey’s first term as Taoiseach lasted for just over eighteen months. It was marked by the continuing downward spiral of the Irish economy but will be remembered most for the Hunger Strikes in the North and, domestically and close to home, by the tragic “Stardust” disco fire disaster which killed 48 young people on Valentine’s Night 1981 in the heart of Haughey’s own constituency.  Hopes (and fears)  that Haughey would take some major initiative on the North proved unfounded and indeed an attempt to oversell the one concrete achievement – the significance and outcome of the Anglo-Irish Summit of December 1980 – received a rebuff from London and served to sour permanently relations between Haughey and Thatcher.

Apologists for Haughey often claim that he was “unlucky” from the off, pointing inter alia to the veto defeated rival Colley held over several cabinet posts. Yet this was hardly decisive; Haughey was where he wanted to be – top dog – and he set about cultivating immediately a presidential style . The Taoiseach’s Department was expanded in numbers and power.

Certainly Haughey took over half way – at best – from the worst government the country had seen in a generation. However he was part of that government – which had shamelessly and ruinously bought the 1977 election – and cannot totally dodge responsibility for its excesses.  The only mitigation for the policies and performance of that government  is that it was elected by over 50% of those voting and therefore had the mother of all mandates ( as De Maistre put it ” every nation gets the government it deserves”).

By mid-1979 and following, among other bitter labour disputes, a disastrous 18 week postal and phone strike, that  mandate was in shreds and Lynch only kept his backbenchers under control  temporarily by pointing to the fact that the next Dail would have 18 more seats, greatly increasing the chances that they would save their political skins. Haughey took over with considerable good will from neutrals who had high hopes that his political and economic acumen would halt the economic slide and political paralysis. The “away beyond our means” speech fed that optimism.

As 1980 unfolded that optimism dissipated. Haughey, like many politicians before and since, discovered that making tough decisions was not easy, particularly with even a distant election clock ticking. The necessary difficult decisions were ducked. A giveaway budget was an early indication. Generous pay settlements in the public and private sector underlined the trend. Far from reducing borrowing as he had signalled, borrowing increased dramatically, as, indeed, did taxation. It was essentially more of the same ragbag from Fianna Fail , with Haughey declaring that to curb or cut spending would be unacceptable.

With the luxury  of hindsight, particularly Haughey’s record  after 1987, when he DID supervise a programme of savage cuts in spending, stabilising a collapsing economy  and setting the foundations for recovery, the question arises why didn’t he do it in 1980? His apologists argue that he hadn’t enough time. That indeed may have been an element, but  Haughey had waited a long time for power and proved reluctant to do anything that might jeopardise his position. Allied to that was his clear populist streak, demonstrated in his spell in the 1960s as Finance Minister. Ultimately he preferred  being  well-liked by the public  to being tough. By contrast, in 1987 he had a metaphorical gun to his head.

Much had also been expected on the North and at first Haughey did not disappoint, declaring Northern Ireland a “failed political entity” in his first Ard Fheis speech and following up with a high profile meeting with Margaret Thatcher in London in May. It was at this meeting that Haughey reportedly remarked that while no Taoiseach would be remembered for fixing Ireland’s economic problems, the one who solved the North would go down in history.

The next meeting between the two in Dublin Castle in December 1980 saw the high power British delegation  include the Foreign Secretary and Chancellor as well as the Northern Ireland Secretary. It is sometimes overlooked that the historic meeting  one of the first dedicated bilateral meeting between premiers in Dublin since Irish independence  – took place against the background of an ongoing escalating IRA Hunger Strike (in its seventh week) , the continued IRA campaign (deaths at three per fortnight)and in the wake of yet another fruitless attempt by the British to kick-start internal political talks within Northern Ireland. For Haughey also the Republican threat was real; three Gardai had been murdered since July.

The joint communique issued afterwards  was strong on rhetoric, with references to the “further development of the unique relationship between the two countries.” It went on to signal that the “totality of relationships” would be considered in a series of joint studies on  a wide range of subjects. Arguably Haughey had moved matters forward significantly. Ireland and Britain seemed on the same page  regarding future cooperation.

However, Haughey then proceeded to oversell the rhetoric by describing the meeting as historic and hinting that everything was now on the table, including the constitutional position of the North. Thatcher took public umbrage at  this, denying that constitutional issues had been discussed. Relations between the two never recovered. Nevertheless the Summit, and all it implied, was an important milestone on the way to the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, which included acceptance by the British that Dublin had to be  involved in  any Northern solution.

Then 1981. Haughey could have delayed an election until mid-1982, but instead resolved to go in the Spring of 1981, when he  judged his prospects to be optimum and the polls favourable.  The game plan was to announce the election at Fianna Fail’s Ard Fheis in mid-February. But tragedy intervened in the form of the Stardust disaster. The Ard Fheis – and announcement – were cancelled and by the time the election was called in May, another issue had surfaced. Four IRA men had died in a renewed Hunger Strike, with more deaths expected.

The considerable public sympathy for the Strikers , particularly in the border areas, was skilfully harnessed  and channelled into votes. Two hunger strikers, who died subsequently, won election to the Dail. The  election result was one of woe for Haughey. Fianna Fail support dropped by 5% – admittedly from an artificial high -with the party losing five seats, down to 78, even in an enlarged Dail. Fine Gael by contrast gained twenty, rising to 65. The margin was tight but, with Labour support,  Garret was in and Haughey was out.

19/09

THE FASTEST GROWING ECONOMY IN EUROPE? 1509 LXXIX

THE FASTEST GROWING ECONOMY IN EUROPE ?

According to economist David McWilliams “Breakfast Roll Man” won the 2007 election for Fianna Fail. The epithet described the pragmatic , usually suburban , heavily mortgaged individual during the final years of the Celtic Tiger, who sought continuity in the rising curve of property prices on which his own (paper) prosperity depended.

A different era. Today, with an election in six months,  a new notional person has emerged – “Ashbourne Annie”- which Labour party strategists hope will bolster its flagging electoral prospects.   Annie, the result of “months of intensive market research” (!),  is a young, stay-at-home mother in Dublin’s commuter belt, heavily mortgaged,  in negative equity, struggling but seeing at last some light in the tunnel and hoping that  October’s  budget will provide tax cuts and welfare increases to improve further her lot. She represents the strategists’ vision of the classic floating voter whose support can be bought.

There is certainly  a pitch  for her vote with newly introduced universal free doctor’s visits for those under six and hints of increases in  non means-tested  child benefits come next January. Factor in flagged reductions in tax rates and perhaps a pay rise for her husband and Annie may feel well-done-by enough to be swayed by what’s on the table next election rather than the vague uncosted promises of the opposition.  While some social media comment has derided the “Annie” concept, it’s a catch all with appeal for swathes of the electorate.

If the carrots don’t work, what promised to be a tough election for Labour – with heavy losses already anticipated –  could morph into a disaster. The opinion polls, after some improvement,  show Labour support now well below the critical 10% level,  roughly half its 2011 result, with only the  potential budget “bounce” to come. It’s not just Labour. Any hopes  of being lifted by clutching onto Fine Gael’s coattails are also in the doldrums.  A poll in early August showed  Fine Gael becalmed in the mid-twenties, stalled after several promising months and well short of the magical minimum of 30%.

Ironically this has occurred just as the latest economic figures show Ireland set to become Europe’s fastest growing economy for a second year,  with 2014 growth now revised upwards to  over 5% and the prospects looking good. There is more money around. Unemployment is down. People are spending. New car sales are up 30% in the first seven months – the best figures since the slump began in 2008. Ireland’s debt to GDP ratio is down to 110% and falling ( for reference Greek debt is 175% plus and rising).

How to explain it all?  Ashbourne, Annie’s “home,” offers a clue, though hardly what Labour’s thinkers had in mind.  A pleasant dormitory town about twelve miles from Dublin city centre, Ashbourne’s population has grown rapidly in the last decade to about 15,000. Most of the new mortgage holders  are in serious negative equity, kept afloat by historically low interest rates. Families are struggling with reduced income, unemployment, shorter working hours and increased taxes and charges. In short a community typical of many across Ireland.

Ashbourne is well provided with shops. Branches of Ireland’s five major supermarket chains are located within several hundred yards of each other. The street between two of them is lined with shops – all vacant except for several charity shops. There are well established businesses in other streets, but  vacant shopfronts there also. Ashbourne Annie may be experiencing an upturn in her economic fortunes but so far it’s slight and, taking a cue from her town, recovery is unevenly spread and far from general. Again, a community typical of many across Ireland. Put simply the economic recovery at macro level has yet to trickle down to the micro level and opinion polls show an electorate far from gruntled.

2015 seemed to be going well. The Government  had avoided obvious banana skins. It was helped also by the outcome of the Greek saga and the continued disarray and fragmentation of the opposition. A flurry of (paper) activity and announcements during June and July gave the impression of progress towards fulfilment of some of the 2014 Programme of Government Priorities. Pronouncements that there would be no going back  to the profligate policies and  overspending of the past were counterbalanced  with  hints dropped about giveaways in October’s Budget.

In early July doctors were faced down over the Under Sixes issue  – a handsome vote inducement to the 1.7 million aged twenty to forty five – those most likely to have young children; cancer victims apart, nothing for those with really sick children over six without medical cards.  A media campaign – ongoing as I write, solemnly announced that over -70s would henceforth – like the Under  Sixes – be eligible for free GP visits cards.

The subterfuge here is breath-taking. Prior to  2008 ALL over 70s had been entitled to FULL medical cards, covering free visits to GPs and involving, additionally, crucially, access to a wide range of free medicines and treatments, plus additional benefits. Means-testing after 2008 substantially reduced those qualifying – the number dropping  by 16,356 last year despite an increase in the population over 70. The net effect is that fewer of those most likely to require expensive medicines and treatment – the elderly –  qualify, the savings used to subsidise the predominantly healthy under-sixes.

But also in July the fiasco that keeps on giving – Irish Water –  re-emerged . With public protest having largely subsided, the Government had thought the issue settled.  It put on a brave face when the shock  returns for  those paying the first water bills  – 46% – were revealed at the end of June. Worse was to come when the EU found that Irish Water’s borrowings must remain on the State’s balance sheet. In short it will cost – not next year but thereafter, reducing the amount available for other expenditure or tax cuts.

The issue has once again become the lightning rod for public dissatisfaction, with Irish Water  perceived to  be wholly the creature of the current Government, not a Fianna Fail legacy .Many eyes will now be focussed after September on the numbers paying the second bill.  With no immediate penalties for non-payment, more may decide not to pay to see what happens The Government’s dilemma is that ostensibly it has nothing further to give on the issue, short of  root and branch overhaul . If the “can’t pay, won’t pay” numbers rise, it could have no option.. Its re-electability  in any combination may hinge on this.

There has been considerable haruspication over the latest opinion poll results. The general conclusion is that, short of a miracle, the current coalition will not be returned without – at the very least – considerable  additional support. Even a mooted possible voting pact, with folk memories of the (successful) 1973 joint Fine Gael and Labour government programme, is unlikely to suffice. The three on – paper viable coalitions are Fine Gael – Fianna Fail, Fine Gael –Sinn Fein  and Fianna Fail – Sinn Fein, all strenuously ruled out by the principals – on principle. Interestingly, the ubiquitous bookie, Paddy Power, is strongly favouring  a Fine Gael – Fianna Fail coalition (at five- to –four,  with seven to-two the field). Does he know something we don’t?

12/08