Failed by Fianna

The Irish government rejected fiscal stimulus and slashed public spending instead. The result is eco

Celtic Tiger to Celtic Tories would seem an apt way of summing up the story of Ireland in recent times. From poster child of free-market globalisation everywhere from Hungary to Honduras, the UK's nearest neighbour is now enforcing the most savage cuts in public-sector pay, child benefits and social welfare payments of any EU government. Such is the level of misery being endured by the increasingly bewildered citizens of this little republic that even Brian Lenihan, the man principally responsible for inflicting it, has publicly acknowledged that fellow Europeans are "amazed at our capacity to take pain". The finance minister added, slightly boastfully: "In France there would be riots if you tried to do this."

Lenihan's last budget, delivered shortly before Christmas, was so draconian that the Daily Telegraph took to hailing him as a role model for the British Chancellor. Inevitably, this led to him being branded "Iron Brian" back home, though he will doubtless be spared Margaret Thatcher-style demonisation as he has since been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Instead, the nickname will probably now be pinned on the premier, Brian Cowen, who has responded to the current crisis pretty much as David Cameron and George Osborne advocate. Alone among the leaders of advanced industrial nations, Ireland's two Iron Brians rejected the Keynesian case for a fiscal stimulus to keep the economy moving and set about inflicting a scale of pain from which even the new Tories might flinch momentarily.

Since the onset of the credit crunch in mid-2008, Dublin has delivered three slash-and-burn budgets estimated to have sucked about 5 per cent out of the nation's GDP. Exacerbating rather than alleviating the rapid meltdown in its private sector, such retrenchment could contribute to an astonishing 15 per cent shrinkage in the Irish economy overall - the sharpest contraction experienced by any advanced industrial nation in peacetime.

The British economist David Blanchflower warned that Ireland could be plunged into a 1930s-style depression if the public purse is cut: "Balancing the budget is not what you do in a recession. My advice is to wait until you're out." His warning was widely reported in the Irish press but totally ignored by government.

The unemployment rate now stands at 12.5 per cent and the number drawing the dole (including part-timers) has risen to well over 400,000, in a population of 4.5 million. It could easily hit the half-million mark before this slump is over and would be much higher if Ireland's more mobile citizens, along with many recent immigrants, weren't heading out of the country in search of work. Mass emigration is once again providing a safety valve for social unrest, as it has done throughout Irish history.

Spooked

Lenihan sought to offer some hope in his last budget by declaring that "the worst is over", although there would appear to be a stronger case for suggesting that the austerity has only just begun. The cuts announced in December aim to reduce state spending by €4bn this year, but the overall plan is to slash it by €15bn within four years. As total expenditure by the Dublin exchequer was just under €60bn last year, this means that the Irish state is set to shrink by a full quarter in less than half a decade.

At least two generations look destined to pay a painful price for the follies of the golden circles whose scams, swindles and con jobs have lumbered Ireland with zombie banks that make RBS and HBOS look relatively vibrant. Anglo Irish alone may swallow over €30bn of public cash, equivalent to the total revenues collected by the Irish exchequer in the whole of last year.

Morgan Kelly, a professor of economics at University College Dublin, forecasts that "mass mortgage defaults caused by unemployment and falling house prices are the next act of the Irish economic tragedy. As well as bankrupting our worthless banks all over again," he says, "the human cost of tens of thousands of families losing their homes will be enormous but, because the government has already exhausted the state's resources taking care of developers with Nama [the National Asset Management Agency], there is very little that can be done to help these people."

Meanwhile, the social partnership accords that ensured industrial harmony throughout the past two decades have in effect been ripped up and the public-sector unions are threatening to bring the entire country to a standstill before the winter is out. Even the republic's police force, the Garda Síochána, say they are prepared to go on strike, which could mean Ireland faces the sort of anarchy that Boston experienced in 1919 when its (largely Irish) rank-and-file officers protested against a ban on union membership.

Yet, Dublin's fragile coalition government seems far more spooked by the danger of international investors downgrading their country's credit rating (which would make the cost of borrowing substantially higher) and the spectre of the IMF seizing the financial reins. Dublin is determined to distinguish Ireland from Greece, whose continued profligacy threatens to destabilise the entire eurozone. The 20 per cent cutback in state expenditure that the Irish want to implement within the next four years is intended to comply with an important requirement for membership of the single currency that member states keep their expenditure deficits down to a maximum of 3 per cent of GDP.

The European Central Bank (ECB) agreed to bend this rule when the extent of the global crash became clear, but it has set firm deadlines, between 2012 and 2015, for each state to recomply (Ireland's is 2014). Members of the cabinet have stated repeatedly in recent months that everything they have done to address the country's economic crisis is in accordance with ECB advice. No one in Dublin doubts Ireland would have been in the same mess as Iceland had it not signed up to the single currency, the main reason the Lisbon Treaty was passed by such a huge margin at the second time of asking.

Their continued euro enthusiasm is just one reason why Ireland's current rulers would bristle at the Celtic Tories gibe. When the leader of the Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore, coined that sobriquet, he was perhaps unaware that the term "Tory" originated in Ireland. It derives from the old Gaelic word tóraidhe, meaning outlaw or robber, and was initially a term of abuse for the isolated bands of guerrillas who resisted Cromwell's brutal campaign in the mid-17th century. Since these rebels were allied to royalists, the term became embraced by monarchists on the British mainland, and, in time, by the modern Conservative Party.

As Ireland's self-styled republican party, Fianna Fáil is obviously anything but monarchist. Nor has it become monetarist in an ideological sense; it is too simplistic to say the party is engaged in a zealous crusade to squeeze the country's money supply, re-engineer society according to a social Darwinist blueprint and neuter the trade unions.

Blythe spirit

Yet it is telling that Lenihan was denied the customary standing ovation in the Dáil chamber (parliamentary meeting place) at the conclusion of his last budget speech in the Dáil. Fianna Fáil backbenchers clapped politely and then returned nervously to their constituencies, where they have normally positioned themselves as defenders of social welfare and worked hard to preserve a working-class base.

Lenihan would have taken no delight in becoming the first Dublin finance minister to cut social welfare payments since the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922. He certainly didn't enjoy being taunted by Róisín Shortall, the Labour Party spokeswoman on social and family affairs, who declared poetically in the Dáil: ''The social conscience of the Fianna Fáil party is dead and gone. It's with Ernest Blythe in the grave." (Blythe was the last Irish politician to engage in such brutalities in the 1920s.)

The Fianna Fáil strategists and stalwarts are smart enough to know that what is one of the most successful electoral forces in western Europe would be finished if it ever invoked the Thatcherite line that "there is no such thing as society". Even when forecasting to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce that living standards would have to fall by over 10 per cent, Cowen was careful to add that "we must stick together as a community".

The political system of independent Ireland has long been tribal, local and clientelist; it is closer to Tammany Hall (the 19th-century Democratic Party machine run by Irish Americans) than Tories versus Labour. What Fianna Fáil can be accused of is crass populism. During the country's prolonged economic boom, the dominant force in Irish politics wanted to remain all things to all Irishmen (and women).

The fat cats certainly got the cream during the Tiger years, but crony capitalism (a capitalist economy that depends on close relationships between government and business) was always combined with a vague republican commitment to equality. In his time as Taoi­seach, Bertie Ahern defended the way his party courted property developers, builders and bankers at some of the nation's social and sporting events. At the peak of the Tiger boom, he said: "If there are not the guys at the Galway races in the tent who are creating wealth, then I can't redistribute it."

The reality was that this "ordinary fella" was presiding over more of a fantasy island than even Brown's Britain. When serious concerns started to be raised about the republic's unsustainable property boom - which accounted for almost a fifth of the Irish exchequer's income before the crash - Ahern responded that "the boom times are getting even boomier". He took no serious steps to lower the state's reckless dependence on property and construction.

The one-time island of saints and scholars had become a land of spivs and speculators and a manufacturing outpost for American multinationals. Ireland's economic miracle was always somewhat hallucinatory, because these US firms, heavily concentrated in chemicals and pharmaceuticals as well as computer software, used it as an Atlantic tax haven and route to the EU marketplace. Ireland Inc was always far richer than the national workforce, three-quarters of whom earned less than €40,000 per annum, even in the good times.

During this period, popularity - and peace with the unions - was bought by slashing income tax and shovelling much of the proceeds of the nation's property boom into a bloated public sector as well as vastly increased social-welfare benefits. When Ahern took office in 1997, the average single person on €40,000 a year paid 40.6 per cent of their annual earnings in tax. By 2004, this had been cut to just 19.7 per cent. His government cultivated rather than cured a widespread phobia towards taxation of any sort. Even when the price of a three-bed semi in Dublin rose to €1m, there was no serious move to introduce a council tax (or any separate source of local government finance).

Compared to many others, the Irish have a remarkably low percentage of their salaries deducted for income tax and social security. Indeed, for quite a prolonged period now, half of the entire national workforce has got away with paying no income tax. Even today, a single person earning €35,000 a year in Ireland is paying 18.7 per cent of their gross income on tax and social security, compared to 39 per cent in Germany, 29 per cent in the US or 23.5 per cent in the UK.

Welfare state

Yet the Irish have been able to fall back on considerably higher welfare benefits than the British. Dole claimants in Dublin and Donegal aren't exactly prosperous, but they are much more comfortably above the breadline than their counterparts in Derry or Doncaster. Until recently, the basic jobseeker's allowance in the republic stood at €200, compared to £60 in the UK. Such is the gap between Irish and British benefits that the Gardaí have had to mount checkpoints to try to stop unemployed people from Northern Ireland sneaking into the south to register a claim.

Lenihan's budget should certainly address the border problem in the case of the youngest claimants, who had their benefits halved in the December budget. But most welfare recipients probably won't be any worse off, as the slight fall in their benefits will be offset by the steep fall in prices that Ireland is now experiencing.

If there is a governing philosophy at work in Dublin these days, it seems to be this: just as the spoils of the Tiger times were spread around, so everyone must now take a share of the pain. The government attempted to put a progressive coating on the public-sector pay cuts by declaring that those earning less than €30,000 would have their pay cut by 5 per cent, compared to a 15 per cent clawback in the case of those with salaries above €200,000.

The big problem for the ruling party is that the catch-all approach that kept it in power throughout the boom has converted into unprecedented unpopularity since the bust. Fianna Fáil has been shaken to its foundations as its populism has become unpopulism. Stuck at below 25 per cent in the polls for more than a year now, its leader has become the most loathed Taoiseach in history. Meanwhile, concern mounts that Dublin's shock therapy risks a deflationary shock that could not just collapse public-service provision, but propel Ireland into a full-blown, Japanese-style depression.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously

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Planting trees below Turkish bombs in Syria

Under assualt from all sides, the Kurds and their international helpers are trying to “Make Rojava Green Again”.

Turkey’s recent, bloody invasion of Rojava is codenamed “Operation Olive Branch”. It’s a cruel misnomer, and not only because scores of civilians have died in Turkey’s relentless and indiscriminate shelling of the progressive, Kurdish-led autonomous region

Afrin is the isolated western enclave of Rojava  that's currently under assault from Turkish artillery, jets, tanks and Turkish-backed jihadist militias. It’s famed for its four million olive trees – just as the larger eastern province of al-Jazira is “the breadbasket of Syria”, famed for its wheat.

But images of rolling olive groves and wheat blooming in the rich basin of the Euphrates river belie a history of wealth extraction and impoverishment under the Assad regime. Colonial-style oil and wheat monocultures, Turkish control of water supplies and five years of war have starved the earth. 

Kurdish-led ecological committees and like-minded international activists are working to Make Rojava Green Again”, in the words of a new internationally-focused campaign to plant tens of thousands of trees, and work with local farmers to build co-operative ecological structures.

Talk of tree nurseries seems incongruous in a warzone. But the land tells the story of the Kurds’ long repression – and the immense political and cultural challenges they face as they attempt to build a democratic, federalist alternative from the ashes of Syria.

“The attacks from the Turkish state are directly against the idea of an ecological, democratic society based on gender equality,” international volunteer Stefan tells the New Statesman over an encrypted phoneline. “Stopping this project means stopping the fight for a different society.”

Disconnected

Kurds are one of the largest ethnic minorities worldwide without a state of their own, instead largely inhabiting portions of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Their language and culture has long been violently repressed – Kurdish-language education was banned in Syria until the outbreak of civil war, for example. In popular adage, they have “no friends but the mountains”.

The Assad regime used agriculture to wring Kurdish land dry, and keep its farming inhabitants reliant on state support. “Under the Syrian regime it was more or less forbidden to plant trees,” says Ciya, a member of the self-administration’s ecological committee in al-Jazira. “The regime wanted us to grow wheat.” Kurds say the regime enforced deforestation even in the streets of cities like Kobane, as a method of subjugation.

Wheat monoculture. Photo: Internationalist Commune.

Monocultures put the population at perpetual risk of famine, and necessitate large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to keep the soil artificially alive – a short-term solution with ruinous results. A drought in 2007-2008 hit half-a-dozen neighbouring countries, but only in Syria did it become a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

Kurdish regions of northern Syria were kept dependent on Damascus for other vital necessities, and Kurdish people forced to travel into metropoles to find work.  “Under the Assad regime, the people were really disconnected from their land,” Stefan says.

Revolution

Alone on an island prison with a thousand guards for company following his 1999 capture, the venerated leader of Turkish militia group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan modified his belief in a violent Marxist-Leninist revolutionary vanguard.

Instead, he developed a libertarian ideology of “democratic confederalism”. He calls for a “soft” revolution expanding through the state, with people joining local committees and co-operatives until this "flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic, and consensus-oriented” structure becomes the system of government.

When Assad started pulling forces out of Kurdish-majority regions in 2012, the PKK’s Syrian avatar (the PYD) took control of swathes of the countryside. The region is now formally known as the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria”, and informally as Rojava – or “West” in Kurdish.

Perversely, ISIS’ arrival in the area – and their famous defeat by Kurdish-led militias in Kobane – gave Rojava the name on the world stage and the limited military support from the United States it needed to survive. The Kurdish PYG and PYJ militias were lionised for defeating ISIS, even as their intimate allies the PKK continue to be listed as a terror group by the UK, EU and USA.

You’ll have seen orientalising clickbait about “the women fighting ISIS”, but feminism is one of three key tenets of democratic confederalism, along with the grassroots democratisation of government and ecological principles.

British leftists who’ve returned from Rojava say the “woman’s revolution” is the most visible and successful element.  All-female militias aside, each of the thousands of local committees must have 50 per cent female representation – a principle extending to the highest offices of government. (Meanwhile, committees working on domestic issues must have a minimum 40per cent male representation, so men don’t slack off from addressing “womanly” subjects like childcare).

In a historically highly-conservative region, newly-legalised divorces have skyrocketed, while a “woman’s house” on every street provides a safe space as women engage in new educational and co-operative programmes.

Meanwhile, those committees provide a forum to “solve daily questions, organise yourself in a democratic, self-administrated way… [for] society to become conscious of itself again”. For now, they’re the junior partner in a dual-power system with a more traditionally top-down administration, but they provide a forum for ordinary citizens to vote on issues of region-wide significance.

It’s a slow and difficult process, with some neighbourhoods and villages engaging enthusiastically while others remain loyal to Assad or unconvinced of the revolution’s liberal merits. But everyone gets cheap bread and oil, and the flight of millions of refugees into areas now being pounded by Turkish jets shows how highly ordinary people value the security Rojava provides.

War

As Stefan acknowledges, however, the “ecological revolution” is lagging badly behind. Arguments that drought caused the Syrian Civil War are easily over-stated: what is certain is that war destroys the land.

Wells and springs were destroyed by retreating Islamic State forces, who started huge oil fires to shield their flight from American bombers. Depleted uranium, heavy metals, TNT and other toxic carcinogens from spent armaments leach into the soil.

Landfill outside of the city of Derik. Photo: Internationalist Commune.

According to Alan, another Kurdish member of al-Jazira’s ecological committee, “for years now, the Turkish state has restricted the water supply by building many dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and drilling wells along the border line.”

By cutting power availability down to 6 or 12 hours daily, the “self-administration” government of Rojava nonetheless ekes out 75 per cent of its electricity supply from hydroelectric sources. Fully renewable power would be achievable, were it not for Turkish control of their water sources – or the embargo.

Neither Turkey nor the government of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region allow people, aid or vital supplies to cross their shared borders with Rojava. Ecological ideals of self-sufficiency therefore take on a special urgency, even as circumstances make them all but impossible. Parts to repair and improve the hydro-electric plants cannot get into the country.

The embargo also contributes to a general economic crisis - grand composting and recycling programmes, for example, remain unrealised due to lack of funds.  

On the one hand, tens of thousands of hectares are being opened up to agricultural co-operatives, led by women and young people. On the other, as this frank interview with a Kurdish economic official makes painfully clear, the co-operative or “social” economy in Rojava is still dwarfed by an oil-funded war economy.

25 per cent of crops in al-Jazira are now those – beans, chickpeas – which require no irrigation, up from only 10 per cent before the start of the “revolution.” The local committees’ educational programmes are a far cry from the dubious glamour of the battle against ISIS, but in the long run they could prove just as vital.

Internationalist Commune

Westerners who go to fight – and die – in the battle against Isis are celebrated worldwide, and venerated as martyrs in Rojava itself. But increasing numbers of leftists are joining the “civil revolution” too, as teachers, doctors, engineers and environmentalists.

Some efforts have been cack-handed, for example driving malfunctioning ambulances into a region where there’s no such thing as a 999 call. A previous ecological endeavour, the “Rojava Plan”, arrived with grand and wildly inappropriate dreams to build organic fertiliser facilities and sank without a trace.

According to Stefan, the “Internationalist Commune” of civil volunteers seek to avoid these errors by understanding the revolution as a two-way process.

“The time for international help hasn’t stopped just because the war against Daesh has stopped,” he says, using the derogatory local term for Isis. His impeccable second-language English is seeded with Kurdish terms: şehid for “martyr” and tamam, or “fine”.

“Nobody would say it’s not important to fight Isis… but it’s also important to learn from and contribute to the up-building of a new society. For us Westerners, it’s really something to see the possibility of a different future.”

The “Make Rojava Green Again” project is a part of this slow drive. Even what Stefan calls their “short-term aims” will take years – planting 10,000 trees this year, and 50,000 in the next five, plus opening up a co-operative tree nursery to support local farmers.

 Photo: Internationalist Commune.

The Commune is calling for financial support, volunteers and knowledge-sharing from scientists and ecologists worldwide, as they work together with local committees and Rojava’s two co-operative nature reserves to build a revolution lasting beyond the revolutionary moment.

“In the future I will grow more trees around [my] land to keep the earth healthy, and help the other plants to grow,” says Abu Araz, a farmer who works with the Commune. Members of the Commune are already involved in civil work in Afrin, and they hope to transplant their tree-planting programmes there in the future, as “forests get destroyed, and water polluted because of the war”.

ISIS fight under the slogan baqiya wa tatamadad, or “remaining and expanding”. But they are a vanishing force now. And though other Turkish-backed jihadist forces are vying to take their place, it is the grassroots Rojava revolution which endures.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously