Free, free at last?
The tanks did not roll in. No alien army tramped through Dublin. But on December 15th 2010 the prevailing overblown narrative would have us believe, the flag came down from Government Buildings. And, just days later, the keys to Merrion Street were handed over by our ministers to the new proconsuls of the troika, conjuring up images of the burghers of Calais in Rodin’s celebrated sculpture surrendering the keys to their city. Sovereign no more.
“Was it for this...?” this paper editorialised, reflecting the national anguish: “Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. ” And, we argued, “the true ignominy ... is not that our sovereignty has been taken away from us, it is that we ourselves have squandered it.”
As we prepare to exit the bailout tomorrow the mood music is rightly somewhat less momentous. Although the Government – which does deserve some credit – is whipping up a storm to burnish its image as national saviours, the “historic” restoration of our sovereignty is viewed by most citizens more soberly, less as a great leap forward akin to independence in 1922, and more perhaps with the benign indifference manifested on our 1973 EU accession.
The pain continues
That more realistic perspective reflects the reality that while some measure of lost independence may have been restored, sovereignty does not butter bread. The pain continues for working and middle classes alike. The sense persists that those who pay are not those who created the crisis. Austerity is still the order of the day, and will be so for years. Unpaid, unpayable mortgages are foreclosed on, jobs remain scarce, our young still head for the emigrant ship, shrunken wage packets make this Christmas shop an ordeal ... The State may be returning to bond markets full of confidence, without the need for a safety net borrowing facility, but let’s not forget that its purpose is to borrow from others, instead of the troika, to repay a debt incurred in the bailout process that will have us on the hook for the next 25 years.
And have we brought the beast that brought us down under control? The financialisation and securitisation that had transformed capitalism worldwide took Ireland by storm – the financial sector (measured as bank assets as share of GDP) had grown here from 150 per cent in 1995 to 903 per cent in 2008. Fed by cheap credit and weak regulation, Anglo was a train crash waiting to happen. Today, while regulation has been tightened, and the EU moves towards banking union, in Britain there are again calls for banks to be free to return to the sort of dangerous lending that caused the crisis (Financial Times December 11th, Page 1, “BoE champions bundled debt”). Have we learned?