‘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
But since 2008, Ireland’s domestic market has been in the cellar, with dramatic consequences. More than 300,000 Irish people have emigrated in the last four years, 40 per cent aged between 18 and 24. That would be the equivalent of 5.4 million people leaving Germany (population 82 million). The State has to make savings, meaning ever less money is available for education, which means there won’t be enough trained staff for international companies – the only economic sector that is working.
“In countries like Greece or Spain the youth go on the street and protest,” says O’Toole. “In Ireland, they emigrate. Now our young people are also leaving because they don’t want to pay back the debts of our bankers.”
The publication of the Anglo Irish Bank telephone calls has revived the outrage. In one extract a banker says: “The strategy is to pull [the government] in, so that they write a big cheque. If they realise the scale of this from the start, they might say it is too expensive for the taxpayer.”
It demonstrated to the Irish public like never before how they were conned ruthlessly by a shameless elite. Even Chancellor Merkel commented on the case. On Thursday evening she said: “I have nothing but contempt for that.”
O’Toole says: “The interesting question now is whether the fury will focus. Whether the people perhaps choose the issue of oil to say: that’s enough. If even Third World dictators can agree better deals with oil companies, why can’t we?” (6)
He answers his own question: “The Government always views itself in a weak position. All important financial decisions are being taken by the troika of the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund. The Government merely implements. That leads to a situation where they are psychologically incapable of acting independently.”
The fisherman Joey Murtagh, the psychologist Aisling Murphy, the financial adviser Eddie Hobbs and the author Fintan O’Toole want to make sure that, on this matter, the last word has not been spoken. That the Irish people no longer have to pay for institutional stupidity and greed.
“It is completely un-Irish what we’re doing here,” said Murphy, “but perhaps we are the start of something new.”
She laughs very cautiously when she says: “Seen that way, perhaps we’re a kind of avant garde.” – (Copyright: Süddeutsche Zeitung. This is an edited version translated by Derek Scally)
Irish Times notes
1 These terms were laid down by the then minister, Justin Keating, in 1975, at a time when there was general optimism about the potential for major oil and gas finds in Irish waters. The first change to Keating’s tax system was made by Labour Tánaiste and Energy minister Dick Spring in 1985-86, when he reduced State royalties and then abolished State participation in marginal fields.
2 A tax rate of 40 per cent applies to larger finds on licences granted after 2007.
3 The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has estimated a total potential in the order of 10 billion barrels of oil equivalent beneath the seabed off the west coast of Ireland alone. But it is not clear how much of this can be recovered at an economic cost.
4 The EU Common Fisheries Policy, which permits an estimated 88 per cent of stocks in Irish waters to be caught by other member states, dates from 1983 but the real pressure on Irish stocks came after Spanish accession. The factory ships in these waters tend to be Dutch, but Ireland did produce its own supertrawler for foreign waters, the former Killybegs-owned Atlantic Dawn.
5 INM is no longer controlled by the O’Reilly family. Its largest shareholder is now Denis O’Brien.
6 A 2007 report on oil and gas regimes by the US Government Accounting Office found that Ireland had the second lowest rate of government take of all the countries studied. Cameroon had the lowest.
It began as a chance conversation during a visit to Ireland last autumn and ended as a full-page article about Ireland in Germany’s best-selling quality newspaper last Saturday. The headline: “Conned”.
Journalist Christian Zaschke, based in London for the Süddeutsche Zeitung since 2011, is a regular visitor to Ireland. When he heard about Dalkey residents protesting against oil drilling in Dublin Bay he thought it would make a small article for the newspaper, with echoes of the 1983 film “Local Hero”, about a Scottish man who takes on an American oil baron.
“The more I talked to people, though, the more I realised it was part of something far bigger and more fundamental,” he says
His article filled the prestigious page three slot, reserved for the best reportage of the day. Mr Zaschke presents his readers with a red thread through modern Irish history, of a political elite taking the country for a ride, and a population lying down and taking it.
The Anglo tapes, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “contempt” remark in Brussels, gave it a timely hook.
Mr Zaschke says he found the story of Ireland’s oil “deplorable”. If Norway managed to regulate its undersea oil reserves so that the entire land enjoys the profits, he wondered, why not Ireland?
“It made me wonder what the Irish people have to done to deserve this and whether a few people really could screw their people in that way?”
Despite the challenge of explaining the intricacies of Irish life to a distant German audience, their reaction suggests he managed to keep them on board to the end.
“The people who read the article in Germany are mostly outraged. They told me that people in Ireland have to do something,” he says.
What struck a chord with German readers, he said, is that it turned on its head certain stereotypes they may have about the Irish as rebels who challenge authority.
“I realised that the Irish rebel instinct isn’t as pronounced,” he said, “and that it is matched with a kind of lethargy, a certain fatalism as well as melancholy.”
He senses that these attitudes are shifting. “I had the impression from people I talked to that it was important for them that this story is told beyond Ireland,” he said, “perhaps so it might come back in from outside”.