Despite Yes Vote, Fiscal Treaty Outcome Still Uncertain

The people of Ireland have spoken. But what exactly have they said? The vote to accept the Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union – or, more snappily, the fiscal treaty – was certainly decisive: around three in every five ballots cast were in favour of the treaty. There were no great regional differences in the ‘yes’ vote across the country. Turnout was low, but not drastically so.

Yet, despite all this, it difficult to say what the implications of the yes vote will be, both for Ireland and for the rest of Europe. As the results rolled in on Friday lunch team, a sanguine Eamon Gilmore told RTE News at One that the referendum result will provide a platform for Ireland to get back to the magical ‘g’ word, growth.

The Tanaiste, sadly, gave no indication of how accepting a treaty designed to enforce ever-tighter fiscal strictures across a Eurozone in the midst of a deflationary cycle would bolster the Irish economy. Indeed on its own terms the treaty is more likely to cost Irish jobs than provide the scaffolding for employment growth.

The treaty, ostensibly designed to alleviate the Eurozone crisis, commits member state governments to maintain budgets that are either balanced or in surplus. Under the terms of the treaty, annual structural deficit that exceeds 0.5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product will run the risk of a fine from the European Court. Meanwhile, government debt is not to exceed 60 per cent of GDP. Any state whose debt is in excess of this figure must reduce it by an average rate of one-twentieth per year.

On BBC Newsnight last week, Paul Krugman gave a succinct, acerbic analysis of the folly of cutting public spending (the main motor of growth in a contracting economy) during a time of depression. ‘Austerity in these conditions doesn’t even work in fiscal terms, because it shrinks the economy now and also shrinks the economy in future,’ the Nobel Prize winning economist said, before going on to compare the behaviour of UK and European governments to the medieval practice of bloodletting the ill.

The latest Euro treaty does little to address arguably Ireland’s greatest problem: the tsunami of household debt contained within the country’s failed banking sector. Writing in the Financial Times recently, Irish economist David McWilliams noted that both Ireland and Spain had lower public debt ratios than Germany when the crisis hit in 2008 – the problem is that private debt had soared during the boom. Since Ireland joined the euro a little over a decade ago, levels of household debts more than doubled.

If treaty is, in Eamon Gilmore’s words, to ‘stimulate the economy and create jobs’, it will only do so to the extent that it helps to create greater cohesion within the Eurozone and, ultimately, a change in German policies.

The fiscal compact makes no provision for much needed initiatives to ease the burden on indebted states and individuals, such as the issuing of Eurobonds, the adoption of an expansionary monetary policy or European-wide backing for the banking sector. Some, or all, of these measures will need to be enacted if the Eurozone to return to something akin to economic health.

In the end, Ireland’s comfortable yes vote was motivated as much by fear and uncertainty as any belief in the intrinsic wisdom of the treaty itself. A bad-tempered campaign, marked on both sides by accusation and counter-accusation did little to assuage an electorate that has every right to be worried, having witnessed a cataclysmic boom and bust, a protracted EU/IMF bailout and, now, a flatling economy.

A closer look at Thursday’s vote also reveals a growing rift in Irish society, between those at the razor’s edge of austerity policies and those relatively more cushioned. Solidly working class constituencies, such as Dublin North-West, voted No in far greater numbers than middle class or rural areas. This should be a huge worry for Eamon Gilmore and his Labour party, whose support has halved to just 10 per cent since last year’s general election.

Ireland’s yes to the fiscal treaty is unlikely to change the course of the crisis in the Eurozone, but the referendum could mark a turning point in Irish politics. Sinn Fein, the driving force behind the well organised No campaign, seems to have established itself as the anti-austerity party. Opinion polls put support for the republicans at 24 per cent, behind only Fine Gael. If Ireland’s economic outlook does not improve in the coming year, the next election could really change the country’s political map.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Post.

Solving Ireland’s Youth Unemployment Crisis

A recently published survey of students should make sobering reading for Ireland’s politicians. The poll, conducted by international research firm Trendence, asked 6,000 students in Irish universities if they intend to leave the country after graduation to secure a job in their chosen field. 27 per cent answered ‘yes’. In comparison, just 19 per cent of British students surveyed expect to emigrate for their first job.

That Irish students are willing to migrate for work is hardly a new phenomenon, but it does reflect a lack of job opportunities at home that is fast reaching chronic levels. According to the latest available data from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office, around one in three of under-25s in Ireland are out of education and without a job.

The situation in Ireland is, unfortunately, anything but unique. The unemployment rate among Spain’s under-25s rose to 50.5pc in January. The youth unemployment situation in Greece is just as bad. Across the rest of Europe’s so-called periphery the situation is scarcely better.

In his 2010 book, The Culture of the New Capitalism, sociologist Richard Sennett talks of a ‘spectre of uselessness’ that haunts workers, particularly in the west. ‘A defining image of the Great Depression in the 1930s,’ Sennett writes, ‘shows men clustered outside the gates of a shuttered factory, waiting for work, despite the evidence of there own eyes. The image still disturbs because the spectre of uselessness has not ended.’

To visit to any one of the lengthening dole queues across Ireland is to see this uselessness in action, or, more correctly, inaction. As I discovered recently on a visit to my local social welfare office in the Midlands, the lines of the unemployed in Ireland are packed with intelligent young people. Many have college educations. Some lost their jobs in the downturn, but more still have never had a job, they emerged from university into a country without work. All are waiting for their benefits or to apply for jobs that simply do not exist.

Official unemployment in Ireland has been hovering around 15 per cent for a couple of years now. Without emigration it would doubtless be higher – especially among young people.

It is a dereliction of duty among Ireland’s political classes to rely on London, Sydney and Toronto to solve the nation’s unemployment problem – just as it was for Michael Noonan, earlier this year, to describe the decision to leave the country as ‘a lifestyle’.

The European Union has, for once, been relatively quick to appreciate the scale of the unfolding crisis. The Commission, under the “Youth Opportunities Initiative”, is proposing to redirect €30 billion of uncommitted European Social Fund money to help develop the employability of young people across the region.

Following a European Council meeting in January, EU President Barroso wrote to the eight member states with youth unemployment levels significantly above the EU average: Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Lithuania, Italy, Portugal, Latvia and Ireland. In his letter President Barroso wrote that, ‘We need to make a special effort to boost growth and tackle the problem of youth unemployment.’ Barroso went on to say that Ireland should set up an action team to come up with a strategy for getting young people back to work.

Speaking in the Dail during a visit from Commission officials in February, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, as expected, praised the President’s initiative but stopped short of committing funds to new youth unemployment strategies. ‘We will, in the first instance, be looking at whether employment programmes might be re-focused to better effect,’ Kenny told the house.

In truth, it should not take a letter from the European President for Irish politicians to realise the breath of the problem. Last year, the National Youth Council of Ireland published a report entitled ‘Youth Unemployment in Ireland: A Forgotten Generation’. Its findings make for grim reading: 90 per cent of respondents said that being unemployed had negatively effected their sense of well-being; more than half said the quality of jobs information provided at social welfare offices was ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘poor’; and seven in ten said they were likely to emigrate in the following twelve months.

When it comes to youth unemployment, identifying the problem is likely to prove much easier than solving it. This is, in part, an effect of what the Harvard economist Richard Freeman calls ‘the Great Doubling’: in the two decades after 1989 the world’s labour force grew from 1.5 billion to 3 billion people. As the amount of labour doubled, its value was reduced, and continues to be reduced. In the US real wages have not grown since the late 1970s, while in the UK (if not Ireland) wages have been stagnated for a number of years too.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) puts youth unemployment at 74.6 million people across the world. Before our eyes we are witnessing the emergence of what Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason calls ‘a new sociological type: the graduate with no future’.

Next month the ILO will host hundreds of young people for a forum in Geneva on youth unemployment. Answers to the problem won’t come easy. The historic level of debt in the global economy is not simply going to disappear – but there may be creative solutions that small countries such as Ireland could experiment with, including the introduction of shorter working weeks and increased job sharing.

Last month I gave a presentation on the subject of unemployment to a group of students at NUIM Maynooth. After spending an hour comparing and contrasting the situation facing young people in Europe and Africa, I asked the audience how confident they themselves felt about getting a job. Most were silent, but those that did speak said they expected never to use the degrees they would graduate in. If this does come to pass, we could be looking at the largest ‘lost generation’ in living memory.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Post, April 2012.


Boris Johnson's 'lefty crap' could cost him London's Irish vote

Almost every sketch of Boris Johnson includes the same adjective: gaffe-prone. And with good reason – during his chequered political career, the current London mayor has variously accused the city of Liverpool of “wallowing” in its “victim status”, compared Tory party in-fighting to “Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing”, and described anti-capitalist Occupy protestors as “hempsmokingfornicating hippies in crusty little tents”.

But even for a man with such a vertiginous list of blunders and non-sequiturs, Johnson’s recent broadside against the St Patrick’s Day dinner in London seems particularly ill-conceived. In an interview with The New Statesman, Johnson dismissed the event, which ran from 2002 to 2008, as “lefty crap”. “I’ll tell you what makes me angry,” the London Mayor told interviewer Jemima Khan, “spending £20,000 on a dinner at the Dorchester for Sinn Fein”.

First things first, the facts. As reported in the Guardian and elsewhere, the St Patrick’s Day dinner was part of the annual celebrations established by Johnson’s predecessor in Mayor’s office, Ken Livingstone, but was not directly funded by the public pursue. The dinner never cost 20 grand: it was self-financed with any profits made donated to a London Irish charity.

The £150-per-ticket black tie event was cancelled in 2009 when Johnson decided to reduce the Mayor’s contribution to the St Patrick’s Day parade and festival from £150,000 to £100,000. As a spokesperson for the Mayor’s office said at the time: “Although the St Patrick’s Day Dinner has been self-financing in the past, this could not be guaranteed.” On these rather tenuous grounds, an event which had been popular with Irish politicians, celebrities and dignitaries (and was certainly not “for Sinn Fein”) was canned.

In some respects Johnson’s outburst is of a piece with David Cameron’s visions, still inchoate despite over a year and a half in power, for a ‘Big Society’. Without doing his homework – hardly a first for the former Have I Got News for You contestant – the London Mayor lashed out what he assumed was a government-sponsored event, the kind of state involvement that the Prime Minister frankly would like to see less of. Unfortunately, the mythical Dorchester dinner was just that, a myth. As Cameron himself is discovering, the boundaries between state and civil society are not as clearly delineated as Westminster mandarins might imagine.

However, there is a more worrying aspect to Johnson’s factually inaccurate, mean-spirited attack on the St Patrick’s Day event in London. If the spin is to be believed, Boris represents the cuddly, approachable face of modern Conservatism. With his thatched hair, smiling phizog and penchant for self-deprecation, the London Mayor putatively epitomises how far the Tories have come from the “nasty party” of Thatcher and her ilk.

But behind the sharp suits and the media training, the Conservative and Unionist Party – to give its full name – retains a deep rooted ambivalence towards Ireland and its cultural and political expressions. Johnson’s reduction of the St Patrick’s Day dinner to Sinn Fein attests to an inability – or unwillingness – to appreciate and engage with the diversity of Irish people and political visions that survives to this day, despite the successes of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland.

Given their own historical baggage on the Irish Question, it’s hardly surprising that the Tories have found it most difficult to adapt to the post-Good Friday Agreement dispensation. Last year, Johnson’s Deputy Richard Barnes, publicly compared the cost of high speed rail upgrades to the work of “Irish builders”, while too often the new, shiny Conservatives cry ‘Sinn Fein’ or ‘IRA’ to de-legitimise Irish issues and concerns, just as Boris himself has done in this instance.

The latest gaffe could turn out to be a costly one of the incumbent in May’s mayoral vote. Polling figures released earlier this week suggest that Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are neck-and-neck in the race for London Mayor. In a tight contest, the Irish vote could turn out to be crucial, especially in London’s outer-ring where many older Irish people have moved to and which is likely to be a key election battleground.

During his tenure, Boris Johnson has attempted to improve his links with Black and Asian communities, with some degree of success, but has concentrated less attention on the Irish community in London. The mayor’s latest outburst is unlikely to endear him to Irish voters.

With more and more young people leaving for London every month, Irish interest in London politics has seldom been higher. Last weekend, the Irish Independent even dedicated a leader to the contest. It’s title? ‘Why Boris is So Out of Touch’. The short piece ended with a question: ‘what are the odds that the London Irish community will exact their revenge on Mr Johnson in next May’s mayoral election?’ What odds indeed.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Post.

Irish Emigration is No Lifestyle Choice

Every St Stephen’s Day I play soccer with a group of school friends in Longford, my hometown. It’s not a pretty sight – 22 over-fed men, their prime fast disappearing over the horizon, huffing and puffing on the local Gaelic pitch – but it’s been a tradition for well over a decade, and old traditions die hard.

In recent years, our annual kickabout has taken on a decidedly international feel. Now we’ve got players jetting in from Dubai and Australia, Brighton and Barcelona (although, sadly, we’re still no closer to Barca-style tiki-taka soccer). There’s incongruous bronze suntans on show in the wan winter light, t-shirts bearing logos from bars half a world away and erstwhile schoolmates asking one another decidedly non-existentialist questions about ‘where are you these days?’

Doubtless my yuletide teammates – university-educated, under 35, upwardly mobile, ostensibly living it up in far-flung places – were the kind of people Michael Noonan had in mind when he waded into the emigration debate last week. ‘There are always young people coming and going from Ireland. Some of them are emigrants in the traditional sense, but simply there are people who want to get off the island,’ the Fine Gael Finance Minister said during a press conference on the Troika review of Ireland’s bailout program.

Noonan, who has been in the Dail since 1981 and earns a hefty six-figure salary for his troubles at Finance, went on suggest that it is wanderlust, not joblessness, that’s behind the rise in emigration: ‘For a lot of people going, it’s not being driven by unemployment at all. It’s being driven by wanting to see another part of the world.’

The most generous reading of Noonan’s remarks – elsewhere Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty described the minister’s comments as ‘deeply insulting’ – is that emigration for Irish people is a lifestyle choice, like changing hair colour or opening a Twitter account. Unfortunately, this establishment trope, echoed in 2010 by then Fianna Fail minister Mary Coughlan’s description of emigration as ‘not a bad thing’, flies in the face of reality. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute, more than 40,000 Irish people emigrated in the year to April 2011. This figure is expected to almost double this year.

With unemployment running at over 14%, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, much less a social scientist, to work out the connection between an economy choked to death by a punitive IMF/EU bailout and a seemingly endless succession of austerity budgets, and the lengthening queues at long haul flight desks at Dublin airport.

And if Irish people are so predisposed to emigration, as Noonan insinuates, why didn’t more leave during the boom? Going back to my annual soccer game (the last time, I promise): five years ago almost every single player lived within the state, most drove down from their homes in Dublin or Galway for the Christmas holidays. They lived and worked in Ireland because that is what the vast majority wanted to do. Based at the time in Belfast, I was probably the closest our game had to an exotic import (and definitely had no tan to show for my travels).

Branding emigration as a ‘lifestyle choice’ isn’t just a crass and out of touch aside from an aloof government minister. It’s part of a wider shift that depoliticizes Irish emigration, reducing it to a personal choice to stay or go that each individual makes, a self-interested decision which Irish state and society has no right to influence. Government, then, is no longer responsible for stemming the tide of emigrants at home, and is able freely to abdicate its responsibility to provide real opportunities for young people beyond ‘here’s a decent education, here’s a plane ticket, good luck’.

Depoliticizing emigration has effects outside Ireland’s geographical borders, too. If the lads playing soccer on St Stephen’s Day are wide-eyed flaneurs, freely choosing to sell their labour around the world in a global economy, any claim to a political voice back home is severely weakened. You chose to leave so why should you have any say in how the country is run now?

It’s a tired argument rehearsed ad nauseam during debates about extending voting rights to Irish emigrants before the 2011 general election. Since then positive noises made by Fine Gael and Labour about emigrant voting on the campaign trail have dissipated somewhat in a climate where government paints emigration as a youthful jaunt around the globe, rather than a difficult, often unwanted relocation.

The appointment by President Michael D Higgins of former Hackney councillor Sally Mulready as emigrant advocate on the Council of State is to be applauded. As is the government’s announcement that the issue of emigrant voting rights in presidential elections is one that will likely be discussed in the Constitutional Convention that is planned for this year.

But as long as emigration is construed as a lifestyle choice, unmoored from the social, political and economic reality at home, calls for meaningful change in Ireland and wider political representation for emigrants abroad will continue to fall on stony ground.

 This piece originally appeared in the Irish Post.

Votes for emigrants

Last Monday morning, as Green Party leader John Gormley sounded the coalition’s death knell at a press conference in Dublin, my mind immediately turned to one thing: the general election that will, sooner or later, take place back in Ireland.

‘Will be interesting to see how many ex-pats go home to vote. I definitely will,’ I chirped cockily on Twitter. Having watched with horror the current administration’s botched attempts to extricate Ireland from a banking crisis they helped create, nothing would stop me playing my part in putting them out of their misery at the ballot box. Or so I thought.

Within five minutes my post had received a handful of replies. Some were from other Irish people living in Britain, saying they would be making the journey back for the election too, but others warned that emigrants are not allowed to vote, that to do so constitutes fraud and carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.

‘Surely that can’t be correct. Irish citizens must be able to vote in Irish elections’, I thought, furiously checking various websites for information. But my digital interlocutors were right: those not ‘ordinarily resident’ – anyone who has lived outside the state for 18 months or more – cannot vote in Irish elections.

Ireland is only country in the EU, and one of only 50 countries around the world, that does not allow passport holders living abroad to vote. Unlike citizens of Ghana, Mexico, Dominican Republic and around 115 other countries, Irish people living outside the Republic of Ireland are barred from directly participating in the electoral process.

I confess I felt slightly embarrassed not to know that I don’t have a vote – I’ve lived outside Ireland for a couple of general elections – but based on a straw poll conducted among emigrant Irish friends here in the UK I am not alone in my ignorance.

Successive Irish leaders have often, rightly, made much of the Diaspora’s reach, and its success. Estimates vary but there at least 70 million people of Irish descent dotted across the globe, while almost every family living in Ireland has experience of emigration. So why then are we not allowed to have our say in how Ireland is governed? Why does Ireland, alone among its EU partners, bar its citizens from voting if they are domicile outside the 26 counties?

Noreen Bowden, a Diaspora consultant who was born in New York but spent the past 12 years living in Ireland, believes that Irish emigrants’ have paid the price for their own generosity. ‘Irish people aboard are very generous to Ireland in so many ways so there’s never been much of a need to go the extra mile to engage with them politically. Many countries have allowed emigrants to vote as a way to encourage them to contribute economically. Ireland has never needed to do that,’ the editor of explained to me last week.

Emigrant voting rights have, of course, been on the political agenda in Ireland for quite some time. Back in the 1990s there were serious proposals to elect representatives of the Diaspora to the Seanad, in much the same way that universities hold six seats in the second house. Unfortunately this suggestion came to nought following a split between advocates of immediate full voting rights for emigrants and those who saw the Seanad as a first step towards this broader goal.

More recently a mandate to prepare a proposal for extending the franchise at presidential elections to include the Irish abroad was included in the current coalition’s Programme for Government. Even this proposition, which falls far short of the full representation emigrants’ deserve, has gone nowhere. Indeed both John Gormley and Brian Cowen denied all knowledge of it when questioned on the subject in the Dail by their own colleague Michael Martin.

In the matter of voting rights, as in so much else, all citizens are not equal. At both Lisbon treaty votes it was widely reported that Irish representatives in Brussels flew back home en masse to vote, despite not being ordinarily resident in Ireland. Indeed back in late 2008 there was much of talk that former Taoiseach John Bruton would be charged by the DPP with a criminal offence under the electoral acts following a complaint from a member of the public that the then EU Ambassador to the US had broken the law by flying home to vote in the Lisbon referendum. After a four-month investigation the case against Bruton was dropped.

Familiar strawmen are often marshalled to argue against extending the franchise to include emigrants: Who would qualify to vote? The number of Irish abroad dwarfs those at home, if everyone was allowed to vote they could introduce changes that might not benefit those that actually live in Ireland. And what about Northern Ireland? Would Irish citizens there be included?

The way to resolve these problems is not to blithely say that no one outside the jurisdiction can vote, instead lawmakers and politicians should work together to fashion a fair, practical system that finally allows all Irish citizens to have their rightful say. It is the very least we deserve.

We are living through a time of political upheaval on a scale seldom seen in Ireland since the foundation of the state, almost 90 years ago. As the current, discredited administration crumbles the clamour for political reform, and even a ‘Second Republic’, grows ever louder.

An important plank in any future reform must be extending voting rights to Irish emigrants, and not just for presidential elections. With its proud emigrant history, Ireland is the last country that should be excluding its Diaspora.

Given the current political turmoil in Dublin a legally binding resolution permitting Irish men and women abroad to vote is highly unlikely before the next general election.

But the campaign to extend the franchise should not wait until there is a new administration installed in Government Buildings. I wonder how many people in Ireland are aware that emigrants are excluded from the democratic process? Surely it’s time to remind them of this sad fact.

This piece first appeared in the Irish Post