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30 June 2013 Edition

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Irish politics: A game of two halves

Joan Burton, Brendan Howlin, King Henry VIII and 'vagabonds'

• German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, Fine Gael Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and the Labour Party Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin

The mentality of Joan Burton, Brendan Howlin and the rest reminds me of the laws brought in by the English King Henry VIII about ‘vagabonds’

THE last few weeks have given us eloquent proof, once again, that not only is Ireland a country of two opposing interests (those of the rich and those of the rest of us) but our political system is one with two different sets of rules and criteria for success or failure.

The biggest issue of the month was the ‘achievement’ (no less) by the Government in getting the other EU states to agree to ‘consider’ (that word is very important) applying new bank recapitalisation rules retrospectively.  This was presented in the media as opening up the possibility of Ireland getting Europe to take some of the burden imposed on us for recapitalising our failed banks, which was done at the expense of the Irish economy and to the benefit of European bankers.

A look at the detail, however, shows that there is little to cheer about.  Such retrospective action will only be considered, and Germany’s Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble (who really calls the shots on these issues) warned that there was “no great leeway” for retrospective action.  “It makes no sense,” he added, “to raise false expectations.”

In any case, it is at least a year before the new ESM mechanism will even be established and every application will be considered on a case by case basis. With the Germans and the Dutch adamantly against retrospection, the chances of getting anything here are remote.

To be fair, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan played down the likelihood of even applying for this mechanism.  He prefers to look to “other options”.

These other options include the idea that the two pillar banks in Ireland, Bank of Ireland and AIB, will be profitable by the time the ESM mechanism comes into place, and that the market “should” (in Noonan’s words) see the value of buying them.

In this case, the state would not need extra money for recapitalisation and could hope to get back some of the money already squandered by Fine Gael and Labour, and Fianna Fáil before them.

The naive among us might therefore imagine that the powers that be, especially in a government that includes representatives of a party that claims to have been founded by James Connolly, would be girding their loins to give those who have suffered most from austerity a bit of a break.

Nothing of the kind could be further from the Government’s mind.

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• Social Protection Minister Joan Burton wants to punish those who don’t have jobs

It is reliably reported that the Government is planning a further 2% cut in the social welfare budget this year, with more cuts of 3% each year in 2015 and 2016. Social Protection Minister Joan Burton is looking to see how new measures can be found to encourage claimants to “take up work” instead of just trying to defend her budget.

This line, of course, begs the question – just what work is there for claimants to take up?

It reminds me of the laws brought in by the English King Henry VIII who ordered that ‘vagabonds’ who had no work should be whipped  – ‘that would teach them’. And that is the mentality which Burton, Howlin and the rest are bringing to bear on budgetary discussions.

There may not be any jobs but that won’t stop the Fine Gael/Labour Government from punishing those who don’t have jobs.

The European Commission goes even further. They want to privatise “work activation schemes”: that is, more profit for private sector greed merchants and misery for those who have lost their jobs and prospects of work through the Government’s austerity programme.

So, on the one hand, the European bankers can rest easy that their investments are secure and that new investment opportunities will be found in the recast Irish banking system.

But, on the other, the screws will be turned even tighter on the mass of working people who will see further erosion in living standards, deteriorating public services, and a demonisation of the unemployed.

There are some in Labour who cannot stay silent any longer. Patrick Nulty TD, who lost the Labour Party whip for voting against the Budget in 2011, has now resigned from the Labour Party altogether.

But isolated action is no use on its own. What is needed is unity of the political, industrial and social forces that oppose austerity and the immoral decisions being imposed by this government.

Will Nulty and other Labour dissidents rise to the occasion?

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• Burton and Gilmore congratulate Patrick Nulty (centre) on his by-election victory in 2011

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