Monday, 1 April 2013

BRUSSELS, SHARON BOWLES, MEPs, THE DÁIL & TDs




Last Wednesday, March 27th, at the EU Parliament building in Brussels, a group of us (Fiona & Rob Fitzpatrick, Frances & Pat O’Brien, Diarmuid O’Flynn, Phil Ryan and Cathleen Quealey) from the ‘Ballyhea & Charleville says NO! to bank debt’ campaign met with Sharon Bowles MEP, Chair of ECON. 


The meeting had been facilitated through the good offices of Brian Crowley MEP, who unfortunately could not make the meeting himself. In attendance were two of our Irish MEPs, Marian Harkin and Pat Gallagher, and immediately subsequent to the meeting we met by arrangement with three other of our MEPs, Nessa Childers, Phil Prendergast and Seán Kelly.

On Thursday we returned to Dublin and by arrangement with Luke Ming Flanagan TD, who has marched with us in Ballyhea and Charleville on a couple of occasions, met at the Dáil with several members of the Technical Group, along with Aonghus Ó Snodaigh TD (Sinn Féin) and Michael McGrath (Fianna Fáil).

This is a summary of events.

MEETING WITH SHARON BOWLES

Presentation
To open proceedings a prepared statement addressing Sharon Bowles was read, in which we outlined who we are in the Ballyhea & Charleville group, why we’re campaigning, how the campaign has grown, what we now want to see done – essentially, we repudiate the bank debt that has been imposed on the Irish people.

Letters
As Ireland suffers this debt piled on debt there is a human face to the austerity measures being forced on the people through the measures agreed between the Troika and a beaten government. To illustrate this suffering we presented Sharon with a series of six letters from people not just in Ballyhea but from farther afield, people who have been deeply affected by what has happened over the last terrible decade. 

One letter spoke of the pain of emigration, now at its highest in Ireland since the black years of the Great Hunger of the 1840s, families again being torn apart. There was a letter that spoke of the strain on relationships, of a marriage break-up after 33 years; a letter that told of the heartbreak of losing a family home; a letter that spoke of a man’s feeling of helplessness as a bread-winner in a climate of no jobs; a letter outlining a wife’s concern for a strong husband now being drained of self-esteem; perhaps most telling of all in the way austerity has been delivered in Ireland, a letter on the breakdown of the health services and its devastating effect on one sorely and seriously affected.

Six letters from ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges; they could have been sixty, six hundred, six hundred thousand, not just from our little campaign group but from right across Ireland, from right across Europe. As Fiona read there wasn’t another sound, everyone riveted on the words. We became as one; there was no MEP, there was no ECON Chair, there were only people, all feeling and sharing this pain.

Reaction
We had no idea what to expect from this meeting, what to expect from Sharon Bowles. We had looked her up on Wikipedia and other information sources, knew she is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party in the UK, knew also that in 2012 she had been on the short-list for Governor of the Bank of England, knew she had been a Patent Attorney in a previous life but was now an MEP and the Chair of ECON, the EU Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs to which the ECB is accountable. As such then Sharon is a powerful dual-role figure, a European parliamentarian but also in direct contact with the ECB. 

And here we were, a small group from a small parish, looking for her assistance as we challenge that same ECB on what they’ve done to Ireland.

We found neither politician nor academic, we found a person, someone with whom we could instantly identify and one who could identify with us. She spoke frankly and openly, neither vague political-speak nor confusing economic jargon. Her first words shook us, words to the effect that she had been surprised at how easily the previous Irish government had given in to the ECB, how she was then equally surprised when the current Irish government did the same. She also said, quite evenly but also quite categorically, that she felt Ireland had got a poor deal from Europe.

All these weeks, all these years, we’ve been saying exactly the same thing. We are unwavering in that belief and we have growing support, but the apologists are still out there – in our media and in our general population – for the bank bailout in Ireland, the imposition of nearly €70bn of private debt on public shoulders and all the pain that it has brought. We’ve had that conviction affirmed many times from many different powerful and expert sources but to hear it said now so bluntly by one so obviously expert and so close to the coal-face, that gave us a massive lift.

Projection
An initial half-hour meeting turned into an hour, then an hour-and-a-half. What we had confirmed is this: the ECB are the ones running the show in Europe, not the EU, not the EC.

Power rests with the bankers, with the financiers, with the money-machine, and when the ECB is doing its calculations, people simply do not come into the equation. Pain, suffering, poverty, deprivation, these are not factors in ECB HQ in Frankfurt; banks, bonds, pensions, interest rates, inflation, keeping the markets sweet and the euro strong, those are their guiding influences.

We spoke to our five MEPs named above and the impression gained from all five was that they are fine and decent people but they feel helpless, powerless to do anything to stop the ECB from doing whatever it feels like doing; and so they throw themselves into other activities, into other committees whose work also impacts on Ireland. But the bank debt imposed on the people? Nothing. In fact probably the most impassioned speech on behalf of the Irish people against what has been imposed on us and on the other so-called peripheral peoples of Europe has been made not by one of our own but by another British MEP, one Nigel Farage, though Paul Murphy (whom we didn’t meet) has done his best.

On what was recently initially agreed on the Cyprus crisis, even Sharon Bowles herself seemed shaken, physically shaken. Often in our own campaign we have had the argument thrown at us that the ECB can’t do anything about our so-called ‘legacy debt’, that they are bound by rule. Even at this meeting in Brussels we met it from our MEPs. When we spoke of repudiating the bank element of Ireland’s ever-increasing debt, of demanding debt write-down, they threw their hands in the air (figuratively speaking of course) and said ‘No, can’t be done, ECB’s own rules prevents it.’ Every time, we respond to that argument by pointing out that where the ECB is concerned, rule applies only as they themselves decide, and so they twist and bend their own rules into whatever shape they see fit, to suit whatever new course they are now taking.

Now, Sharon Bowles was confirming our argument. “What else will be blown apart when convenient?” she herself asked last week, as the Cyprus crisis took hold and the proposal to burn even the smallest depositors was accepted at a meeting of the EZ finance ministers chaired by our own Michael Noonan.

People-power subsequently put a stop to that particular element of that proposal.

We are battling to expose in Europe (and at home) the injustice of what has been done to Ireland; in Sharon Bowles we found what we hope is a kindred spirit. By what logic can the gambling losses of reckless, profiteering, private international banks be imposed on a sovereign people? That is a one of a number of questions we would like to put directly to the all-powerful ECB and to facilitate that, Sharon Bowles has agreed to work towards setting up a meeting. Perhaps, even, she may accompany us – we would certainly appreciate her expertise.

MEPs
As noted, we met Marian Harkin and Pat Gallagher at the Bowles meeting, then afterwards we met Nessa Childers, Phil Prendergast and Seán Kelly in the Mickey Mouse café in the EU building. The acoustics and traffic in the café made group conversation impossible but the impressions gained from the various conversations were that a) despite the fact that the Labour Party are part of the coalition government at home, Nessa Childers and Phil Prendergast are very much in tune with what we’re tying to do, and b) Seán Kelly is a very strong representative of his own party, Fine Gael, defended to the hilt everything that Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan have done since taking over the reins of power. 

I had a fairly robust debate with Seán (to put it mildly!) but no harm there, one of us as tough-skinned as the other and Seán can give and take with the best. Finally, however, he did relent, if only a little. When it was suggested to him that as a man who had proven his own worth as a tough and skilled negotiator time and again during his GAA days with Kerry, Munster and as President of the GAA itself, he himself would surely have got a better deal for Ireland, he smiled, agreed. He also promised to work towards getting us a meeting with Michael Noonan to enable us discuss our grievances directly with our Minister for Finance.

THE DÁIL MEETING
Through Luke Ming Flanagan TD we met many of the Dáil Technical Group, as they’re known, a collection of independent-minded TDs from right across the political spectrum who have gotten together simply for the convenience of being allowed speaking-time in the Dáil chamber – tells us a lot all on its own about the setup of that system. Also in attendance were Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD (Sinn Féin) and Michael McGrath TD (Fianna Fáil Finance Spokesperson).

I don’t have a complete list of all those who attended so won’t even attempt to number them here. Shane Ross was not there, which was disappointing, we’d like to have engaged with someone we see as being an ally; neither were Joe Higgins nor Clare Daly, but it was still a sizeable representation of the group, for which we’re grateful.

As with our representatives in Europe what we found was a feeling of helplessness, of powerlessness, not just in the face of the ECB but in the face of our own media which in general – as we’re only too aware ourselves – promote almost undiluted the spin of the government. Helpless, we were thinking, powerless? And each of them with thousands of supporters behind them, while we have a few hundred in Ballyhea?

They’ve met the Troika, as a group, have made their case for Ireland but were met with the rebuttal – ‘Where are the protests? Where is your support for what you're saying? The people are accepting of what their government is doing.’

Aengus Ó Snodaigh explained that Sinn Féin are working as hard as they can for bank debt repudiation. I'm afraid I gave Michael McGrath a bit of a hard time, though not to the same extent as with Seán Kelly in Brussels, with whom I was more or less one-on-one. The recent Promissory Notes/Sovereign Bonds conversion is something I see as an absolute sell-out of the Irish people, and how Fianna Fáil could have supported that is beyond me. Even they themselves now seem to accept that they are the political party most responsible for getting us into this mess; it’s time, Michael was told, for Fianna Fáil to start acting as a real opposition party and give up on the grand gestures.

SUMMARY
We went to Brussels and to the Dáil last week and with our letters, with our presence, we hoped to put a human face on what’s happening in Ireland, the personal devastation being caused by the imposition of this bank debt, the subsequent austerity policies; hopefully we managed that. Yes, we were facing difficult times anyway but the €21bn taken from the Pension Reserve Fund, how might that be invested now, what jobs created? How much interest is being lost on those billions? The interest being paid to the ECB on the bank debt borrowings, how might those hundreds of millions be spent? The Promissory Notes, how much easier to get back to the vaunted markets if we had done what we should have done with those, and simply burned them? How much of this pain and suffering, how much of this human misery, could be avoided?

The odd thing though, in Brussels and in the Dáil we also found a human face, discovered that our politicians (those we met, at least) are also good and decent people, feel as helpless as most. We disagree with them, however, disagree strongly; we are not helpless, neither the people nor our politicians.

TO BE DONE
  The ECB has the whip-hand now; we must take it from them. The power to do this rests with us, the people, and through us it rests with our representatives, our politicians. We must further empower those politicians. How?  

  1. We take to the streets, as we do in Ballyhea every week, and march, now under the ‘Ireland says NO! to bank debt’ banner; 
  2. We contact our local and European representatives and make our feelings known;  
  3. We contact our media, local and national, and do likewise; 
  4. We get active locally, leafleting, educating, recruiting;
  5. We show that we care.


If after all that our politicians still aren’t working on our behalf, if they’re not showing the kind of courage we’re looking for in facing down those who would debt-enslave us, then we replace them.

It can be done. From those couple of days last week our small group is now working very positively towards a) a meeting with the ECB top brass, b) a meeting with Minister Noonan, c) a meeting with the Troika; we are also in the process of setting up a meeting for our opposition parties with the ECON committee in Brussels and we have asked each of the Technical Group and opposition party TDs to support the ‘Ireland says NO! to bank debt’ campaign. 

Let no-one tell you we’re voiceless or helpless or powerless. We have the voice, we have the power, we must simply choose to use it.

Regards, Diarmuid O'Flynn.

2 comments:

  1. If every workplace, school, social club, hospitals etc, had a book of petition - that might rouse and mobilise the masses.

    Mind you, if our own politicians have already thrown in the towel we can say goodnight vienna to the whole shebang.

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  2. Ms Bowles seemed sympathetic, but could do nothing.Despite being Chair of ECON, to whom, as you've noted, the ECB is acountable. I know this may offend you, but that's not my intention. It's just that I believe Ms Bowles is like most politicians, they talk a good game, but can't help. And I did predict this result when I sent you a good luck message on Facebook.
    If I may humbly suggest something. Organize a bank run, i.e. if you can target a big bank and persuade depositors to transfer their accounts elsewhere, and boycott businesses that use that bank, you wouldn't need many participants to force the bank, and the government, to negotiate with you, as even a threat of a run on deposits destroys a bank, it dies. You could then force more sympathetic treatment for those in mortgage arrears, freeze bankers pay, etc and even make government listen.
    It worked in Holland.

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