Sunday 17 November 2019

Spirit of partnership is now a sick joke

The Nyberg report will be used in Europe to confirm the 'delinquent Irish' were to blame for the bank crash, writes Anthony Cronin

THE gods may or may not be against us. It would seem the European establishment certainly is. You might think that lecturing somebody who is down was akin to putting the boot in. Surely you should pick them up, dust them down, and then deliver the lecture. And common sense would certainly suggest that when someone has borrowed money from you and is honestly and painfully struggling to pay it back, you say 'attaboy', 'that's the stuff', and even 'wow, you're doing great', to keep the poor devil going.

But the tone of the constant lectures and admonitions we are getting is peevish, impatient, abrupt, and sometimes downright insulting. Mind you, we have been saying -- I know this because I was one of the first to say it -- that our debt is part of a European problem and that they should bend their minds and talents to finding a European solution. And I said further that if they didn't, then we should do everything we can to drive the message home, short of defaulting. Some of this of course might be against the spirit of partnership. But many people are rightly beginning to feel that the spirit of partnership is now a very sick joke indeed.

All this is ironic and strange and sad when you consider the high hopes with which we set out on our European adventure. One of these hopes was that membership of the European Union would free us in certain matters from the pressures, distortions and restraints of our own politics, national and local. And so indeed it did. A whole raft of liberalising measures, which would otherwise have taken vastly longer to come about, was forced on us and facilitated by our membership of the European Union, and our subjection to the European Court of Justice. Freedom from purely national and local pressures hastened the advent of a new and more enlightened Ireland greatly different from the Ireland of the past.

But now we are at the mercy of national, and worse still, local, politics as never before, and in matters potentially more disastrous than ever before. The difference is that the local politics are not ours but Germany's. And though the politicians we have to deal with are not ours either, they are certainly as timorous, as limited in outlook and as desperate for re-election as ours ever were. If they had been generous, wise and far-sighted enough at the beginning to admit that their banks had been no less reckless than ours, that we were all in this together and so must collectively work our way out of it, we would have made appreciable progress in doing just that by now. But instead they adopted a myth of the delinquent Irish who are solely responsible, and must be solely made to bear the burden of their delinquency. Hence the stiff, not to say abusive, tones in which they address us.

The latest to join this chorus is Mr Nyberg, a Finn and himself a banker, who the last government commissioned to write a report on our banking failures and which was published last week. In it he says that we suffered from "a national speculative mania". And that there were in Ireland "hundreds of thousands of people" who were "putting their trust in extraordinary things such as unlimited real wealth such as selling property to each other on credit".

This is complete nonsense. Of course there were speculators at work. And they probably created the rise in Irish house prices which

was to become a bubble. And there were, of course, reckless developers and bankers who were in league with them. But the majority of people who paid ridiculous prices for houses simply wanted a place to live and were stampeded by the fear that if they didn't buy something today they wouldn't be able to buy anything tomorrow.

Most of those who opened the property pages to see what was happening to house prices were pleased to see that their house, and therefore in theory themselves, appeared to be worth an ever-accreting fortune. (But at the same time perhaps a little disquieted because this fact, if it was a fact, appeared to offer them choices which they didn't want to make.)

All evidence here is anecdotal. We have not had sufficient evidence of property dealings among what you might call ordinary people. We have not had enough facts about bank borrowings below the highly publicised level of the developers. And Mr Nyberg, whose report cost us €1.32m, does not give them to us either. So all I can say is that I have never met the taximan who borrowed money to buy six apartments in the Bulgarian resort called Sunny Beach. But I have met one whose friend committed suicide because he could no longer pay the mortgage for his family's home. I know some developers or ex-developers but I do not know anybody who sold a house at a big profit, bought another and sold that too. Some people I know did sell their houses and bought one in France which they went to live in, but I think if there had been hundreds of thousands buying and selling houses to each other I would be bound to know some of them.

Of course there were the developers, the sort of people we had been brought up to believe were hard-headed and shrewd, who seemed (again Mr Nyberg's phrase) to "lose the run of themselves". And there were bankers to accommodate them, and German bankers to accommodate them in turn at exceptionally low interest rates, some of them, according to former German foreign minister Mr Jorgen Fischer, "doing their business in the backrooms of Dublin." Until finally, Smash! The Mercedes was in the ditch with its wheels spinning.

Nevertheless, Mr Nyberg's report, with its official status, will be used against us. And so anti-Irish feeling grows in Europe at the same rate as anti-European feeling is growing in Ireland. The consolation is that disquiet about the present European set-up is growing in Europe too. Jorgen Habermas, the great German philosopher and last survivor of the Frankfurt school, who has spent his life attempting to answer Pilate's question 'What is truth?', has been speaking about these matters and indicated some of the answer.

Agreeing that Germany is in denial "because it knows very well that it helped to create the present crisis and is therefore itself a major obstacle in helping to find a solution", Habermas says that Angela Merkel "is at heart a Eurosceptic" who blatantly puts national interests first. She is too concerned, he says, with opinion polls and too desperate for electoral success to turn to complicated matters of the European project.

Well, Merkel must face re-election in the not too distant future, and Sarkozy, who has subordinated French policy to German in an extraordinary way, must face his electorate even sooner. If they both go out we will have quite a different set of politicians to deal with, and they perhaps will be better Europeans. The attempt to make Ireland and the other 'PIGS' carry the burden of guilt as well as the burden of debt is political and a political change may see its abandonment. To quote Thomas Jefferson once again: "We are all carried forward by tides we cannot control into a future we cannot foresee."

Sunday Independent

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