‘Conned’: a German view of Ireland
Last week, the German newspaper ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’ published an article about the ‘conning’ of Ireland – over several decades – by its political masters. We talk to the writer, reprint the article and add some footnotes of our own
Opposition is building through Hobbs’s “Own Our Oil” campaign. It is preparing a report looking into how Ireland could profit from its resources, prepared by experts from Ireland and other oil-producing countries.
He points to Norway, where most of the profits from oil production go to the company Statoil – the majority of which is owned by the state. In this way Norway has become one of the richest countries on Earth. The study is to be presented at a major conference and then handed over to government.
“We’re making good headway,” says Hobbs, “and may be finished this year.”
Hobbs is well-known in Ireland thanks to his 2005 television programme Rip-Off Republic. He is viewed as a consumer champion and is known for his populist, biting attacks on the establishment. He became an enemy of the oil industry after the company Providence made a tactical error.
Last September Providence managed to acquire a licence for test drillings in Dublin Bay. How this was possible is puzzling as the bay is a natural conservation area. The platform was to have stood 10km from the coast and would have been visible from land. The residents of Dalkey were the first to mobilise against the plans. Dalkey is a well-heeled suburb of Dublin in which many celebrities and intellectuals live, resulting in the protest being mocked in many newspapers as a revolt of the rich.
But the well-organised protesters also got a hearing and Hobbs took note. He says: “These people were the first to open my eyes to what happens to the oil.” Murphy and Murtagh are some of these people.
Murtagh says: “We became engaged because this was to take place before our eyes. But then it became bigger.” Murtagh has gone to sea since 1972 and has first-hand experience of how Ireland sold its other big resource: fish. Irish fishing waters are regarded as the best in Europe.
On EU entry in 1973 the Irish negotiated a deal that appeared good, but only at first glance: allowing other EU states into their waters to fish in exchange for money for Irish farmers. Murtagh says: “14.2 per cent of European seas are Irish. But we are allowed have only 2.6 per cent of the fish.”
Murtagh’s thesis: Ireland has paid back twice in fish every euro of EU aid received. The Dutch, Spanish, French come with industrial ships and empty Irish waters while EU fisheries policy keeps him ashore. As he talks Murtagh, 57, has tears in his eyes. (4)
Murphy says that the protest in Dublin Bay has triggered something among her friends.
“You have to know that we Irish have no experience in confrontation. Here it’s usual not to make a fuss. On top of that is something that, in psychological terms, you call ‘acquired helplessness’. You find this, for example, among abused women. Ireland doesn’t defend itself. Ireland quietly puts up with it.”
But a new fighting spirit is palpable since the group in Dalkey formed, Murphy says.
“This is completely new, even for me,” she says. “I was raised that institutions are always right and that you don’t raise any objection.”
Great diplomats, terrible politicians
Hobbs says the Irish always tried to find a third way. “You never have good and evil here, right or wrong. What you always have is people who are somewhat good or a little bit right. Above all, we are good at compromise out of fear of insulting the other. That’s why we have produced great diplomats and terrible politicians.”
It’s the same in the oil affair: “The position is, don’t start a row with the oil industry. They should find something and then we’ll find a solution. But there are Irish people who know that now is the time to do something. The only question is: will it be done the easy way or the hard way?”
The fighting spirit of the group from Dalkey was given a lift when their protest had an effect. Last February Providence handed back the licence to drill in Dublin Bay. The official reason was that, though they met all environmental requirements, the Government made a mistake in implementing an EU directive on environmental protection. The unofficial speculation in Dalkey is that the firm was weary of the negative publicity.
After the oil finds off Cork in 2012, Providence, in particular its boss Tony O’Reilly jr, was more than happy to be in the public eye. He promised that all of Ireland would profit. But with growing numbers of Irish people asking why the country profits so little from the resources, it has become increasingly difficult to contact Providence.
Emails from the Süddeutsche Zeitung from last November were answered with a question. Who else apart from Providence was the newspaper talking to, a spokeswoman asked, while keeping alive the hope of a meeting. Then no emails were answered for some time after they apparently landed in the spam folder. In February, a request for a meeting was declined as all managers were on the road, but the company would send materials. That never happened. A series of questions posed this week went unanswered.
That may have something to do with the fact that Providence boss O’Reilly jr is not used to critical questions. His father Tony O’Reilly is one of Ireland’s richest men and his company, Independent News & Media, owns more than 130 radio stations, 100 commercial websites and more than 200 newspapers worldwide – including more than 20 in Ireland. (5)
O’Reilly jr prefers to speak in safe surroundings. A week ago he told the oil industry website Rigzone that Ireland’s tax regulations were “appropriate for the current state of the industry”. Ireland doesn’t have enough money to search for oil itself and thus, O’Reilly said, needs investors from abroad – and attracts them with low tax rates.
In fact, Ireland has had good experience with low tax rates: a section of the Irish economy booms because of large international companies like Microsoft and Google, which have settled in Ireland because of the low corporate tax rate of 12.5 per cent. This sector is what the Irish Government points to when it says things are improving.