Michael Clifford: We owe Ballyhea a debt of gratitude

Michael Clifford: We owe Ballyhea a debt of gratitude

Tomorrow, Ballyhea says no for the last time. The final protest march through the North Cork village is scheduled to begin around 10am, leaving time for its completion before second mass in the parish church. Nine years ago nearly to the day — March 6, 2011 — the first silent march took place to protest at the bondholder bailout by the Government, and thus the Irish taxpayers. It has been continued ever since.

Initially, it was a weekly affair. For a short while there was a second march on a Friday, when the village was relatively busy with traffic on the N20 Cork-Limerick road. For a while, the march alternated between Ballyhea and neighbouring Charleville, which had come out in solidarity. Then about three years ago, the march went from weekly to monthly. Tomorrow, it ends.

“We failed,” says Diarmuid O’Flynn, the former sportswriter who organised the march.

“I make that admission straight away. Our aim was to get money back for Ireland, to bring this to public attention. But one thing nobody can say is that we were wrong.”

The country was in rag order when O’Flynn, a native of Ballyhea, advertised the first march. The economic collapse of 2008 had brought the country to its knees. Austerity had kicked in, delivering cold blows to those who could least sustain it. The IMF was running the show. Unemployment was at 14.5% and planes were full of people leaving. O’Flynn concluded that the biggest drag on any hope of recovery was the debt the public had been saddled with through the bondholder bailout. After the government guaranteed bank losses in 2008, the European Central Bank insisted that all bondholders must be paid in order to avoid contagion in the European banking system.

He studied the financial system in detail and became enraged at the blatant injustice that was being perpetrated through the bailout for bondholders. The injustice was borne disproportionately by those at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, the very people who hadn’t had any opportunity to party when the Celtic Tiger was rampant and reckless.

O’Flynn saw all this and saw also how the Arab Spring was tackling injustice by mass action on the streets at the time. So using his logic and forceful personality he assembled marchers with the hope that it might spark a flame across the State, awaken people to the enormous debt they, and the unborn generations, were being saddled with in order to protect the European banking system.

“The crash was caused by the unrestricted and rampant greed of bankers and financiers,” O’Flynn says.

“The debt was their debt, it was private debt. Then both the debt and the blame for what happened was transferred to the people.”

The flame never spread. Neighbouring Charleville came on board but beyond that there was no take-up for this action against the socialisation of private debt. Celebrities, including economists, put in appearances at Ballyhea’s Sunday protest but that was it. Foreign news organs came and gaped in wonder. Everybody knew that O’Flynn and his marchers had logic and justice on their side but it seems as if the rest of the population was resigned to its fate.

Today O’Flynn is parliamentary assistant to MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan. Last Wednesday, he presented a report on the crash and socialisation of debt to a group of MEPs. The report is entitled, The Euro Crisis — Was The Euro Itself A Primary Cause? It was seven years in the making and relies on a range of authoritative sources. He concludes that the design of the Euro, and particularly the political interference in its architecture contributed hugely to the crisis.

Despite the obvious injustice, a question arises as to whether acceptance of the bailout was in the interests of the greater good.

That is certainly the line that the government of the day and many economists took. The country had been weakened by its banks’ recklessness, light touch regulation and political mismanagement.

The ECB was pumping liquidity into the Irish banking system to keep it afloat. Telling Brussels and Frankfurt to take a running jump with the debt would have ended sourly, perhaps shoving this country into a holding tank with Greece, its economy on life support. Things could have gotten worse.

Such an argument is reinforced with the macro economic outcome in which Ireland recovered quickly and set off on the road of healthy growth. Foreign direct investment returned with a bang.

Unemployment plummeted and foreign media arrived to wonder how this so-recent basket case could bounce back and soar.

Where the argument falls down is in the detail. Sure, the macro economy is flying, but what precise use is that to the majority of citizens who are struggling in this new dispensation? The people were saddled with the debt in order to effect a recovery, but nobody examined what kind of country should emerge from the catastrophe.

Nobody in power sat down and said “now that we’re asking people to stump up we have an obligation to do things differently from here on in”. As such, the market remained the driving force. Wages went up but so too did the cost of everything. Housing was, to a large extent, left to the market. Some have prospered, others continue to struggle.

The grasping culture that was evident in the days of the Celtic Tiger has returned but it appears that fewer are benefiting this time around. To that extent, the recession was wasted. Any moral reasoning for taking on the debt falls down. We have learned nothing. The result of the recent general election, widely interpreted as a rejection of politics-as-usual, was the electorate’s response to how the recovery was handled.

O’Flynn believes that the same thing can happen again: “All the banks that were too big to fail are bigger now.

“The mountain of debt in the system is huge. We have a debt of €210bn.”

In 2008 that was €48bn.

He has presented his report and he hopes, whenever a government is finally constituted here, to be given an audience in the new Dáil. “We’re handing it over to people who should be dealing with this, our elected reps,” he says.

“They should have done the right thing in the first place. We never thought that nine years later we’d still be banging this drum.”

Ballyhea will depart from the headlines. It has, however, made its mark on history. O’Flynn and his kindred spirits didn’t really change anything in terms of the injustice that was perpetrated. But they did bear witness. When the social history of this time is written there will be a chapter on how a small community for nine years silently protested against the injustices perpetrated on all citizens and the unborn generations through being lumbered with enormous private debt.

In bearing witness in such a manner, the protestors of Ballyhea have made a real and lasting contribution.

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