LAST WEDNESDAY, a small group of residents from the town of Ballyhea in Co Cork highlighted what committed and determined citizens can achieve. Unfortunately, due to a form of media silence, and what some have described as a form of censorship, too few people have heard of the Ballyhea campaign.
Having gotten together in March 2011, they have protested each and every of the 144 weeks since with a banner declaring, “Ballyhea says No! to bond-holder bailout”. The group has brought their campaign to the European scale, submitting a petition for bank-debt write-off to the European Parliament Petitions Committee and last week it succeeded in having a motion put to the Dail calling on the Irish Government to ask the ECB to have the Anglo bonds written off.
Protesters had travelled from across the country
A live display was set up outside the Dail so that the hundreds of protesters, who had travelled from across the country, could watch the debate and vote. I spoke to some of the people there, and what struck me was that these were not long time activists but are the so-called ‘ordinary’ people of Ireland. Their voice is never heard in the media. Many of them are working full time and trying to do this in their spare time. Others are unemployed and doing it out of frustration and anger. They are doing it because they care about their family, their friends, their community and the people of this country. It is this that gives them their legitimacy, their power and potential.
One of them explained to that he was so angered by the bank bailouts and austerity that he felt he had to something. He has marched every single week and describes how “All the political parties are the same. They don’t represent the people. We have been sold out. I was at one of the marches and one of the people said to me to say a few words. I had never spoken before in public and I said a few words about why I was there. Then I went off and read more and spoke again the next time about the debt and austerity. We are tired but we are going to keep on going.” They feel completely alienated, abandoned and disillusioned with the government political parties, the state and its institutions.
The Ballyhea group started after the Fine Gael-Labour government reneged on one of their most fundamental election promises, that there would be burden-sharing with the bank bondholders. The key organiser, Diarmuid O’Flynn, a local sports journalist, explained that he was inspired by the Arab Spring “to fight to have returned to us, by the ECB, the money they have forced us to pay out in pursuance of their failed policy… which has resulted in mass unemployment, emigration, misery for the Irish people… Until such time as that has happened…we will continue to march, every Sunday.”
Significantly, the Ballyhea Says No! group encouraged other communities to march as well. There are now groups of people marching in Tralee, Killarney, Charleville, Listowel, Rathoath, Clonmel, and elsewhere. While in Dublin, the Anglo Not Our Debt campaign has organised protests in solidarity.
Significantly, they have continued to highlight the mistruths about the ‘deal’ that was supposedly achieved on the Anglo Promissory Notes in February this year. The reality is that one of the biggest injustices of this crisis, the forcing of private banking debt onto the backs of the Irish people, was continued in that so-called ‘deal’. The Anglo Promissory notes were converted into sovereign (Government) debt, of which every cent of the €28 billion is due to be paid back by the Irish people, with interest, through the issuing of government bonds in the coming years. That is why the motion called on the Government to:
…immediately lobby the European Central Bank for a one-off exemption from the rules of monetary financing, to allow the Central Bank of Ireland to destroy the €25 billion in sovereign bonds issued in February of this year, in lieu of the remaining Promissory Notes, plus the €3.06 billion bond also being held by the Central Bank of Ireland in payment for the 2012 Promissory Note; and
— to cease any and all interest payments currently being made on those bonds.
A sad reflection of the Irish trade union movement
It is worth reiterating that the Irish people have paid 42% of the cost of the bailing out the entire European banking system. The bailout of the private banking sector has cost us €64bn. We also gave €17bn of our National Pension Reserve and cash reserves to our own bailout by the Troika.
The acceptance by the establishment organisations like the Labour Party and some of the larger trade unions that we should prioritise the requirements of the financial institutions in Ireland and Europe over society’s needs, and implement savage austerity and debt repayment policies, was made clear in their attitude to this campaign. Unfortunately, Unite were the only trade union present at the protest on Wednesday. It is a sad reflection of the Irish trade union movement that they have not given more support to this campaign. It casts a shadow of tragedy and farce over the commemorations of the 1913 Lockout.
Derek Nolan, a young Labour Party TD spoke in the Dail debate, where he showed a dismissive attitude toward the Ballyhea campaign stating: “I have lost count of the number of times slogans and empty rhetoric have been bombasted as the quick-fix solutions to all our country’s very real ills. Populist, easy to chant slogans included ‘Austerity isn’t working’, ‘Default, default, default’, ‘Bailout the worker’ and so on. Those slogans are devoid of meaning and are not grounded in economics, finance or political reality.”
It is a strange position to believe that it is unrealistic to expect debt forgiveness or debt write-downs from the European Central Bank but it is realistic to expect the Irish people to accept the destruction of social and economic recovery, forced emigration and poverty in order to pay back this illegitimate debt. It is economically ludicrous to think that Ireland’s debt is sustainable. The continued imposition of this debt also makes a nonsense of the ‘celebrations’ of Ireland’s bailout exit as it will trap us in austerity for decades.
The ECB is not Ireland’s friend
It appears that the current Irish government have not pushed for any debt write-down for Ireland. Just like many wealthy nationalists did the bidding of the British empire when Ireland was colonised before, so now their contemporaries in the Dail are bending over backwards to show that they are the good obedient children (or perhaps more accurately, colonial whipping boys and girls) of our new imperial powers, Germany, France, the European Central Bank etc.
The Government TDs continue to act as if the European Central Bank and German, Dutch and other governments controlling the euro, have been friends of Ireland. It was the ECB and these governments that refused us permission to burn the bondholders in 2010 which forced us into the bailout. It is the ECB who continue to impose on us unsustainable debt levels which, no doubt, the markets will begin speculating on again in the future and we could see our bond yields rise again and be forced out of the markets and into another bailout.
The ECB are clearly not an ‘independent’ institution but a tool of the big European powers. They want us to pay back our debt, not because of some principle of debt repayment, but because it is going to French and German banks.
We are constantly being told that the ‘system’ would collapse if we didn’t pay back our debt, or if we left the euro. But our society is collapsing. Isn’t it reasonable to ask why we are destroying ourselves to save a system that has failed us and offers only further suffering into the future?
What is clear is that as the Ballyhea, and other ‘Say No’ groups continue to march in a determined and dignified manner in towns around Ireland, that this is far from the end of the campaign against one of the biggest injustices in the European crisis.
Dr Rory Hearne is a Lecturer in Geography NUIM, member of Claiming Our Future and former community worker.
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