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A shorter version of this article appeared today on the Journal.ie

On Wednesday 27th of November the Ballyhea Says No movement achieved an incredible step along the journey to rid the Irish people of the odious bank debt imposed since 2008. Their motion was put to the Dail calling on the Irish government to ask the ECB to have the Anglo bonds written off. Outside the Dail, last Wednesday night I, along with hundreds of other protestors from across the country, watched the Government TDs vote against that motion. But it is clear that this is far from the end of the campaign against one of the biggest injustices in the European crisis. I have been deeply moved and inspired by the way in which they have marched, every single week, in their small rural town in Co. Cork, since March 2011, in such a determined and dignified manner. Unfortunately, due to a form of media censorship, too few people have heard of the Ballyhea debt group. Even worse, many people have been convinced by government and media mistruths that the Anglo Promissory Notes were done away with in a ‘deal’ in February this year. This article is an attempt to contribute to the spreading of the Ballyhea campaign and provides some thoughts on how we can move forward together to end Ireland’s debt slavery and achieve an Ireland of equality and solidarity.

They were just a small group of residents who got together in the rural town of Ballyhea in Co Cork, in March 2011, and began a weekly march declaring, “Ballyhea says No! to bond-holder bailout” against the imposition of private bank-debt on the Irish people. They started after the newly elected 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.” The group has brought their campaign to the national and European scale, submitting a petition for bank-debt write-off to the European Parliament Petitions Committee.

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. A marcher from one of the groups explained to me on the protest on Wednesday night, how he had never been interested in politics before but 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 it has changed him: “I have been reading up on economics and politics and trying to understand what is happening to us. 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.” Some also spoke of how they had linked up with anti-eviction protests. They feel completely alienated, abandoned and disillusioned with the government political parties, the state and its institutions.

The interesting thing is that these are the so-called ‘ordinary’ people of Ireland. They are not seasoned left wing activists and have not been involved in politics before. They are the voiceless people of Ireland. The excluded and ignored. 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.

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 impact of this bailout, the debt interest repayments and austerity policies can be seen in rising poverty in Ireland with the deprivation rate rising from 11% in 2007 to 25% in 2011. Unemployment has risen from 5% in 2007 to 13% in 2013, while Ireland has gone from having the highest net immigration rate in 2006 to having the highest net emigration rate in 2013.

These are the reasons that have motivated the Ballyhea group. Their persistent work resulted in a significant achievement of getting the Technical group in the Dail to put forward the motion last Wednesday night which 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.”

The Ballyhea, Anglo Not Our Debt and the other Says No! groups, through this motion, and their ongoing work, have shattered the myth that Ireland achieved debt forgiveness 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.

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.”

So the Government believes it is unrealistic to expect debt forgivenes 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, push thousands more people into poverty, destroy jobs, force emigration and fuel mortgage distress in order to pay back this illegitimate debt? It is economically ridiculous to think that Ireland’s debt is sustainable. It is morally wrong and unjust that this odious debt is expected to be repaid.

The continued imposition of this debt also makes a nonsense of the ‘celebrations’ of Ireland’s bailout exit. It will trap us in austerity for decades. It is an enforced debt slavery for us and our children.

The United Left TD, Clare Daly’s statement to the Dail on the debate is worth restating as it captures many of the issues that Ballyhea are raising:

“In a Chamber (i.e. the Dail) noted for its brass necks, tonight’s performance almost beat all. To have to listen to Deputy Spring (Aurthur Spring, Labour TD), who is a former Anglo Irish Bank employee and who contested an election on a programme of Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way, ridicule this motion takes some beating. This individual bragged about the Greek economy being on its knees and somehow thought that was something to crow about to his friends in PASOK but I can tell him there is nobody in Ireland who takes comfort from the situation in the Greek economy. We stand in solidarity with the ordinary people of Europe, whether in Greece or in Iceland, when they stand up and say “enough”……Last night, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy O’Dowd, when speaking against the motion said we follow through on our commitments and that this is the message we want to deliver to the international community. What commitments and to whom? What message do we want to deliver to the international community? Is it that it can hit us with whatever it likes and we will bend even lower and take it? That is not a message I want to deliver. That is not our commitment nor is it that of the people of Ballyhay, the student nurses, the 100,000 young people who are now in Australia, the 400,000 people who are still out of work, the secondary school teachers, the children with special needs, the survivors symphysiotomy and all of the other people who have been shafted by this debt deal. It is not a message people want to deliver”.

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 has been a friend of Ireland. Let us not forget it was the ECB 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 will 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.

It was highlighted again and again by speakers at the protest that it is no accident that the politicians are not standing up to the ECB. They, and the wealthy and highly paid classes in Ireland, are doing just fine, and have no idea of the impact of this crisis. They have their well-paid, secure, jobs and do not want large scale protests or alternative politics or approaches that could jeopardise that cosy consensus.

The Ballyhea campaign also raises the question of what is the end game, the purpose, of all this austerity and debt repayments? Our economy is unsustainable and inequitable, dominated by an over-reliance on foreign multinationals who are here because it is one of the most profitable countries in Europe. A majority of people are affected by low wages, insecure employment, poverty, unemployment, and various forms of exclusion as a result of discrimination on class, gender, or disability. Austerity has hit the poorest the hardest. The European Central Bank, private markets and bondholders are insisting we live in penury and debt slavery for decades to come. Despite the demands for reform from the Irish public in the 2011 general election the political and state institutions remain as before the crisis began. We have been failed over and over by our political and state institutions and our model of economic development.

Our youth are emigrating, giving up on this country, turning to drugs and suicide. Notably, there wasn’t many young people on the protest. Emigration is clearly a useful political pressure valve for the elite. Then there is our health system which is becoming an apartheid system where access depends on ability to pay. We are not ‘turning a corner’ we are becoming a social wasteland.

The impact of Celtic Tiger neoliberalism has, as John Bissett, the community worker and organiser of the Spectacle of Defiance and Hope, has accurately described, turned us into individuals trying to fight each other to survive, rather than collectively responding as a community. As we ‘exit’ the bailout and enter a supposed ‘recovery’ the key question is what sort of society and economy are we now aiming to develop? It appears that it is business as usual for the elite who want the Irish people to suck it up and have austerity for decades in order to get us back to the days of unsustainable and inequitable Celtic Tiger growth.

The danger we face as a nation is the return of our dark history of division, silence, and acceptance of oppression. In more recent years the process of social partnership has resulted in civil society becoming part of the establishment, no longer challenging the system and offering radical alternatives.

But there is hope in what is going on at present and the action of the past provides some inspiration to keep us going.

Irish civil society has a long history of struggle from the land league, to trade union struggle, to the tax marches of the 1980s, the civil rights movement, stopping nuclear energy, the massive anti-war marches, co-operatives and community work. In particular, it seems strange and tragic timing that we are only a few years away from the 100th anniversary of the 1916 rising. Connolly, Pearse and other leaders read the proclamation of the Irish Republic at the steps of the GPO in Easter 1916 declaring an Irish Republic which read: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible…The republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally…”. Despite their small numbers they challenged one of the largest empires in the world at that time.

We are constantly being told that the system would collapse if we didn’t pay back our debt, or if we left the Euro, or if we left some banks go bust, or if we taxed multinationals properly. But the truth is our society is collapsing. Isn’t it time to ask why we are destroying ourselves to save a system that has failed us and offers only further suffering into the future? Wouldn’t it be better to get rid of this system and rebuild it again in the interests of ordinary people, in the interests of the planet and based on the values of equality, environmental sustainability, participation, accountability and solidarity which were identified by the Claiming Our Future assembly of 1000 people in the RDS in 2010?

People claim that the Irish haven’t protested and that we are conservative and apathetic. Yet the ordinary people of Ireland have resisted the crisis, from the Ballyhea Bondholder protests, to local hospital campaigns, the hundreds of thousands who have marched against austerity and the majority who refused to pay the household charge.  We also have retained a strong sense of community, social justice, alternative value systems and our experience of colonialism provides an understanding and memory of oppression and resistance. But we have not done what the Icelandic or Cypriot or Greek people have done in mobilizing opposition in ways that forced the system to stop, even momentarily, and make the government and elite change direction.

We have the power to do it. We just need to figure out what will work for us. There will be moments in the coming months and years where the anger that has been internalised by the Irish people into passivity, depression, suicide, and emigration will erupt when the naked injustice of what has happened to us is revealed.

At those times we should be organised to maximise the potential resistance. Such moments include the local elections, the issuing of the first Anglo bonds next year, worker’s strikes, the local elections, water charges, the General election of 2016, the commemorations of 2016 itself. It was great to see the encouragement of the local campaigns to stand as independent election candidates in the local elections by Luke Ming Flanagan TD at the protest on Wednesday. It would be great to see dozens of councillors elected on an anti-debt and anti-austerity basis. The establishment parties cannot be relied upon to bring forward these issues. Another idea would be to try get a co-ordinated day of action before the first Anglo bonds are issued next year. Public buildings could be occupied for the week running up to it like the Spanish Indignados and Greek movements of the squares.

It is time for new approaches in Ireland. It is time for the Irish people to break the silence and rise up to demand the implementation of the values of the 1916 proclamation. We are not alone. We have friends in every community, town and city in Ireland. But we need to come together and realise our strength. To do this we need to unite the various campaigns and movements from Ballyhea, We’re Not Leaving, to the property tax to workers on strike in a broad campaign for a Ireland of equality, social justice, communities and solidarity.

It is important also that we develop our key demands and vision for what type of Ireland we want to see. People will demand that if we want them to take action.  We could start with the Ballyhea demands on ending our debt slavery and add to that the creation of real jobs, for equality, for affordable and social housing, for a quality public health system and for the reversal of cuts to communities, disabilities, and carers. Others I am sure will have other ideas to add. But it’s a start. It is clear that a radical transformation of our political system, economy and society is required if we are to achieve the values of the original Republic. Remember: we are the majority, they are the minority.

As Jim Larkin is quoted as saying “The great appear great because we are on our Knees: Let us Rise.”

Rory Hearne

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