OF BANKS AND VULTURE FUNDS 1809(2) CXXII

OF BANKS AND VULTURE FUNDS

10,700 mortgage holders got a nasty surprise over the August Bank Holiday weekend with letters from one of the country’s major banks, the PTSB , informing them  that their loans were being sold on to Start,  a US owned vulture fund.  Start paid €1.3 billion for the mortgages to the PTSB, the Irish bank saddled with the highest percentage of bad loans on its balance sheet. The move was followed within the octave by similar moves by two more Irish banks. All done in August, when there were few around to protest.

Most of the mortgages have been non-performing for years, with only official regulations and political pressure staying potentially thousands of repossessions.  Quite how the new owners will treat their new clients remains to be seen, but they are unlikely to be as accommodating, or as pliable, as the banks. The issue has acquired a sharp political edge since most of the mortgages, non-performing or no, are on family homes, in a country where repossession carries the toxic stigma of eviction.

Mortgage arrears are one of the enduring legacies of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. The collapse was part of the worldwide recession of the time, yet the first reactions in Ireland were that it couldn’t be happening to us. We’d believed the politicians blather. Hubris had been in the air as ordinary people rushed to spend during the Noughties. Above all there was a scramble to get on the property ladder, seen as a gold-plated investment,  as prices skyrocketed. Credit was freely available and cheap, thanks to our membership of the Euro; 100% mortgages were commonplace; subprime borrowers were facilitated.  The scramble pushed property prices ever higher, buoyed by the illusion that the heady prices obtaining for quite ordinary Irish houses represented real wealth rather than the chimera of a full blown housing bubble.

It couldn’t last; and it didn’t. Even before Bear Stearns and Lehmans went belly up the Irish property market had peaked; the Crash followed. Public finances collapsed, unemployment soared and In the end Ireland needed a bail out from the IMF and heavy increases in taxation to survive. Property prices fell by up to 50% ( ten years on my house, a modest four bedroom, is “worth” €750,000, still a third down from  the unreal peak – and this when the Irish economy is “booming” again). At the time I described the Crash as the “Celtic Tsunami.” The lesson in basic economics that followed was bitter sweet.

Now, a decade later, the economy has recovered. Most of the effects of the Crash  have been undone, with economic indicators and employment now back up to pre -crash levels and a more sensible and prudent approach to financial matters among politicians and the public alike. Most but not all. “Distressed Mortgages,” a euphemism for mortgages very seriously in arrears, remain. The issue is political and complicated. Many borrowers lost their jobs during the Crash. Others had simply bitten off too much, overextending themselves with a very large mortgage in the expectation that the bubble would last. As property prices plummeted negative equity compounded their problems. Thousands fell into serious arrears, in many instances not making payments on their mortgages for several years.

Ireland has a small population (4.773, 000 at last count). Last March the number of mortgages was roughly 850,000. A decade earlier, when the wheels came off, the number was around 790,000. Five years ago, at the nadir, 94,488 mortgages were at least 90 days in arrears – a staggering one in eight of all mortgages, most on family homes. Today, five years later, there are still 65,000 over 90 days in arrears, 50,000 of them family homes. More ominously, despite efforts at restructuring, 20,000 family home mortgages are over two years in arrears. There lies the crux of the problem. Despite the return of economic growth, attempts to encourage engagement between lender and debtor and the recovery in property prices, lifting many mortgages out of negative equity, the disaster cases remain.

Put simply, these, plus a further 13,000 mortgages on buy-to-lets, are never going to become viable. So what to do? They remain on the balance sheets of the banks, which have been bullied, cajoled, hemmed in and leaned on by politicians to desist or go slow on any moves to repossess the properties. As protocols and codes of conduct restrictions have gradually become exhausted the number of applications by the banks to the Courts (mandatory) for repossession have increased but the numbers actually repossessed remains a trickle – 632 family homes in the six months to last March.

Cue the current situation regarding demand for housing and the issue of homelessness, both hot political potatoes. After years of stagnation the housing market is now slowly recovering. There is plenty of demand with nearly full employment and a rising population but credit continues to be in short supply, thanks in large part to new tighter controls on lending, designed to head off another housing bubble.  Houses and apartments are being built in increasing numbers but it will be several years before equilibrium is reached. The shortage of credit has also impacted on the second-hand house market, where the traditional “trading up” by homeowners on the lower rungs of the property ladder has all but dried up. With properties in short supply a further consequence  has been a sharp  increase in the numbers of homeless, including many families.

The banks COULD provide more finance and credit, helping the property market along, but are hamstrung by the tighter credit controls and by the volume of “bad” loans still clogging up their balance sheets. Our own Central Bank has now joined with the European Central Bank, which, with its low interest rates contributed greatly to fanning the flames of house price inflation in the period before 2007, in demanding that the Irish banks take action to reduce their non-performing loans. It’s a delicate political issue. Reducing bad loans frees up more capital, with the banks having a better loan to deposit ratio and thus able  to loan out more productively, benefitting the economy in general and, inter alia,  providing more credit to house purchasers. All good! But how to reduce bad loans without foreclosure of some form, both likely to increase the number of repossessions – and evictions – something politically toxic?

The PTSB, slashed at the Gordian Knot by selling to Start, a move seen as very much a watershed moment with the PTSB the first Irish bank to sell to a vulture fund.  Vulture funds, non-Bank entities, usually foreign owned, with the money to purchase assets at a discount have been actively buying up the loan books of Non-Irish banks here in recent years. They have vigorously pursued defaulters and sought repossession through the Courts, acquiring a negative reputation. The PTSB sale included  mortgages not in trouble, with the suspicion that some of these , including buy-to-lets, constituted  sweeteners, low hanging fruit which could be capitalised rapidly, as opposed to family homes in arrears,  where  evictions could prove difficult and troublesome. There have been calls for official action to block the sales by the state-owned bank. The issue is one that could run.

27/08

 

 

Advertisements

IRISH PROBLEMS IRISH SOLUTIONS 1809 CXXI

IRISH PROBLEMS, IRISH SOLUTIONS

August is the silly season politically with the politicians on holiday, and any bad news in the form of tax increases or benefit cuts announced quietly when there is no one to face the public’s wrath. Not this year, though, with the economy doing very nicely thank you and no desire among politicians to pick the public’s pocket with an election perhaps not too far away and the budget due early in October the last of the three under the confidence and supply arrangement which has shored up the minority government since mid–2016.

There WAS a nasty surprise for some, with letters posted over the Bank Holiday weekend by one of the country’s major banks, the PTSB , informing 10,700 mortgage holders that their loans were being sold on to  a US owned vulture fund. This move was followed within the octave by similar moves from two more banks. Most of the mortgages have been non-performing for years, with only official regulations and political pressure staying potentially thousands of repossessions.  Quite how the new owners will treat their new clients remains to be seen, but they are unlikely to be as accommodating, or as pliable, as the banks. Homelessness, however it originated,  is currently a hot political potato, with individual cases in the news virtually on a daily basis, so the prospect of several thousand more being added is not something the government will welcome. All the more so since any repossession of a family home carries with it the spectre of eviction – toxic in Ireland. Expect this issue to “run” in the coming months.

Expect also some pre-election manoeuvring. This has already begun, with independent Minister Shane Ross proposing an allowance for grannies who mind their grandchildren. More can be expected as  Budget Day approaches with the major parties conscious that  this budget could be the last before an election as well as the last before Brexit, and who knows what might ( or might not) be available if the worst were to happen on that front. For Fianna Fail and its leader Micheal Martin, the stakes are particularly high. Fianna Fail continues to languish behind Fine Gael in the polls (in July they trailed 34 to 21) and should they lose another election it would be for an unprecedented third time.  Some Fianna Fail deputies have suggested there should be no extension of the current arrangement with Fine Gael while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar appears to favour another year.  Looking at the polls, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” There are complications however, in pulling the plug, not least being that there appears little public enthusiasm for an early election.

And who knows what else is out there lurking in the long grass?  The best laid political plans can go awry. Take the Presidency, where both the major parties favoured endorsing Michael D for a second term, which would have meant no expensive election campaign. However Sinn Fein spoiled that particular set up by announcing it will contest, its candidate to be announced in mid -September. Some other independent candidates may also emerge.  Michael D has performed creditably , despite the odd faux pas like the over-the-top tribute to Castro, and appears likely to win any contest ( he is the bookies’ strong favourite), but may be damaged by his age (he is now 77) and his announcement in 2011 that he would serve one term only. While not necessarily indicative of party support levels, apart from Sinn Fein, any Presidential contest could well throw up the unexpected.

With the caveat that a hard Brexit could fundamentally change everything, the likely main election issues are already clear and predictable: Health, the Homeless and Housing. What’s equally predictable is that, despite any resolutions or commitments that the major parties might make, the three Hs will be with us for some time to come. There are no easy or short term solutions to any of them.

The Health issue is of particularly long standing. Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen described it as “Angola”– because of hidden land mines – and successive Health Ministers have been unable to find solutions.  Health has been in crisis since at least 1987, when, faced with an earlier version of fiscal crisis, a slash and cut approach was undertaken in Haughey’s third government. Wards were shut, hospitals were closed, making a precarious situation worse. The three decades since have seen monies thrown at the health service – our per capita spend compares well internationally (we are the seventh highest in the OECD) – but the combination of rising costs of medicine and a rising population, up by a third, has dissipated or negated the extra cash spent. It should be emphasised that the treatment and facilities within the Irish health service are excellent. The problems are accessing the system, with long waiting lists and an unsatisfactory current coexisting mix of public and private health care. There is now cross party consensus on Slaintecare, a ten year programme to phase in system reform and universal health care, but ten years is a long time…

Ten years is assuredly too long to tackle the current Homeless situation, which garners headlines daily. Ireland, like everywhere else, has always had its share of marginalised homeless people but the situation now transcends this, with perhaps ten thousand people (the numbers are a political football) in temporary emergency accommodation, including many families. The numbers represent collateral and legacy damage from the Crash.  In Ireland the strong desire to own rather than rent a property, inter alia seen as a gold plated investment, led to several housing booms and bubbles since the 1960s, the last of which saw prices reach unprecedented highs  before collapsing spectacularly after 2007,  falling in some instances by up to 50%. The decade since has seen very little building activity until recently. The recession and the sharp rise in unemployment depressed demand, while the application of new tighter controls on credit, designed to head off another housing bubble, acted as a further damper on both the new building sector and the second-hand house market, where the traditional “trading up” by homeowners on the lower rungs of the property ladder all but dried up.

The market is now recovering – slowly – but remains skewed. There is now plenty of demand with nearly full employment and a rising population but credit continues to be in short supply. The industry is gearing up again and houses and apartments are being built in increasing numbers but it is likely to be several years before some equilibrium is reached. One short term result has been a dramatic rise in the cost of renting with the less well- off struggling to cope. Factor in those unable to pay their mortgages for whatever reason and the cumulative effect has been to push increasing numbers to seek housing assistance. Not a pleasant situation with an acute shortage of social housing and many therefore forced into hotel accommodation paid for by the local authorities. Time should solve it but in the meantime politicians are in for a rough ride. Thus far radicals of either hue have failed to exploit the obvious opportunities. Could this be about to change?

 

20/08

THE TWENTY FIRST WORLD CUP 1808 CXX

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME:  THE TWENTY FIRST WORLD CUP

The Twenty First Soccer World Cup finished in Russia on 15 July, with France, the best and most consistent side, winning an enthralling final 4-2 over the tournament’s surprise package Croatia, which joined the select band of countries, now thirteen, to have reached a World Cup Final.

The Coming-of-Age tournament has been described by some as the greatest ever. This for a combination of factors – the humbling and elimination of most of the pre-tournament favourites, the emergence of several surprise teams, including from outside the traditional strongholds, the general absence of thuggery on the field (though there were exceptions), the perceived levelling up of standards between the participants ( with, again, a couple of exceptions) , some fine matches, few goalless draws and, certainly not least,  the excellent organisation, hospitality and atmosphere throughout.

The greatest ever? The players are certainly faster and fitter, and coaching methods have evolved, yet there was no outstanding team, like Brazil in 1970, no outstanding player, like Maradona in 1986, and no matches to compare with, to name but two, the 1970 Brazil –England classic, and the 1986 quarter final France against Brazil. And, more recently, nothing to compare with the 2014 demolitions of the holders Spain, 5-1 by the Netherlands, or of hosts and favourites Brazil, beaten 7-1 by Germany in the semi -final.  As in 2014 four matches were decided by penalty shootouts. There were fewer goals than in 2014 and considerably more penalties, though not necessarily because of more foul play but rather because of a technical innovation.

For the first time VAR (Video Assisted Referee) technology was employed to assist referees address controversial incidents in the penalty area.  The technology is still in its teething stage, will no doubt be refined, and has been criticised by some soccer purists for interrupting the flow of play. Nevertheless, on balance its application has been positive and has helped referees to reach correct decisions. Judgement calls will remain, but there is now recourse to a record of what happened. In the final itself a crucial penalty was awarded that otherwise might have been missed. VAR has also   undoubtedly contributed to a significant reduction in holding and pushing in the penalty area at set pieces. Once referees could review what happened the number of unsightly melees declined. Soccer will never be quite the same again though there is surely a case for stopping the clock during the VAR procedure.

There were several sublime moments and goals:  the pass by Banega and Messi’s opening goal against Nigeria in a must-win game, the marvellous move involving Suarez and Cavani who scored for Uruguay in the elimination of Portugal,  probably the goals of the tournament, as well as  the last minute combination move by Belgium to snatch the comeback winner against Japan. There were goalkeeper “howlers,” one by the Argentine keeper, which paved the way for a Croatian victory in the Group , another from Uruguay which sealed France’s win in the Quarter Finals, and one by Lloris for France in the Final, but at a time when it scarcely mattered. These were balanced by some fine goalkeeping performances, by Lloris, Courtois of Belgium, and England’s Pickford, whose save against Colombia was surely the outstanding save of the finals (and is up there with Banks’ wonder save from Pele in 1970).

The tournament was notable also for the high proportion of goals from set pieces – 42 % – showing that coaching and practice pays. England proved particularly proficient here with nine of their thirteen goals coming from set pieces. Unfancied beforehand, and therefore unburdened by the suffocating shroud of the demanding UK media, England exceeded expectations, advancing to the last four for the first time since 1990, and laying the penalty shootout bogey in the Round of Sixteen against Colombia.  The luck of the draw may have helped but that should not diminish England’s young team’s achievement, which promises well for the future. In the semi-final England succumbed in extra time to another surprise team, Croatia, despite leading after five minutes.

Croatia, given an outside chance by some, did not disappoint. Superbly marshalled by Modric, probably Player of the Tournament, assisted by Rakitic and Perisic, and with the Juventus striker Mandzukic up front,  Croatia easily topped their group, brushing aside Argentina 3-0  in the process before winning two successive penalty shoot outs, against Denmark and  hosts Russia, another  team which  performed beyond expectations. In the semi -final against England Croatia displayed their trademark mixture of skill, grit, and solid battling, coming from behind to win out worthily after extra time.

It was not a tournament for favourites, players or teams. The world’s acknowledged three top players, Messi, Ronaldo and Neimar all underperformed, their hopes disappearing as their teams faltered in the knock out stages. The Argentine defence and midfield proved woeful throughout and not even Messi could rescue them in one of the matches of the tournament against France. Portugal fared no better, with nothing to offer apart from Ronaldo and exited to Uruguay. Brazil, the bookies’ favourites, blew hot and cold, losing to Belgium in the quarterfinals, with Neimar never reaching his best.

Of the other favourites, Germany, the holders, had a disastrous competition, crashing out in the Group stage after defeats by Mexico and South Korea, the third holders in a row to fail to progress past the opening round. The 2010 winners, Spain, went out on penalties to Russia in the Round of Sixteen after an inept display against a well marshalled defence.  For Uruguay, with a fine defence and two world class attackers, it was a case of what might have been, as they succumbed to France without one of their stars. Belgium, on paper with one of the strongest squads, for once did not disappoint, impressing until the semi-finals, where they were eliminated by France in a tactical and boring contest.

France, the last favourite standing, proved deserved victors, winning six of their seven matches (the exception a meaningless nil all draw with Denmark), keeping four clean sheets and always appearing to have something in reserve. They were only behind briefly once and seemed always in control except for a short period during the final after which the result was never in doubt. Verane, Kante,  Matuidi and Pogba were impressive, while  the teenage Mbappe  was one of the tournament stars.

Teams from elsewhere are catching up. Japan were particularly impressive, running Belgium close, while Mexico, Colombia, Senegal and South Korea also shone.  A special word also for Iran, well drilled, well coached, but doomed in a tough group. Watch Iran. There are now no easy matches as better coaching methods spread. The game is now becoming truly universal with results we could see next time around. In 2022 the Finals will be held, bizarrely, in Qatar, a statelet with money but little soccer tradition; and in the northern hemisphere’s winter!  As we say in Ireland: “Let’s hope they get the weather they’re expecting.”

Finally, my Team of the Tournament: Pickford; Varane, Godin, Trippier; Kante, Modric, de Bruyne Perisic, Pogba;  Mbappe, Mandzucic; with subs Umtiti, Vida, Maguire, Hazard and Rebic. Ten from the Final line up. Some Team! Some Tournament!

 

18/07

ORANGES AND APPLES 1807 CXIX

ORANGES AND APPLES

Two referenda; in two neighbouring islands; two years apart. One produced an emphatic result taken by a well informed electorate on an emotionally charged issue. The other saw a slim majority on another emotionally charged issue. But in the latter case the campaign was marked by muddle, misinformation and downright public ignorance combined with a display by politicians that might charitably be described as shameful. What’s more the result has presaged an uncertain future on a whole society, threatening fundamental change on the basis of that slim majority of under 4%. The referenda were Ireland’s poll in May on Abortion and Britain’s vote in 2016 to leave the European Union. At a time when the values of the last seventy odd years are under increasing attack can we afford to put any vote to the people without careful preparation and education on the issues and  the implications of any decision taken?

On the Eighth in the end it was a landslide. The polls got it wrong – not the expected victory for the Yes side, but the sheer scale of it. The Eighth Amendment is gone – by a margin of two to one in a poll of 64%, leaving no room for equivocation. Everywhere apart from Donegal voted Yes, with over 60% in favour recorded in three quarters of the country’s forty constituencies. (In Donegal, curiously, the percentages mirrored almost exactly the percentages in Britain’s Brexit referendum, with the No vote 51.9%). There were sizeable majorities for repeal among both women and men of all ages up to 65. 1,429,981 voted Yes, surpassing even the vote in the 2004 Citizenship Referendum and second only, by less than 15,000, to that in the Referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.

I had forecast a Yes vote, but not like this. An opinion poll a week earlier had given 42 % Yes, 32% No and 17% undecided. It would appear that the undecided and those who expressed no preference plumped overwhelmingly for Yes. While the number supporting retention of the Eighth was down by over 100,000 on the vote  for the Ban in 1983, the number voting for liberalisation was up by more than a million, including many not born or franchised in 1983. Fears that there would be a sizeable shift to retain among voters in the final days proved unfounded; there was a shift alright but in one direction only.

Post-mortems on the outcome continue, amid demands that the Government prioritise legislation to give effect to the result, including providing for abortion on demand for the first twelve weeks. It was a watershed moment in that the hoary well-rehearsed tactics of scare-mongering and playing on the ignorance and doubts of the electorate failed. The result was clearly a significant step forward in the advancement of women’s’ rights with a majority of both sexes affirming a woman’s right to control over her own body.

Whether it is quite the seismic shift in societal attitudes as some claim remains to be seen.  One thoughtful commentator has suggested that the major shift to Yes in the final days was a reluctant one for many, taken despite serious misgivings about the small print, but motivated by a desire to be rid of the issue once and for all. Drilling down into voters’ intentions showed only a narrow majority favouring the twelve week option. This comment seems to me eminently reasonable. The process of secularisation in Irish society has been ongoing for several decades (indeed the introduction of the Eighth in 1983 was with the aim of heading off or delaying this process).  The legislative landmarks in this process have had as their counterpoint the erosion of the traditional moral and spiritual hegemony which prevailed unchallenged here for over half a century.

For a number of years the Eighth has been an anachronism, but given the strong emotions abortion generates and the highly vocal power of the No lobby, nothing was or could be done about it without a legal or political kick-start. The “Irish Solution” – taking the boat or plane to England -became the practical option. When the Referendum was finally put, after Savita Halapanavar’s  death and several court cases rendered continued inaction unacceptable,  it was to an electorate educated and sensitised to an unprecedented level on the issues and tempered by the manifest unjustness of the status quo. The question as put to the people was simple enough to offer a once-and-for-all solution and it was taken, despite any misgivings some might have. It was a vote of confidence and trust in what happens next rather than a negative “devil you know” approach. The campaign also exposed the poverty of the arguments from the No side.

The model of an educated and sensitised electorate, such as we Irish experienced, is something devoutly to be wished whenever the people are to be consulted, and stands in stark contrast to what is rapidly becoming a present as well as a clear danger to Ireland as well as to the British themselves– the Brexit  referendum.

The rot started at the top. While Irish Ministers (and most of the rest of the political leadership) showed courage and were proactive regarding the Eighth , during the 2016 Brexit campaign the British government and political establishment were luke warm at best, handing the initiative to UKIP and the Tory mavericks . This was all the more remarkable given the high stakes involved. Perhaps Cameron and Co. thought it was just a little local difficulty between factions within the Tory party but if so they – and the rest of Britain, including many of those who voted to leave- got and continue to receive a rude awakening.

A complex and complicated relationship of over four decades ,affecting not just immigration policy, trade, investment and social matters , but spanning the gamut of  the living standards, quality of life and future for all Britons, was reduced to a simple Yea or Nay in a campaign clouded by ignorance and misinformation.  There was little serious debate, nothing like Ireland’s Referendum Commission and little or no attempt made to inform the British electorate of the awesome stakes involved in leaving the EU. Nor indeed of the complexities of disengagement, which, two years on, and with only nine months to go before Britain departs, have still to be worked out.

The little matter of how to maintain a “soft” border between the two parts of Ireland has yet to be solved, with the utterances of the hard line Brexiteers on the matter disingenuous to the point of absurdity.  With Teresa May seemingly not in control of her Cabinet there is no telling what direction any final outcome on this and the other contentious issues will take. For Ireland it may be a case of damage limitation for in no possible scenario of Britain leaving will we not lose out.  The mess is compounded by the lack of enthusiasm at the political level for any notion of re-running the Referendum. But how to proceed? As the old joke response to a lost tourist asking for directions put it “If I were you I wouldn’t be starting out from here in the first place.” Indeed.

24/06

TRAGEDY 1806(2) CXVIII

TRAGEDY

Two quotes to begin. The first by Parnell in 1885: “No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a Nation. No man has the right to say to his country: Thus far shalt thou go and no further.” The second attributed to Croesus, King of the Lydians, somewhere around 546 B.C.. When asked by his conqueror, Cyrus the Great, why he had chosen to wage war, Croesus responded ruefully that it had been arrogance and went on: “Nobody is mad enough to choose war whilst there is peace. During times of peace the sons bury their fathers, but in war it is the fathers who bury their sons.”

The sentiments expressed, from bombastic nationalism to the sadder and wiser reflections of a leader confronted with the grim reality of defeat in war, embrace and encompass the experience of the Bosniak political leadership over the course of the War. Hindsight is wonderful. But what led Izetbegovic and the his colleagues to back out of the Lisbon Agreement and declare independence, with every likelihood that war would follow,  given the clearly articulated threats and military potential of the Bosnian Serbs ? People do not always act rationally yet the realities on the ground were fairly clear.

The situation facing the Bosniak (predominantly Muslim) leadership in March 1992 was by no means unique. Bosnia was sliding towards civil war, something many governments over the ages have faced. The American Civil War, the Civil War in the 1640’s in England, and, more recently,  the Russian and Spanish Civil Wars together with those in Finland and Ireland, are just a few that come to mind. All ended with a decisive victory, usually for the Government, which in the longer run could bring greater material resources to bear. The exception was the Spanish Civil War, where the rebels, under Franco, prevailed after a bloody struggle, with outside forces on both sides playing important supporting roles.  The lesson from Spain, though, was surely that the side with overwhelming military superiority would prevail.

There can have been few in Bosnia at the time who did not recognise the huge military superiority of the Bosnian Serbs. The lesson from the war in Croatia, moreover,was stark. In the space of several months the JNA, with its superior weaponry, had brushed aside  its Croatian opponents, occupied over a quarter of the country and ethnically cleansed upwards of half a million Croatians. The dead during those few months exceeded 10,000, the bulk of them Croatians. There were several notable massacres  and the city of Vukovar had been virtually razed to the ground. The JNA had halted its progress having achieved Belgrade’s territorial objectives.
Belgrade had then extracted most of its besieged armour and men from unoccupied Croatia, chaperoned by European Monitors such as myself, and lodged the bulk of them in Bosnia, accessible to the Bosnian Serbs. There were further warning signs as the JNA moved to transfer Bosnian Serbs to forces serving in Bosnia, creating in effect an army in waiting. War fever was rampant.

The European Community, which had fooled in to the developing crisis, continued to thrash about searching for some form of solution. Eventually, and not without misgivings in some quarters, the EC had recognised Croatia’s independence, coaxed and prodded by Germany, very much Croatia’s champion. I can recall the euphoria in Zagreb at the time. The popular feeling certainly was that, with international  recognition and the promise of a UN Peacekeeping Force, Croatia’s separate independent status was assured and the nightmare risk of the JNA crushing the separatists and re-imposing Jugoslav unity  avoided.

Warren Zimmermann, the last US Ambassador to the Federal Republic, wrote a lengthy Memoir for “Foreign Affairs” in April 1995 on Yugoslavia’s break-up. It is downloadable and makes for a very interesting read. He quotes Izetbegovic’s Deputy, Ganic, as commenting after Croatian independence was recognised that “Of course we’re going to press ahead on recognition. With Croatia and Slovenia now gone, we can’t consign Bosnia to a truncated Yugoslavia controlled by Serbia.” Zimmermann surmises that with the EC “heading toward recognition”, Izetbegovic “thought he could get away with it under the guns of the Serbs. Whatever his motives, it was a disastrous political mistake.”

A couple of points on Zimmermann’s piece. It was written before the outcome of the war was known, and of course the narrative ends with his recall in 1992. It could not have anticipated Srebenica, though there had been massacres a plenty since 1992. Elsewhere he ponders why there was no decision or resolve to introduce UN Peacekeepers before rather than after a conflict. This is rather disingenuous. UN Peacekeeping has normally “worked” in situations where both sides have accepted the principle of their presence and some form of equilibrium exists on the ground. Whatever about Croatia, where Belgrade was satisfied and the die had been cast on letting Croatia go, this was hardly the case in Bosnia!

Whether agreement could have been secured for a mandate for the insertion of UN troops for a peace enforcement role in a “hot“ situation and sufficient countries found willing to commit their troops for such a hazardous mission is questionable. The saga of the UN in Bosnia is not a happy one, culminating as it did in the Srebenica massacre.  Whether overall the UN “presence” was beneficial and helped stave off even more atrocities, is debateable. This was not a good period for UN Peacekeeping. Even as Bosnia was being played out, the UN force in Rwanda in 1994 proved incapable of stopping the genocide there, the lesson from both situations being that UN peacekeeping efforts can be hamstrung when faced with determined and aggressive hostiles. In the end it took heavy and sustained bombing to bring the Serbs to the table and two decades to mete out justice to their leaders.

Zimmermann does not mention his meeting with Izetbegovic on 28 March 1992 after which he pulled out of the Lisbon Agreement he had signed up to ten days before, rendering war all but inevitable.  Zimmermann has been criticised for having possibly misled Izetbegovic into believing that diplomatic recognition by the USA and the EC would suffice to deter the Serbs. Yet could Izetbegovic really have been so naïve as to believe this and not to have perceived the different factors which applied in Croatia’s case? Perhaps, as has been suggested, the Bosniak leadership thought they had little or no choice and coupled this with a vague belief that diplomacy would generate some acceptable deal and somehow draw in the international community. We know how that turned out!

Should they have stuck with Lisbon? I think some violence would have occurred in any event but whether on the scale of the carnage that occurred is another matter. What it would have done would have been to enmesh the EC and the USA, and probably the UN, in the process, which is the way the situation in Bosnia is now. Quite probably inter community relations would be better. We know from our experience on this island that reconciliation and confidence building is a slow and painstaking business. In Bosnia the process is still on hold, frozen.

END

 

24/05

MNA na hEIREANN 1806 CXVII

MNA NA HEIREANN

Barring a last minute surge in support for those opposing repeal, by the time you read this the Eighth Amendment will have been removed from the Irish Constitution. The current wording in Article 40.3.3, in which the “State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn … with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother” will be replaced by the following one line “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”

Nothing is certain in Irish referenda. A low poll (where the diehards are sure to turn out), overconfidence, complacency, or the sudden ignition of some aspect of an issue sufficient to change minds at the last minute, are all factors, something which could still play out  where an emotive issue like abortion is  involved. There is also in the Irish electorate, undoubtedly, an element of “the Devil you know…” with a reluctance to opt for change, particularly where the consequences are unclear. The voters have also shown they are loath to give more power to politicians, something which could also be a factor on May 25.

The Eighth Amendment was introduced in 1983 by a two to one majority after an acrimonious and passionate campaign.  Subsequent referenda to attempt to address issues generated by the flawed wording in the original were also high on emotion, with the percentage opposing any liberalisation  generally close to forty. Indeed a proposal to remove the threat of suicide as one of the limited grounds for abortion was defeated by less than 1% (10,556 votes) in 2002.

This time there has been up to now less passion, in large part because the issues have been fully aired and debated, and because the power, influence and prestige of the Catholic Church, though still considerable, is now much diminished. Apart from the usual antics of fanatics the debate this time around has been sober and reasoned and concentrated on the right of women to choose. The deliberations of the much maligned Citizens’ Assembly, which came down firmly for repeal, and the subsequent debates in the Dail have served also to dispel much of the misunderstanding and emotion for the average middle-ground voter.

The reasons why women opt for abortion are now recognised as complex and the issue as not  black and white. The blunt truth that there already IS a regime of abortion in Ireland, with several thousand women travelling annually to England, with others buying unregulated abortion pills over the Internet, has also played its part, by pointing up the hypocrisy involved in denying Irish women the right to have the procedure performed safely locally.

The latest opinion polls show 44% for repeal, 32% against and 17% undecided with a classic tightening of the race emerging as polling day nears. The one issue that has generated unease and which probably accounts for the relatively high percentage of  undecided, has been the suggestion, put forward in an options paper from the Department of Health, that subsequent legislation would, inter alia, as well as catering for threats to the mother’s health and for fatal foetal abnormalities, provide for abortion on demand for up to twelve weeks.

The polls identify this as the one issue on which many pro- Choice voters are “soft.” Though the No campaign is seeking to exploit this, whether it will prove a game changer in the final days is less certain. It is not after all up for vote and it is by no means certain that any legislation to that effect would pass through the Dail; one can imagine the nature of THAT debate! The polls also show the usual division on age grounds (those over 50 favouring  NO) and a definite rural-urban split, with the west of the country now evenly balanced and the south and east, led massively by Dublin, favouring a Yes vote.

There have been numerous harrowing accounts in the media of women’s health and even lives (remember Savita Halapanavar) affected by the constraints the Eighth has placed on the medical profession to provide adequate treatment for pregnant women in emergency situations.  These apart, developments concerning societal attitudes to women and women’s rights in other areas have featured strongly in the public consciousness and the media in recent months. Overall, though separate from abortion, these should boost support for the Yes side. They have certainly prompted an increased interest and focus in just how women fare in Ireland.

Currently the country is seized with the revelations that Ireland’s cervical cancer screening programme, operating since 2008, failed to pick up on several hundred cases where women should have received earlier intervention for cancer treatment. Of at least 208 cases identified to date 17 women are dead. Additionally it has emerged that even when irregularities and anomalies in the screening results were realised many of the women concerned were not alerted directly. The scandal emerged after one woman, Vicky Phelan, now terminally ill, spoke out after refusing to accept a confidentiality clause in a €2.5 million compensation offer. The affair, which is still simmering, has damaged the Government politically and has revealed issues of governance in Ireland’s Health Service Executive, as well as how the State deals with those seeking redress for officialdom’s mistakes.

Elsewhere the “Me Too” campaign has had its Irish dimension in recent months, with allegations of sexual harassment and bullying, at least one tribunal award for unfair dismissal in in a case involving alleged harassment and more and more women speaking up about inappropriate behaviour towards them by men over the years. An unedifying and lengthy rape trial in Belfast involving two Ulster and Irish international Rugby players has further focussed interest. Both were acquitted on 28 March but throughout the seven week trial there was massive media coverage and every sordid and intimate detail of the 2016 incident was aired and reported – the South’s reporting restrictions in rape cases do not apply in the North. The young woman involved was cross examined for seven days, a further ordeal in itself.

The whole process left a nasty aftertaste, with various tweets and texts between the defendants after the incident exposing a laddish and misogynistic culture that was distasteful and unseemly to say the least. Subsequent attempts at apologies by the players fell flat, with women’s groups fired up, demonstrations in a number of cities and the launch of an “I Believe Her” movement. The players’ contracts have been cancelled and so far they appear unemployable, with the Irish rugby authorities distancing themselves and deploring the players’ behaviour. If anything positive has emerged it has been to focus the attention of men on the requirement to treat women with more dignity and respect.

Assuming the referendum passes, it will be another significant milestone in the advance of women’s rights in Ireland. The Irish Times columnist Fintan O Toole summarised several years ago the progress that had been made since 1970 in putting to right legislative areas in which women were discriminated against. I touched on some of them in my April column. The list is informative and merits a visit. Repeal of the Eighth will add to it. It has been a long march.

END

24/5/18

TWENTY YEARS ON1805 CXVI

TWENTY YEARS ON

In 2007 the Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland, composed of young people from both sides of the Border, and both parts of the sectarian divide, performed in Chicago’s Symphony Centre. I remarked afterwards that the young musicians from the North were the first generation of schoolchildren from there since 1969 not to have grown up in an environment blighted by violence. The era of Peace had commenced with the IRA Cessation in August 1994 and had been cemented by the political settlement known as the Good Friday Agreement concluded after lengthy negotiations in 1998. The Agreement was twenty years old last month.

The occasion was marked in Belfast despite the immediate pall cast by the continued absence of a power sharing Northern Ireland Executive, one of the cornerstone institutions established under the Agreement. And despite also the looming threat to the economic, political, and social status quo throughout the island posed by the impact of Brexit, however it eventually pans out.

The attendance at the main event on 10 April included most of those politicians of various hues who had participated in the negotiations leading up to the Agreement. These included Bill Clinton, whose hands – on approach had probably been vital in helping to persuade doubters, as well as Senator George Mitchell, who had chaired the all-party negotiations. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who stayed with the negotiations despite the death of his mother during the fraught final week, was there, as was Tony Blair, who remarked at the time that he felt “the hand of history” on his shoulder. The group photograph includes also the former First Minister and Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland, David Trimble and Seamus Mallon, as well as retired Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams together with representatives of minor parties.

The only major figure missing from the occasion was John Hume, sadly unable to attend through illness. This was particularly unfortunate given his role over the decades as a monumental and tireless worker for peace and reconciliation. He was there at the outset of the Civil Rights campaign. He was there through Sunningdale. He it was who conceived and worked at bringing in the benign involvement of Irish American politicians. He was there during the dark days in the aftermath of the Hunger Strikes and the relentless violence of the mid and late Eighties. He was the vital element in helping to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold when he undertook  the dialogue with Gerry Adams, that process that eventually found fruition in the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 and the cessation of violence that followed. The debt we owe him is enormous. John Hume stands out.

There were many people involved in contributing to bringing about peace. Tanaiste Simon Coveney described the Good Friday Agreement as a ”child with many parents and godparents” and indeed it was – not just politicians but also dedicated and talented officials who never gave up trying and whose efforts and achievements behind the scenes are often overlooked. A landmark event recognising their contribution, prompted by the GFA anniversary, took place in Dublin in late March – a one day Conference in the Royal Irish Academy. Entitled “Reflections on the thirty-year Road to the Good Friday Agreement” the Conference focussed on the input and experience of Irish officials from several Government Departments, but chiefly from the Department of Foreign Affairs, in dealing with events in Northern Ireland since 1969.

Virtually all the senior officials and advisers involved, – most now retired – made contributions to panel discussions in four chronologically ordered segments. The first covered the early years from the origins, through Sunningdale (1973-4), to the New Ireland Forum (1983-4). The second dealt with the mid 1980s including the Anglo Irish Agreement (1985) and the early years of the Maryfield Secretariat. The third segment addressed the road to the cease fires via the discussions and negotiations which led to the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993. The final panel discussion took the story up to the Good Friday Agreement and its aftermath. The result overall was a fascinating insider account of the complexities involved and encountered in working through to a durable settlement. The proceedings were recorded and will constitute a valuable oral archive.

The Good Friday Agreement was very much a game changer. Thanks to it the North has had weapons decommissioning, the normalisation of security arrangements, including root and branch reform of the police, prisoner releases, progress on equality and human rights, and, at the political level, the establishment of a power-sharing executive and a devolved legislature. These “Strand One” issues have been complemented by Cross-Border / North-South (“Strand Two) political institutions as well as some all-island economic bodies to enhance cooperation.  The overwhelming endorsement of the Agreement in separate referenda (71% in favour in the North, 94% in the South) has seen the South give up its Constitutional claim to Northern Ireland and the enshrinement of the principles of self-determination and consent.

It has not all been positive, as the current political impasse (now over twelve months) at Stormont exemplifies. Yet we have been there before – the Executive has been suspended on several occasions, including a four and a half year period from 2002 to 2007. The issue which prompted Sinn Fein’s withdrawal was hardly insurmountable – the refusal of Arlene Foster to step aside temporarily – but masked a number of parity of esteem issues, including the Irish Language,  which again could surely be overcome. Cue Brexit; a deal was in the offing when the DUP’s ten Westminster MP’s, flushed with the hubris of keeping Teresa May in power, and staunchly pro-Brexit, scuppered it.

Any hope also that the Agreement would help “normal” politics to supplant tribal affiliations has so far not been realised. Indeed the chief political development of the last two decades has seen growth in support for Sinn Fein and the DUP, representing the more extreme rather than the middle, at the expense of the two centre parties – the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists – with little prospect of reversal; the moderate and non -sectarian Alliance Party remains mired at less than 10% of the vote.  Nor has there been sufficient progress in reconciliation between the communities or in treating legacy issues adequately, while paramilitary activity, especially in racketeering, has yet to be addressed.

Nevertheless overall there has been a profound transformation in the North, with tourism booming and the quality of life for its citizens across the board greatly improved.  And, the most obvious political manifestation – that despite the suspensions, the DUP and Sinn Fein have learned to work together. The Agreement has changed the image of Northern Ireland immeasurably and led to major investments in hotels, in new jobs,  and generated  a widespread feel-good outlook. The Border has all but melted away and with it some at least of the paranoia and fear among unionists. By any standard the Agreement has succeeded. It is not perfect but what settlement ever is? Right now, however, there is uncertainty regarding Brexit. While a return to the nightmare of the past seems unlikely, there is no telling what will happen. A known unknown. There is little doubt that a restored Executive, pulling together, would help.

 

18/04