tag: Europe



2
Jul 2013

Free Trade, Subsidies and the CAP

There’s a post over at the Liberal Conspiracy blog that’s getting a bit of attention today. It’s called Why are UKIP silent supporters of the biggest EU rip-off of all? and it is primarily an attack on the hypocrisy of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

UKIP, it seems, are quite unequivocal about their support for the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and wish it to continue making large payments to farmers. And yes, given the stated aims (and general attitude) of UKIP, this does represent an interesting hypocrisy – one that appears to demonstrate UKIP’s allegiance to class above principles. Whether you agree with the principle of the CAP or not is irrelevant; it clearly represents a centralisation of power in Europe. Dishing out almost 50 billion a year makes it powerful. It’s enough to torpedo the economy of a small nation after all. The CAP should be against UKIP principles. They should be lobbying hard for its abolition (even if they believe food production should be subsidised, they should surely want it done by the UK government).
CAP
That they are not lobbying for the abolition of the CAP may well be because the CAP currently benefits, to a disproportionate degree, those who least need it… the wealthy. Where small farmers are being supported by the CAP – and yes it does happen – the argument is more fuzzy, but when the 8th richest man in Britain is being subsidised by the citizens of Europe to the tune of almost a million euro per year, clearly something is wrong with the system. The benefits – to the citizens of Europe – of giving a million euro of their money to the Duke of Westminster is surely vastly outweighed by the benefits of giving 100k each to ten struggling small-hold farmers. If you’re going to spend limited funds on subsidising food production, then do it properly. Otherwise just be honest and call it by its real name… theft.

The ultra-wealthy have gamed the system, and they have bought the support of – not the individual political parties, though they come with it – but the entire modern mainstream political system. Which is why a political party that all but defines itself by its opposition to European power can support those aspects of European power that unambiguously redistribute wealth from the bottom and middle to the top.

But what about The Principle of The Thing!?

Yes indeed. The principle of European food production subsidies… what about it? I have heard right wing ideologues argue that the CAP represents a distortion of the free market and should be abolished entirely. I’m not going to address that argument right now. The people who make it are fools. The citizens of Europe can distort the markets any way they damn well please. The citizenry is not subject to the market. It is subject to them.

On the other hand, there is the “global development” argument against the CAP. The Overseas Development Institute (anyone know how reliable these people are? I have a basic distrust of organisations that call themselves a “leading think-tank”, and an initial flick through their website revealed an awful lot of fluffy management-speak and PR waffle, but very little of substance) published a short paper in which they argue that the CAP could be damaging agriculture in “developing” countries. And while they admit that the damage can’t be quantified without further research, the fact that the CAP budget far exceeds the annual total value of African food exports does give a person pause for thought. And when you couple that with the fact that the African continent is a net food importer, you can’t help but think that the CAP might be giving European farmers an advantage that their African counterparts simply don’t have access to.

And while the sophisticated right-wing ideologues might claim that’s actually a restatement of their argument, they’d be wrong about that. One argument states that “distorting markets is primarily wrong, because free markets are in principle the best way to run things”. The other argument states that “distorting markets is not necessarily wrong, but in this specific case it may be because it might be causing some people to go hungry”.

The latter is a valid argument. The former is a dangerous delusion.

The trouble is though, I think the latter argument is a good deal more complex than it appears to be… as is so often the case. And this additional complexity gets lost when people on the liberal left shout about starving children in Africa and people on the neoliberal right insist that everything would be so much better if we’d only allow the market to be free*.

Of course, first there’s the issue of just how much of the CAP actually goes to the already wealthy. I genuinely doubt that the Duke of Westminster’s land is any more productive than it would be if he wasn’t receiving that million euro prize from Europe’s citizens for owning so much land. And realistically, I doubt he’d need to charge any more for his produce if he wasn’t receiving that money. If anything is distorting the market in the case of the Duke of Westminster, it’s his own vast fortune. A free-market argument for high wealth taxation? Not that they’d ever admit it.

So there’s that… if the CAP is truly an instrument of wealth redistribution within Europe (from poor to rich) then it’s unlikely to be affecting global trade all that much. Which, weirdly enough, suggests that those most concerned with overseas development may well want to abolish the CAP, but if that is unachievable then at the very least prevent any reform from which the European citizenry could derive benefit.

Here’s the thing though… I feel strongly that the CAP should be reformed precisely with that goal in mind. And yes, even if that distorts global markets. This probably puts me on the opposite side of the fence to almost everyone discussing the CAP right now, bar small scale farmers (of which I’m not one, by the way), but fact is, I’m not a supporter of the principle of global free trade. I believe very strongly that the essentials for life should be produced as locally as possible. Yes, the scale of modern population centres makes that vastly more difficult than it’s ever been. In some cases, impossible – the island of Britain would probably have some difficulty feeding itself if all food imports were to stop tomorrow for example. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the principle completely.

Food shortages and poverty in large areas of Africa and other “developing” countries need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. But it should not be done at the expense of European self-sufficiency in food. Let’s everyone get self-sufficient and then we can trade our surpluses in a sustainable manner; I have no problem with that. But if subsidies help ensure food production thrives in Europe, then that seems like a damn fine use for our collective wealth. Of course, we need to ensure the subsidies are targeted at those smaller farmers to whom it would make the biggest difference. Giving our money to multi-millionaires is just bloody stupid. And I hope it goes without saying that we should also be helping our global neighbours achieve thriving and sustainable food production for themselves. It’s just so important on so many levels.

Helping others achieve sustainable self-sufficiency is a moral obligation. Ensuring we achieve it ourselves is just basic good sense.

* I can actually recall using the “but there’s no market for starving children” argument back when I briefly dallied with libertarian capitalism in my teens. As a political philosophy for a grown adult, it’s a distressing state of affairs… but it’s a useful enough way-station on the path to a fully rounded intellect I guess.

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27
May 2013

Even the ‘centre left’ is on The Right

A little while ago I put together a graphic as a metaphor for just how much the political spectrum has shifted (specifically in the western liberal democracies) over the past few decades. This shift wasn’t started by Thatcher and Reagan, but they – and those who followed them – did most of the heavy lifting. The result of this shift was to effectively exclude the left-wing from mainstream politics, so that today, those who would once have been viewed as being centrists, are now the hard-left. Views that would label one as a moderate left-winger in the 1960s would – in the opening decades of the 21st century – place one firmly in the radical communist camp (and as such, essentially irrelevant when viewed from the mainstream).
Modern political spectrum
In my view, this shift has been tremendously damaging to the societies in which it has happened – and to western civilisation in general. By narrowing the discussion, we narrow the possibilities available to us. The result is a significant reduction in the amount of flexibility* within our culture. Thatcher, Reagan, their acolytes and fore-bearers quite rightly must shoulder a large proportion of the blame for this loss of flexibility and consequent social damage. But the blame does not lie entirely with them. Indeed an argument could be made that their role in this political shift was less influential than that of the leftists and centre-leftists who allowed themselves to be dragged – or in many cases, who willingly stepped – to The Right.

And the fact that – for example – the Labour Party in the UK can still be described as “left wing” in the mainstream media demonstrates just how insidious this shift has been (it’s “the country’s leading left-wing party” according to The Guardian; a supposedly “left-wing” newspaper). This is despite the fact that some members of the Labour Party have denounced unions for “exert[ing] excessive left-wing influence” (source). At the same time, the party talks openly of its plans to “rescue capitalism” (source). When rampant capitalism plunges the entire world into major crisis, anyone who is genuinely “on the left” would be talking about ‘a new socialism’ or asking ‘how do we replace capitalism with something more just and sustainable?’ If your priority is to “rescue capitalism” then you are “on the right”. To suggest otherwise is ignorance. Or it’s propaganda.

Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea…

This shift to the right has, of course, not been restricted to a few places. Certainly there are exceptions (often significant ones… most notably in South America), but as a general rule it has swept across the globe and infected almost all so-called “liberal democracies”. Ireland’s socialist traditions were savaged by the Celtic Tiger, and the speed with which our own Labour Party dashed rightwards was undignified in the extreme. They almost kept pace with Tony Blair… and that’s saying something. Strangely enough though, our media appears to be slightly more perceptive than that of our British cousins, and it’s quite difficult to track down a recent example of the Irish Labour Party being described as “left-wing” in the mainstream media. Nonetheless, they are still described as being “centre left” by most political commentators and are still members of Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists.

This ill-informed nonsense really needs to be challenged. When a member of Labour (or indeed one of their critics) describes the party as being “left” or “centre left” they should be robustly lampooned for the sheer absurdity of their utterance. They should be viewed in roughly the same light as a spokesperson for the North Korean regime who insists on describing the nation as the “Democratic People’s Republic”. Sometimes labels are important. And when the Irish Labour Party talk about being “a centre left alternative” they not only make a mockery of our public discourse, they actually damage the political fabric of the nation. How can people – especially younger people who have grown up with this new political spectrum – possibly understand political reality, and hence make sensible use of their political influence, when identical policies born of rampant capitalism are labelled centre-right by one party and centre-left by another?

The Irish Labour Party was formed by James Connolly, William X. O’Brien and James Larkin… genuine revolutionary socialists. When I see the modern Labour Party’s annual Connolly Commemoration, it’s difficult to hold down the vomit. There’s a lot of “comedy of dubious taste” that I will admit to finding amusing. But this graceless charade is deeply unfunny, and they should really be required to stop it. If I were to visit Arbour Hill Cemetery every year to urinate on the grave of James Connolly I suspect I’d soon find myself behind bars. Why should Eamon Gilmore be treated any differently?

An Apple a Day keeps the Revenue Commissioner Away

Of course, these thoughts aren’t new to me (or this blog). But every now and then something will prompt them to bubble back to the surface where they must be vented, lest the pressure build up and blow the top off my head. Today that prompt was provided by Labour Senator, John Gilroy. In a single tweet, he illustrated just how far rightwards the Labour Party has moved since the days of Connolly, Larkin and O’Brien.

The tweet came as part of a conversation between Gilroy and Michael Taft. Taft is “Research Officer” for the Irish UNITE trade union and is one of the most recognisable faces of the modern Irish trade union movement. Of course, just as with mainstream political parties, the Irish Trade Union movement has been a victim of the rightward lurch. Thankfully, they’ve not been dragged quite as far from their original principles as the Labour Party and haven’t been quite as eager to embrace selfish individualism and unfettered capitalism. Yes, they’ve all but abandoned any tendency towards militancy. And their opposition to the austerity policies imposed by – among others – the Labour Party with which they are affiliated, has been muted and ineffective. Nonetheless, Taft and others within the movement have at least continued to publish the data which demonstrates the truth behind government lies.

Today for instance, Taft responded to the embarrassing nonsense emerging from the government on the subject of corporate taxation. For those who haven’t followed the story, it recently emerged that the largest corporation in the world (by certain metrics), Apple, “paid taxes of just 2 per cent on its foreign earnings”. It did this “by channelling much of its huge overseas earnings through a network of Irish subsidiaries to minimise its tax bill.” (source) In response to this revelation, the US Senate condemned Ireland’s status as a “tax haven”.

What was the response of the Irish government? Well, initially at least, it hasn’t involved a promise to clamp down on corporate tax avoidance. Instead, we’ve had both coalition parties issue whinging statements insisting that Ireland is not a tax haven, and how dare anyone suggest otherwise. In fact, our government plans on writing a stern letter to the US Senate to that effect.

“Yes”, they will say, “the largest corporation in the world funnels huge amounts of profit through our country. And yes, we pretty much ignore it and don’t even require them to adhere to our already laughably pro-corporate taxation regime. But that doesn’t make us a tax haven.”

They don’t really explain why Ireland isn’t a tax haven. I mean, they try of course; they talk about how US corporations actually employ people and manufacture things in Ireland, which is a far cry from buying a P.O. Box in the Bahamas. But while technically true, it’s misleading to the point of almost being a lie. Apple funnelled almost two-thirds of all profits earned in 2011 through Ireland despite less than 5% of its global workforce being employed here (source). So no, Ireland isn’t identical to the Bahamas, but in terms of tax policy, we certainly have a hell of a lot in common.

And today Michael Taft ably demonstrated this fact with an article (Tax Haven Dictionary) on his website. It includes data to prove that Ireland’s effective corporate tax rate is far closer to the likes of Luxembourg and the Bahamas, than it is to places like France or the UK. This article then sparked a twitter conversation between Taft and the Gilroy (the Labour Senator). Gilroy’s final contribution to the conversation was to pose the question: “does the current tax regieme give ireland a competitive advantage?” If it hadn’t been typed, one imagines it being asked in a fairly triumphalist tone of voice.

Now, Taft’s response to the question was: “Less than is imagined. Will be discussing that in an upcoming post.” However, I want to ignore that response (at least until Taft’s article is published) and concentrate on the question and what it implies about John Gilroy and the Labour Party in general.

The Purpose of Taxation

If you were to ask any one of the founder members of the Irish Labour Party, “what should be the prime motivation of Irish taxation policy?”, their responses would have all been along similar lines. “The redistribution of wealth with the purpose of reducing socio-economic inequality”. Pretty simple really. It’s a philosophy that underpins all genuine socialism, and – I would argue – is at the heart of any attempts to achieve widespread social justice in a large society. Taxation policy, therefore, is primarily designed with the interests of the majority in mind.

By the 1980s however, “redistribution” had become a dirty word and the left wing – as part of their inexorable shift rightwards – had begun to describe taxation policy as a means to fund essential social services for those who could not afford them. Already at this point we see a major change in the mainstream left’s attitude towards taxation. It’s no longer primarily aimed at reducing socio-economic equality and is now focussed on providing a basic safety net to prevent the poor from starving or dying of easily-preventable illness. The rich can get as rich as they want so long as they chuck a few quid into the bucket to pay for minimal social services. Taxation policy by this point (in the eyes of the mainstream left, remember) is no longer about the interests of the majority and has become a question of accommodating the interests of a small minority while retaining enough of a welfare state to ensure corpses don’t start piling up on the streets.

By the late 90s of course, the right wing was already begrudging society’s expectation of a minimal contribution from the rich and powerful. At this point the mainstream left could have salvaged a shred of dignity by standing firm, insisting that they’d already made a massive compromise in their wholesale abandonment of the social justice agenda, and The Right would just have to accept the obligation of the wealthy to allow the occasional crumb to fall from their replete table.

But they didn’t.

Instead they simply bought into the right-wing agenda of rampant greed and the increasing concentration of wealth. So now we have a Labour Party Senator openly acknowledging that taxation policy can be justified by how well it serves the interests of large multinational corporations even if it is clearly not catering for the needs of the wider population. It’s obscene. And any vote for Labour at the next election is obscene too.

Some might suggest that John Gilroy and his ilk are more concerned with the international competitiveness of Irish tax policy than they are with its fitness for purpose. But it’s a lot worse than that. John Gilroy and his ilk see Irish tax policy as perfectly fit for purpose. Because they see that purpose in terms of international competitiveness, not in terms of social justice. John Gilroy and his ilk need to be cast firmly into the political wilderness; they have no right to a place in our national discourse. Instead they should go work directly for the corporations they represent. Though I doubt they’d be considered competent enough to do so.

* I am using the word “flexibility” here in the Batesonian sense; see: “Bali: The Value System of a Steady State” and especially “Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization” (both in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, by Gregory Bateson). At its most basic, Bateson’s “flexibility” can be defined as “uncommitted potential for change”, and he argues that any reduction in this flexibility will have negative consequences on the ability of society to handle crises. Ultimately, if you reduce flexibility enough you will be left with a society that cannot cope with even minimal change without sustaining damage (up to and including finding its very existence threatened). In this sense, flexibility becomes a measure of the health of a society. Bateson also argues that as the flexibility within a culture decreases, there is a corresponding decrease of flexibility within the environment that sustains the culture, but that’s a discussion for another day.

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31
Mar 2013

All fools

Tomorrow is April 1st. The day when, traditionally, we’re encouraged to play practical jokes on one another. Over in the UK, the Tory government (note: just because the Lib Dems are part of the coalition doesn’t stop it from being a Tory government… Clegg’s All-Star Sell-Outs are merely craven enablers) has got a truly hilarious jape up their collective sleeve. Because that’s the date when the new tax and welfare reforms come into force. “Hilarious?” Well, historically speaking, heaping misery upon the poor and vulnerable has generally provided an endless source of amusement for those in power.

Iain Duncan-Smith (the face of evil)Make no mistake, what’s happening in the UK tomorrow is not an honest attempt to reduce the deficit or “balance the books”. Rather, it’s the introduction of yet another series of policies aimed at transferring wealth from the bottom to the top. Tax cuts for the wealthy coupled with benefit cuts for the poor can’t be honestly interpreted otherwise. Especially when occurring in tandem with the wholesale dismantling of the National Health Service. It’s my contention that the UK is currently witnessing an extreme example of class warfare. One wonders when the poor will consider fighting back.

Certainly, social media is buzzing with exhortations to “rise up”. But in our digitally mediated world, that seems to translate to little more than adding one’s name to an online petition. And I’m sorry to say it, but I just don’t see the Tories changing their policies because lots of people type their email address into a website.

What’s more, the last polls I read suggested that a snap General Election would result in an overall majority for the Tories (with the Lib Dems facing complete meltdown, coming in fourth behind Labour and UKIP). This is not because the majority of voters are being made better off by these “reforms”; it’s because people are apparently easily persuaded to vote against their own best interests.

… under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

Albert Einstein | Why Socialism?

Michael Noonan (the face of evil)Of course, it’s not just the British people who are guilty of this kind of self-harming behaviour. Here in Ireland the public have been reduced to a flock of turkeys consistently voting for Christmas. The heart was ripped out of the country by more than a decade of Fianna Fáil government. In response, we voted for Fine Gael – a slightly more right wing party whose policies were essentially identical to those of Fianna Fáil. And then we acted all surprised when nothing changed. Current polls suggest that Ireland is angry at this lack of change… and that as a result, Fianna Fáil are making huge gains once again. Seriously.

A Word About Cyprus

Meanwhile, on an island in the Mediterranean Sea something strange is happening. In an attempt to save their economy, the government of Cyprus (under extreme pressure from Germany and the ECB) is imposing a windfall tax on bank deposits above €100,000. The right wing see it as an outrageous attack on private wealth (though when they learn that the money will be used to prop up the banking system, some of them reluctantly accept it as a necessary evil). The left wing, meanwhile, find themselves backed into a contrarian naysayer corner. They oppose the policy because the ECB are in favour of it. And they warn that Cyprus is just the test-case, and that this policy will spread.

To which I reply… “Great!” I mean, isn’t this essentially a wealth tax? Isn’t that what the left have been calling for since this financial crisis began?

Personally I’d have set the limit a little higher than 100k (so that pensioners wouldn’t be hit quite so hard), but even at 100k this is a policy I would support not only for Cyprus, but for Ireland and on a pan-European basis. Of course, the extremely wealthy tend not to leave most of their wealth lying around in banks, so the policy should be introduced in tandem with a tax on stock-holdings and other investment devices. The fact is, Cyprus is the first nation to genuinely force the wealthy to bear some of the burden of austerity. Despite claims that “we’re all in this together” or “the burden must be shared”, European austerity measures have hit the poor and vulnerable hard while actively protecting the wealthy and powerful. Cyprus has turned that on its head and should be loudly applauded for it.

Meanwhile, here in Ireland (and across the water in Britain) our corporate media continues to push the market-capitalist, neoliberal agenda on the people. And we lap it up willingly despite the fact that it’s demonstrably against our own interests. April Fools… the lot of us.

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7
Feb 2013

The Anglo Promissory Notes

Still busy busy busy with work, but I’ve got just enough time to post a few thoughts here.

Today, over at On This Deity, my article on The Maastricht Treaty has come around again. I’m not sure whether it’s appropriate or entirely inappropriate that, on the anniversary of the treaty that probably did more for European political and economic integration than any other single act, the Irish government have passed the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation Bill 2013 (PDF).

supplicationThis Act of Parliament is being hailed by the government as a great success. And they expect it to lead to a deal with the ECB on the issue of the Promissory Notes. All of which probably sounds like gibberish if you’re not familiar with the Irish situation. So here’s a brief crash course:

In 2007 the Irish banking system began to creak. But everyone involved – bankers, regulators and the government – all insisted that nothing was wrong.

In 2008, the Irish banking system collapsed. The only thing that surprised me about this was the fact that lots of other people seemed surprised by it. The response of the Irish government was to issue a blanket Bank Guarantee. This was a massive mistake and I still believe the people responsible should be in prison. They’re not.

At the time Ireland had several banks, all of which were in serious trouble. The two main retail banks – Bank of Ireland and the Allied Irish Bank – were taken, in large part, into public ownership and the government is still propping them up. These are costing the Irish people quite a lot of money, but I can just about understand the argument in favour of the government’s course of action with these two banks, even if I think it’s wrong.

There was another bank, however, called Anglo-Irish Bank. This bank was responsible for massive loans to Irish property developers and – although we’re unlikely to ever get to the bottom of how this bank was mismanaged – the whiff of naked corruption coming from its direction is overpowering. Together with another failed financial institution (Irish Nationwide Bank) Anglo was renamed Irish Bank Resolution Corporation and effectively moth-balled. It ceased trading as a bank, but remained a trading corporation (or “zombie bank”, as it came to be known).

The reason for this was that the corporation owed upwards of €34 billion euros to European banks and investors who had pumped money – via Anglo-Irish Bank – into the Irish property market. Just so we’re clear; private investors and private financial institutions speculated on the Irish property bubble and when the bubble inevitably burst (as anyone with an IQ higher than that of a brain-damaged bumblebee knew it would), they demanded they suffer no losses as a result of their speculation. Instead, they exerted a huge amount of pressure on the Irish government to cover their losses. And – spineless gombeens, every last one of them – the Irish government acquiesced… transferring those gambling losses onto the shoulders of the Irish people.

This transfer was done using a mechanism called “Promissory notes”. In essence, our government promised to pay more than €3 billion to the zombie bank, on March 31st every year until 2023. The observant among you will note that €3.1 billion per year, every year between 2009 and 2023 comes to quite a bit more than the €34.7 billion owed by Anglo-Irish Bank. This is because the gamblers whose losses being covered by the Irish people are also demanding that we pay interest on their losses. You could make it up, but people would think you were high.

Anyway, this €3.1 billion per year is just for the Anglo mess. The Irish government is in all sorts of other financial and economic trouble without that particular millstone hanging around their neck. So ministers have been appearing on our screens for the past couple of years insisting that “a deal on the promissory notes” is just around the corner. It’s a hell of a big corner.

Because rushed, late-night decisions always turn out well

Last night, during a last-minute, rushed sitting of The Dáil (the Irish parliament) – in a move that eerily echoes the night of the blanket Bank Guarantee back in September 2008 – the zombie bank was finally wound up. Part of it was transferred to NAMA (the National Asset Management Agency), which was a structure set up to handle the bad debts of the banking industry after the collapse of 2008. And the promissory notes have disappeared for good.

CapitalismExcept they haven’t of course. The plan is to replace them with government-issued bonds. Perhaps 15 year bonds… perhaps 20 years… perhaps 30 years… who knows? Our government is awaiting instruction from the European Central Bank. Because heaven forbid the Irish people be permitted to have a say in the repayment terms for private debts they shouldered at the behest of the ECB.

As I say, this is being portrayed as a victory by our government. In reality it’s nothing more than the final step in the transformation of the private debt into sovereign debt. Up until now the mechanism of the promissory notes provided a barrier of sorts (albeit a very weak, almost invisible one) between the Anglo-Irish Bank losses and Irish sovereign debt. The Irish government – if it actually had any principles – could have cancelled those notes without triggering a sovereign default (though in all likelihood the markets would have reacted in much the same way as they would have done in the case of such a default). There would have been a short-term crisis, certainly, but this time next year the Irish people would have weathered that crisis and we’d have shrugged off €32 billion of debts we never incurred.

Of course, we’d still have billions of private debt on our books thanks to NAMA and the other banks, but that particular weight would have been lifted.

Instead, our government has basically mixed all that Anglo debt in with our other debt. It is ours now, and refusal to pay it would constitute a national default. Our finance minister, Michael Noonan, has managed to summon the awesome power of all twelve of his brain cells and sunk us even further into debt than we already were. As he did so, our glorious leader (Enda “The Irish People Went Mad Borrowing” Kenny) insisted that extending the terms of repayment represents some kind of triumph. I’m expecting to see a photo of him stepping off a plane waving an ECB document in the air. “Growth in our time” he’ll exclaim. And then trip down the stairs.

It strikes me that portraying a repayment extension as a victory is about as insidious as it gets. Ireland is like a man being forced to pay off someone else’s mortgage. “Look”, say the ECB, “we realise you’re having some problems paying this debt as fast as we’d like you to. So we’ve decided to let your kids help you pay it off once they’re old enough to work. Can’t say fairer than that!”

Except you can. Pretty much anything else you say would be fairer than that.

[The issuing of long-term bonds] is using posterity with the utmost cruelty; because it is leaving them the great work to do, and a debt upon their backs, from which they derive no advantage. Such a thought is unworthy a man of honor, and is the true characteristic of a narrow heart and a peddling politician.

Thomas Paine | Common Sense

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13
Nov 2012

An alternative plan

It has become a mantra of the mainstream here in Ireland… “it’s all very well to criticise”, they say, “but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.

You hear it trotted out regularly by government politicians in the news and on current affairs programmes. Usually in response to a challenge from one of the small cohort of usual suspects from the Irish Left. It goes like this:

Clare Daly

Socialist TD, Clare Daly:
A saner voice than most, but still not sane enough

Perhaps in a Dáil (parliamentary) question, or maybe from behind the desk on the Vincent Browne show, Joe Higgins or Clare Daly or someone from Sinn Féin* will remind a minister of the basic injustice of the bank guarantee strangling this country.

The minister will then respond thus: he or she will acknowledge that mistakes have been made. There will be a rueful reminder of the complete mess they’ve inherited from the last lot. The phrase “to an extent our hands are tied with regards to…” will be used. We will be reminded that nobody wants to be in the current situation and that our politicians certainly don’t want to make the tough decisions they’re being forced to make. But those tough decisions do have to be made for the good of the country. And remember, to an extent our hands are tied…

The minister will then finish with the well worn coup de grâce. “Well”, he or she will announce with feigned gravitas, “it’s all very well to criticise, but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.

And with that, the debate in the media is won. That same discussion has been happening on our screens for the past two years, and those on The Left don’t appear to understand that every time it happens, they lose the argument yet again. And losing the same argument over and over, every night on TV for two years, makes you look like a bad bet when it comes to choosing who to run the country.

Now, some of you might be wondering why “I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan” wins the argument. Why don’t The Left just propose an alternative plan then? After all, if they can’t do that, then they probably don’t merit your vote. Except it’s not quite that simple. See the challenge is not simply to propose an alternative plan, it’s to propose an alternative plan that can be coherently communicated to a mass audience in approximately two minutes. As Chomsky pointed out (and whatever you think of Chomsky, he’s right about this) complex or radical ideas can almost never be coherently explained to a mass audience in a soundbite. Especially if those ideas challenge pre-existing beliefs about the world.

That’s one theory why The Left is losing the media debate right now – losing the debate despite a growing groundswell of discontent with the government. Basically they do possess an alternative plan, but because it involves massive structural changes to the way Irish society works, it can’t be conveyed quickly without sounding wild or risky or just plain mad (of course, it’s only our familiarity with current social structures that obscures the wild, risky madness they represent). So those on The Left shy away from their alternative and instead talk about burning the bondholders, defaulting on the bank debt, revoking the promissory notes, overturning the bank guarantee. Repetition has hollowed out those phrases… they’ve become like marketing slogans for a product you’ll never afford. The other side has their own set of course. They talk about a return to growth, of fiscal responsibility and of being on-track to meet our targets. And they look wistfully into the middle distance and speak in hushed tones of the glorious day when we proudly rejoin the bond markets.

My other theory is less charitable to The Left. The reason they don’t discuss radical alternatives in the media is not because they’re worried about appearing incoherent when forced to shoehorn their plan into soundbite form. It’s because they don’t actually have a radical alternative. See, compared with a hundred years ago, general political discourse has today been narrowed to a tiny segment of the spectrum. The Irish Labour Party… the party of James Connolly and Jim Larkin… is now entirely wedded to the notion of free market capitalism. And they are the “centre left” member of the coalition government. But there’s a sense that even those who critique the government from further left are trapped in that free market capitalist paradigm.

They talk about ending the “casino capitalism” that has helped plunge this country into debt. But they don’t talk about ending “capitalism”. Remove the casino but leave the rest of the edifice standing. It’s reform they want… they don’t want to replace the system with a radical alternative, they just want to tinker with the way it’s running.

All of which makes it impossible for them to be coherent. By aligning themselves with the forces of market capitalism they are forced to accept the internal logic of the markets demanding Ireland sell its future.

Personally, I do have an alternative plan. Unfortunately though, when I describe the plan it sounds risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. I don’t believe it’s any of those things, but decades of free-market indoctrination makes it seem that way from a mainstream perspective.

My plan involves radical reform of the political structures (starting with freeing TDs from party whips and strengthening local government), a wave of nationalisations, the end of a free market in non-renewable resources, the removal of the profit motive from essential industries and services, a radical localisation of those essential industries and services, the introduction of a Universal Living Income coupled with significant tax increases for those who earn more than three times that amount, a rise in corporation tax to bring us close to the European average, the implementation of secondary regional currencies which would exist alongside the euro, the immediate repudiation by the sovereign of all private debt transferred to it, a complete structural reform of NAMA, investment in local infrastructure projects and a far-reaching redefinition of “illegal activity” within the financial and political sectors. I would also radically reform Ireland’s social policies in a number of areas (drug law, marriage equality, etc.) and I’d ensure that Ireland unilaterally embarked on a journey towards a decarbonised and sustainable future… hopeful that others might follow our example.

As I say… risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. Accurate descriptions to those living in a society that has lost its ability to re-imagine itself and therefore abandoned all attempts to do so. Instead we blunder down exactly the same path we’ve been on for the past few decades; a path destined to lead us to disaster. Me? I’d rather take a risk on a different path, even if we don’t have an accurate map of where it might lead. Especially when we know the one we’re on ends with a plunge into the abyss.

* On the subject of the financial crisis – and is there any other subject right now in Ireland? – Sinn Féin qualify as part of The Left.

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18
Jun 2012

Paraguay is NOT Uzbekistan

Today, in economic news, Alex Banbury of Hamilton Capital has put together a list of countries’ denials:

“Spain is not Greece” – Elena Salgado, Spanish Finance minister, February 2010.

“Portugal is not Greece” – The Economist, April 2010.

“Greece is not Ireland” – George Papaconstantinou, Greek Finance minister, November 2010.

“Spain is neither Ireland nor Portugal” – Elena Salgado, Spanish Finance minister, November 2010.

“Ireland is not in ‘Greek Territory’” – Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan. November 2010.

“Neither Spain nor Portugal is Ireland” – Angel Gurria, Secretary-general OECD, November 2010.

“Italy is not Spain” – Ed Parker, Fitch MD, June 12, 2012.

“Spain is not Uganda” – Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy, June 2012.

“Uganda does not want to be Spain” – Ugandan foreign minister, June 13, 2012.

(stolen from here)

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1
Jun 2012

Was it fear or stupidity?

supplicationIn a development that has surprised many of their neighbours, Mr. Patrick Murphy and his wife Sinéad today announced they would be making a copy of their front door key and giving it to the burglars who have been ransacking local homes over the past few years. “We’ve decided to make the burglars co-signatories of our child’s Savings Account too”, said Mrs. Murphy, “y’know… just in case they’re still a bit short of cash after they’ve sold our telly and stuff…”

When asked for his opinion on this unusual tactic, one neighbour – Mr. Yannis Papadopolou – shook his head with a mixture of despair and anger. “Bloody fools!” he muttered, “we thought we’d try a similar thing a few months ago and invited the burglars in for a chat. We thought that maybe if they got to know us a bit better they might not be so willing to steal our possessions.” When asked how that worked out, Mrs. Papadopolou became visibly annoyed, “everyone knows how it worked out! That’s why I can’t understand what the hell the Murphy family are doing. The moment we invited the burglars into our home, they trashed most of the furniture and kicked the dog. Now we’re getting threatening letters saying they’ll burn down the entire house if we don’t invite them back.”

Everyone on Europa Avenue agrees that the situation is intolerable. But because the burglars are all either members of the local police force or have seats on the town council, there’s no obvious solution to the problem. Although Mr. Papadopolou, taking a short break from fitting bars to his windows, did have one final observation… “I don’t know exactly how we solve this mess, but I do know the solution is not to make life easier for these criminals. But I guess the Murphys will find that out the hard way. And they’ll only have themselves to blame.”

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29
May 2012

Just Say No (to the Fiscal Treaty)

During the late 1960s when the anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States began to gather pace, peace activists coined the phrase “Against the war, but For the troops”. They wanted to make it clear they understood that individual soldiers weren’t the problem and were not the target of their protest. That actually those soldiers were, in large part, victims of a political class ideologically hell-bent on violent confrontation in Southeast Asia. Quarter of a century later, when talking about the first Gulf War, the late great Bill Hicks (possibly the finest stand-up comedian to have ever lived) turned that phrase on its head when he claimed to have been “For the war, but Against the troops“. It’s a wonderfully mischievous introduction to a great routine.

Vote 'No' in the Fiscal Treaty referendumOddly enough though, and without any comedic intent, I find myself in an analogous position right now. With the referendum on the European Fiscal Treaty being held on Thursday, I find myself “For austerity, but Against the treaty”; an isolated position given the Yes camp generally claim to be “For the treaty, but against long term austerity” (an essentially contradictory stance, but doublethink is hardly a new phenomenon in modern politics). Meanwhile the No camp are largely against both austerity and the treaty… a coherent position at least, though not one that reflects the realities of a society consuming far beyond its means.

Of course, when I say I’m in favour of Austerity, I most certainly do not mean I’m in favour of the policies currently being pursued by the Irish government; the policies being insisted upon by the German government backed by the IMF and ECB; the policies which this Fiscal Treaty aims to enshrine in the Irish constitution. Those policies are fundamentally and disastrously flawed. They are completely incompatible with any notion of social justice and – as such – should be opposed on those terms alone. However, what’s also important to realise is that those policies fail to even address the issues they claim to solve and are thus flawed even on their own terms. With unemployment spiralling out of control in many European states and the threat of social disorder looming over some, the notion that governments should be slashing public spending while simultaneously pumping billions into failed private financial institutions is clearly absurd. It is a policy that benefits banks and wealthy investors at the expense of average citizens. Voting ‘Yes’ on Thursday will be – to fall back on an overused metaphor – like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Because actually, when you look closely at these “austerity” policies being adopted wholesale by short-sighted, incompetent governments – these “austerity” policies we’re being asked to endorse on Thursday – you find they are nothing of the sort. Yes, those on low incomes are being forced to tighten their belts. But the rich are actually getting richer. Let me repeat that because the phrase has been blunted through familiarity, but it’s one that merits a moment’s reflection; in these times of so-called austerity, the rich are getting richer.

In fact, in the case of Ireland, the most recent figures show that while those on the lowest incomes experienced a decrease in disposable income of more than 26%, those with the highest incomes saw an increase of more than 8%. This widening gap is, in truth, the very reason for these “austerity” measures. And enshrining this wholesale redistribution of wealth – from the poorest to the richest – in the Irish constitution would be the most shameful act ever carried out by the people of Ireland (and I’m including our decision to inflict Jedward on the people of Europe twice in that calculation). Not only that, it would fundamentally rewrite the constitution so that it expressly contradicts the ideals of social justice which were enshrined in that document many years ago. Ideals which have not become less relevant over time and are needed now just as much as they were back then.

I urge anyone considering a ‘Yes’ vote to read Article 45 of the Irish Constitution. I will reproduce that article in full at the foot of this post, but in summary it quite explicitly demands that the government intervene to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor.

The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing: [...] That, especially, the operation of free competition shall not be allowed so to develop as to result in the concentration of the ownership or control of essential commodities in a few individuals to the common detriment.

To endorse this Fiscal Treaty is to endorse an economic system that utterly betrays both the word and the spirit of the Irish constitution. More than that, it betrays future generations by ripping from them a constitution designed to promote social justice and protect them from exploitation, and replacing it with a treaty that deprives them of the ability to make vital choices about their own lives and future. If you vote ‘Yes’ you are clearly stating (though you may be unaware of this fact) that you are happy with today’s bankers stealing the wealth of tomorrow’s children. The Fiscal Treaty has been written by a self-selected elite of the wealthy and powerful to ensure that their interests are forever placed above the interests of the general citizenry. And it seems they may be about to pull off one of the greatest con-tricks in history by frightening the general citizenry into voting for it.

Christine Lagarde

Christine Lagarde's message to the poor

Surely there can be no greater demonstration of the attitude of this self-selected elite than the staggeringly arrogant pronouncements of Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, earlier this week. As it happens, I’m of the opinion that her astonishing broadside against the people of Greece was actually a calculated tactic to accelerate the process of Greece leaving the Euro. I assume she feels that process is inevitable and has come to the conclusion that it should happen sooner rather than later. Otherwise her comments make little sense, given that they will inevitably alienate the Greek people and strengthen the hand of the anti-austerity parties.

When Lagarde was asked about Greek parents unable to afford medication for their sick children, she insisted that she felt little sympathy and that this could all be solved if the Greeks paid their taxes. Let me make two observations… firstly, if someone can’t afford medicine for their kids, they probably can’t add all that much to the national coffers; so as a solution, taxing them doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And secondly, Christine Lagarde pays absolutely no tax on her annual salary of almost €450,000 (including expenses). So maybe she’s not the best person to be lecturing the already poverty-stricken for failure to pay enough tax.

Which brings me back to my original point about being “For Austerity”. The sad reality is, western levels of resource consumption – even in these times of austerity – are essentially unsustainable. Simply put; collectively speaking we need to consume less. However, and this is the most important point to take away from this; those who currently consume most need to do the most cutting-back. The belt-tightening should start with those whose belts are already far, far too big for them. It is people like Christine Lagarde who need to be paying more tax. People like her who need to be experiencing some of this austerity, rather than imposing it on those already at breaking point.

Please please please, vote ‘No’ to this Fiscal Treaty. A ‘Yes’ vote is an endorsement of the right of the rich to force the poor deeper into poverty. A ‘No’ vote will have negative consequences certainly. To suggest otherwise would be disingenuous. But those consequences will be as nothing compared to the long-term damage that the treaty will inflict upon social justice in Ireland and across Europe. Those who can afford to pay, should pay. A transition to sustainability demands we must all play our part in reducing our resource consumption, but some of us have far greater scope in that regard, and it is they who should be leading the way.

Finally, a note of hope for those in Greece who despite already being deep in poverty, Legarde thinks should be paying more tax… a note of hope for all of us affected by these unjust and incompetent policies, and a note of warning to those imposing them. You can’t get blood from a stone – that’s true – but they who squeeze the stone hard enough eventually discover that the stone gets blood from them.

And as promised, this is Article 45 of the Irish Constitution in full…

DIRECTIVE PRINCIPLES OF SOCIAL POLICY
Article 45

The principles of social policy set forth in this Article are intended for the general guidance of the Oireachtas. The application of those principles in the making of laws shall be the care of the Oireachtas exclusively, and shall not be cognisable by any Court under any of the provisions of this Constitution.

1) The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the whole people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice and charity shall inform all the institutions of the national life.

2) The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing:

i. That the citizens (all of whom, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood) may through their occupations find the means of making reasonable provision for their domestic needs.

ii. That the ownership and control of the material resources of the community may be so distributed amongst private individuals and the various classes as best to subserve the common good.

iii. That, especially, the operation of free competition shall not be allowed so to develop as to result in the concentration of the ownership or control of essential commodities in a few individuals to the common detriment.

iv. That in what pertains to the control of credit the constant and predominant aim shall be the welfare of the people as a whole.

v. That there may be established on the land in economic security as many families as in the circumstances shall be practicable.

3)
1° The State shall favour and, where necessary, supplement private initiative in industry and commerce.

2° The State shall endeavour to secure that private enterprise shall be so conducted as to ensure reasonable efficiency in the production and distribution of goods and as to protect the public against unjust exploitation.

4)
1° The State pledges itself to safeguard with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community, and, where necessary, to contribute to the support of the infirm, the widow, the orphan, and the aged.

2° The State shall endeavour to ensure that the strength and health of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children shall not be abused and that citizens shall not be forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their sex, age or strength.

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29
May 2012

Also, this…

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8
May 2012

Austerity

Synonyms for austerity: harshness, strictness, asceticism, rigour (source: dictionary.com).

CapitalismA little over three weeks from now the people of Ireland will vote in a referendum. At stake is Irish participation in the European Fiscal Compact, a pan-European treaty that attempts to lay down strict budgetary rules for those nations who sign up. The ‘Yes’ campaign is referring to it as “The Stability Treaty”. The ‘No’ campaign calls it the “Austerity Treaty”. While it’s true that I am ideologically opposed to the treaty, I contend that my position is grounded in reality. That is; you can demonstrate – using “facts” and everything* – that the treaty will result in austerity for Ireland, while its characterisation as a “stability” treaty is extremely dubious to say the least.

Incidentally, does anyone remember the Lisbon Treaty? At the second time of asking, we endorsed it in October 2009. The ‘Yes’ camp – the very same people urging ‘Yes’ later this month remember – characterised it as the “Jobs Treaty”. Hmmm, we’ve not had an apology from them on that one yet. But I guess we shouldn’t expect politicians to apologise for completely misleading the citizenry and promising things they’re unable to deliver. Indeed, most of them seem to think that’s actually part of their job description.

What I find really remarkable about modern politicians is their ability to maintain such a breath-taking lack of self-awareness despite living their lives in a media spotlight. They never admit to mistakes; presumably believing they never make any. In other words, believing they are fundamentally better than the rest of us (because god knows we all make mistakes). Moreover, politicians appear so completely unaware of their own limitations as to give the impression that they don’t feel they have any. The vast majority of us over-estimate our own abilities… it’s part of being human… but politicians, whether they are the Left or the Right, do so to such a degree it’s almost beyond parody. Personally I believe I’d do a better job running the country than the current lot we’ve got in the job. But – and it’s a crucial “but” – I don’t think I’d do a great job at it. Just a better one. And given the incredible importance of that job, I’d need to be a self-interested, power-hungry careerist to put myself forward for it unless I thought I could do a great job.

So either the people running the country are just a bunch of self-interested, power-hungry careerists; willing to place their own personal desires and ambitions above the collective good… or they are supremely unaware of their own limitations. Because, let’s face it, it’s hardly a secret that the job they’re doing ain’t that great.

But back to the Treaty

Yes indeed. The posters have started to go up. Far more ‘Yes’ posters than ‘No’ based on a trip into Dublin City today. But that’s to be expected given the financial muscle behind the ‘Yes’ campaign. All three major political parties support the treaty. No surprise there… any suggestion that the Labour Party might take a more nuanced position (especially given the position of the bulk of the Unions) were fanciful in the extreme. Labour donned the neoliberal uniform the moment they sold their principles to Fine Gael in return for a taste of power. Their protestations that they’ve managed to ameliorate some of the more savage cuts proposed by Fine Gael possess but the thinnest shred of truth.

Against the treaty stands Sinn Féin, the Unions (well, most of them) and the leftist parties. Oh, and Éamon Ó’Cuiv. Fair play to Éamon. He may well be the exception to my characterisation of mainstream politicians that proves the rule. And rumours abound that he’ll soon be expelled from Fianna Fáil for his stance. Remarkable really… you can run the country into the ground, you can endorse a Bank Guarantee that transfers massive private debts onto the shoulders of generations yet unborn, you can break a thousand promises to the electorate. All of these things are par for the course in modern politics – commendable even. But to stand by your principles? Apparently that’s grounds for expulsion.

Seriously, you can’t actually be cynical enough about politics any more. It has passed beyond that realm. All we are left with is disbelief, despair and contempt. And hopefully the stirrings of a genuine anger… though I see little enough of that right now in Ireland more’s the pity.

The latest polls seem to suggest the ‘Yes’ majority is being eroded slowly. Unfortunately it seems too slow at the moment to turn the tide come May 31st (though with a bit of luck the election results in France and Greece, along with the failure of the Dutch government to push through the policies of austerity, will inspire us here in Ireland). Personally I ascribe this ‘Yes’ majority to two factors… one: a shamelessly biased media (the Irish Times has been little short of disgraceful on this matter, and RTÉ not much better – once again, we should be thankful for Vincent Browne**… long may he continue to be a thorn in the side of the establishment); and two: the success of the scare-mongering tactics employed by the ‘Yes’ campaign. As I mentioned here before, the campaign was kicked off by a Fine Gael minister insisting that a ‘No’ vote would be “like a bomb going off in Dublin”. That’s the very definition of scare-mongering… comparing my ‘No’ vote to an act of terrorism; suggesting that when I place my ‘X’ in the ‘No’ box, I am metaphorically carrying out an act of extreme violence. Such undiluted nonsense from a government minister should be shameful, but these people know no shame.

On top of that we’ve had government spokespeople assuring us that a ‘No’ vote will “cut Ireland off from external funding”. It took those opposing the treaty over a week to finally wrest a statement from the “impartial” Referendum Commission that this was – in fact – a lie. Plain and simple. A lie. But the Commission’s declaration hasn’t had nearly the same media exposure as the lie it exposes.

We need Austerity

See, this is the weird thing. Europe – like the rest of western civilisation – actually needs to radically reduce its consumption. We have created an unsustainable society that we should be scaling back right now (because if we don’t do it, then resource depletion will do it for us pretty soon anyway… and chances are it’ll involve less suffering if we take matters into our own hands on this issue). But, to jump back to the synonyms which opened this post, we need the austerity of ‘rigour’. And what’s being foisted upon us is ‘harshness’. That’s how it is, no matter what the ‘Yes’ campaign might claim (and each time they claim otherwise, remember the same people also claimed Lisbon was the “Jobs Treaty”).

The policies being adopted by our government; the policies that will be enshrined in the Irish Constitution if we pass this dangerous treaty; the policies that Angela Merkel has announced are “non-negotiable” (can someone please tell me who the hell gave the German government the right to tell the rest of Europe what we may or may not negotiate?); these are policies that will be unnecessarily harsh on the vast majority of Europe’s citizens, precisely so that the financial institutions of Europe don’t need to adopt a rigorous approach to their affairs.

This treaty places the interests of European banks above the interests of European people (and those who say those interests are synonymous need to cop on to themselves). It imposes austerity without addressing sustainability. Europe needs a sustainable alternative. It needs a radical alternative. An alternative based on social justice (a radical proposal in itself in these days of neoliberal greed and casino capitalism)… an alternative based on human decency and human dignity. I believe that alternative can be found in a flight away from capitalism. I believe that we should be looking towards the ideas of Bertrand Russell, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Lucy Parsons, Gregory Bateson, Albert Einstein and so many others. People who realised that capitalist society has been shaped by the few, for the few. And that this has to change if we are to create a world worthy and capable of long-term survival.

A ‘No’ vote on May 31st won’t bring the words of those wise few to life. It won’t bring about a Golden Age of social progress. It carries risks and will certainly be met with a punitive reaction from the financial institutions that currently run Europe. A ‘No’ vote will not bring back the Celtic Tiger, because the Celtic Tiger is never coming back. But it will strike a blow against the forces of injustice and inequality. It will halt our own government’s headlong rush into the abyss. And it will demonstrate that – just like the French and the Greeks – we in Ireland are fed up taking orders from the very bankers who destroyed the global economy. Vote ‘No’.

* Michael Taft supplies some of those facts in this article on Politico.ie. You can find plenty more if you click around that site.

** Out of interest, could a non-Irish-resident reader click on this link and tell me whether it’s possible to watch the Vincent Browne show online from outside Ireland? You don’t need to watch a whole show (unless you really want to), just click one of the recent episodes and let me know if it is viewable… I occasionally want to link to a particular episode from this blog, but don’t know whether – like the BBC iPlayer – it’s inaccessible overseas.

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