It's time to stop being divided and ruled, get off our knees and say we've had enough, writes Gene Kerrigan
BACK in April 2005, at the height of the Celtic Bubble, a man named Dermott Jewell was interviewed on RTE News. The Bank of Ireland had been caught playing fast and loose with its customers' money. No fewer than 65,000 customers were affected. Oh dear, said the Bank of Ireland, that was a terrible mistake, so it was. Most unfortunate.
And Mr Jewell, who is from the Consumers' Association, kept a straight face. That was a lot of mistakes, he said. "Sixty-five thousand mistakes cannot go generally unnoticed in any business." Unless there was a fundamental fault within that business.
The 'mistakes' involved a product called Payment Protection Insurance (PPI). You take out a loan, the bank insists that you pay for PPI in case you become ill or unemployed. It's a nice little earner for them.
When you pay off your loan early, you should get a refund -- but 65,000 customers didn't. A mistake. And regulators warned that other banks might have made similar 'mistakes'.
Fast-forward to last week, seven years on since those unfortunate mistakes. The Central Bank announced that it was investigating seven banks (including Bank of Ireland) for conduct involving PPI between 2007 and now.
In this case, people who were sold PPI fell ill or lost their jobs, they claimed on the insurance -- and were turned down because they were ineligible for PPI in the first place.
Well, that's odd, you must admit. Having been alerted in 2005 to the wholesale culture of 'mistakes' involving a particular product, the banks nevertheless continued for several years making similar lucrative mistakes involving that particular product.
Now to me, a mistake is when I order Coke and the waiter brings me Pepsi. When I tuck my shirt-front into my underpants, that's a mistake.
It's not like this PPI thing is a one-off for the banking business. There's the systematic overcharging of foreign-exchange customers at AIB; the wild-west conduct within the IFSC; the fake non-resident accounts; the non-resident companies racket; the offshore tax frauds; the wiping out of debts owed by the likes of Charlie Haughey and Garret FitzGerald.
That ain't Coke, man, that's Pepsi.
Looking around this great little nation, I'm beginning to feel like I'm in an old western movie. We're in one of those pioneer wagon trains lost on the prairie, the back wheels have come off the lead wagon, we've run out of water -- and an overwhelming force of Apache injuns is circling, picking us off one by one.
It's as though, at every moment of every day, someone out there is cutting someone's job, slicing someone's wages, taking away an allowance or imposing a levy. They're raising the price of gas or electricity, buses or trains.
They're kicking supports out from under people who are desperately ill. They're making service cuts that will stop young people from standing on their own feet, and forcing them into emigration or a life of dependency.
And again and again, very wealthy outfits keep making 'mistakes' that siphon money from our pockets into theirs.
While warning bank customers about the latest banking 'mistake', the authorities also noted that certain companies were offering to help victims get their money back.
"Don't hire them," said the authorities. The banks have to pay the money back -- and such companies might charge up to 25 per cent of the refund.
Every moment of every day, some Apache is standing over one section or other of the populace, waving a bloody scalp.
Through this crisis, the citizens have largely adopted a strategy of grinning and bearing it. Tighten your belt, do as you're told and before long the worst will be over, we'll turn the corner, we'll wave goodbye to the IMF and . . . well, keep grinning and you never know your luck.
And all the while, vested interests relentlessly defend their privileges.
Since 2008, there has been a struggle -- various forces doing their best to ensure that some other mugs get the short end of the stick. And for every one of these forces that gets its way, someone else loses.
It's the organised forces that win out. And it's those of us who are subjected to non-stop propaganda -- easily influenced, easily divided -- who lose out.
Every Dubliner knows the farmers are a mean shower who live off the rest of us. Every farmer knows that the shower up in Dublin are conspiring to fleece the hard-working farmer. It's all nonsense, but it divides us.
Urban against rural, employed against unemployed, nationals against non-nationals, private sector against the public service. Take it from them, don't cut us.
It's madness when private sector workers blackguard the ambulance drivers who save their lives. It's madness when public sector workers resent the people whose taxes pay for the ambulance.
And while we squabble, others are hard at work. The privileged employ companies to get them into meetings with ministers. PR companies have 'public-affairs' sections, which employ people who used to work for the State or for political parties -- people who know the lines of communication into the heart of government.
Hands up all who've heard of the Clearing House Group? It has been working away since 1987 at the IFSC. It is a permanent force, thinking of ways to improve and extend the financial sector -- and it's a forum within which the interests of that sector are defended.
The Clearing House Group is made up of top civil servants, banking and financial-services interests, and it's organically connected to the Taoiseach's office. (Carl O'Brien had a fine piece in the Irish Times last July, showing its lobbyist role in influencing legislation.) Lately, there has been some unease about how it works.
For instance, it's in the interest of the vast bulk of us, right across Europe, that there be a financial transaction tax (FTT). It's a move that would put some of the cost of the current crisis back on to those who caused it. It would also inhibit some of the wilder urges of the bankers.
And the Kenny/Gilmore regime rejects the idea.
In this newspaper last May, Elaine Byrne noted that, as a result of killing the FTT, "the Irish State will lose €500m in revenue from the financial sector a year".
Harry McGee studied papers obtained under Freedom of Information. The Government's eventual position on FTT, he concluded, "dovetailed exactly with that put forward by the financial industry's lobbyists, who supplied position and research papers; suggested draft legislation; and commissioned consultants' reports".
There was a time when Enda Kenny raged against the behaviour of the banks. Now he supports AIB's decision to raise interest rates, thereby choking mortgage holders.
Ah, sure, he says, isn't it a "pillar bank?" -- as though that really meant something.
Sure, if we don't let the banks fleece their customers we'll have to give them even more money, to 'recapitalise' them.
Throughout this crisis, the politicians have consistently sought to protect a small cabal of bankers, to pay bondholders money we don't owe them and to balance the books through austerity.
Behind the scenes, powerful forces have the ears -- and the hearts -- of the political classes. And there's absolutely no mistake about that.