Monthly Archives: March 2012

Ireland’s Debt and the Heart of St. O’Toole

Ireland’s Debt & the Heart of St. O’Toole

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

March 17, 2012

Someone has pinched the heart of St. Lawrence O’Toole, and thereby hangs a typical Irish tale filled with metaphors, parallels, and some pretty serious weirdness.

Who done it? The suspects are many and varied.

Could the heist from Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral have been engineered by the infamous “troika” of the European Commission, the European Bank, and the International Monetary Fund?  Seems like a stretch, but consider the following: O’Toole—patron saint of Dublin—was, according to the Catholic Church, famous for practicing “the greatest austerity.” Lawrence liked to wear a hair shirt underneath his Episcopal gowns and spent 40 days in a cave each year.

That is a point of view the troika can respect. They have overseen a massive austerity program in Ireland that has strangled the economy, cut wages 22 percent, slashed education, health care, and public transport, raised taxes and fees, and driven the jobless rate up to 15percent—30% if you are young. At this rate many Irish will soon be living in caves, and while hair shirts may be uncomfortable, they are warm.

There are other suspects as well. For instance, St. O’Toole was friendly with the Norman/English King Henry II, who conquered the island in 1171. The Irish are not enamored of Henry II, indeed most of them did their level best to drive the bastard into the sea. Not Lawrence. He welcomed Henry to Dublin and, according to the Church, “Paid him due deference.”

So “deference” establishes yet another suspect: the current Fine Gael/Labor ruling coalition. Fine Gael leader and Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny has already signed the new European Treaty, but was forced to put it up for a public referendum at home (no other EU county is being allowed to vote “yea” or “nay”). Kenny is pressing for a “yes” vote, and Labor’s Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore argues that a “yes” vote would be a “vote for economic stability and a vote for economic recovery.”

The Treaty will not only continue the austerity program, it will move decision-making to EU headquarters in Brussels. This means that governments will be powerless when it comes to the economy. Think “Model United Nations” and lots of earnest high school students.

Who will make these decisions? Good question. Well, it turns out that a committee of the German Bundestag debated the Irish austerity proposals before the Dublin government even got a chance to look at them. How did that happen? Again, good question, but no answer yet.

Maybe German Chancellor Andrea Merkel lifted O’Toole’s heart. She certainly has a motive: Merkel is leading the “austerity is good for you” charge, a stance that has battered economies from Spain to Greece. In any case, the Irish are already suspicious of the German chancellor. An anti-austerity demonstration outside the Dail, Ireland’s parliament, featured a poster calling government ministers “Angela’s Asses.”

Much of the economic crisis in Europe—and virtually all of it in Ireland— is due to the out-of-control speculation by German banks, along with the Dutch, Austrian, and French financial institutions.  “Yet it is the working people of Ireland and Europe who are being asked to pay the price,” argues Des Dalton of Sinn Fein. It appears that the Germans have discovered that one does not need Panzer divisions to conquer Europe, just bankers and compliant governments.

“Compliant,” however, has run into some difficulties in Ireland, a place where “difficulty” is a very common noun. On Mar. 2, Sinn Fein President Jerry Adams trekked out to Castlebar in the west of Ireland to resurrect the ghost of Michael Davitt, founder of the Land League and leader of the 1878 Land War (there was an earlier one from 1761 to 1784, but more on that later). Adams told the Mayo County crowd “The Irish people cannot afford this treaty.”

The Castlebar symbolism was about as heavy as you can get. Davitt, along with the great Irish Parliamentarian Charles Stewart Parnell, launched the land war from that city, calling up the words of the great revolutionary, James Fintan Lalor: “I hold and maintain that the entire soil of a country belongs by right to the entire people of that country.”

These days that is not a popular sentiment in most European capitals, where governments are shedding public ownership in everything from airlines to energy production. The Irish government is trying to sell off several lucrative holdings, including Aer Lingus, Ireland’s natural gas company, and parts of its Electricity Supply Board. The state’s forestry will be sold as well. “It is the depth of treachery to sell billions of Euros worth of State assets to pay bad gambling debts,” Socialist Party member Joe Higgins said in the Dail.

The land wars were a reaction to efforts by the English to apply to Ireland the Enclosure Acts, a policy that sold “common land” to private landowners and forced the rural population of England, Scotland and Wales into the hellishness of industrial Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool.

As Laura Nader and Ugo Mattei maintain in their book “Plunder: When the rule of law is illegal,” what is currently happening in Ireland (and all over Europe) is a 21st century version of the Enclosure Acts. The last vestiges of public ownership are being systematically auctioned to the highest bidder, and the concept of “the common good” is fading like the ghost of providence.

But not without a fight.

While Adams was resurrecting the spirit of Michael Davitt, demonstrators were besieging Parliaments in Greece, Spain and Romania.

Ireland rejected two previous European treaties, only to pass them in a second round of voting. However, under the new rules, it no longer has veto power. If 12 out of the 17 Euro Zone countries endorse—pretty much considered a slam-dunk—then the new treaty goes into effect.

A number of commentators are saying that the 12 country threshold makes the Irish referendum irrelevant, but a “no” vote will be a blow to the Euro currency, and it might eventually encourage similar “no” votes in other countries.  In that sense, the Irish tail could end up wagging the European dog.

Since Irish stories always include parallels, there is certainly one to be made between the first land war and the current debt crisis. The 1761 effort by English landlords to apply the Enclosure Acts to Ireland ignited resistance, first in Limerick, then spreading to Munster, Connacht and Leinster. Crowds of Irish tenants dressed in linen masks and coats—hence their generic name, the” Whiteboys”— burned hayricks, knocked down enclosure walls, and hamstrung cattle. On occasion they pitched land agents into the local bog.

The Irish resistance to the Enclosure Acts was not unique, but a very odd thing happened in Ireland: they won. A combination of population growth and war had driven up the price of food, so even the small-scale agriculture practiced by the Irish was profitable. Plus the rent capital skimmed off the Irish peasantry was playing an important role in helping to capitalize the English industrial revolution. Add to this the resistance, and the English decided that it was in their best interests to back off.

The average Irish tenant knew nothing about international finance or capital accumulation, but they got the idea that if you dug in your heels and went toe-to-toe with the buggers, you could beat them. It was a momentous experience, and a collective memory that would help fuel more than 150 years of rebellion.

Can the current Irish resistance movement turn the tide against the austerity madness that has gripped the European continent? Well, the Left is on the rise (in some places, so is the Right). Sinn Fein’s support in the most recent opinion polls shows a 25 percent approval ratting, up 4 percent. In comparison, Fianna Fail—the party that ushered in the current crisis—has dropped from 20 percent to 16 percent. Labor has fallen to 10 percent, and Fine Gael is at 32 percent. Other Left parties are also doing well.

Indeed, the Left seems to be resurging in other countries as well. A center-left party in Slovakia ousted a right-wing government, and France seems posted to vote socialist. The Greek Left is fractious, but its various stripes now make up a majority.

Weirdness. Remember weirdness? For starters, an 832-year-old heart is pretty strange. And it wasn’t just the heart that was snatched. Someone also stole a splinter of the “true cross” (if one added up all the splinters in all the Cathedrals of Europe you end up with a fair size forest). And then there is the matter of the cheekbone of St. Brigid that just missed getting lifted from a church in North Dublin.

In the end, saints will not preserve Ireland from an invasion of the austerity snakes. The Irish people will have to do that. But they sport an impressive track record of overturning imperial designs, and they have long memories: put enough people into the streets of Castlebar (Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Galway, Limerick, etc) and the bastards will back off.

As Adams said in Castlebar, “Stand together, stand united, and there is nothing we cannot achieve.”



Filed under Europe

Syria: A Way Out

Syria: A Way Out?

Dispatches From the Edge

There are two tales about the crisis in Syria.

In one, the vast majority of Syrians have risen up against the brutality of a criminal dictatorship. The government of Bashar al Assad is on the ropes, isolated regionally and internationally, and only holding on because Russia and China vetoed United Nations intervention. U.S. Secretary to State Hillary Clinton describes Assad as “a war criminal,” and President Barak Obama called him a “dead man walking.”

In the other, a sinister alliance of feudal Arab monarchies, the U.S. and its European allies, and al-Qaeda mujahedeen are cynically using the issue of democracy to overthrow a government most Syrians support, turn secular Syria into an Islamic stronghold, and transform Damascus into a loyal ally of Washington and Saudi Arabia against Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Like most stories, there is truth and fiction in both versions, but separating myth from reality is desperately important, because Syria sits at the strategic heart of the Middle East. Getting it wrong could topple dominoes from Cairo to Ankara, from Beirut to Teheran.

There is no question but that last March’s demonstrations were a spontaneous reaction to the Syrian government’s arrest and torture of some school children in Deraa. What is more, that the corruption of the Assad family—they dominate the army, the security forces, and much of the telecommunications, banking and construction industry, coupled with the suffocating and brutal security forces, underlies the anger that fuels the uprising.

But is also true that outside players—specifically the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the U.S., as well as Sunni extremist organizations—all have irons in the fire. Indeed, there is the profound irony that, while the GCC condemns Syria for oppressing its citizens, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are crushing homegrown democratic movements in their own countries. Or that Washington should be on the same page as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda.

And while there is no denying the brutality of the Assad regime, or that some 7,500 to 8,000 Syrians have died over the past year, Israel’s 2008-09 invasion of Gaza—Operation Cast Lead—killed a greater percentage of Palestinians per capita. When countries in the region tried to stop the Gaza War, it was the U.S. who blocked any UN action. In the Middle East, double standards and hypocrisy are par for the course.

The Syrian crisis is not a simple “good guys vs. bad guys,” democrats vs. a dictator, with the overwhelming majority confronting an entrenched, thuggish elite.

First, while the current uprising represents a substantial number of Syrians, the Assad regime has domestic support. As Jonathan Steele of the Guardian (UK) points out, a recent You Gov Siraj poll on Syria commissioned by The Doha Debates and funded by Qatar found that, while a majority of non-Syrian Arabs wanted Assad to resign, 55 percent of Syrians wanted him to remain.

The poll was hardly a ringing endorsement of Assad—half of that 55 percent wanted free elections—but it reflects the fact that most Syrians fear a civil war. That is hardly a surprise. The U.S. invasion and subsequent civil war in Iraq flooded Syria with millions of refugees and terrible tales of murder, torture, and sectarian bloodshed. And Syrians had a front row seat for Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.

A Syrian dissident, Salim Kheirbek, told the New Yorker “No more than thirty percent of the people are involved in the resistance. The other 70 percent, if not actually with the regime, are silent, because it is not convincing to them, and especially after what happened in Iraq and Libya. These people want reforms, but not at any price.”

While the recent referendum on reforming the Syrian constitution was widely dismissed by the U.S., Europe and the GCC, it appears that close to 60 percent of the voters turned out to overwhelmingly endorse the proposals.

Part of the Assad regime’s support comes from minority communities, in particular Christians and Alawites, who, make up 10 percent and 12 percent respectively, of Syria’s 24 million people. Alawites are a variety of Shiite, and the sect dominates the government. Sunnis make up the majority. Syria also has Kurdish, Druze, Armenian, Bedouin, and Turkomen communities. It is estimated that the country has 47 different religious and ethnic groups.

Alawites and Christians have reason for concern. As a recent New York Times story reported, demonstrators in Hom, one of the centers of the uprising, chanted “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave.” Al-Qaeda routinely describes Shiites as “a bone in Islam’s throat” and targets Shiite communities in Iraq and Pakistan.

Nor is Syria isolated regionally or internationally. While the Arab League has condemned the Assad government, not everyone in the organization is on board. Damascus has support in Lebanon and Iraq, and neutrality from Jordan (Amman also remembers the chaos of the Iraq war).  Algeria—North Africa’s big dog on the block—has been sharply critical of the League.

“The Arab League is no longer a league and it’s far from Arab,” Algerian State Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadam told Agence France Presse, “since it asks the Security Council to intervene against one of the [the League’s] founding members, and calls upon NATO to destroy the resources of Arab countries.”

On Feb. 15, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for Assad to step down, but countries like Brazil and India, while deploring the violence, have made it clear they oppose anything involving military intervention or arming the main opposition force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Even Turkey, while calling for Assad’s resignation, has begun hedging its bets, and dropped any talk of creating “safe zones” along its border with Syria.

Most countries fear that a Syrian civil war would spread to Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and maybe into the Gulf states.

While the situation on the ground in Syria is hardly clear, the Syrian Army and security services appear to be sticking with Assad for now. If that continues, the rebels may keep the pot  boiling, but, without outside intervention by NATO, it is unlikely they can overthrow the regime. On the other hand, after a year of fighting, Damascus has not succeeded in ending the rebellion.

It short, it looks like a stalemate, in which case the current campaign to aid the rebels and force Syria’s president out is exactly the wrong strategy and one guaranteed to prolong the bloodshed.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and several U.S. senators have called for arming the FSA, a particularly bad idea because it is not at all clear who they are. There are persistent reports that the organization includes a goodly number of jihadists from Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. In any case, handing out weapons to people you don’t know, to fight people you don’t like is a formula for repeating the Afghanistan disaster.

Second, the demand for regime change—and threats to charge Assad and those around him with war crimes—makes this a war to the death. Why would the Damascus government compromise if the end game is exile and prison?

The only solution to a stalemate is negotiations. The Russians have offered to host such talks, but so far the fractious Syrian National Council says it won’t talk until Assad resigns. The U.S. and the GCC have similar positions. However, talks will only work if both sides have an incentive to enter them, which means dropping the regime change demand, ending the sanctions, and shelving any talk of aiding the FSA.

Maybe events have gone too far, but at this point that doesn’t appear to be the case. Instead of condemning them, the Russians and the Chinese should be encouraged to negotiate a ceasefire and the opposition should take up the Russian’s offer to host talks with the Assad government. The recent referendum can serve as a jumping off point for re-writing the constitution.

For this to happen, however, the regional players, the U.S., and the European Union will have to stop using Syria as a proxy battleground. As Dan Meridor, Israel’s intelligence Minister, told the New York Times, supporting the Syrian uprising was important because, “If the unholy alliance of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah can be broken, that is very positive.”

For whom? Is this about freedom and democracy, or a calculated move on a regional chessboard?



Filed under Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Yemen, Etc, Middle East