Standing up to Brussels

Posted: March 2, 2013 in Current Affairs
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“This way please, like a good little Paddy…”

Considering the key role Tony Blair played in the decision to wage an unjust war on Iraq in 2003 that would lead to a death toll of over 650,000 it probably seems somewhat insensitive to argue that the former UK Premier’s greatest sin was to invite then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to address a joint sitting of Westminster’s Houses of Parliament in 2007.

But for those of us of a more Irish-centric nature, Blair’s invitation was his cruelest act of all. On the eve of a close, fiercely contested general election, Ahern was gifted the greatest Public Relations coup in the history of Irish politics and duly took full advantage, delivering a widely acclaimed speech. In fact, so voluminous and effusive was the resultant media coverage that the story was only finally supplanted on the front pages some nine days later with news of Ahern’s comfortable re-election.

‘Never mind all that corruption tribunal guff or the apocalyptic economic strategy’, the narrative seemed to go, ‘Bertie got a standing ovation in London so he’s alright by us!’ And so, Ahern and his ruinous policies were afforded even more time to push the country to the brink of economic extinction.

Ignoring the cynical political chicanery involved, the episode raised an interesting sociological question: why do we Irish attach so much import into what the rest of the world thinks of us?

Ahern’s 2007 Westminster address was just one example of the Irish obsession with how we are perceived abroad, a toxic obsession that is not only still alive today, but is clearly driving our entire economic policy. In February RTÉ news reported on a speech delivered by Taoiseach Enda Kenny before the European parliament. As is the norm for the Irish media when covering such events, the reporter signed off by informing us of how well Kenny’s address had been received by his European peers. Never mind that the Fine Gael leaders speech amounted to yet another meek reaffirmation of the Governments treasonous pledge to prioritise the wants of wealthy European bondholders over the needs of struggling Irish families, clearly the state broadcaster felt it was important to relay to it’s audience how the speech was received by Kenny’s European counterparts.

That this obsession to please others has permeated our highest office is not in doubt. How else to explain the succession of policies that have been taken solely with the interests of foreign bondholders and Governments in mind? From the Governments insistence on repaying foreign-owned promissory notes to allowing Angela Merkel dictate our budgets, the Irish obsession with pleasing others has led to a state of affairs where the coalition is now nothing more than a modern day Vichy Government, only summoning its dormant fighting spirit when dueling with the might of domestic dissenters such as care workers and the like. In fact, some 23 months after taking power it’s difficult to think of a single decision the coalition Government has taken where the needs and wants of the Irish people have taken precedence over those of our European cousins.

Compare and contrast the timidity of our politicians with those of other nations. Greece has already had almost half its debt wiped out by taking a hard line with Brussels and only a fool would bet against further significant concessions. And whilst no country has had as destructive an impact on the European continent over the past hundred years as Germany, that hasn’t stopped our Teutonic cousins from throwing their considerable international weight around to the point of almost single-handedly dictating the current discourse in European affairs.

And what of our nearest neighbours, the UK? In January David Cameron effectively demanded key EU policy concessions for his country on threat of terminating their EU membership. Whether the UK would actually exercise such a nuclear option is moot. The point is Britain is not afraid of asking, ‘what can you do for us?’

But Ireland, on the other hand, is loathe to use whatever bargaining tools we have to advance our own cause. Just as the calamitous Cowen Government could have at least threatened to take Ireland out of the Euro and thereby negotiate a far less punitive bailout rate than the 4.8% one they so meekly accepted, so too could the current coalition use the threat of turning elsewhere for our funding requirements to ensure a write-down of our bailout debt. Instead, we seem to be singularly obsessed with pleasing others and doing as we are told. Let nobody be in doubt that the recently mooted deal to convert annual promissory note repayments into long term Government bonds is nothing more than a tokenistic fudge, a further kicking of the can down the road. When it comes to real concessions such as a reduction in our interest rate or applying a haircut to the bailout loan the silence of the Kenny Government is deafening.

Perhaps this acceptance of our status as the runt of the European litter lies in the belief that the EU has been generous to Ireland and therefore we shall be forever in its debt. But that theory is rendered redundant when one considers that, after repaying the Troika, Ireland will be a net contributor to Europe since we joined the then European Economic Community some 40 years ago.

So what chance Ireland one day taking a leaf out of our European counterparts’ book and fighting for our own interests? Not much it seems. To do so would require a casting aside of the mental shackles that have reduced us to doormat status in the eyes of our International brethren. Besides, if we cannot stand up for ourselves now as we absorb the most unjust economic punishment the continent has seen since the Treaty of Versailles, then one wonders if we ever will. Perhaps it is simply our lot to remain forever mired in a state of miserable financial penury, only taking occasional pleasure from seeing whichever Yes Man Taoiseach of the day receive yet another pat on his head on the steps of Westminster, the Élysée Palace or the Bundestag. But never Leinster House.

Article first published in Dublin’s Best magazine, May, ’13

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