Sceptics say oil find will not mean boom for Irish economy

IRELAND’S devastated economy received a boost yesterday with the announcement that an offshore field at Barryroe, 30 miles off the coast of County Cork, could yield up to 280 million barrels of oil.

Providence Resources, an Irish and UK company that has been drilling at six locations off the coast of Ireland, said Barryroe will yield more oil than expected, which could trigger an oil rush off the Republic’s coastline.

“It’s very good news for Providence shareholders and the Irish economy,” Providence chief executive Tony O’Reilly said. “We hope this will not be a single project. From an Irish perspective, here we have no oil industry. This really heralds the beginning of that industry.”

Mr O’Reilly said the oil recovery rate during exploration had exceeded expectations and, with oil at about $100 per barrel it was a “big moment” for Irish oil exploration and the Irish economy.

Ireland has extensive, untapped oil and gas reserves. The area off the west coast alone contains potential reserves of 10 billion barrels of oil equivalent (oil or gas), according to a 2006 study for the Irish government. This estimate does not include areas off Ireland’s south coast, where Providence’s offshore field is located.

However, serious doubts have been raised about the benefit of the Providence oil find for the Irish economy. Under a deal signed by former premier Charles Haughey in the 1980s, when a company finds oil or gas in Irish territory ownership and control of the resource is transferred in full to the company.

The only guaranteed benefit to Ireland from extraction of resources is a 25 per cent corporation tax on the profits declared from the sale of the oil or gas. Before declaring profits, the company can write off 100 per cent of costs from the previous 25 years against tax, including the cost of previous, unsuccessful wells drilled anywhere in Irish waters and costs incurred in other countries.

Ireland’s minister for communications, energy and natural resources, Pat Rabbitte, has admitted that the tax take from oil in Ireland will be much lower than in the UK, but has argued that the low rate will make Ireland attractive for foreign oil companies.

Whether the oil from Barryroe will be landed in Cork or elsewhere in Europe remains unclear, but many expect refinement and related processes to take place outside Ireland.
Even extensive oil extraction is unlikely to create more than “a few hundred jobs” in Ireland, said Conor McCabe, author of Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman. 

From Dream Home to Living Hell: Life on Ireland’s Ghost Estates

Noelle McHale bought her “dream home” in a new estate in Ireland’s midlands in 2006 for €175,000 (£142,000 today). But her dream has turned to nightmare with her semi-detached worth only a fraction of that price, and the unfinished estate it sits in considered dangerously unsafe because of toxic gases.

“If you light a match it can cause an explosion. I’ve stopped lighting fires, I have to keep the windows open, and the water in the toilet full,” Ms McHale said.

Already this year, a build up of methane and carbon monoxide is believed to have caused two blasts at Gleann Riada, on the edge of Longford. In one house, now boarded up, windows and doors were blown out. “It is the luck of god that someone wasn’t killed,” said John McNamara, a chartered engineer and advocate for the estate’s residents.

Gleann Riada is one of around 2,800 unfinished housing developments, scars of the Celtic Tiger boom, which pockmark Ireland. Some are almost completed, but others have serious problems.

Built on an area prone to flooding, Gleann Riada is worse than most. Subsidence has left concrete walls tottering and footpaths buckled. Inadequately treated sewage is thought to be the primary cause of the build up of poisonous gases. The estate “is unsafe” until “necessary and immediate remedial work” is carried out, Dr Kevin Kelleher, author of a report into the explosions on the site, told the a local paper earlier this month.

The developer has gone bust, but the local council maintains that, as a private estate, residents must bear the costs of repairs. Mr McNamara estimates the cost at €5 million. “Who’s got that kind of money?’ asks Ms McHale.

With many unable to afford alternative accommodation, most Gleann Riada residents, who hail from Poland, India and Russia as well as Ireland, have been forced to remain on the estate, in fear of their lives.

Ireland is now paying a heavy price for the lax planning and building regime of the boom years. In February, two-year-old Liam Keogh died after drowning in a pool of water on an unfinished estate in Athlone, Westmeath, around 30 miles from Longford. In Dublin, more than 240 residents of the Priory Hall apartment complex have been moved out of their homes for more than a year after a court ordered work to make the building safe. It was built by former IRA hunger striker Tom McFeely, declared bankrupt in July.

“There is a question as to are these estates the tip of the iceberg?” says Professor Rob Kitchin, director of the national institute for regional and spatial analysis at Maynooth university and the lead author of A Haunted Landscape: Housing and Ghost Estates in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Earlier this week, campaigners called on the government to provide support for the up to 40,000 homeowners whose foundations were built using pyrite. When exposed to air or water, pyrite (iron sulphide, or fool’s gold), becomes unstable and cause walls and floors to crack.

The government has so far pledged just €5m for the repair of unfinished estates. “They are being left to hang in the wind. The government strategy is ‘we will try to deal with health and safety issues as best way we can and hope for market correction’,” says Prof Kitchin.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, October 19, 2012.

Ulster Covenant’s Scottish Resonances

THE prospect of independence in Scotland is a world apart from the quashed Irish bid for home rule in 1912, writes Peter Geoghegan.

“THE DARK eleventh hour draws on and sees us sold to every evil power we fought against of old.” So begins Rudyard Kipling’s poem Ulster 1912. Now fondly remembered as the hirsute creator of The Jungle Book, Kipling was a passionate agitator on behalf of the Protestant cause in the north of Ireland. After refutations of Rome rule and English duplicitousness, Ulster 1912 ends with a rather fateful proclamation: “We shall not fall alone.”

Kipling’s poem, penned almost a century ago, was a passionate paean to a pivotal event in Irish history that celebrates its centenary today – the Ulster Covenant. Almost half a million Ulster men and women put their names to the covenant, in protest at the then-Liberal government’s intention to introduce home rule in Ireland. Sir Edward Carson, erstwhile MP for Trinity College, Dublin and, later first prime minister of Northern Ireland, was the first signature, at Belfast City Hall. Similar signing ceremonies were held across the north, with crowds gathering to pledge their fealty, if not quite to the United Kingdom than at least to Ulster.

Kipling’s bombast seems even-tempered compared to the text of the covenant itself. “[R]elying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted”, covenant signatories pledged “to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy”. This was not empty rhetoric.

In 1912, the unionist militia that was to become the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed. Two years later, almost twenty-five thousand rifles and three million rounds of ammunition were smuggled into Ulster in what became known as the Larne gun-running. Any doubts about the Protestant people of Ulster’s capacity to suppress, first, the home rule ambitions of the Irish Parliamentary party and Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, and, later, Irish republicans were dispelled. Ireland would eventually gain independence, but the north would, of course, remain part of the United Kingdom.

The impact of the covenant was keenly felt in many parts of Scotland. It was drafted by Belfast merchant Thomas Sinclair, a Gladstonian who broke with the Grand Old Man after the Liberal leader adopted the policy of Irish home rule. Sinclair, who had a very developed sense of his Scottish identity, consciously echoes the Scottish Covenanters lexicon in his text. Indeed, the Ulster Covenant was often referred to as “the Solemn League and Covenant” in homage to the agreement of the same name signed between Scottish Covenanters and the leaders of the English Parliamentarians in 1643.

“It was this Presbyterian tradition that supplied the rebellious spirit of 1912,” says Graham Walker, professor of political history at Queen’s University, Belfast.

The campaign against home rule for Ireland had popular support in Scotland, particularly on the west coast, with thousands turning out to see Edward Carson in Glasgow. Many Scots were among the two million signatures to the British Covenant, a protest, mirrored on the Ulster version, which circulated in 1914. However, says Prof Walker, Scottish enthusiasm for the Unionist cause in Ulster was less pronounced than many Irish Protestants hoped. “Unionists [in Ulster] were disappointed by the less than full-blooded support of their co-religionists in Scotland”.

That Ulster Protestants would look to Scotland for validation is hardly surprisingly. As the periodic debates about sectarianism here attest, the legacy of Scots-Irish relations remains vexed. Less controversial is that many lowland Scots participated in the plantation of Ulster, which started around 1600. The remnants of this migration are still felt today in the names, religion and dialect of many in what is now Northern Ireland, particularly in the areas closest to Scotland.

Between 1840 and 1920, the flow of migrants was reversed. As the famine ravaged Ireland, increasing numbers escaped across the Irish Sea to Scotland. According to census results, in 1841, 126,321 people in Scotland (4.8 per cent of the population) were Irish-born. Within a decade this figure had risen to 207,367 (7.2 per cent). These new migrants settled across Scotland, but those coming from Ulster, both Catholic and Protestant, tended to congregate in Glasgow and smaller towns in the west of Scotland.

As Alasdair McKillop notes in a recent Scottish Review essay, Protestants accounted for between a quarter and a third of all Irish immigrants who arrived in Scotland in the 19th century.

The vast majority were from the north of Ireland; and many went on to join the Orange Order, which, although initially established here by Scots army regiments returning from Ulster was, until the 1920s, largely a society for emigre Ulster Protestants in Scotland.

The Orange Order remains an obvious connection for Protestants east and west of Ailsa Craig. During the 1920s, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Scots joined the order, including the secretary of state for Scotland, John Gilmour. While its support remained strongest in areas of historic Irish-Protestant migration, many Scots with no connection with Ulster, or Ireland, enrolled in the organisation.

The order is not the force it once was in Scottish politics – indeed some, such as Professor Eric Kaufmann, would argue that the power of the putative “Orange Vote” has often been overstated but there are still more than 180 lodges in the Glasgow area alone, and around 8,000 people attended July’s annual Orange Walk in the city. A century on from the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the union faces its gravest existential threat yet – Scottish independence. Orange leaders, thankfully, have largely recognised that the SNP are not, and never will be, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the political situation in Scotland today is very different from that which existed in Ireland in 1912.

“There is no religious tension in Scotland, no armed uprising, no open rebellion. It’s not a case of taking up arms to defend the Union,” Ian Wilson, a former Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Scotland, said in an address to the annual Orange parade in Broughshane, County Antrim, on 12 July. The case for the Union, Wilson said, must be made “by persuasion, by campaigning, and through the ballot box”.

Northern Irish unionists have yet to made a compelling case for their inclusion at the top table at the independence salon. Earlier this week, Dr David Hume, director of services at the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, claimed Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland are “stakeholders” who should to be given a vote in the 2014 referendum. Dr Hume was speaking at a Glasgow event in to commemorate the centenary of the signing of the Ulster covenant.

Notwithstanding the practical problems pertaining to Dr Hume’s proposition — how do you define Ulster Scots? Would people of Scottish descent elsewhere in the world be allowed to vote? The reality is that Ulster Scots can participate in the debate, not by voting but by well-made, reasoned interjections, presumably, in support of the Union.

Many Northern Irish unionist spokespeople have failed to appreciate the subtleties of the debate on this side of the Irish Sea – as former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble’s fatuous suggestion that the SNP are “doing violence” to people’s identities illustrated.

What happens in Scotland still matters in Northern Ireland, as any football fan knows, but Scotland 2014 is not Ulster 1912. Until Northern Irish unionists grasp that difference their voice in the independence is bound to remain muted.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, 28 September. 

Sting of economic reality fails to mute Kosovo’s independence joy

THE conference that took place recently in the Kosovan capital Pristina to mark the end of the country’s supervised independence was billed as “chapter closed in the Balkans”.

But away from the panel discussions and the diplomatic soirees, the atmosphere on Pristina’s streets was more subdued than celebratory.

The end of the supervision of Kosovo’s independence is not purely symbolic: the office of International Civilian Representative has been abolished. For the past four years, the representative, in the shape of Dutch diplomat Pieter Feith, has had the power to strike down legislation passed by the elected assembly.

But, unlike the declaration of independence in 2008, the conferring of executive powers on Kosovo was not met with flag-waving crowds or blaring car horns. “We’ve been having historic moments like this for so long, it’s ridiculous,” Dren Pozhegu, a young policy analyst, said. “Independence is nice but if it doesn’t come with economic progress, it won’t change anything.”

Dren is one of the lucky ones – he has a job. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe and almost certainly the highest rate of unemployment – unofficial estimates suggest that as many of 40 per cent of the population are out of work. Kosovo needs to create around 25,000 new jobs every year just to maintain employment at its current level.

Despite annual average GDP growth of over 4 per cent, Kosovo’s economy is struggling to make the transition from Yugoslav communism to independent free-market. Last year, Kosovan exports totalled just €300 million. Without remittances the situation would be even worse. “There are two long-term threats to this country – the economy and corruption,’ said a British official in the International Civilian Office, which is also being disbanded as part of the ending of supervision.

Privatisation is one of the government’s main economic strategies. The World Bank and the European Union are strongly in favour of privatising Kosovan state companies but internal opposition to the sales are mounting.

The end of supervised independence came in the wake of a July announcement by International Steering Group, which includes the UK and the US among its 25 members, that Kosovo has largely implemented the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement, better known as the Ahtissari Plan. Nevertheless, the issue of Kosovan sovereignty remains a live one. The new state is still not recognised by the UN, or its neighbour and antagonist in the 1999 war, Serbia.

These political tensions are all too evident in the northern city of Mitrovica. The bridge dividing Serb-dominated north Mitrovica from the Albanian south has been blockaded for over a year. On the northern bank, rows of Serbian flags hang limply from lampposts outside Communist-era flat blocks.

Pristina’s control does not extend into north Mitrovica and the other Serb municipalities in the north. As elsewhere in Kosovo, the problems in the north will require economic as well as well as political solutions, says Brikenda Rexhepi, a journalist at Kosovan newspaper Koha Ditore.

Despite the infant state’s teething problems, she is confident about the future. “However the situation is now, we are never going back to Serbia. People would rather starve than go back to Serbia.”

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, 24 September. 

Why We Need More Banking, Not Less

IN THE wake of the 2008 crash, thousands of people are moving their accounts from the Big Five banks every month.

Crisis? What crisis? The immortal phrase – created by a Sun journalist, but erroneously attributed to then prime minister Jim Callaghan – helped bring down a Labour government in 1979, but could as easily have been coined to describe the shoddy state of high street banking in Britain today.

In June, a massive IT systems failure left customers of RBS, Nat West and Ulster Bank unable to access their money. Then Barclays was fined a record £290 million for its role in rigging the London interbank offered rate, Libor, the interest rate used, among other things, to determine the cost of borrowing for millions of households and businesses.

Just two days later, the Financial Services Authority found Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and RBS guilty of mis-selling specialist interest to thousands of small businesses. The products, many of which came with huge monthly payments, had a “severe impact on a large number of these businesses”, according to the authority.

Such malfeasance is not restricted to the UK’s so-called Big Five – earlier this month, Standard Chartered agreed to pay £217m to settle allegations from a US regulator that it laundered £160 billion for Iranian clients, contravening international sanctions – but the concentration of Britain’s banking sector greatly increases the risk of corrupt practice.

Currently, HSBC, Barclays, RBS, Santander and Lloyds hold about 85 per cent of all current accounts. However, there are signs that this is starting to change. Each month about 80,000 customers are leaving the big high street banks for alternatives, say campaign group Move Your Money. Among the beneficiaries have been Triodos, an “ethical bank” which recently opened a branch in Hanover Street in Edinburgh, and Handelsbanken, a Swedish bank that doesn’t pay staff bonuses and has more than 100 branches in the UK.

Earlier this summer, the Co-operative Group bought 632 former Lloyds branches, in a move that should more than double its share of the banking sector to more than 6 per cent.

“The big question really is why more people aren’t leaving [the Big Five banks],” says Tony Greenham, head of finance and business at the New Economics Foundation. While many customers are dissatisfied with their bank’s behaviour, from deteriorating in-branch service to the plethora of hidden charges, fear and lethargy are powerful disincentives to change.

“Most people can find anything else they would rather do than switch their current account,” says Greenham, who proposes allowing current account numbers to be transferred across institutions, in the same way as mobile phone numbers, as one way to encourage switching.

An advertising budget running into the hundreds of millions is one reason unhappy customers are staying with the Big Five. Another is that most know little or nothing of banking life beyond the high street. This, however, was not always the case.

Housed in the impressive former head office of the Bank of Scotland, the Museum on the Mound in Edinburgh is designed as a glowing tribute to one of Scotland’s financial sector. But it also, rather unwittingly, tells another story, that of the massive consolidation of British banks that began towards the end of the 19th century, and lasts to this day.

The turn of the century was a period of bank mergers on a heretofore unseen scale, as Andrew Simms and David Boyle detail in Eminent Corporations: The Rise and Fall of the Great British Brands. In 1918, Westminster expressed concern about this “merger mania”, but eventually dropped the idea of anti-trust legislation. By 1920, there were just five big banks left standing.

Arguably, the model of a small number of megabanks served Britain reasonably well for 60 years – or at least was not completely deleterious – but all this changed in the 1980s, as the banking sector’s focus shifted from serving existing customers to increasing shareholder value. The 1986 deregulation of financial markets in the City of London, the Big Bang, cemented this cultural shift, with disastrous consequences.

“Banks have been driven by a different ethos, where it is all about flogging stuff to people and hitting sales targets,” says Greenham.

In the wake of the 2008 crash, which it is now apparent was as much the fault of banking cultures as it was of a dodgy subprime mortgages in the United States, banks have moved from risky investments to tapping their own customers to shore up their distressed balance sheets. While base rates have remained at historic low levels, interest on personal loans has not been reduced, greatly increasing bank profits on private debt.

Unlike the global economy, bankers’ bonuses show no signs of slowing down: last year, pay for chief executives at 15 leading US and European banks rose by 12 per cent. This followed a 36 per cent increase in 2010.

The banking sector needs increased competition, and that means more, smaller banks. But starting a new bank is not easy. When Metro, a small bank operating mainly in South-east England, opened its doors in 2010, it became the first new bank in a century to be granted a licence in the UK.

As Channel Four’s revealing fly-on-the-wall documentary Bank of Dave showed, start-up banks such as David “Dave” Fishwick’s Burnley Savings & Loan face numerous barriers to entry: from daunting legislative and administrative rules to an inability to compete with the putatively “free” current accounts offered by the big banks.

The situation in other countries is very different. In Germany, a third of the banking sector is comprised of co-operatives (or mutuals). Another third are Sparkassen, local savings banks that are intimately tied to the local economy and are very stable. These small banks operate on what is called the “church steeple” principle: loans are only made to businesses in the local area, that you can see from the church steeple in the middle of the town.

Credit unions are almost unheard of the UK (at least outside Glasgow, which has the highest concentration of credit unions in the country), but in Canada 30 per cent of the population holds a credit union savings book. This allows them to both save and take loans, generally up to three to five times the value of their savings balance.

During the UK’s “merger mania” every local bank in the country disappeared, except one, the Airdrie Savings Bank. Established in 1835, it is the only independent savings bank left in Britain. Business is booming. Last year, deposits at the bank rose by over 5 per cent; lending to local businesses increased by a vertiginous 35 per cent, far ahead of equivalent figures for any of the Big Five.

Britain needs more banks like Airdrie Savings, banks that are adapted to the economic and social needs of their area. Greenham has a radical idea to make this happen – re-localise the majority state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland.

“The prospect of selling [RBS] back to the stock market at a profit is non-existent,” Greenham, a former investment banker, says. RBS should be split up into a large number of small branches, with lending decisions made locally, rather than from a centralised head office.

“We need to make a virtue out of a necessity,” says Greenham. “The Big Five still act like monopolists. They don’t have to try too hard to keep our business. That has to change.”

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman,  August 24. 

New IRA same old stance

A new republican anti-ceasefire group in Northern Ireland is a threat, but its goals are likely to be unfulfilled, writes Peter Geoghegan

In DECEMBER 1969, the Irish Republican Army held an extraordinary convention at Knockvicar house in Boyle, County Roscommon. During the preceding months, the Troubles had exploded into life across the border. Many rank and file members, particularly in Northern Ireland, demanded an aggressive campaign of violence against the British state; in contrast, the IRA’s Marxist leadership, based in Dublin, saw limited utility in “the armed struggle”.

The December 1969 convention ended with two leading republicans, Ruairi O’Bradaigh and Sean MacStiofain, establishing a new organisation, the Provisional IRA. By the end of 1970, the press had introduced the terms “Official IRA” and “Regular IRA” to differentiate between the two groups. In 1972, the Officials announced a ceasefire. Within a few short, bloody years O’Bradaigh and MacStiofain’s group had become the IRA.

The history of Irish republicanism is a fissiparous one. Now, it appears that a new republican group is coalescing with the intention of taking over the irredentist IRA mantle effectively vacated when the Provisionals decommissioned in 2005.

Last week, the Guardian reported that the Real IRA, Derry-based Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and a loose collection of independent republican groups intend to form a coalition under the IRA banner. The move would leave only the Continuity IRA (a small armed group formed after the 1986 Sinn Fein split) outside the new republican umbrella.

The leaders of the unified outfit have styled themselves as the “IRA army council”, mimicking the structures used by previous iterations of the organisation. There are reasons to be fearful of this development: among the republicans who have joined the new organisation are those responsible for the murder of Ronan Kerr, a Catholic recruit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in April 2011. The Real IRA was responsible for the worst republican atrocity of the entire Troubles, when their bombs killed 29 at Omagh in August 1998.

The “new IRA” has an old enemy in its sights: the British presence in Ireland. “The root cause of conflict in our country is the subversion of the nation’s inalienable right to self-determination and this has yet to be addressed,” the group said in a statement released last week. In a none-too-subtle riposte to Sinn Fein (which a number of dissidents were formerly members of), the statement railed against “a phoney peace, rubber-stamped by a token legislature in Stormont”.

So how serious a threat to the peace are this new group? They may be small, but their numbers are not insignificant. Last year, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland estimated that there are 650 people involved in anti-ceasefire republican activity. While dissidents have little traction in West Belfast, where Sinn Fein rules with a gloved iron fist, they have pockets of support in North Belfast, Lurgan and Derry.

As much as 14 per cent of nationalists in Northern Ireland have some sympathy for dissident republican groups, according to a study published in 2010. Supporters are mainly young, working class men living in areas of multiple deprivation. The author of that research, Professor Jon Tonge of the University of Liverpool, believes that the new dissident coalition is about trying to build credibility for the movement, but doubts whether it will succeed.

“I don’t think it gives dissidents any great tactical advantage. Unity won’t necessarily equal strength,” Professor Tonge told The Scotsman.

“Their intent to disrupt the peace process outstrips their capacity.”

Dissidents are hoping to profit from an association with a globally recognised brand name: the IRA. The decision to band together has been a publicity boon, reported by media outlets across the world. Whether increased coverage will lead to an influx of new dissident recruits is less clear-cut.

Northern Ireland today is hardly a utopian society. Over 70 per cent of people live in segregated communities. Sectarianism remains intransigent, as evidenced by riots during last month’s Twelfth of July celebrations.

But Northern Ireland is a very different place from the “cold house for Catholics” of December 1969. The structural factors that underpinned the emergence of the Provisional IRA emergence do not exist in contemporary Northern Ireland.

Religious discrimination in housing has ended. If workplaces are not as mixed as they could be, fair employment legislation has brought an end to sectarian hiring. The income gap between Catholic and Protestants has closed. The creation of a Catholic middle class has limited the pool of potential recruits to the dissident cause. There is no organised loyalist agitation, a la 1969.

Professor Tonge believes that the formation of a new grouping is “more about keeping the flame alive for a lot of dissidents”.

Dissidents will take succour from the deep well-spring of Irish republican history, from Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen of 1798 through the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish Republic established in 1918-19. Although eulogised today, the Irish republican rebels of the 1916 Rising were spat at in the streets of Dublin in the immediate aftermath of the failed rebellion.

Even the term “dissident republican” is not as modern as many would imagine. As Henry McDonald noted in the Belfast Telegraph recently, it “was coined in the mid-1970s when the Official IRA was engaged in a shooting war with the fledgling INLA”.

While heaping opprobrium on Sinn Fein, today’s dissidents see parallels between that party’s recent past and their present, especially on the issue of electoral politics and the absence of a mandate. In 1985, Martin McGuinness, now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, said of Sinn Fein’s electoral performance: “Ultimately it is not votes but the cutting edge of the IRA which will bring about freedom and justice in Ireland.” It is a nostrum many dissident republicans still subscribe to.

Of course, violence has not – and almost certainly never will – lead to the promised land of Irish republicanism, a United Ireland, a fact Gerry Adams and McGuinness eventually recognised (albeit many years – and lives lost – after the IRA’s 1960s left-wing leaders).

Even with a newfound sense of unity, dissident republicans possess only a fraction of the capability of the old IRA. The group lack weapons – underlined by last year’s trial of suspected Real IRA member Michael Campbell on gun-running charges in Lithuania. In the post-9/11 dispensation, funds for terrorism are increasingly hard to come by in Irish-America.

Nevertheless, the dissident threat has certainly increased in recent years, particularly as IRA veterans left the mainstream movement in the wake of Sinn Fein’s support policing. In March 2009, two off duty British soldiers were shot dead at Massereene Barracks in Antrim. Two days later PC Stephen Carroll was shot dead in Craigavon, County Armagh.

Since 2009, security forces have intercepted ever greater numbers of dissident operations, a sign that activity is increasing but also that groups have been more successfully infiltrated. The creation of a dissident coalition heightens further the risk of infiltration. Indeed, rumours that several senior dissident figures are paid informers have been rife in republican circles in recent months.

Conversely, last week’s announcement represents the present weakness of dissident republicanism. Dissidents are hoping to achieve collectively where they have largely failed in isolation – not by forcing the British out of Northern Ireland, but by stymieing moves to make Northern Ireland a normal place.

As long as the army stays off the streets and there is no return to political policing, the dissidents, together or alone, have little hope of achieving even their most modest goals.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, August 1. 

TED — A Strange Way to Talk About Openness

IF you had wanted to see the movers and shakers in Edinburgh this week, it would have cost you £3,850, writes Peter Geoghegan

If you did find yourself with just shy of four grand burning a hole in your pocket, would you spend it all on a ticket for a four-day conference on “radical openness”? Probably not, I’d guess, but that’s exactly what the 800-plus delegates at this week’s TEDGlobal conference, which opened in Edinburgh on Tuesday and finished yesterday, have elected to do.

TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a Silicon Valley organisation that hosts invite-only conferences to disseminate “ideas worth spreading”. For the $6,000 entrance fee, guests at the Edinburgh conference heard presentations from a host of luminaries including Alex Salmond, artist Antony Gormley, singer Macy Gray and choreographer Wayne McGregor. All talks are 18 minutes long; questions are strictly forbidden.

Since its inception in Monterey, California, in 1984, TED conferences have become remarkably popular, and increasingly influential. The event is now hosted by English publishing entrepreneur Chris Anderson and owned by his non-profit organisation, the Sapling Foundation. TED talks – recordings of conference presentations that are available free online – have been downloaded hundreds of millions of times. Previous conference speakers include Bill Gates, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and self-styled militant atheist Richard Dawkins.

Last year, Edinburgh hosted its first TEDGlobal conference at the International Conference Centre. Attendees at the inaugural Edinburgh event had the chance to hear Niall Ferguson aver his controversial version of history, or grab some chat about the good life with pop philosopher Alain de Botton.

If this all sounds elitist, it is. Beneath the meritocratic American West Coast rhetoric, TED is one of the most exclusive events imaginable. Not only is the cost of a ticket vertiginous – and that’s without transport and accommodation – all attendees are heavily vetted. As the conditions for acceptance on the TEDGlobal website state: “You must be likely, in our judgment, to be a strong contributor to the TED community, the ideas discussed at TED, and the projects that come out of the conference.”

The aura of exclusivity that surrounds TED is central to the brand’s success: the extortionate fee is simultaneously an imprimatur and an excellent way to generate money for the organisation. Would-be tech innovators and over-zealous life coaches will happily remortgage their house for the chance to press the flesh (and have their photo taken) with movers and shakers at TED. Whether they get value for their $6,000 is another matter entirely.

What is beyond question is that TED has emerged as a major player in the online world of ideas over the past five years. Among supporters, TED generates levels of devotion that detractors have likened to cults. Sociologist and social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson has said that TED “has a cultish feel to it. The speakers use a lot of terms like ‘magical’ and ‘inspirational’. It’s almost the religion of the knowledge class.”

Many of the buzzwords and phrases that attach themselves to TED certainly have an airy, high-falutin’ quality. Take “radical openness”, the theme of this year’s Edinburgh conference. This, as Bruno Giussani, the European director of TED, told the Guardian last week, means, “people thinking differently at existing problems, and pushing at boundaries in radical new ways”.

At a time when the future of the United Kingdom (and late capitalism) is anything but secure, when debates about sustainability and environmental disaster proliferate, “radical openness” smacks of the vague and the flaky. No surprise, then, that Philip Blond, the brains behind Cameron’s much-mocked Big Society, was a keynote speaker at last year’s TED Edinburgh.

But the most serious accusation levelled at TED is that it reproduces a narrow, Silicon Valley view of the world, with precious little room for dissenting voices. Earlier this year, tech investor Nick Hanauer – an early backer of Amazon.com – delivered a talk at a TED conference in which he suggested that “rich people don’t create jobs”. Hanauer argued that middle-class consumers, not capitalists, are the real drivers of economic growth and prosperity, and that tax breaks for the rich are a drain on the economy.

Hanauer’s talk was met with applause from the audience. However, Chris Anderson refused to publish the talk on the TED website because it was “too political” – rather ironic given that TED often invites politicians to speak at its conference, as Alex Salmond’s appearance on Wednesday attests.

Hanauer’s talk is now freely available online – in the digital age even an organisation as powerful as TED will struggle to suppress content – but the controversy paints TED in a very poor light. Anderson’s argument that “a lot of business managers and entrepreneurs would feel insulted” by Hanauer’s contention that ordinary consumers are the most powerful job creators hardly seems sufficient justification for blocking an idea if it is, in the TED patter, “worth spreading”.

For an enterprise whose mission statement begins: “We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world”, TED also gives remarkably little back to the city in which its conference takes place. Indeed, Edinburgh as a city is largely incidental to the TED experience. Last year, Giussani explained the decision to relocate the annual TEDGlobal conference from Oxford, its erstwhile home, not in terms of ideas and individuals but of transport links and infrastructure. The only trace of TED in Edinburgh were the orientation signs dotted around Lothian Road.

TED is a short-term boon for the local economy, but this week will leave little in the way of meaningful legacies beyond the balance sheet. New ideas are vital for Scotland’s future – but these ideas need inclusive, inexpensive spaces where they can be shared and debated, not exclusory, £3,850-a-head conferences. Perhaps it’s time for a TED for the rest of us.

This piece appeared in the Scotsman, June 30.

Growing divide in an austerity-stricken Ireland

ALMOST as soon as first ballot boxes were opened yesterday morning, it was clear the fiscal treaty referendum was not going to go the way of the rerun Nice and Lisbon votes. Just a handful of constituencies voted No, even then by small margins in most cases.

Overall around three in every five ballots cast were in favour of the treaty. Turnout was low, but not spectacularly so.

But while government politicians, and their temporary allies in the opposition Fianna Fail, can be forgiven for congratulating themselves, it remains unclear how, or even if, the new treaty will aid Ireland, or the ailing eurozone.

Labour leader and deputy prime minister Eamon Gilmore told national broadcaster RTE yesterday that the treaty would provide stability, allowing the coalition to “proceed with its plan to stimulate the economy and create jobs”. Quite how a treaty that will enshrine tight fiscal strictures in the midst of a deflationary cycle will bolster the economy remains unclear.

Ireland, and Europe, remains mired in economic quicksand. Unbridled austerity and a weak currency union has created a perfect storm that EU policy makers seem unable, or unwilling, to think their way out of. The fiscal treaty 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 is to return to health.

Ireland’s Yes vote was comfortable but Irish voters are anything but contented. Many were motivated as much by fear as any belief in the sagacity of the treaty.

Thursday’s referendum also revealed a growing rift in society, with affluent areas voting Yes and turning out in bigger numbers than in poorer areas. This should be a huge worry for Mr Gilmore and his Labour Party, whose support has halved to just 10 per cent since last year’s general election.

Sinn Fein, the force behind the No campaign, could emerge as the big winners. Polls put support for the republicans at 24 per cent, behind only Fine Gael. If the outlook for Ireland does not improve, the political map could be redrawn yet again.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, June 2.

Uncertainty prevails as Irish vote on fiscal treaty for eurozone

Ireland went to the polls yesterday in the only referendum being held on the new fiscal treaty in the European Union, which it hopes will alleviate the ongoing eurozone crisis.

The fiscal treaty, agreed by leaders of 25 of the 27 European Union member states in January, introduces tough fiscal rules across the union.

Under the terms of the treaty, budgets must be balanced or in surplus. Annual structural deficit must not exceed 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product. Government debt cannot exceed 60 per cent of GDP.

Opinion polls suggest that the “yes” vote will win when results are announced this afternoon. Turnout is expected to be low, reflecting in part uncertainty and fear among the Irish electorate about what the treaty, or rejection of it, will mean. The Irish economy is still struggling in the wake of the 2008 crash and the subsequent €85 billion (£68bn) International Monetary Fund/European Union bailout for its ailing banks.

Unemployment stands at around 15 per cent, with thousands emigrating every month. Forecasts for growth have been revised downwards, according to official government statistics.

On the streets yesterday, views were split about how important Europe will be in aiding recovery.

“I voted ‘yes’ because Europe are kind of the boss, and we need to stick with them. I don’t see any benefits of saying no,” said Claudia Sculley, 23, in Dublin.

For others, after four years of successive austerity budgets, the appetite for further cutbacks is fast diminishing.

“Austerity means just more cuts to people, that’s not going to work,” said Dan Dowling, 30, speaking outside a polling station in Tralee, County Kerry, where he voted “no”.

Ireland has rejected two European treaties in the recent past. The Nice treaty required two referendums, as did the Lisbon treaty, which was rejected in June 2008, before being accepted 18 months later.

Even if the treaty is passed, Sinn Fein looks set to be the big winner from the referendum. An Ipsos poll earlier this week put the republican party’s support at 24 per cent, making it easily the second most popular party in the state, behind the ruling Fine Gael.

Meanwhile, Labour, the junior party in Ireland’s coalition government, has seen its support halve to 10 per cent since last year’s election.

Few believe that ratifying the fiscal treaty will solve Ireland’s economic and, increasingly, social woes.

The government campaign raised the spectre that a “no” vote would see the country locked out of a new €700bn bailout fund – the European Stability Mechanism – for indebted eurozone countries.

Berni Ni Maolfhachtna, who voted “yes” in Tipperary yesterday, fears that rejection would leave Ireland effectively bankrupt if the country is unable to return to the international bond markets when it exits its existing bailout strategy at the end of 2013.

“I think ordinary folk in Ireland are just concerned that voting ‘no’ will mean a lack of available funding if we happen to need it in future, and that is not a reality anyone wants to face,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, June 1, 2012.

Irish set to lose either way

Whatever voters decide on the stability treaty, the figures don’t add up, the words won’t last long and it won’t help the eurozone crisis, writes Peter Geoghegan

Few people have had such a major impact on recent Irish political life – and yet remain so unknown, inside and outside the country – as Richard Crotty. In 1987, Crotty, an economist and historian, took the Irish state to court, arguing that the Irish parliament’s proposed ratification of the then-upcoming Single European act would represent a change to the constitution. Then, as now, any alteration to the constitution requires a referendum.

The Irish Supreme Court sided with Crotty. It was a landmark judgement that has had repercussions for the last twenty-five years. Whenever there is a major amendment to an EU treaty, the Irish Republic is obliged to put it to a referendum.

While the Single European Act and the Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam were passed with ever reducing majorities, more recently Crotty’s interjection has caused serious problems for Dublin’s panjandrums. The Nice Treaty required two referendums, as, more famously, did the Lisbon Treaty, which was rejected by more than 53 per cent of the electorate in June 2008, before being accepted by 67 per cent after a fractious re-run less than eighteen months later. Ireland goes to the polls to vote on another EU treaty, tomorrow. This time it’s the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union that is before the Irish electorate. Better known as the stability treaty or the fiscal compact, the treaty, which was agreed by leaders of 25 of the 27 EU member states in January (Britain and the Czech Republic refused to sign), is seen by many as a German-led attempt to enforce ever stricter monetary policy across the increasingly crisis hit eurozone.

A central tenet of the treaty is that government budgets must be balanced or in surplus. Annual structural deficit must not exceed 0.5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product: the European Court would fine a country up to 0.1 per cent of GDP if this condition was not met within a year of ratification. 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.

The problem for Irish voters – and for politicians supporting a ‘Yes’ vote in tomorrow’s vote – is twofold. On the one hand, the economic rationale behind the fiscal compact just doesn’t stack up; on the other, many believe that the treaty itself will be renegotiated before it is ever put into place.

As it’s currently constituted, the treaty will do little to alleviate the crisis in eurozone countries, particularly those on the periphery. The reason is straightforward: Europe’s economic travails are founded primarily on private, not public, debt, and the tightening of government budget will only serve to exacerbate the problem.

As Irish economist David McWilliams writing in the Financial Times noted, both Ireland and Spain had lower public debt ratios than Germany when the crisis hit in 2008 – the problem is that household debts had soared during the boom. Since Ireland joined the euro a little over a decade ago, levels household debts more than doubled.

The response to the crisis – massive austerity – has practically killed the patient. Irish government spending has been cut for each of the last four years and yet the structural deficit continues to rise. According to statistics compiled by the Irish government in 2011, it was expected to fall to 111 per cent of GDP by 2015. In 2012, this figure was revised upwards to 117.4 per cent and will rise further under the terms of the compact.

“Imposing more austerity now will be as useful as putting an anorexic on a diet and expecting her to become voluptuous,” writes McWilliams.

In Ireland, the fiscal compact would require a further retrenchment of already threadbare, and extensively privatised, social services. Meanwhile, emigration and unemployment continue to rise. Unemployment in Ireland has trebled in the last four years, with more than 14 per cent of the population out of work. A deeply worrying 29 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds are not in education and are without work.

The Yes camp, led by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, in power since last year, and supported by the ousted architects of the crisis, Fianna Fail, have urged voters to back the treaty to protect Ireland’s putative recovery. Speaking in a televised national address on Sunday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that the pact “will create stability in the eurozone”.

“This is essential for growth and job creation. A strong ‘yes’ vote will create the certainty and stability that our country needs to continue on the road to economic recovery,” he continued. Opponents of the treaty, led primarily by Sinn Fein and the United Left Alliance, argue that a Yes vote would result in billions of euro of cuts and further job losses.

Regardless of how Ireland votes tomorrow, the treaty itself may be radically altered before it is ever implemented. Most significantly, France’s new Socialist president Francois Hollande made a commitment to renegotiate the compact top priority in his successful election campaign.

Irish politicians have been at pains to reassure the electorate that the fiscal treaty will not be changed. However, their ability to keep such promises is doubtful, however.

Monsieur Hollande has demonstrated a willingness to confront Angela Merkel’s economic orthodoxy, calling for a new plan to stimulate growth and the introduction of eurobonds to address the worsening sovereign debt crisis. The French leader could yet force through changes in the terms of the compact, too. In Ireland, the tenor of the “yes” message has gradually shifted over the course of the campaign. Last month, finance minister Michael Noonan said Ireland would not need a second EU/IMF bailout.

Now Kenny is warning that only a vote for the treaty will guarantee Irish access to bailout funds, via the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), implicitly undermining the argument that the treaty will deliver growth. Prospects of a “yes” have been damaged by a serious of high-profile gaffes.

Two weeks ago, while addressing the Bloomberg Ireland Economic Summit in Dublin, Noonan dismissed concerns about Greek contagion affecting Ireland, saying: “If you go into the shops here, apart from feta cheese, how many Greek items do you put in your basket?” Later in the week, Fine Gael minister for enterprise, Richard Bruton, said during a debate on the treaty on Irish radio, that the referendum would be rerun in the event of a “No” vote.

Nevertheless, opinion polls suggest that the government will win the day: a Red C poll in last weekend’s Sunday Business Post put the ‘yes’ vote at 49 per cent, compared to 35 per cent against the treaty, with 16 per cent still undecided. But with tensions growing between France and Germany and a Greek election due to take place on 17 June, regardless of the result, Ireland’s referendum is unlikely to assuage the turmoil in the eurozone.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, May 30.