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.


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

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

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