Gambling away our future


OPINION:There is no plan B should Nama, paying Anglo’s debts and austerity not work. We need a new republic, writes MICHAEL O'SULLIVAN

THE CAUSE of Ireland’s financial crisis was careless risk taking, emboldened by denial that our economic miracle was little more than a casino. The official solution to the fallout of the crisis is a series of risky bets, emboldened by a denial of economic reality and more importantly, the values upon which the State was founded.

The first bet was to save all of Ireland’s banks by shepherding their balance sheets onto that of the State. The second bet was to save Ireland’s bond market with the introduction of an austerity programme that impressed the world but left Ireland in shock.

The mistake of our policymakers, both technically and in terms of the values that inspire their thinking, is that they have tried to save the banks and the bond markets, but not to save Ireland. They have now been found out by the bond market and soon, it is to be hoped, by voters.

While early warnings of the financial crisis were casually dismissed, the policy moves of the past two years – the imposition of broad bank guarantees, Nama and the rescue of Anglo Irish Bank – were bullied and badgered into the conventional wisdom under the foggy logic that these were the best available alternatives for Ireland. But as time goes on, it seems that Ireland is again and again the loser from these assured moves.

The twin goals of rejuvenating bank lending and maintaining access to bond markets at a reasonable price are failing. It is looking increasingly likely that in coming months markets could tear apart any vestige of financial credibility that Ireland enjoys.

In the same way as hedge funds and speculators have been blamed for the weakness of both our banks and the euro over the past two years, some will now blame the rating agencies and the bond markets. This is to deny the reality of our economy and the fact that Ireland remains mired in crisis mode when many of its economic peers are thriving.

More specifically, the contention that we are in a recovery (ministers have been promulgating this fiction over the past two months) will simply not ring true with most Irish people, let alone the near 14 per cent of the workforce that is unemployed.

At the same time, while politicians do not want to recognise the costly social problems that arise from “austerity”, they are already manifesting themselves in ghost estates and hospital AE units. Neither are the politicians debating the detrimental effects on our potential economic output from reduced investment in education and a structurally higher debt burden.

Nama looks like it is struggling. Its bad loans are worse than initially thought and it could perform a strange alchemy on the good loans it holds by turning them bad through mismanagement. It is unlikely to defy economic gravity and in time could anchor us to our former economic peer group of Mediterranean countries.

Meanwhile, our toxic banks burn a bigger hole in the State balance sheet. The bond market has seen through the media campaign that placed Ireland in the vanguard of austerity and is pricing our sovereign debt down to the level it deserves for its companionship with that of Anglo Irish Bank.

Because they are tacticians and not strategists, our leaders have neither a plan B nor C in place should Nama, Anglo Irish and austerity not work out. There seems to be a belief in Dublin, though absent in economics text books, that by closing our eyes and denying the catastrophe that is our economy, and “talking up the recovery”, we can magically rejoin the path to prosperity. Again, this is a fantasy.

The likely response to this kind of comment is “stop being subversive, unpatriotic and talking down Ireland”, but that is simply denial, and the sooner this denial is punctured the better. Patriotism is about analysing and solving the problems that plague our country, not covering them up.

A thoughtful, strategic and patriotic response would have looked very different to what we have witnessed.

At no point during or after the crisis have the Government or Opposition set out a coherent plan, strategy or national vision that sets right the errors and wrong doings behind our financial crisis, maps out the potential social problems that will follow from our economic depression, how Ireland can credibly build a thriving domestic economy and what forms of institutional change must be undertaken to position the country in the 21st century.

At the same time, the response of Irish people to the crisis has been a mixture of debate, democracy and docility. Our descent into economic hell is now widely debated across Ireland, this debate is relatively civilised, but there is ultimately no action and no challenge to the way the country operates.

Such a challenge must take the form of an entirely new and independent socio-political framework to the one that exists today. There is growing recognition and support for something along the lines of a Second Republic – a constitutional vehicle that rejuvenates the classical republican values upon which the State has been built, reorganises public life in a more strategic and transparent way and re-engineers the institutions that run and guide the country.

What has so far been lacking in respect of the “Second Republic” is the “who” and the “when”. These questions are now becoming more clear thanks largely to Anglo and Nama. The “who” are the tens of thousands of Irish people who are beginning to realise the damage that has been done to their country, and the “when” is increasingly in the hands of the financial markets.

Michael O’Sullivan is the author of Ireland and the Global Question(Cork University Press, 2006) and co-editor with Rory Miller of What did we do right?(Blackhall Publishing, 2010)

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