POLISH ANIA IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN ASHBOURNE 1705 CI

POLISH ANIA IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN ASHBOURNE.

April 24 2016 was the centenary, to the day, of the Easter Rising. It was also Census Day, the detailed results of which are beginning to emerge (a snapshot already one year old). Whatever Pearse and his colleagues may have imagined a century on, it can scarcely have been that Polish would be vying with Irish as the second most common language spoken on the island or that sizeable numbers would be speaking French,  Lithuanian, Romanian and Russian, at home.

Readers might recall my column of September2015, which mentioned “Ashbourne Annie,” a fictional housewife and mother, dreamed up by Labour Party strategists in a desperate – and unavailing – last throw to head-off electoral disaster. The hope was that by pointing up some of the modest pre-election goodies handed out by the Coalition in its death throes, and which on paper benefitted the likes of Annie, Labour’s, and the Coalition’s, flagging electoral prospects might get a boost. It didn’t happen. The Coalition was decimated in the subsequent election, and Labour all but wiped out.

Several days after publication of the first detailed report on the Census I visited Ashbourne, a pleasant dormitory town close to Dublin, and am happy to report that signs of economic recovery are now plentiful – too late for Labour.  Shopping in one of the town’s main supermarkets brought home one of the report’s revelations. It was school holidays and shoppers included a number of families. Most of the children were speaking Polish or Lithuanian. Not a generalised or representative example, true – Ashbourne is within the Dublin commuter belt, and has consequently a relatively high non-Irish population –  but indicative of the changing face of Ireland.

The Census is interesting in a number of respects. The population of the Twenty Six Counties is now 4,761,865, up 173,613 or 3.8% since 2011 (but still far behind the pre-Famine figure of 6.5 million), though the rate of increase is slowing. The natural increase (births over deaths) was actually 196,100, indicating that emigration continues to be a factor. The “greying” trend continues with the over 65s up 20% to 647,567, 13.6% of the total. Deaths actually increased by 7,200 while births fell sharply by 22,800. The average age of the population is up by 1.3 years to 37.4 years. Interestingly, the average age of the non-Irish has increased by 2.5 years to 35.4 years, almost double that of the population as a whole, and, indeed the average age of Poles has increased by 3.5 years, from 27.9 to 31.4 years. For which read that many of the wave of young immigrants who arrived after 2004 to work during the Celtic Tiger years have put down roots and are now that much older.

The actual number of non-Nationals is virtually unchanged at 535,475, though this of course masks the many actual changes that have taken place. People have gone home, people have arrived, often from different countries and many have acquired dual nationality (up almost 50% to 104,784). The document estimates that 94,000 have acquired Irish citizenship since 2011, many in highly publicised public ceremonies. Apart from the British, the Poles and Lithuanians remain the largest national minorities, virtually unchanged at 122,515 and 36,552 respectively. The biggest increases have been among Romanians, up 69% to 29,186, Brazilians, up by over half to 13,640, and Spanish, up 78% to 12,112. The numbers of Pakistanis have also increased by over 50% to 12,891, while the most dramatic increase has been from the EU’s newest member, Croatia, which has seen Croatian numbers increase fivefold to 5,202. 69% of non-Nationals come from ten countries with the next ten accounting for a further 14%.

Inward migration has recommenced, edging towards Celtic Tiger levels, with 82,346 arriving in the year to April 2016. Of these 28,143 were Irish nationals, with the largest contingents of non-Nationals arriving from Britain (7,506) Brazil (4,848) and Poland (3,689).  With the economy continuing to expand there is little doubt that strong inward migration will continue. What is not clear is what effect Brexit, however it turns out, will have. Will there be a flood of new arrivals, seeking to enter Britain clandestinely across the Border, or will there be a flow of non-British nationals forced out?  It’s widely believed that a surge in asylum applicants from Pakistan and Bangladesh in 2015 followed denials to reside by the UK authorities. Whatever happens there are likely to be profound implications for future inward migration.

There are already significant developments in the languages spoken in the home. Here no fewer than 135,895 people speak Polish at home, 27,197 of whom were born here. Next up is French, spoken in the home by 54,948 (again, 36,810 born here) with Romanian (36,683) Lithuanian (35,362) and Spanish ( 32, 405) next in line. 20, 833 speak Portuguese, reflecting chiefly the Brazilian newcomers. Arabic is spoken by 16,072, of whom 4071 were born here. All told 612,018 people speak languages other than Irish or English at home.

The language statistics have sent shockwaves through Irish language supporters. While 1,761,420 answered “Yes” to the question “Do you speak Irish?” 30% of those aged 10-19 answered “No” and only 73,803 said they spoke it daily outside the education system. One pie chart shows 69.7% of those three and over who “can’t speak or won’t speak Irish.” The manifest failure of successive governments to revive the first national language has been cruelly exposed by the figures for languages spoken in the home. The Irish language, part of Irish culture,  remains an object of affection and endearment to a high proportion of Irish people, but few seem exercised enough to do anything about it. The blunt truth is that English, in which the Irish excel, is such a superb vehicle for communication and enjoys widespread use and acclaim throughout the first world that few among the Irish direct more than a token genuflection towards the native tongue.

The census findings on religion, with the Report itself highlighting a 29% increase in the Muslim population here and that almost 10% of the population have “no religion” also prompted attention. Census Question 12 asked simply “What is your religion”, giving seven choices, including “No Religion.”  The number declaring themselves as Muslim is now 63,400, less than 1.5% of the population. The number (and percentage) of Orthodox Christians is approximately the same, having risen at a faster rate, 37.5%, over the period. The number of Catholics, at 3,729,100, represents 78.3% of the total population, down by 3.4% since 2011.

Elsewhere the secular lobby have been crowing, citing the 10% “no religion” figure as further evidence of the decline in the Catholic Church’s influence. Certainly the number declaring “no religion” is up, by 73.6% from 269,800 to 468,400, and a further 125,300 left the boxes blank. And there has been a dramatic fall in Church attendance in the last decades. Whether any definitive conclusions can be drawn is less clear. It could be argued, indeed, that, given the scandals and revelations which have rocked the Church since the highpoint of the 1979 Papal visit, what is surprising is that almost 80% still declare themselves Catholic. Irish Catholicism may be in decline, but it’s a slow process.

21/4

WHEN THE FLAG DROPS….. 1704 (2) C(2)

WHEN THE FLAG DROPS….

Formula One drivers have a saying : “When the Flag Drops, the B.S. stops.”  It’s simple. Whatever is said or promised in advance may prove difficult to deliver in actuality. President Trump has begun to discover this after the recent American Health Care Act fiasco.

Ireland, Britain and Europe face a similar High Noon – albeit a long drawn out one – after Britain triggered on 29 March the Article 50 Process for leaving the European Union. Quite how this one will pan out will not be clear for some time. But make no mistake: whatever the eventual outcome, the effects on Ireland will be considerable, and in the range fairly negative to very negative. For Ireland it’s essentially Lose-Lose across the spectrum and the aim of the government will be damage limitation. There is no good news.

In part because of our troubled historical relationship with Britain, and desire, therefore, to emphasise our separate identity, Ireland embraced Europe enthusiastically since we joined in 1973,  strove to be seen as the “good European,” ditched our currency to adopt the Euro, despite major trade and investment links outside the Eurozone, and parroted the language of “Ever Closer Union.”  Europe has been good to Ireland, with billions transferred over the years under the Common Agricultural Policy and through Regional and Structural funding.

This commitment to Europe took a dent during the Recession when we became Europe’s poster boy for swallowing austerity at the behest of Europe’s bankers. It has also suffered as the flow of funds has dried up, with Ireland’s growing prosperity and the accession of poorer new Member States. Brexit poses another challenge, one of a different dimension.

For Britain remains our largest trading partner by far; is a major source of inward investment; is our largest source of “foreign” tourists; is home to a massive Irish population both Irish born and second generation and is a country with which we share a common language, and many elements of a common culture. This is quite apart from the Northern Ireland dimension, where Peace has now been bedded down, albeit squabbles persisting at the political level. Arguably relations with Britain on all levels have never been closer, much of this generated since 1973, in which our common membership of the EC/EU has played a major part. All this is now threatened.

European Heads of Government are to meet in late April to agree a mandate for the exit negotiations, to be conducted by the Commission under designated Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, a former French Foreign Minister, and very much a Brussels insider. The Brexit process theoretically has two years to run but has never been tested and is further complicated by Britain being Europe’s second biggest economy. Think California quitting the U.S.A. with two years to sort everything and you get some idea of what’s involved.

The months since Britain voted to leave have featured chiefly political rhetoric and shadow boxing, including whether or not 24 months is enough. Given what’s involved two years seems too tight, certainly to tidy everything away. Perhaps the device used by Europe over the years, when deadlines loomed , of simply stopping the clock as midnight approached might be utilised again. There is too much at stake on all sides, particularly the heavy hitters, to allow a bean counting point to matter.

For Ireland the interests at stake are vital. No other Member State has anything like the comprehensive totality of our relations with Britain.  Brexit, quite apart from its implications for Irish-British trade, the obvious high profile Common Travel Area between the two countries, which predates EC Accession, and the imposition of some form of border controls on the only land frontier between Britain and the EU, will involve much unravelling of and/or amending  existing links and relationships. These span the many shared business, trade, investment, political and personal strands, which have been built up between the two countries before and since 1973, a period which represents virtually half of our existence as an independent state. Little or no aspect of our bilateral relations will emerge unscathed.

Current indications from Brussels are that the Commission will proceed as it does in negotiations with third countries, negotiating on behalf of all Twenty Seven on the basis of a mandate from the Council, reporting back on progress – or lack of it – regularly as necessary or as directed, normally to the Foreign Affairs Council. Whether this will be sufficient to meet Ireland’s concerns is another matter.

There is no doubt that the Commission will negotiate as best it can impartially on behalf of all, but for none of the other Twenty Six is there so much at stake.  Poland may have a special interest in the welfare of its nationals in Britain but in terms of the 2004 Accession states that’s about it, and that’s just in one area among many. Their trade and investment concerns are negligible compared to Ireland’s. The situation is not much different for the rest of the pre-2004 Fifteen. Certainly Germany , France and the Netherlands have greater  trading links with Britain than Ireland  ( though not by much) and have significant investments and numbers of nationals living in Britain, but again that’s it – in each case those countries’ interests are proportionately  considerably less significant than Ireland.

There’s a wood and tree consideration here also. The Commission will be tasked to negotiate those areas in which it has competence under the Treaties. It’s not clear when or how the vital matter of trade will be handled. Yet while the EU dimension is important, it is frankly not central to the nature of our current and historic relationship with Britain. There is none of the visceral dimension, in the broadest sense, of the relationship between Ireland and Britain. There is an obvious risk that this aspect will not be accorded due weight in the negotiations. What if  the negotiations ended by securing a “deal” for the Twenty Seven in which every  country  made concessions, but in which Ireland ended up  in considerably worse shape overall than, say, Bulgaria or Hungary. There’s also the Realpolitik aspect -that very heavy hitters like Germany and France would want to cut a deal with Britain and would be willing to make sacrifices to do so. Would Ireland, could Ireland, go along with an outcome that caused us problems but was acceptable to the other Twenty Six?

These are early days. There are no easy answers. Free trade is vital. Is it achievable? Preserving the Common Travel Area and maintaining an open Border – two of Ireland’s declared priorities  – have  to be squared with Britain’s wish to control immigration and the freedom of movement for  EU nationals within the EU, of which we remain a member. That’s just for starters. Currently Irish politicians are preoccupied with domestic concerns including a serious crisis of public confidence in the Gardai. But that will pass. Brexit is now on us. The end April EU Summit is not far away. There are voices calling for a more proactive approach, including perhaps a separate place at the negotiating table. That or a higher profile. The issue needs to be debated at least.

 

29/3/17

ON THE BEACH 1704 C

NEVIL SHUTE, “ON THE BEACH”, AND A 1916 DIMENSION

 

How to view the recent missile launches by North Korea, and the very public assassination in Malaysia? The benign theory has it that Kim Jung-un is not so much acting bellicose but more striving to ensure his regime’s survival by developing defence mechanisms to deter any pre-emptive strike against him. This in the knowledge that his forces could not withstand a full scale conventional assault from outside any more than had those of Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi.

 

The theory seems reasonable but with the growing spread of nuclear weapons, as evidenced by Pakistan and North Korea, the threat of miscalculation, or misunderstanding, leading to a nuclear exchange is very much a real one. Does anyone seriously doubt that Iran will not acquire nukes before much longer, with Saudi Arabia and one two others hard on its heels? The stopper on the bottle containing the nuclear genie is coming loose.

 

I was prompted to these rather gloomy thoughts when cataloguing my library recently and revisiting a novel of the Fifties. Nevil Shute wrote “On the Beach” in 1957; it was turned into a film, directed by Stanley Kramer, in 1959. Shute, who died in 1960 in Australia, wrote several dozen novels and an autobiography, but will be most remembered for this, his bleak visionary tale of the last days of mankind. Shute was born in England in 1899, became an aeronautical engineer and moved to Australia after World War Two. As a writer he was very much a man of his time, English, middle class, public school educated. His books are well plotted, understated and devoid of graphic sex or violence. This very understatement is perhaps what makes “On the Beach” so effective.

 

The novel is set in Australia in 1964, two years after a nuclear war has devastated the Northern Hemisphere. By then a number of European countries, not just the heavy hitters, have acquired nukes, increasing exponentially the chances that they would/could be used. The cause is never stated but a mistake, a political blunder, is hinted at. Cue North Korea again. And remember also that, when the world came closest to Armageddon over Cuba in 1962, one of JFK’s obsessions was to avoid any miscalculation or misunderstanding by either superpower in a situation where the gung-ho Cuban leadership wanted war.  Shute, as an engineer, was very conscious of the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons and, from his aviation experiences, of the constant possibility of something going wrong.

 

There have been many books written about a nuclear – or other – Armageddon, normally featuring societal breakdown, involving hunger, anarchy, violence, cannibalism and rape and usually a deus ex machina salvation for a small band of heroes to survive and rebuild. Shute’s book is different. In it Mankind North of the Equator has ceased to exist and the deadly radiation clouds have begun to reach the Southern Hemisphere. It is only a matter of time until they reach Melbourne and beyond, exterminating Mankind in the process. There is no escape, nowhere to flee.

 

Shute poses the question: What does a civilised community do faced with this reality? It is a stark question, written when the Cold War was still maturing and when those countries with the capability were striving mightily to acquire nuclear weapons (France did so in 1960, China in 1964 and Israel probably in 1967).

 

It could be objected that this is an over simplistic portrayal of the aftermath of a nuclear war in which there would a) be survivors and b) the effects of radiation would be varied, prolonged and not necessarily 100% fatal. It could equally be pointed out that in such a situation, where there was a major thermonuclear exchange, a nuclear winter would probably follow hard on the complete breakdown of orderly government, so that, in a short time, in the graphic words of one commentator “The survivors would come to envy the dead.” Few would relish in any event being around to test whether or not nuclear war was survivable!

 

Shute portrays a society in which the utter helplessness of their predicament takes time to sink in, and in which an unconscious consensus emerges to continue on normally for as long as possible. Farmers plant crops which will never be harvested, householders plant gardens which they will never see in bloom, the chief preoccupation of the Melbourne Gentleman’s club is to calculate whether their best wines and spirits will last to the end.

 

As the radiation rolls across Northern Australia, racing car enthusiasts organise the last ever Australian Grand Prix, with cars driven with such abandon that there are many fatalities. Suicide pills are made available for those who want to use them. Others await the end quietly, embracing death by a variety of means. The last US nuclear submarine is scuttled with her crew on board. The world ends not with a bang but a whimper.

 

“On the Beach” was well received when it appeared. Half a century later the Economist called it “still incredibly moving.”  It is all of that – the last chapters are emotionally draining – and the novel perhaps merits a timely revival in an era where the issues it raises are very much relevant.

 

There is a fascinating connection between Nevil Shute Norway, to give him his full name, and the Easter Rising. He was born in 1899, one of two sons of Arthur and Mary Louisa Hamilton Norway, a British civil servant who in 1912 was appointed head of the Irish Postal Service and Manager of the GPO in Dublin. The family spent six years in Dublin, living first in Mount Merrion, then in the Hibernian Hotel. Nevil’s elder brother Frederick, aged 19 was killed on the Western Front in July 1915.

 

Over several years Arthur Hamilton Norway organised a major renovation and refurbishment of the shabby GPO building. It reopened to the public, ironically, less than a month before the Rising.  Norway was summoned to Dublin Castle early on Easter Monday to help plan the arrest of Nationalist leaders on Easter Tuesday (!), just before the GPO was occupied. Mary Louisa, together with Nevil, on Easter holidays from school, arrived soon after Pearse had read out the Proclamation. She demanded to see whoever was in charge and was introduced to Pearse, who assured her that the safe and contents in her husband’s office would not be harmed. It was later discovered unopened, in the ruins of the GPO.

 

Nevil subsequently volunteered as a Red Cross stretcher bearer for the wounded of both sides and was later honoured by St John’s Ambulance. His mother wrote a fascinating eye-witness account of Easter Week, based on letters written to her sister. It describes in vivid and dispassionate detail many of the incidents of the week. One passage in particular has entered the histories of the Rising. Describing the savage fighting and destruction on Thursday, she wrote:

 

“It seemed as if the whole city was on fire, the glow extending right across the heavens, and the red glare hundreds of feet high, while above the roar of the fires the whole air seemed vibrating with the noise of the great guns and machine-guns. It was an inferno!”

END

20/3/17

 

THE GREAT HUNGER: FAMINE or GENOCIDE 1703 XCIX

THE GREAT HUNGER: FAMINE OR GENOCIDE?

“God sent the Potato Blight but the English created the Famine” – John Mitchell 1848.

It was the defining and watershed event in Ireland’s Nineteenth Century History, radically altering Irish society and the economy, enshrining emigration as the default option, dealing a fatal blow to the Irish Language as the vernacular tongue and leaving a bitter legacy among the Irish in Ireland and the Diaspora in America it did so much to create.  It gave an enduring fillip to the separatist movement which came to fruition in 1916 and the War of Independence.

The basic facts are well known. Ireland’s population more than doubled to over 8 million between 1800 and 1841, the vast majority peasants or tenant farmers heavily dependent on potatoes for their staple diet. In 1845 a potato fungus destroyed up to half the crop. The situation worsened in 1846 with over two thirds of the crop destroyed. In 1847 (“Black 47”) the catastrophe became complete with few potatoes even planted. Few died in 1845 but after the toll rose dramatically. Deaths in workhouses alone in 1847 exceeded 50,000. The effects were island wide, though much less in the Pale and the eastern counties where there was access to (and money to buy) imported food.  Connacht and the South West suffered most, with population falls of up to 30%.

There was food available in 1845 with Peel’s government buying in corn. Thereafter as the crisis worsened, London proved unable to cope. People began to die in growing numbers in 1846, overwhelming relief attempts. The official mind set was to give nothing for nothing underpinned by an inflexible dogmatic doctrine of laisser faire liberalism. A scheme of public works was instituted, with the undernourished expected to perform manual labour (digging roads) for money to buy food. In January 1847, the nadir, soup kitchens were introduced and were soon feeding up to three million. Inexplicably, in August the scheme was abandoned lest it encourage dependency, and the onus to provide relief was shifted back to Irish taxpayers, predominantly landlords, with predictable results. Throughout, the country exported food, not enough to bridge the gap but enough to have ameliorated conditions somewhat.

There have been much larger famines. The famine which struck Ireland in 1740-41 -the “Year of Slaughter” killed perhaps a quarter of the population, proportionately more than a century later. But that was in archaic times, when the authorities had neither the resources nor the technology to alleviate distress. Note also that with the exception of the Bengal Famine of the early 1940’s (where Britain was also the governing power), the other major famines since 1800 all took place under totalitarian mendacious regimes where knowledge of, publicity about, and the extent of, what happened, were suppressed or falsified.

The Irish Famine took place in what was then the most advanced country in the world, edging towards democracy (after the 1832 Reform Act), with a reasonably free press, a vocal parliamentary opposition, a developing social conscience (working age and conditions were being regulated), and an infrastructure advanced enough – thanks to industrialisation and the railways – to enable and facilitate action by government. More could and should have been done. The British Government’s response to the catastrophe has been castigated as inadequate, inept, tardy, indifferent, bloody-minded, cruel, callous, and tinged with racism, with the dead bearing silent witness.  The clincher being continued exports of food while millions starved. It was all of that.

With contemporary accounts and artists’ sketches of the starving poor abounding it’s not surprising that then and since the spectacle of the Famine grips us and stirs deep emotions. Upwards of a million died, over and above the “normal” death rates; not necessarily of hunger but of associated diseases aggravated by malnutrition, such as cholera, dysentery and fever.  There are no exact figures, beyond what the population was in 1841 (8,175,124)), 1851 (6,575,000) and actuarial calculations as to what the figure WOULD have been without the Famine (roughly 9 million).

Emigration (which had of course preceded 1845) increased massively, though impossible to measure accurately. In the decade after 1845 probably two million emigrated.  Almost 600,000 arrived in the USA in the five years 1846 – 1850, three times that in the previous five years; a further 700,000 arrived up to 1855. This was quite apart from the huge numbers settling in England and the lesser numbers who travelled to Canada and Australia. At Grosse Ile in Quebec, where the arriving Irish, many sick, were quarantined, the queue of ships waiting to dock at the end of May 1847 stretched for two miles.

The Great Hunger was a catastrophe, with Britain firmly in the dock for omission, neglect, and wrongheaded policies and indifference. Ireland was remote, the Irish peasant poor more so. But did British policy constitute Genocide? Raphael Lemkin’s definition, (a Polish Jewish jurist who had studied the Armenian massacres of 1915) as enshrined in the UN Genocide Convention of 1948, specified that for actions to be deemed genocidal there must be prior INTENT to destroy in whole or in part a national or ethnic group.

The Holocaust during World War Two was clearly genocidal, in that a determined premeditated attempt was made to murder Jews in every country in Europe occupied by the Nazis. In an elaborate and comprehensive campaign Jews were separated out and transported to death camps where they were either immediately murdered or kept as slave labour in conditions which proved fatal for many. When mass shootings proved inadequate industrial scale mass murder by gassing was introduced. All this sanctioned by the Nazi authorities and carried out by the SS.

Fifty years later in Rwanda, in 100 days in 1994, from April 6 to July 16, at least 800,000 of the minority Tutsi tribe were slaughtered by the majority Hutus. The massacres were in the context of an ongoing civil war but were carefully planned and orchestrated by the ruling government elite. Most of the rural murders (by machetes, many stockpiled earlier) were by villagers under orders from district leaders and village headmen. Rape was employed as a weapon against many surviving Tutsi women. An under resourced UN peacekeeping force was powerless to stop the slaughter.

In 1915 roughly 1,500,000 Armenians died at the hands of the Turks, with intellectuals murdered and whole communities driven out by the authorities and force marched into the Syrian desert with little or no sustenance. Men were shot, women and girls raped before being murdered .Observed atrocities included crucifixions, impalements, massacres, mass burnings alive and drownings, conducted by early equivalents of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen. (Though Turkey denies what occurred was genocide, Hitler asked rhetorically in 1939 “Who… speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?”)

The key elements in all the three above were advance planning and intent. By these standards, deplorable and blameworthy as the British Government’s attitude and performance was, it hardly constituted genocide. There was no plan to kill, no wanton or systematic acts of cruelty and indeed considerable attempts, however inadequate, were made to address the suffering. The sheer scale overwhelmed the authorities and the situation was exacerbated by the prevailing economic and political orthodoxy of the time .This was, after all, the 1840s.

 

24/2/17

(SOME OF) THE TIES THAT BIND 1702 XCVIII

(SOME OF) THE TIES THAT BIND

 

“The family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries mean that there will always be a special relationship between us.” Not exactly love-bombing, but this was British Prime Minster, Teresa May, speaking. The context was the need to preserve the Common Travel Area (CTA) between Ireland and Britain following British exit from the EU, the occasion the announcement of Britain’s roadmap for Brexit. And maintaining the Common Travel Area was number four in May’s twelve negotiating objectives, highlighting its importance to Britain.

 

As I write, Donald Trump has just been sworn in as the USA’s 45th President. His “America First” inauguration address came with vows to repatriate US business based overseas and to rewrite the terms of much of current US trade relations. Trump’s plans for US business could affect future and even existing US investment in Ireland, which has relied heavily on FDI from US companies. And a major alteration in the US’ current trade agreements could potentially seriously derail international trade patterns with consequences for every country. We shall see.

 

However, a much more clear and present danger for Ireland is the impending Brexit and that roadmap set out by May, which heralds a tough set of parameters for the negotiations. There are few “coulds” but some very definite “woulds” regarding the likely consequences of Britain leaving the EU. The phoney war since June is now ending and quite a grim picture for Ireland is beginning to emerge. Put simply Ireland, North and South, stands to be affected disproportionately greater than the other 26 EU members by Britain’s departure. May has signalled the so-called “Hard Brexit”, involving the introduction of controls on Immigration from other EU countries as well as pulling out of the Single Market and the Customs Union. All three are critical for Britain; all three will have profound effects on Ireland.

 

Tied in with this, though not mentioned by May, is the North, so self-evidently an issue of critical concern to the people of Ireland, North and South. It is less than a generation since the guns fell silent and not yet a decade since the fledgling institution of the Power Sharing Executive appeared to be taking hold. Right now there is a hiatus, with elections pending in March and  old tribal loyalties reasserting themselves. Peace is not under threat – far from it; the North has come too far to fall back. But the last thing needed, at a time when North South relations have never been closer, is the prospect of new or renewed barriers across the island. To a large extent the Good Friday Agreement was predicated on close relations between Ireland and Britain with physical and economic contact enhanced by a common membership of the larger entity of Europe.

 

A critical ameliorating element here has been the Common Travel Area, dating back to Irish independence, far predating, as May noted, membership of the EU. This was not affected by subsequent EU enlargements – until now. While May speaks of working “to deliver a practical solution” to maintaining the CTA while “protecting” the UK’s immigration system, there’s clearly a circle to be squared here. Any solution involving a two tier approach, admitting the Irish but restricting other EU nationals is unlikely to go down well with other EU member states, for example Poland, whose nationals in Britain now actually exceed the numbers of Irish. Other nationalities are much less significant in this context but will doubtless also have views. However, while new controls on immigration might be a nuisance for others, their impact on Ireland and the Irish would be of a different magnitude. Unilateral action by Britain, admitting the Irish alone, would pose the further problem of how and where to police the common land frontier lest Ireland become a back door for entry into the U.K.

 

The analogy of Norway and Sweden, is hardly relevant – population flows of other EU nationals between them are negligible compared to the flows between Ireland and the U.K.  (Ireland remember has also admitted large numbers of Poles and others from the 2004 Enlargement – far more proportionately than the UK). A special accommodation for Ireland, negotiated by the Commission and agreed to by the other 26, is the preferable solution, but whether it is achievable and in what form is another matter.

 

Brexit is serious for Ireland across the whole spectrum. The two countries have had a long and not very happy relationship stretching back for at least a millennium (it didn’t all start in 1169). In many ways the two islands form a common cultural area. We’ve adopted their legal system and their language and over the centuries millions of Irish have migrated to Britain and settled there. There are at least half a million Irish born people currently living in Britain, (equivalent to 10% of the population in Ireland) with estimates suggesting that one in six Britons has an Irish grandparent. (The Catholic Church, five million strong, is overwhelmingly an Irish immigrant church).  The Irish people have been and are well represented in all walks of life in Britain, including the media, sport and the arts. No other EU country even approximates to this.

 

Quite apart from the North, the historical, cultural and traditional links with the British and the huge Irish community in Britain, our vital national economic interests are under threat by Brexit in a manner that those of other EU members are not. Some are scarcely affected at all. Bulgaria? Croatia? Latvia? Romania? Luxembourg? And the others? All have trading links, some have investments, all have citizens in Britain but none compare with the bald facts of our relationship with Britain. Britain is our major trading partner, however one measures it, one of our major FDI sources and the largest origin of our tourists. Already we have suffered job losses as sterling has fallen in value since last June rendering Irish exports less competitive.

 

Next time I will expand further on the above, but with the invoking of Article 50, beginning the exit process, expected before March 31, it is imperative that our politicians address urgently the issue of the  appropriate means for protecting our vital national interests in advance of the negotiations. It is currently envisaged that the European Council will set out high level objectives for the EU and then consider and approve a draft negotiating mandate from the Commission, which will then conduct the negotiations. This approach enshrines the Treaty-based proposition that all Member States have a stake in the outcome- including preservation and maintenance of what are perceived as the EU’s core values.

 

All well and good, but while all certainly have a stake Ireland has more and the issue is whether we can simply be just one voice among many, relying on the Commission negotiators – who will be seized of the “ big picture” which will not necessarily prioritise our concerns – to look out for us. Factor in the likely EU interinstitutional rivalry and the aggregation of other national interest of partners big( particularly) and small and there is every danger that our priorities, proportionately more vital, will be side-lined. Should we put not our trust in princes?

END

21/1/17

CASTRO 1701 XCVII

CASTRO

It’s impossible to let his death pass without comment. Lest I be derided for Skibereen Eagle–type comment, back in the day, at the end of the Sixties, a decade when Castro was an important bit player, my Master’s Degree was on the Cold War, my dissertation on the Cuba Crisis.

Fidel Castro was a survivor. The revolution he led in 1959 has lasted against all the odds, including half-a-century of US hostility and a crippling trade embargo. Today, a decade after Castro relinquished power to his brother Raol, despite modest reforms and a beginning of détente with the USA, Cuba remains a single party Communist dictatorship with severe restrictions on personal liberty, which over fifty years has imprisoned and killed thousands of people.

For several decades Castro was the darling of the Left throughout the West, his fiery anti-Americanism and dogged adherence to undiluted Socialism matching the mood of that Sixties generation which demonstrated against US involvement in Vietnam and its support for reactionary or dictatorial rulers throughout Latin America and the Middle East. That generation was meanwhile quietly dismayed and progressively disillusioned at the mendacious and repressive Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, particularly after the crushing of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Cuba was seen as somehow different – pure, inspired by ideals other Communist regimes had abandoned. That purity was personified in the enduring images of the revolution, of a bearded cigar chomping Castro, and of the Lost Leader, Che Guevara, summarily executed in Bolivia in 1967 while attempting to foment revolution there. Indeed for most people then, and today, the image of the Cuban revolution  that comes first to mind is Jim Fitzpatrick’s iconic rendering of the 1960 Korda photo of Che. It conferred a type of romantic immortality on Guevara – another hardened Marxist revolutionary and murderer – and for the Cuban revolution where he cut his teeth. As the years passed it was possible to ignore the spectacle of the fading and aging Castro while cherishing that preserved sanitised image of Che.

The Left might be uneasy at the political murders, the denial of democracy, the repression and the frugal living standards imposed on the Cuban population by Castro’s regime but could point to what was happening elsewhere in the hemisphere, where there was, and continues to be, an ongoing battle between the haves and the have-nots.  In a continent rich in natural resources, the gap between the minority wealthy ruling elite, who control the security forces, and the poorer majority,  is huge. Corruption, poverty and disease are endemic, politics and society polarised in what is seen as a zero-sum game. Reforming governments have been routinely resisted and overthrown, often with overt or covert US support. The conflict often generated armed resistance movements, such as Castro’s, provoking military coups and savage repression in response.

As Latin American dictators and murderers go, apart from longevity, Castro was scarcely the heaviest hitter. The regional roll call of murder and misery is depressing. Since Castro seized power, there have been periods of military or authoritarian rule or violent political unrest in every Central and South American country except Costa Rica. Generally the body count elsewhere has greatly exceeded Castro’s tally.

Take the main examples. In Argentina, seventeen years of military dictatorship and murder; the thousands of “Disappeared”. In Chile the brutal fifteen year Pinochet dictatorship (I witnessed the murder of the ousted Chilean Foreign Minister Letelier outside the Irish Embassy in Washington D.C. in September 1975). In Columbia the only very recently concluded treaty between the government and the FARC, after an estimated 200,000 deaths. In Nicaragua the Somoza dictatorship until 1979, followed by the Sandinistas and the Contras. In El Salvador the Death Squads and a twelve year civil war. Bolivia, Brazil,Venezuela,Uruguay,Peru, the Dominican Republic and Panama (where U.S. military invasions toppled the incumbent regimes); the list goes on. And in many countries, additionally, the murderous ghouls of the drug cartels, compounding the misery of the general population. None of which excuses Castro’s human rights record but goes some way to explaining and contextualising it.

Castro was unique. Casting a cold eye, ideology apart, he succeeded in toppling the incumbent ruling elite, replacing it with a different elite –his own and that of his henchmen – and then hanging on, unlike other regional leftist regimes. Crucial to his survival was that Cuba is an island, and therefore easier to control its population, easier to defend, and harder to attack, that its fragile economy was kept on life support by the Soviet Union for over a generation and, later by support from Chavez’ Venezuela, and that the USA stayed its hand at military invasion after the 1962 Cuba Crisis. Cocooned by this island security Castro was free to experiment.

And experiment he did. Apologists point to the impressive advances in health and education, and contrast these with the situation for the general population elsewhere in Latin America. Valid achievements certainly, as are the efficiencies of the Cuban intelligence services and its armed forces, hired out with an impressive record, particularly in Angola in the seventies. The attendant police state, economic hardships, food rationing, severe restrictions on travel and communications and on political dissent and free speech have all been justified as necessary for the regime’s survival, with the US a convenient, albeit real, bete noire and scapegoat.

Western supporters even assured us that the Cuban people are/were behind Castro. Perhaps they are, but in the face of an able and media-savvy repressive regime it is impossible to know. Whether the regime has any more legitimacy than the grudging acceptance given to the East European police states by their intimidated populations before 1989 is unclear. Those with loaded guns tend to stifle dissent. There is also the reality of national pride to be factored in (particularly facing the USA), something which totalitarian regimes of whatever hue are adept at milking. At times outside support for the Castro regime has bordered on the unreal. I have heard apologists defend the lengthy queues for basics and occasional luxuries, explained away as social occasions and that “Cubans like queuing.” Still, Castro’s Cuba is hardly the “North Korea with Rum” as characterised by some critics.

Some of the glister began to rub off in 2014 with allegations/revelations that Castro had amassed a personal fortune. If he did he would not be unique. It’s what dictators do. Now that he’s gone – in reality for a decade – will the regime survive?  Raol Castro should beware the axiom that overthrows tend to happen not when repression is at its worst but when authoritarian rule has been relaxed and reforms introduced. Check back in a decade.

A footnote on the Cuba Crisis. Information which came to light after the USSR collapsed reveals how close the world’s brush with Armageddon was. The Soviet military build-up was larger, more rapid and lethal than the USA knew and included the deployment of 100 battlefield nukes to resist any ground invasion. And only a cool head on a Soviet submarine prevented the launch of a nuclear missile. Meanwhile Castro was urging Kruschev to launch a nuclear attack while afterwards Guevara deplored the Soviet back down. With allies like these……….

18/12/2016

 

 

 

WHERE ARE WE AT ? 1612 (2) XCVI (2)

WHERE ARE WE AT?

President-elect Trump. The BREXIT vote….

The most recent poll results in Austria and Italy have provided further evidence, if any more were needed, of the anti-establishment wind blowing throughout a number of the western democracies. It’s been described variously as xenophobic, racist, fascist, anti- austerity, anti-liberal, anti-globalisation, anti-EU, populist, blue collar, even nationalistic, or combinations of some or all of these. It’s blown with varying degrees of intensity across Europe and the USA, the BREXIT vote, Trump’s victory and the Italian Referendum clearly the highlights.

But is the glass half empty or is it half full?  The mood of rejection is far from universal. Hilary after all won the popular vote, the Brexit success was a narrow one, the right wing candidate DIDN’T make it in Austria, it appears unlikely that Le Pen will win out in France and there seems no realistic alternative to Angela Merkel in Germany.  Was that Italian result actually such a victory for the Left and the Five Star Movement, or was it rather that the radical constitutional changes proposed by Renzi were too much for the middle of the road Italian voter?

In Europe what is clear is that the particular dominant political and economic orthodoxy, which has been in the ascendant since the Cold War era, has taken a hammering.  The juggernaut, which has delivered phrases like “the European Project,” espousing simultaneously a liberal social agenda  in tandem with centre-right economic  and fiscal policies, and contemptuously dismissing, ignoring  or condemning opposition and criticism has been halted. Writing on BREXIT, the British novelist Zadie Smith summed it up succinctly: “this vote offered up the rare prize of causing a chaotic rupture in a system that more usually steamrolls all in its path.” The jury is still very much out on whether this is merely a temporary glitch or something more fundamental. Certainly the ruling elites have been given pause for thought, in Ireland as elsewhere, though in our case it took some time to show.

Ireland has not been immune. Indeed it would be surprising were we to be unaffected, given the severity of the post 2008 recession here. The last two elections have shown significant rejection of the traditionally dominant establishment political parties, which most recently garnered only half the votes cast, with an inchoate and splintered opposition of left-wingers and independents filling the void. As against this, despite having this century twice initially rejected EU treaties over aspects we didn’t like, the Irish electorate again made clear in the 2012 vote on the European Fiscal Compact that when the chips were down hardnosed realism would triumph.

On racism and xenophobia, there has been remarkably little evidence here of anti-immigrant feeling and certainly no development of any right wing nationalist party a la those in Scandinavia and France.  There are some obvious explanatory factors. While the 2011 census showed over 12% of the population to be foreign born, it remains remarkably homogenous, with over 94 % white European, and 90% Christian (“No Religion” carded at 7.63%). Asians account for 1.9%, blacks for 1.4% and Muslims make up about 1%. Polish nationals (122,585) are now the largest foreign born group, supplanting the British (112,259) and followed by Lithuanians, Latvians and Romanians, reflecting the 2004 EU Enlargement.

With regard to non-EU immigration, being an offshore island behind an offshore island obviously helped, as did the 2004 referendum, carried by a whopping 79%, which ended the automatic right to citizenship to anyone born on the island. This to combat blatant abuse, together with a general EU –wide tightening  of entry controls, had the side effect of curbing the rate of third country immigration here. Plus it’s simply not easy for economic migrants to get to Ireland. With numbers relatively few, the lack of a critical mass of non-Europeans has certainly been a factor in inhibiting the development of racist politics here.

Now, a curious contrast between Ireland and Britain.  Much has been made of blue collar resentment in Britain over the competition for jobs from post -2004 immigrants from the new EU member states, especially Poles. There follow the latest census figures for migrants into Britain and Ireland (in brackets): Poles 703,050 (122,585), Lithuanians 116,861 (36,683), Latvians 66,046 (20,593), Romanians 89,402 (17,304) Hungarians 56,166 (7413), Czechs 41,605 (5494), Slovaks 67,781 (10,695), and Bulgarians 51,875 (1,763). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that Ireland, with one fifteenth Britain’s population, has taken proportionately far more EU migrants than Britain, without any obvious resentment from the natives. And, a further point, concerning Britain only; since the 1960’s Britain has taken, and absorbed with minimal friction, several million immigrants from the Sub-Continent, Asia and Africa. (Post-imperial guilt?)  So why the sudden mood swing in Britain now?  (I still don’t know the answer to that one.)

Why are the East Europeans who have come to Ireland in impressive numbers to work not resented here? There are PhDs to be earned on this but some suggestions. We Irish, never having had anything like full employment until recently, don’t feel we have “lost out” to or threatened by the new arrivals. Factor in also that, with our tradition of emigration, we see nothing untoward in Poles and other Central Europeans arriving seeking work, people who, in large measure share our western, mainly Catholic, culture. And, because we had no or few illusions we do not share the alienation and frustration of the blue collar and lower middle class British and Americans that many of their expectations (material comforts, rising standards of living, college prospects for their kids) remain stalled or unrealisable. We don’t have any lost or migrated traditional industries to mourn or brood over, our experience of EU membership has been overwhelmingly positive – at least until recently -and indeed we can rejoice at the new and cutting edge hi-tech investment we are attracting.

There are limits, however, to what the Irish will put up with. Much of the post 2008 austerity was endured, stoically, as necessary, despite a public perception that we were bullied by the European Central Bank to save German bondholders. The tipping point proved to be the Irish Water debacle, seen as an attempt by the elite to raid further the pockets of the public, with swathes of the Irish middle class embracing populist calls not to pay. In rapid order there followed this year’s stalemated general election and the emergence of a fragile, timid and impotent government. A country “ungovernable and ungoverned,” as friends have remarked. Quite where we go next is unclear. There are some siren voices suggesting we follow Britain out. Unthinkable? Yes, but sands can shift – and we are now “Net Contributors” – paying annually for our EU membership.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from the populist shift, whether to left or right, it is that the elites in the USA and Europe alike are seriously disconnected from the grassroots. They have talked down or at the general public, displaying hubris, insensitivity and dogmatic certainty in approach. Trump – and the Brexiteers – sensed and capitalised on the discontent this generated. Perhaps the Vox Pop should be listened to. There mightn’t be another chance.

7/12/2016

NOT SINGLE SPIES 1612 XCVI

NOT SINGLE SPIES

Just when the public, and the government, began waking up to the potential  extent of the difficulties posed by Brexit,  involving Ireland’s largest trading partner, along comes Donald Trump, with a hard- nosed programme part of which at least could impact on Ireland’s fragile prosperity by  threatening  inward investment  from Ireland’s largest source of FDI.

And as if that were not enough there are noises from a freshly emboldened EU Commission about a major push on removing tax sovereignty from member states and vesting it in a ”European sovereignty.”  With the heavy hitter against such a move in the departure lounge, holding the line on tax could prove fraught. The apparent certainties on which the current inter party governmental arrangement, cobbled painstakingly together six months ago, was based are no longer there. One of the adapted jingoes going the rounds here takes inspiration from the 70s hit “Stuck in the Middle with You” – “Trump to the Left of Us, Brexit to the Right….” All we need now is Tarantino.

It will be some time before the extent of any damage done to us by Brexit becomes clear, with the exit waters generally muddied considerably by a Court decision, currently under appeal, requiring consent by  Britain’s Parliament before the process of leaving can begin. As I write, a leaked consultant’s study has shown official disarray, lack of organisation and a paucity of qualified (or trained ) negotiators and staff to handle the complex process of unravelling forty plus years of EC membership with its thousands of directives, regulations and transposed  legislation. Factor in some evidently lukewarm British Ministers and the exiting process could involve hard pounding for some considerable time. Even after the Article 50 process is initiated, the two year timescale envisaged looks wildly optimistic (Who thought of that period anyway? Some fool in Brussels?)

But damage there will be, and already is. At my son’s wedding two weeks ago a young farmer who exports beef to Northern Ireland told me of his woes, with margins disappearing as sterling plummeted against the euro – a vista looming right across the foodstuff  sector, heavily dependent on exports to Britain. The Irish consumer is already voting with her feet by heading north to avail of lower prices as the busy Christmas holiday season approaches. Our tourism figures from our largest market seem destined to take a hammering. That’s just some of the economic aspects. A territorial squabble is threatened over the “ownership” of Lough Foyle, with Britain seeking to claim the lot. And, while we have tended to focus on the border problems likely to be posed for us by a hard Brexit, there is also the likely stance of EU partners and institutions that will baulk at Britain using the Border as a convenient back door for exports into the EU free of EU regulations.

Bertie Ahern told a British Parliamentary Committee recently that, such was the importance of the threat posed by Brexit right across our economy and institutions, the government should appoint a special Ministerial supremo for Brexit. He modestly did not suggest himself for the role. The suggestion was not taken up but perhaps should be looked at again, and one properly resourced, now that there will be additionally a new and radically different US President come January. Our bureaucracy is a small one and fighting on two fronts, three if the Commission gets bolshie over tax, may well be a step too far.  There’s already a small but vocal group now questioning whether we should not follow Britain out of the EU. Small, arguably insignificant at present, but we have seen how things can change quickly.

So far Ireland has avoided contagion from that sense of alienation which bred Brexit, Trump’s election and threatens to impact decisively in elections in several EU states, but these sands could be shifting. February’s election demonstrated record levels of rejection for Ireland’s traditional political parties and we should not forget that  the core anti-EU vote, as measured in various referenda over the years,  is certainly 30% or more.

The anti- EU argument as most recently elaborated is a variation of the “what have you done for me lately?” line. The answer as trotted out is “Not Much.”  We are now net contributors to the EU budget (a constant compelling whinge of the Brexiteers), something likely to increase. The €40-odd billion we have received from the EU over the years is more than offset by the €60-odd billion we paid to bail out the banks – at Brussels’ ( or worse, Frankfurt’s) insistence. Our own profligate spending on public sector wages and unsustainable social welfare benefits together with a populist erosion of the tax base during the Noughties is ignored or discounted as is the fact that the EU dug us out of a hole, sustaining us when no one else would lend us money to keep the country afloat.

Our near neighbour, major market and co-guarantor of the Peace Process is departing and, geopolitical considerations being what they are, our role and influence in the European Institutions is diminishing (12 out of 751 members of the European Parliament, plus more and more issues in Council decided by QMV) while we have no guarantee that our critical national interests will be fought for during the Brexit negotiations to come. Simplistic, yes; but as Brexit and the Trump election have shown, simple messages get across. Remember our own Nice and Lisbon experiences. And being bullied over tax sovereignty will not help.

Trump’s election platform promise to slash U.S.  Corporation Tax rates from 35% to 15%, in a bid to stem or reverse the flow of US companies overseas, poses a threat of a different order.   Ireland has been remarkably successful in attracting investment from US multinationals, based in no small part on the very attractive 12.5% company tax rate on offer. For several years  we have been in the sights of US officialdom and politicians over what are seen as tax avoidance schemes (remember the “Double Irish”) and as constituting a type of tax haven.

Up to now there has been much talk but little action. This may now change, but to what extent existing US investment here will be affected is unclear. The tax break was just one of the planks in our investment package and arguably in the high-tech sector we have achieved critical mass. It’s difficult to see some of our Silicon Valley offshoots relocating to Youngstown Ohio, or elsewhere in the Rust Belt. But new investment COULD be affected – big time. These are very early days, and, as with Brexit, it could be several years before the effects on Ireland are felt. Meanwhile we in in Ireland watch in fascination as the Trump Era unfolds.

Heading into the New Year there are more clear and present dangers to face, particularly in the industrial relations area where a cave –in to the police on pay  is prompting  widespread copycat demands across both public and private sectors. That and the other known and threatened knowns requiring resolution promise an interesting 2017. Still, it will be difficult to top 2016 which was quite a year.  Whether watershed or aberration remains to be seen.

19/11/2016

IRELAND: WHERE WE ARE AT 1611(2) XCV (2)

IRELAND: WHERE WE ARE AT

To recap. Last February’s general election produced no clear winner, with Fine Gael, the largest party, winning less than a third of the seats (FG 50, FF 44, SF 23, Lab 7, Others 34). Taoiseach Enda Kenny was eventually re-elected after concluding a “Confidence and Supply” arrangement with Fianna Fail under which it agreed to abstain on major issues provided its specified interests were taken into account.

While this was criticised at the time as inherently unstable, the Kenny government in early October successfully negotiated its first signposted hurdle – the 2017 budget.  With little change in the opinion polls and no enthusiasm among the major parties for another election, some pundits are talking about the possibility that the government will last the three budgets foreseen in the arrangement.

The arguments in favour, apart from nobody wanting an election, are that the economy is still performing at least as well as could be expected, that there is wide acknowledgement  that there are no magic bullets to solve at a stroke the housing and health issues which dominate domestic politics and that an election is unlikely to change much.

Others are less sanguine. The bookies are giving odds on an election next year with the next government a grand coalition of the two main parties. Certainly there are major issues pending.

The slow burner, which only arose after the May agreement, is the effect of Brexit, now looming ever larger. The first tangible outcome has been the significant fall in the value of sterling, making Irish goods and services more expensive in what is by far the largest market for Irish indigenous industries. And already the-canary-in-the-coal-mine has sounded, with several of Ireland’s mushroom producers, dependent on the UK market, closed down.  There are fears of, if not a tsunami, then substantial job losses and business closures as Irish firms are priced out. Sterling’s fall has also heralded a return of the cross border shopping effect with southern shoppers heading north, as in the past, to take advantage of cheaper prices, and not just on high excise items like alcohol. And Ireland is now more expensive for British visitors, our largest tourist market.

Still unquantifiable, and likely to remain so for some time, is the effect of Brexit on the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland, with all the possible implications for relations between the two parts of the island. Given the centrality of the issue of migration into Britain in the Brexit vote, there is increasing concern over where Britain will situate its border controls. It is hardly going to allow unrestricted access from Ireland into the North or via ship or plane to Britain if this provides a back door for third country nationals to enter. The alternatives are to position border controls on the border with the south – which, however organised, will greatly inhibit and discommode cross border movement of Irish people – or require Dublin to impose additional border controls at Irish ports of entry. Neither is very palatable to politicians here, with the additional possibility of a large pool of wannabe migrants to Britain congregating in the south.

It will be mid-2019 at the earliest before Brexit becomes a reality. In the meantime there are more clear and present dangers. Ireland has bounced back well from the Crash. Always a good indicator, registration of new private cars in 2015, at 121,110, was up 30% on 2014 and heading towards the pre-bust record figure. The population is increasing, the economic indicators are generally good and the only damper on house sales are the Central Bank’s restrictions on credit, introduced to prevent  a repetition of the disastrous property bubble of the Noughties. Whether the politicians will continue to hold the line on this in the face of increasing public demand for relaxing the rules remains to be seen. While there is no quick fix to the housing shortage, public opinion is fickle. The government could well be wrong-footed on the issue, particularly if Fianna Fail were to embrace it as an election issue.

As I write, the government is facing a slow revolt over public sector pay, with a winter of discontent expected. Pay in the public sector was cut during the Recession, as a quid pro quo for maintaining existing jobs, but with the fatal promise that the cuts would be restored when the economy recovered. Cue the recovery. A cave-in to the (private sector) Luas tram drivers last summer demanding  a pay increase was followed by another cave-in, this time to the ( arguably more deserving) state sector bus drivers. Predictably the queue of state employees seeking restoration of cuts is mounting, with, as I write, the Government facing an unprecedented strike by the Gardai, with all that that implies, in November.

This is a tricky one. There IS a formula for restoring cuts in full, over time as the economy improves and finances permit.  Most of the public sector unions have bought in, so what to do about those who haven’t?  What about those who want more than just restoration? And where should public sector employees, regarded with resentment as having guaranteed jobs for life, come in the queue for restoring other cuts imposed during the recession, including some of the cruel cuts in health and welfare services? All this is negotiable, given luck and no economic setbacks or another worldwide recession. It could go right, but it could go horribly wrong.

One area where the government will definitely run out of wiggle room is that of Irish Water. The issue of paying for water is politically toxic, yet Fine Gael seem unable to grasp this and have saddled themselves – and the country – with another year of wrangling.  To preserve the government the can was kicked down the road last summer with the establishment of an “Expert Commission” to examine all aspects of water in Ireland and report back to a special committee of parliamentarians early in 2017, with a further delay before definite proposals are put to the Dail in mid-2017!

Since Fianna Fail subsequently came out in favour of abolishing charges the issue now is simple: either Fine Gael caves in next year or the government falls. This would be laughable were it not also serious. And waiting in the wings is the issue of increased charges for garbage collection, postponed for a year until July next. Well might a friend remark to me that the country is becoming all but ungovernable, while another friend added more caustically that the country is ungoverned!

As if this were not enough the Abortion issue has slunk back in with increased demands for a referendum to repeal the Eight Amendment outlawing abortion.  A “Citizens’ Assembly” – another delaying device – is to report back on options by mid- 2017. While there is considerable public support for abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities, the small print has yet to be worked out. The battle lines are already drawn and a nasty and emotional debate can be foreseen. One thing is certain. It will not be a shoe-in like last year’s vote on same sex marriage.

All told then, an interesting few months lies ahead.

25/10/16

 

 

 

ONE FOR (NEARLY) EVERYBODY IN THE AUDIENCE 1611 XCV

ONE FOR (NEARLY) EVERYBODY IN THE AUDIENCE

There was very little doubt that the 2017 Budget would pass. Nobody wanted another election. The shaky, unlikely coalition that is Enda Kenny’s government looks set to last at least until the middle of 2017 when a number of issues are scheduled to come to a head.  Kenny himself shows no sign of quitting.

This should not be taken necessarily as a sign that the “new politics” is working, just that neither of the two main parties saw anything to be gained in facing the electors again so soon. It’s been as you were politically since February. While Fianna Fail has been doing relatively well in the polls, consolidating its slight post –election lead over Fine Gael, an opinion poll before the Budget showed both main parties neck and neck with 26% each. These figures were marginally up on the election outcome but fell far short of enough support to govern.  Unless the two parties were to merge – still a favourite with the bookies.

Such a merger may eventually take place, but not before a lot of soul searching by both parties. Not only is it off the table as long as one party – Fianna Fail – thinks it can regain its dominant position in Irish politics, far-fetched but believable by the party faithful, but also because it would replace the current mild ideological party political set up with a more sharply defined Right –Left one. Not surprisingly Sinn Fein and its leftist fellow travellers have been clamouring for this as the obvious beneficiaries. But  between them Sinn Fein and the hard left constitute  less than 20% of the votes and seats;  they have clearly some distance to travel before being serious contenders for power. Any FF-FG merger would give Sinn Fein a major leg up, something neither party seems disposed to do.

There’s no doubt that the Recession and its aftermath severely damaged the neat pre-2008 arrangement of two broadly centrist parties, with a makeweight less-than-radical Labour party . Sinn Fein has been the chief beneficiary, siphoning support from Fianna Fail and Labour, which has also lost out to the Left.  There’s been a major rise in the number of Independents yet it would be premature to write off the major parties yet. Together with Labour they make up roughly 60% of the vote (and seats) and it’s been pointed out that many of the Independents have FF/FG DNA in their veins.

Passage of the Budget was helped enormously by the fact that it was basically uncontroversial and involved no hard choices. Revenue figures were buoyant, no tax increases were imposed beyond the ritual rise in cigarette tax, and no expenditure cuts were necessary. Indeed there was money – not a lot – to spread largesse around the system with a little for most pressure groups. Some progress was made on restoring some of the cruel cuts to welfare services, particularly in health, made during the austerity years and there were very modest cuts in taxation. There was precious little for the squeezed middle, something which may yet return to haunt, but, in the short term at least, economic hardship of itself looks unlikely to bring the Government down.

The Budget had two items of note, apart from the fact that the billion plus handouts were financed by borrowing (still!). A first step was made to introduce childcare subsidies to meet the demands of a particularly vocal lobby group – working parents – and a new income tax rebate scheme of up to €20,000 was announced for first time buyers of new houses. The childcare subsidy has been received with satisfaction by some (a “welcome first step”), demands for more by others and criticism from the much-less-vocal stay at home mothers lobby, demanding parity (watch this space when the subsidies are increased).

The tax rebate scheme has been received with derision and dismay by most economists and a large segment of the public as doing nothing to solve the housing supply logjam. This is an issue that seems likely to run. The government sought to appease the first time buyers lobby who are complaining over the amount of the cash deposit required to get on the housing ladder, thanks in part to the “stable door” lending restrictions imposed by the Central Bank to prevent a repetition of the disastrous property bubble that laid the country low in 2008. With new housing starts stalled or low in volume the sanguine hope is that having more people with money to spend will stimulate supply. Economists argue that it will merely push up the prices of new houses. Public reaction is to complain that the measure applies only to new houses, whereas often older houses are cheaper. There may be pressure to extend the scheme before the Finance Act is passed.

Thus far it has been the Government of Easy Options, with anything remotely controversial kicked into 2017. One Minister has been reported as stating that there was no point in attempting to introduce any measure that involved an additional charge or tax as it would not get through the Dail. But even prevarication has its limits. The water charge fiasco remains unresolved with an expert committee due to report next March. With Fianna Fail now committed to abolishing charges, either the diehards in Fine Gael agree or the Government will collapse. Bin charges, a lesser fiasco, will also heat up next year when the Government moratorium lapses in July.

Right now the sands are running out on another major headache for the Government – Public Sector Pay. This was cut during the Recession, as a quid pro quo for maintaining existing jobs, but with the fatal promise that the cuts would be restored when the economy recovered. Cue the recovery. A cave in to the (private sector) Luas tram drivers last summer was followed by another cave in, this time to the ( arguably more deserving) state sector bus drivers. Predictably the queue of state employees demanding restoration of cuts is mounting, with, as I write, the Government facing an unprecedented strike by the Gardai , with all that that implies, in November. The careful construct of public sector pay controls, essential to continued economic recovery and control of public spending , appears close to collapse. One friend has remarked that the country is becoming all but ungovernable. Another friend added more caustically that the country is ungoverned!

In 2017, also, the Brexit process will get under way. Already it has dawned on politicians here that the effects could be very serious for Ireland. The first jobs have been lost in the food sector as Irish producers struggle to cope with the slump in sterling. More will follow as Irish business tries to compete with suddenly cheaper British rivals. The North threatens to become again  a Mecca for southern shoppers,  and not just for  high excise items like alcohol, with the knock –on effect felt throughout the economy.

Even worse as a political headache, the Abortion issue is slinking back. The battle lines are being drawn (”Repeal the Eighth”), and, again, the “Citizens Assembly “will report on the issue in 2017.

2017: Chinese Year of the Rooster – when the chickens come home!

18/10/16