Article Published in the Irish Examiner, July 4th 2015.

GREECE is being told to follow Ireland’s crisis solution of harsh austerity and acceptance of bank-and-bailout debt. This narrative conveniently ignores that the Irish ‘recovery’ has been built on major human rights violations and the undermining of long-term social and economic development.

There is a dark side to Ireland’s ‘success’ that requires discussion about the most effective responses to financial and fiscal crises.

The eight austerity budgets between 2008 and 2014 involved €18.5bn in public-spending cuts and €12bn in tax-raising (revenue) measures. Key public services, in particular health and housing, have been weakened as a result.

Public service staff have been reduced by 10% (37,500). Health spending has been cut by 27% since 2008, resulting in an 81% increase in the number of patients waiting on trolleys and chairs in emergency departments. One-third of all children admitted to hospital suffering with mental-health difficulties have been put in adult wards and the waiting lists for youth mental-health services have increased to 2,818 people.

Funding for local authority housing was cut from €1.3bn, in 2007, to just €83m, in 2013. This meant a loss of 25,000 social-housing units. This is a major contribution to the homelessness crisis, with 1,000 children and 500 families now living in emergency accommodation in Dublin. Because of the decision to prioritise bank recapitalisation and developer debt write-down, homeowner mortgage arrears have escalated.

There are 37,000 homeowners in mortgage arrears of over 720 days, and legal repossession notices were issued to 50,000 homeowners.

The cuts to welfare have had devastating impacts.Affected areas include lone-parent supports, child benefit, youth payments, fuel, back-to-school clothing and footwear, rent supplement, and disability and carers’ allowance.

But charges were introduced where they did not exist before — putting a further burden on lower-income households. These charges are ‘regressive’, in that they were not tailored to income level. These include water, property, school transport, prescription, A&E and chemotherapy charges. Fees have effectively been reintroduced at third-level (increasing from €1,000 to €3,000). This will have major implications for participation rates from lower-income households.

Funding for local community development, youth organisations, drugs prevention, family support, and to combat rural and urban disadvantage was disproportionally hit. Programme funding was reduced by 50%.

We are likely to see the long-term social impacts of these cuts in the further exclusion from the labour force of youths in disadvantaged areas. Issues of drugs and crime will surely worsen.

An EU report on the impact of austerity showed that the quality of secondary- and primary-level education has also been reduced, with fewer teachers, rationalisation of teacher/student support services, and the abolition of school grants.

The report links early school-leaving to austerity measures, which are highly concentrated in low-income areas. This, along with the cuts in funding to third-level, will seriously damage our education system, the core of the country’s economic development.

Hundreds of thousands of families and children have been pushed into poverty. The child-poverty rate rose from 18%, in 2008, to 29.1%, in 2013.The deprivation rate increased from 26.9%, in 2012, to 30.5%, in 2013, while for lone-parent families it has risen to 63%. Food poverty affects 600,000 (up 13.2%). Austerity has also devastated rural areas and small towns, with unemployment levels remaining much higher in the south-east.

In one of the most disturbing pieces of research into the impact of austerity, UCC and the National Suicide Research Foundation found an increase in self-harm rates of 31% in men, and 22% in women, between 2008 and 2012, while the male suicide rate is 57% higher (that’s 500 additional deaths). They cited a number of factors, including reductions in public expenditure, cuts to welfare, substantial healthcare cuts, falling house prices and personal debt.

Capital expenditure on important public infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools, roads, transport, broadband, water and wastewater was drastically reduced, by 60%, between 2008 and 2014.
Such spending on infrastructure is the bedrock of sustainable and competitive economies, and the lost decade of investment in these will leave Ireland’s economy much more vulnerable into the future.
Don’t forget, also, €17bn of our national pension reserve — which was available to fund infrastructure development and future pensions — was put into the bailout.

The commitment by Irish governments to pay all the bank- and crisis-related debt will damage our long-term social and economic development, and result in ongoing crises in health, housing, and mental health, and in rising poverty and inequality. This is because funding that should be going to these much-needed public services will, instead, be going on debt interest payments. Debt interest payments rose from €2bn (3.4% of tax revenue), in 2007, to a staggering €7.5bn, or 18% of all tax revenue, in 2014. These interest payments will enforce a form of permanent austerity in the coming decade.
Then, there is the often-forgotten issue of forced emigration. Almost 10% of Irish young people emigrated during the recession and emigration worsened as austerity intensified. It rose from 20,000, in 2009, to 50,000, in 2013. Without emigration, the unemployment rate would be 20%.

Finally, almost half of Ireland’s dramatic increase in GDP is from multinational activity, which does not take place in Ireland.

Thus, much of Ireland’s growth is based on facilitating some of the most profitable global corporations and financial services in reducing the tax they otherwise would have to pay to countries across the world. This is an unethical, unfair, and ultimately unsustainable form of economic activity.

It is clear, as highlighted by a recent assessment by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, that austerity hit the most vulnerable and marginalised the hardest in Ireland. But there was, and remains, a choice about how countries such as Ireland and Greece, and the Troika, respond to debt and financial crises. Debt relief is an important option, as is taxing the wealthy, financial services or higher incomes, rather than taking it from public services, the poor and middle-income earners. The Troika and Irish governments favoured the latter and we can see the human misery and economic damage caused, as a result.

The Irish austerity-and-recovery model is being misrepresented on the international stage and should not be followed by Greece or other crises countries.

The Irish case actually points to the human and economic necessity of debt relief and alternative approaches to fiscal crises.

Rory Hearne

While Irish Independent advertisements suggest that the difference between Greek and Irish responses to austerity is a matter of individual choices, new research from NUIM Dept of Sociology indicates that matters are a little more complex than that. Understanding European movements: new social movements, global justice struggles, anti-austerity protest, published today by Routledge and edited by Cristina Flesher Fominaya and Laurence Cox, is the first systematic attempt to situate Europe’s anti-austerity movements in their historical and cultural context.  Cristina Flesher Fominaya (Aberdeen) starts a two-year Marie Curie fellowship at the Dept. of Sociology in September, working with Prof. Sean O Riain on a comparison between anti-austerity movements in Ireland and Spain, while Laurence Cox co-directs the MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism, jointly based in Sociology and Adult and Community Education.

Understanding European movements is the first publication from the Council for European Studies’ research network on social movements, which is chaired by the two editors and brings together 178 scholars from 23 countries and 18 disciplines working in the field. The book’s
15 chapters include authors based in 11 countries whose analyses are all grounded in ethnographic and historical research on these movements – in Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Romania, Spain and the UK as well as transnational relationships. The book offers a comprehensive, interdisciplinary perspective on the key European social movements in the past forty years and sets present-day struggles in their longer-term national, historical and political contexts. Its four sections discuss the European tradition of social movement theory, the relationship between European movements from 1968-99 and contemporary anti-capitalist movements, the construction of the “movement of movements” within the European setting from the late 1990s onwards and the new anti-austerity protests in Iceland, Greece, Spain and elsewhere.

The book will be launched by leading social movements scholar James Jasper (CUNY) at the CES conference in Amsterdam next month. Other network events at the conference include two mini-symposia, five panels, a workshop and a roundtable on understanding contemporary waves of protest. Together with the ECPR’s and ESA’s standing committees on social movements, the CES network is also organising a symposium on social movements and the European crisis at the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam.


Cristina Flesher Fominaya and Laurence Cox, eds. (2013) Understanding European Movements:
New Social Movements, Global Justice Struggles, Anti-Austerity Protest. London: Routledge (Advances in Sociology series).

304 pp. hardback, ISBN 978-0-415-63879-1

The financial and economic crisis that has hit the world and Europe since Autumn 2008 has had its most severe impact on a few European countries, countries that are often referred to as ‘peripheral’ from the standpoint of the geography of Europe or the EU: Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal. Does that mean that their geographically ‘peripheral’ position is at the heart of their current financial and economic problems? Not really. Or maybe, somehow. Maybe it was their location on the margins of Europe that played a part in their lagging economies compared to their EU partners in the 1970s and 1980s as they all joined the EU (1973 for Ireland, 1981 for Greece, 1986 for Spain and Portugal)? And maybe that explained to a certain extent the ‘fast-track’ paths to economic growth that some of them went for then, with the support of European funding for infrastructural upgrades in particular, but also based on what Henri Sterdyniak, from the OFCE research center, has called “macroeconomic strategies that have become illusory”. And that’s precisely what’s more important than their ‘peripheral’ location: the fragility of their respective economic development model. In the case of Ireland, that has been largely explained, discussed, documented through many posts on the Ireland after NAMA blog (since its creation at the end of November 2009, almost a year ago now) and other forums such as Politics.ie or The Irish Economy among others. But there hasn’t been too much discussion about how the Irish model compares to its ‘peripheral’ counterparts and what lessons Ireland could learn from them and their own crisis as it looks for a way to get out of the crisis and to rebuild its growth and a (hopefully) viable growth model. There’re a few things that I would like to highlight to that effect.

The Irish and Spanish experiences have been quite similar so far. Their public debt was quite low, their growth levels quite high, but in both cases growth was heavily reliant on real-estate and financial speculation. In Ireland, at the end of 2007, loans for real-estate development amounted to 250% of the GNP. That made for a huge real-estate bubble, the same kind of bubble that exploded in Spain a few months after the Irish one. While a large amount of the bursting of the Irish bubble is being cleaned up by NAMA, Spain has not created its own toxic bank to absorb the current 325bn euros of debts of the real-estate sector.

Portugal and Greece are in a different situation. Their major problem has been the lack of growth in the past decade or so (while Ireland and Spain were experiencing high levels of ‘growth’, but one that was highly illusory given its speculative nature). Their main problem is that their governments have been very keen on entertaining the idea that growth was happening: to international investors, to their own population, and to EU officials. They did so through rather irrational budget decisions. While Greece deliberately falsified and concealed its high levels of public debt and justified 4% annual growth since 2000 by emphasizing the performances of its real-estate industry and tourism (two sectors that are highly volatile), Portugal went overboard with public spending to stimulate domestic consumption while it struggled to boost the growth of its leading industries and main exports (e.g. textiles).

Among the four countries, Ireland is actually the only one that has developed a real and successful export-oriented economy, in particular in knowledge-based sectors such as (e.g.) pharmaceuticals, electronics, software …etc. But the problem is that the success of this strategy relies to a great extent on the very low corporation tax (12.5%, as opposed to 25.7% on average across the Euro zone, almost 30% in Germany, and over 33% in France). And this is something that may be challenged in the near future as part of the EU/IMF bail-out package that is currently negotiated. As noted in a post from yesterday by Rob Kitchin, the IMF has indicated in its position paper on structural reform in the Euro area that harmonization of macroeconomic policies should be a priority in the Eurozone, and an harmonization of the corporation tax across the area, or at least some degree of convergence, is not to be excluded. This does not mean that firms are necessarily going to massively flee out of Ireland if the corporation tax is raised by a few percentage points. While the potential short-term negative effects of raising the corporation tax has recently been discussed by Chris van Egeraat in another post on this blog, there are also a series of factors that make firms more locally-embedded than implied by the hypermobility of capital argument mobilized by those in favour of maintaining a low corporation rate in Ireland. I’ll leave that aside for the moment, and I will pick up on another point raised by Chris van Egeraat in his post and many others in the past few months, which is the fact that Irish recovery and a viable Irish economic model cannot be built upon a low taxation model. It needs to be rebuilt on strong foundations, including a proper industrial policy, that would send the right ‘signals’ to global markets and international investors, i.e. the image of an economy that is actually managed and doesn’t threatened to spiral out of control again.

A major problem here is that it is going to be very difficult for Ireland, but also Greece, Portugal and Spain to build the foundations of a strong economic model with the austerity plans that are currently being designed or implemented because the priority being the reduction of national deficits through major cuts in levels of public spending, this leaves close to nothing to support these sectors that could create a solid base for these economy (e.g. textiles in Portugal, food industries in Spain and Greece, new technologies in Ireland). That includes, for example, continuous funding for education to keep training indigenous youth, mentoring and internship programmes to help graduates enter the workforce, financial and structural support for start-ups to create jobs ….etc (as discussed in this post for example). If their respective economic bases do not solidify in the next few years, all four countries are likely not only to be prone to future crises of the sort that we are dealing with right now.

Delphine Ancien