How the Celtic Tiger was tamed

As Ireland heads to the polls, it expects not change but more of the same.

If all the talk of treason in Dublin were in earnest, there would be nooses dang­ling from the Georgian lamp posts around the Dail instead of general election posters. There are no lynch mobs along the banks of the Liffey and the worst financial crisis in southern Ireland since the founding of the Free State doesn't seem to be bringing about the kind of large-scale realignment that the Irish left has been longing for.

Forget "Guns'n'Roses", as a Sinn Fein-Labour coalition was nicknamed when a single rogue opinion poll suggested such a mould-breaking possibility. For all his gung-ho rhetoric about triumphing over the two big tribal parties, the Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, now has a struggle on his hands to play any role in the next government. Instead of making history, the most he can hope for is to become a Hibernian version of the Liberal Democrat leader-turned-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg - and he might be denied even that dubious achievement if a resurgent Fine Gael can muster a majority with the aid of independents.

Although Gilmore has accused the outgoing Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, of "economic treason", the Labour leader is unlikely to pursue retribution if he becomes Tanaiste (deputy Taio­seach). A politically connected golden circle of investors seems always to be protected, even in times of socio-economic carnage. Most people in Ireland can't imagine this ever changing. Meanwhile, mass emigration is acting as a safety valve for social unrest. A new exodus from the country is one of the very few reasons that the number on the dole has yet to reach half a million.

Following the €85bn EU/IMF bailout, many have become exercised about the issue of economic sovereignty. The most that Fine Gael's leader, Enda Kenny, promises is that, if he becomes Taoiseach on 25 February, he will try to negotiate a less onerous interest rate with the European Central Bank (ECB). But its president, Jean-Claude Trichet, has already publicly slapped him down for this. Alan Dukes, a former Fine Gael leader who is now chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, has added to Kenny's woes by indicating that the country's banking system will need a further €15bn on top of the €35bn already earmarked.

If the Irish Labour Party becomes the junior partner in a Fine Gael-led coalition that spends even more public money while implementing savage cuts in front-line services and social welfare payments at the behest of the ECB and the IMF, it will not be able to avoid becoming as loathed as Britain's Lib Dems. And if they fall into the same trap, Dublin's social democrats could end up following the Green Party, which fears electoral annihilation as punishment for propping up the outgoing Fianna Fail-led government. Even ardent ecologists find it hard to lament that prospect. Despite securing two of the ministerial portfolios that they most coveted - energy and environment - the Greens failed to tackle a national betrayal that straddles both these crucial spheres.

The great giveaway

The Corrib gas controversy concerns plans by Shell, Vermilion Energy and Statoil to exploit the hydrocarbon reserves off the Irish coast, whose total value is estimated by the government to be €420bn. It involves not just a rejection of local public safety concerns but also a sell-off of the nation's natural resources.

When Eamon Ryan first entered the Dail, the charismatic young politician, once hailed as the great Green hope, campaigned for the Rossport Five, a determined group of local demonstrators who were prepared to go to prison to halt the construction of a gas pipeline through their village in County Mayo. When Ryan became Ireland's energy minister, however, he seemed to forget this pledge of solidarity and failed to use his influence to prevent planning permission from being granted for an onshore, rather than offshore, refinery.

Furthermore, over the coming decades, as the Corrib gas starts to thunder through the pipe, the almost insolvent Irish state will not receive a single cent in royalties. And when the likes of Shell do eventually declare any profits, they will be taxed at just 25 per cent, compared to the international average of 68 per cent imposed by energy-producing countries.

In 1987, Ireland's then minister for energy, Ray Burke, granted multinational corporations terms and conditions that few other countries would have stood for - including the abolition of royalties - purportedly to encourage gas exploration. Dick Spring, who was then Lab-our leader, is said to have denounced Burke's deal as "an act of economic treason". Burke was later jailed for offences relating to tax evasion. Little attempt has been made by any subsequent government to rescind his great gas and oil giveaway.

To cap it all, it emerged recently that a British undercover agent had been given free rein by the Irish police to infiltrate the Corrib protest groups. Mark Kennedy of the Metropolitan Police posed as an eco-warrior called Mark Stone while on the payroll of the UK National Public Order Intelligence Unit; he has claimed that he was commissioned in Dublin to do so. It seems that, when it comes to safeguarding the interests of international capital, Ireland's national sovereignty can be breached not just by the IMF but also by the British police and equally unaccountable elements within the Irish state.

Rob Brown is senior lecturer in journalism at Independent College Dublin

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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