June 16, 2010
When I see the carry-on at Fine Gael, the week they have Fianna Fail on the ropes, I despair. Not because I have any historical allegiance to Fine Gael, but because it is the biggest opposition party and it seems to be intent on letting this appalling Government off the hook. Maybe I’m wrong, but there is a sense that the political class is now so remote that much of it lives on another planet.
For the past two years, in poll after poll, the people have been screaming that they want change, but time and again we are let down by party machines. For Fine Gael the problem is the leader, because every time there is a poll the people seem to baulk at Enda Kenny. This problem doesn’t look as if it is going away.
All the while the economy is getting worse, not better. Unemployment is moving upwards and credit is drying up.
Every month for the past two years more than 6,000 people have been made redundant. The financial markets are effectively shut to Ireland. So there is no credit.
The inter-bank market — the market where banks lend to each other which is the essential lubricant of the banking system — has closed down for Irish banks. The only bank that will lend to us is the ECB, the lender of last resort.
But how long will the ECB continue to prop us up? And what type of Irish economy is being propped up by the ECB? Is it a vibrant, competitive economy or simply a financial concubine happy to be drip-fed European money without any idea of what it will do when the master tires of this set-up?
Greece has been downgraded yet again and now the fault lines in the euro are once more evident with the peripheral countries owing billions to the core countries — money that is unlikely to be paid back.
According to a BIS report this week, French and German banks had exposures of $958bn (â‚¬776bn) to Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal, including $174bn (â‚¬141bn) of government debt. This is the sort of debt that can destroy the German and French banking system.
As a result of these imbalances no one will lend money to our banks because they don’t trust them. Financial markets are based on trust and once that is shattered it is almost impossible to get it back.
It is against this background that we are experiencing the total disconnect between the political class and the economic reality.
Will a change at the top of Fine Gael make a difference to your life? I put this question to a number of shopkeepers in Dalkey. Their answer was unanimous: there was a strong view that it won’t make a jot of difference to people who are trying to stay in business. These are the people who employ people, and if you examine the Irish economy, you see that the vast majority of us are employed in the local service economy, so this is what we have to get going.
Therefore, the most important arena for the recovery is your own locality. If we can get more of us to spend locally we can begin to rebuild the economy, slowly but surely.
While our national politicians talk about national goals and turning the country around, the actual process of turning begins locally.
In the first decades of the last century, Irish independence was engineered by a series of local initiatives driven by the spirit of building a new country. We can do this again if we just stand together locally.
For example, this weekend is the Dalkey Book Festival (www.dalkeybookfestival.org). We have a fantastic line-up and the aim is to get people into the town to listen to local authors and go to the shops, restaurants and bars or just go for a stroll up Killiney Hill or down to the beach.
Watching politics won’t make that happen. You have to get on the phone and do things for yourself. Lots of towns are suffering in the recession; they have to make things happen for themselves because the longer we wait, the worse the recession will get and businesses will close. And, when businesses close, they don’t open up again in a hurry.
Back before the foundation of the State when all these vibrant local initiatives were taking off, the political manifestation of localism was abstentionism. As Westminster became increasingly remote, it also became irrelevant. The nationalists set up parallel political, social and economic structures for the betterment of the country and they didn’t wait for the imprimatur of the established political class. As the man on the Nike ad says, “just do it”. And they just did it.
The way mainstream politics in Ireland is reacting to the crisis in the economy and in society, it is not difficult to envisage an “abstentionist” culture becoming popular. When the main opposition party is fighting with itself rather than pulling together in some form of unified movement based on national solidarity, it isn’t hard to imagine a situation where people just give up on the Dail as an irrelevance. It risks becoming the ultimate “insider” chamber where the “outsiders” in the rest of the country matter little.
But this is not the end of the world, in fact it is a liberation. Countries rejuvenate themselves from the bottom up. People start their own movements, their own initiatives and the country changes in an organic way. Once the connection between the political establishment and the people is broken, it just becomes a circus.
If we look at what is happening outside the country in Europe, it is clear that a mass default on the periphery is on the cards. It is impossible to say when this will be, but the numbers just don’t stack up.
This will be an epoch changing event, because the system that allowed the huge debts to build up will be rendered illegitimate. Whatever replaces it will be based on the central and somewhat hazy notion that the old system was “wrong” and there is no going back. This is likely to prompt local political change where the old structures find it difficult to adapt. The more remote they are in the crisis the less adaptable they’ll be. This is where local action will come to the fore.
When you see the main opposition party tearing itself apart at such a time, it’s hard not to conclude that they just don’t get it.
David McWilliams performs ‘Outsiders‘ at the Peacock from today until July 3