December 16, 2009
In recent weeks I’ve been travelling around the country, talking to people and listening to ideas about how best to get out of this mess. What is coming up in all conversation is the sense that the insiders in Ireland are getting away with it and the outsiders are being asked to take most of the pain.
To the people I’m chatting with, whether in Kilkenny, Limerick or Cork, there is a palpable sense that those on the inside are not paying for their mistakes — rather those on the outside are paying. People seem to be waiting for regime change but it’s not happening.
The bankers are the financial equivalent of the bishops. Like the Church hierarchy, the banking hierarchy is not resigning. In fact they are regrouping and getting stronger at the top, taking State money without any conditions.
Meanwhile, the politicians are spinning that the boom was a collective madness and we are all to blame, which of course absolves them of any culpability. The big estate agents who facilitated all the property nonsense by their ridiculous valuations are set to make millions from fees to NAMA and the little guy is being asked to bail out the big guy and take cuts in his wages to boot.
“Surely,” people are saying, “a crisis should lead to change, to reappraisal and should usher in a new generation who will sweep away the old and start again with new ideas and new ways of doing things?”
In terms of countries that learned from crises, time and again we come back to Scandinavia, not because they have invented some crisp, environmentally friendly Utopia up there, but because in the face of crises they appear serious about learning from their mistakes and changing the system.
In their banking crisis of 1992/3, the Scandinavians moved swiftly to get rid of the old guard by protecting the interests of their citizens at all costs. Take the example of Sweden. In five months, Sweden guaranteed its banking system, nationalised its banks, let some others go bust, set up two bad banks, didn’t use public money until shareholders’ money was used up and then it devalued its currency to give its exporters a chance.
The Swedes, Finns and Norwegians smashed the old guard that was responsible for the mess. They moved to oust the insiders, to the benefit of new management — the outsiders.
In Ireland, the opposite has been the case. The main players in politics are still here. The party that got us into this mess is still in power. The banks still have the main guys at the top and the union leaders, who were part of the “nod and wink” status quo of the past 10 years, are still at the helm. In other words, the insiders are still very much on the inside, while the outsiders are locked out.
This “insider/outsider” view of society is an interesting way of looking at the country. But because the outsiders are not a unified force and there is no unified representative of the outsiders, this world is rarely commented upon in the media.
In short, the insiders are those with a large and well-organised stake in our country. They are the political class, the media, the large protected industries and the civil service. They are the union leaders and the IBEC leaders. All these people have a stake in the society. They are by no means the root of our problems, but they are a power grouping with a voice and an influence.
In contrast, the “outsiders” include the young and particularly the young who are unemployed. Today 30pc of those under 25 are unemployed. This is a shocking figure. The outsiders also include small businesses, which are struggling badly, those on welfare who feel abandoned and those who are emigrating in large numbers again. Their stake in Ireland has always been tenuous. During the boom they were temporarily inside the big tent but once the bust came they were out in the cold again.
Given this power structure, it is interesting to see that, in a crisis, Sweden, Denmark and Norway are monarchies that actually behave like republics where the people are looked after, whereas Ireland is a republic that behaves like a monarchy where the elite cling on, looking down on the people.
However, this can’t last because without a change in Ireland, the economy will continue to contract. The world sees through us. The State and the bankers don’t seem to understand that we are now living in an instantaneous world, where information is free and available. You can’t pull the wool over everyone’s eyes indefinitely.
In recent days there has been much backslapping from the Government because of a vaguely positive editorial in the ‘Financial Times’. In fact, I was on the ‘Frontline’ programme on Monday night with a minister who claimed that the Government and, by extension, the banks were getting plaudits for the Budget and new management of the country’s finances.
But the real proof is not in words but in actions. Despite all the tough talk about cutting this and that, the financial markets have decided that the risk of default in Ireland is probably about the same today as it was last week. The reason for this is that the markets know that there is a nasty surprise coming in the guise of a broken bank system, which will suffer in the face of growing mortgage default, credit card default and the like next year.
As a result, yesterday the shares of Ireland’s banks fell dramatically because the financial markets realise that a country which doesn’t change in a crisis is a country that can’t be taken seriously.
If we are to come out of this catastrophe stronger, the outsiders must become insiders and the insiders become outsiders. That’s what local people and international investors are looking for. Never before have the issues been clearer.