For a few hours, Diarmuid O’Flynn slapped Conor McGregor around the place.
Well, not quite. It all happened in cyberspace eight days ago, after McGregor’s 13-second title fight victory the previous night. The Notorious, as he styles himself, was the top trending topic on Twitter, except for a few hours, when the Ballyhea protests, led by O’Flynn, removed him from the No 1 slot. Nearly four years down the line from the different country that is the recent past, and Ballyhea, Co Cork, can still exercise minds.
They marched for the 250th time on Sunday, December 13. A short walk after Mass. No bells or whistles, just a silent, good- natured walk to acknowledge a wrong that has yet to be righted, the foisting of gambling debts by bank bondholders onto the shoulders of citizens.
Since first taking the long walk on March 6, 2011, the gathering has been visited by assorted celebrities, politicians, economists, and not a few foreign media personnel. All admire what is being undertaken. In effect, the weekly protest in a small parish of around 1,000 people is bearing witness to a grave injustice, long after the political caravan has moved on.
“These were two zombie banks,” O’Flynn says of Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide. “We should not have been presented with the full bill from them and that’s the wrong that was done. No matter what has happened in other parts of the economy since then, it doesn’t become a right.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that the economic collapse radicalised O’Flynn. Prior to that, he had largely kept out of politics, preferring to concentrate on the froth of life that is sport. A qualified engineer, he had latterly been employed as a sports reporter with the Irish Examiner.
Then, in 2008, his focus began to switch from the sports pages to the front pages.
“I had never taken interest in anything political before the bank guarantee alerted me to the fact that something was going on,” he says. “I started reading more and more about it, educating myself on the big questions.”
At the time, there were two general attitudes from the populace at large to the unfolding economic disaster: Some retreated into the national fatalistic position; others sought refuge in their anger. This was when O’Flynn got up and going. He was mad as hell, but, unlike most people, he was going to do something about it, and do it from the perspective of Joe and Josephine Citizen.
“Coming through 2010, I was really concerned when I saw the way things were going and then, prior to the Troika coming in, I started emailing politicians in Fianna Fáil and the Greens [coalition partners] to see if they would make a stand against what was building in the ECB, but nothing came of that.”
It is clear the ECB was eager to ensure bondholders in Irish banks would get their wodge returned. The alternative, as some of the ECB honchos saw it, was that there could be contagion in European banks, dragging the system to the abyss. As far as that school of thought went, it was a better bet to foist the debts onto a peripheral country which had been profligate in its own way.
For the citizens of this State, it meant bondholder debt was firmly deposited in the national exchequer. O’Flynn kept making representations. He couldn’t believe what was being done.
At one stage, he saw some hope from the opposition. In December 2010, Michael Noonan, who was the Fine Gael spokesman for finance, responded to Brian Lenihan’s budget speech with a suggestion that he was all for setting alight to the bondholder certificates.
“The principle of moral hazard applies not only to those who invested as shareholders and lost all their shares, as happened in Anglo Irish Bank. It also applies to those who borrowed recklessly, which has happened right across the banking system,” Noonan told the Dail.
“It further applies to those who lend recklessly. The only part of moral hazard that seems not to be understood in this country is that those who lent recklessly can walk free and the taxpayers have their liabilities transferred to them.”
Like many others, O’Flynn took this to mean that Fine Gael would right the wrong. A few months later, he was disabused of that notion.
“Within days of the election I heard an interview with Enda Kenny and it was obvious that he was already pulling back,” O’Flynn says.
It was time for action. In a previous incarnation, he had worked as an engineer in the Libyan city of Benghazi, which would eventually become the cradle of the revolution against the dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. In fact, he only broke his employment contract there to return to Ballyhea in 1980 to play in an intermediate hurling championship final. Ballyhea won.
“I knew the good Gaddafi did in Libya, but I also knew the power of his secret police so I saw the courage of people who stood up to that. So, I said the least we could do in a country like this was get out and protest. I made a few calls to hurling families and got a good response from everybody.”
The first protest followed 11am Mass and attracted 14 people. It was no big deal, but a commitment was made to continue until their grievance was addressed. They’ve been marching every Sunday since, and a few other notable occasions, such as when the payment of large sums of money for specific bonds were made.
While little has changed in the last four years in relation to the bonds — bar an alleged deal of sorts to ease the pain — life for O’Flynn has been transformed. He has taken the battle to the Dáil, to Brussels, to Frankfurt, up the west coast of Ireland. His mission has been to raise awareness as well, as having the injustice reversed.
Last year, he put his name where his mouth was, running in the European elections for the South constituency.
“We left it very late,” he says. “I started campaigning on May 6 after the league final [he was still reporting for the Irish Examiner]. We had no posters, just a small band of dedicated canvassers trying to cover a huge constituency of 10 counties and we nearly pulled it off. I got 30,000 first preferences and got as far as the 10th count.”
Out of that experience, another avenue opened up. While O’Flynn failed to get elected, Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan sailed through the poll for the west constituency. He had visited Ballyhea a number of times and facilitated questions in the Dáil for the group. He approached O’Flynn with a proposal to be his parliamentary assistant. By then, health issues had seen the sports reporter hang up his pen and pad. Well bitten by the activist bug, O’Flynn accepted and moved to Brussels, where he found himself meeting the kind of European operators he had often attempted to meet. He believes he has changed minds about the bondholder issue, but little progress has been made.
Meanwhile, it now appears the country has come out the other end of the recession. The Government bit its tongue, imposed austerity — savage in some instances — and appear to have righted the ship of state. Does that end not justify the means?
“Anything that has happened in terms of the economy is totally separate to the banking debt,” he says. “A wrong remains a wrong, no matter what happened. People talk about the bank guarantee being the fault of all our problems and that it was a homegrown thing, but the real blame lies in Europe. The euro was badly set up and we were the ones who paid the price.”
Now, O’Flynn is heading back to the polls to further the cause. He is standing as an independent in the Cork North West constituency in the general election.
“One of the reasons I’m standing is I’m certain that, if elected, I could get an all-party group to unite from the Dáil and go to the ECB about the bonds. Of all the bank debts, that is the most odious.”
Nearly five years down the line, the weekly ritual in Ballyhea continues and there’s no sign of it ending until some retrospective deal is done to right a grave wrong.