News Analysis

Monday 1 September 2014

Carol Hunt : Let's stand up to the bullies and refuse to play the austerity game

Published 18/11/2012 | 05:00

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The Government thinks we all partied and we deserve our punishment – we're paying for this lie, writes

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FOR Spain it was the tipping point. When mother-of-one Amaia Engana, a 53-year-old former socialist city councillor from the Basque region of Spain, threw herself from her fourth floor apartment block window before she was served with eviction papers, the people and government shouted "Stop".

Engana was the second victim in as many weeks of a punitive swathe of home repossessions that has crippled the people of Spain.

Spain, like Ireland, went mad building houses during the so-called boom. Spain, like Ireland, has seen its construction industry collapse, its banks bailed out and its people left to bear the cost alone. Both countries have subsequently experienced significant increases in suicides linked to the financial crisis.

And though in Ireland we have so far had (for legal and historical reasons) a very low rate of home repossessions, our debt burden is steadily increasing despite our meek acceptance of crippling austerity. In many cases people are incarcerated in a home that they can't afford to pay for but are not allowed to sell. They will, as one friend noted to me, "go to the grave still owing money for it". Most of them are like myself, my family, my friends, my generation; of an age where they needed a family house during the insanity of the boom, and are now consigned to the status of debt slaves in perpetuity if the banks have their way.

But in Spain, both government and people demonstrated last week that they would not tolerate being treated so disgracefully. In Ireland, both government and people perhaps would do well to sit up and take notice.

First, Spain's government passed a decree to prevent low-income families being evicted for defaulting on their mortgages, and implemented plans to create a stock of homes that can be rented cheaply to people who can no longer afford exorbitant mortgages. The bully-boy bailed-out banks – who were throwing people out of their homes, selling them off at below-cost prices and then still charging the hapless (former) owner for the often monstrous difference between what they received and the mortgage – were told to back off and get an empathy gene.

Simultaneously, the people

of Spain staged a plethora of demonstrations last Wednesday (in conjunction with other EU countries), with people getting out on to the streets and saying loudly that they were not taking any more of this austerity nonsense.

It seemed to get results. On the same day, head economic enforcer at the EU Commission, Olli Rehn, announced that even though Spain would quite dramatically miss its deficit targets, it did not need to implement any more austerity measures until the end of next year (a decision approved by the entire European Commission, but still to be approved by member states).

"We are not so much focused on the nominal targets," said Rehn generously.

Which is fantastic news, because I, like so many others, was dreading the impact of more billions we can't afford to pay being taken from us in the December Budget.

Can we assume that if naughty Spain and Greece are getting rewarded for standing up to the troika bullies and holding demonstrations and not meeting their fiscal targets, while we've been good little boys and girls, we'll get great rewards?

Tut, tut, tut, boys and girls. That's not how bullies work at all. Because, as I'm sure psychologist David Coleman (presenter of RTE's Bullyproof series) could tell us, giving bullies what they want only encourages them.

So Rehn was quick to point out that this wasn't a shift in policy and that every country would be looked at by Brussels "case by case". And as our lot ( Department of Finance report) have meekly said, "The Government remains steadfast in its commitment to continue meeting the fiscal targets", well, there's no need for lenience is there?

As far as the troika is concerned, we're taking our medicine and it's doing the trick. Otherwise our Government would be protesting vociferously, wouldn't it? It would be standing up to the banks and the troika and telling them that they won't allow its citizens to suffer and even die. It'd be fighting for its people.

Well, Mr Rehn, we've seen a huge rise in deaths by suicides recently in Ireland, many shown to be connected to austerity. Between 2009 and 2011, 1,563 people in the Republic took their own lives, nearly three times as many as died in traffic accidents. Does this make us a special case?

Unemployment (at 14.8 per cent and rising) is considered "increasingly structural in nature" and more than 150,000 people have emigrated in the past three years. Emigration is the only career choice for the majority of our highly educated young people who have no future in their economically destroyed country. Does this make us a special case?

So many mortgages are in trouble that Fitch, the rating agency, believes at least 20 per cent will default sooner rather than later. Reports also suggest that 1.8 million Irish adults have less than €100 at the end of the month after all the bills are paid. Does this make us a special case?

Our governments have failed, spectacularly – since the notorious bank bailout and "going forward" to the €3.1bn promissory note "agreement" to be paid next March – to stand up to the banks or the troika or the trade unions on behalf of their citizens.

Ministers say they're ready to make the "hard decisions", but only as long as they can then in turn pass on the suffering to those below them.

They'll cut home help for pensioners as long as they don't have to reduce salaries for bankers or each other. They'll cut back on special needs teachers, social workers and metal health clinics so that the country can pay obscene pensions we can't afford and immoral promissory notes we shouldn't owe.

What they won't do is stand up for us, encourage us that we don't deserve this, that we need to fight for our livelihoods and our dignity, and face down the banks and the troika, as the Spanish – and so many others – are doing. But the bottom line seems to be that they believe we all partied and deserve our punishment. That's what they've told Europe. That's what they're telling themselves.

It's not true. And the wrong people are paying – some with their lives – for these lies.

Sunday Independent

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