Bailout has turned us from citizens into serfs
After a century and a half of struggle, we’ve landed ourselves back in the same position of feudal servitude, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE
A QUESTION haunts me because I can think of no good answer: why should anyone who has a choice continue to live in Ireland? This is not an abstract thought experiment. I have two sons in their early 20s. I am trying to find one compelling reason for them to stay here.
In the 1980s, the mark of the degradation of Ireland under Charles Haughey was that Irish passports were for sale to non-citizens. Now we have come up with something worse: citizens have to pay too. To belong to this State, we have to pay what is in effect a Seanie and Fingers Tax (SFT). Our ancestors had their rents raised when their absentee landlords lost fortunes at the gambling tables of London or Paris. After a century and a half of struggle, we’ve landed ourselves back in precisely the same position of feudal servitude.
Let’s take some admittedly very crude figures sketched by Nat O’Connor on the progressive-economy.ie blog. There are 1.9 million people at work in the Irish economy. Their average earnings last year were €36,300. After tax, that’s €29,500 each. From this, each one will stump up an average of €4,600 just to pay the interest on the money the State is borrowing to fund the bank bailout.
Or, to put it another way, everyone lucky enough to have a job in Ireland over the next 10 years will be working most of one day a week to pay for Seanie, Fingers and the lads. It is no exaggeration to call this feudal. Medieval lords exacted food and money from their vassals. They called it “coign and livery”. We call it “Nama and recapitalisation”. Why would anyone who can do otherwise choose to donate about five or six hours of free labour every week for 10 years to the banks? In all of this, the humiliation is actually worse than the money. The financial cost is, admittedly, hideous. Let’s just consider the €2 billion a year we’ll be stumping up for the zombie institutions, Anglo Irish and Nationwide.
The exchequer (perhaps optimistically) expects to take in €11.5 billion in income taxes this year. So, more than one euro in every six we pay in income tax will go to fund institutions that will probably never put another cent into the Irish economy.
Every year until at least 2021, we will be putting €500 million more into Anglo and Nationwide than into the Department of the Environment’s capital budget. (At least John Gormley will be able to say that the Government is spending unprecedented sums on sewage systems.)
The social and economic costs of this are devastating, especially when you think of what else we could do with the money. For the annual €2 billion we’re putting into Anglo and Nationwide, we could almost double what the State spends on mental health services and disability services.
We could almost quadruple spending on children and families. For just two years of the SFT, we could build a national high-speed broadband network, putting people to work in the process and greatly improving our economic competitiveness.
So, yes, the financial side of the SFT is sickening. But the humiliation is worse. The idea that, year-in, year-out, we will be working to pay off the gambling debts of our absentee landlords, turns us from citizens to serfs. It cuts to the heart of the meaning of a democratic community – the sense of mutual obligation. Now, all the obligations are one way. We can no longer even pay lip service to social justice. The most rank and brazen injustice is written into every clause of our new social contract.
Humiliation is the most corrosive of emotions. It destroys self-respect. It generates the sense of absolute powerlessness that is every bit as corrupting as absolute power. It festers and sours. It turns both inwards on itself and outwards on to those who are even weaker than ourselves. It took us a century to overcome our sense of national humiliation and a little over a decade to give it back.
It is humiliating to have to work most of a day a week for scroungers and scoundrels. It is humiliating that Brian Cowen, who bears as much personal responsibility for this disaster as anyone else, is still Taoiseach. And it is humiliating that, collectively, we seem incapable of anything beyond impotent rage.
The national strategy is to breed servility back into Irish bones. We are instructing our young people to relearn the ways of their ancestors and to tug the forelock as they clean up the mess left by the Masther, God bless him. Why would they want to do that? Why would they choose, if they are fortunate enough to get work here, to hand over a substantial chunk of what they earn to pay for a profligacy in which they had no part? Much as I want my sons to stay here, I’d be ashamed of them if they did not utter the cry of James Joyce a century ago: non serviam, I will not serve.