Austerity Debate in Ireland Heats Up as EU Treaty Vote Nears

Kari Lydersen

A street performer juggles torches in Dublin near posters regarding a burning question for Irish voters—whether to accept the EU fiscal austerity treaty in a May 31 vote.

CORK, DUBLIN AND BELFAST — In such a lush, green, rainsoaked country, the huge color poster of cracked dry earth on a bridge in Dublin looks incongruous. But to opponents of the European Union fiscal treaty that Irish citizens are voting on May 31, it represents a bleak future committed to austerity policies limiting the size of the country’s deficit and debt. Next to the cracked earth is an image of lush tropical plants, representing the growth” the poster says is possible if citizens turn down the treaty and don’t curb government spending on social services and public jobs. 

The week before the vote, the bustling streets of Dublin, Cork and other cities are plastered with posters both for and against the treaty, with polls saying the treaty is expected to gain majority approval though support for a no” vote is growing, as is approval for the nationalist party Sinn Fein, which is leading opposition to it. 

Trade unions and other groups have recently demonstrated in Brussels, Madrid and The Hague in support of Irish citizens opposed to the treaty, and as of this writing, a demonstration is planned in Copenhagen the week of the vote. 

In Dublin and Cork, ads produced by opponents of the treaty appear much more prevalent and from a wider variety of sources than pro-treaty advertisements. Opponents frame the measure as an austerity treaty” and include images of bread lines, a ball and chain, a large fish devouring a smaller one, a yellow sign warning Danger: Permanent Austerity Ahead” and so on. The parties and groups producing anti-treaty materials include Sinn Fein, the Socialist Party, the United Left Alliance, the Workers Party and Libertas, whose posters say Cut Bank Debt or No Deal.” Fliers for meetings and demonstrations against the treaty are ubiquitous. 

Meanwhile, posters supporting the measure call it a stability treaty,” promising it will increase investment and jobs, and feature images including a tattered Irish flag, presumably representing Ireland’s future if it does not ratify. Treaty proponents threaten that Ireland will be isolated” from the EU and unable to obtain future bailouts, loans or investment if voters reject the treaty. 

During a nationally televised address from Sinn Fein’s annual party meeting in Killarney on May 26, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams called on voters to refuse the treaty, saying people need to ask themselves if recent budget cuts led to jobs and growth…The answer is obvious. The answer is No — if you accept that, you should vote No.” 

Adams had called for Taoiseach Enda Kenny to debate him on the treaty. Kenny refused, but was given an amount of television time May 27 equal to the time Adams spent discussing the treaty to make his points. 

Instead of cutting government spending, Adams echoed the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ call for a stimulus program to create jobs — a 13-billion-Euro, three-year plan that Adams said would create 130,000 jobs. 

The Irish Times reported that Sinn Fein’s popularity has climbed coinciding with its stance on the treaty, it now being the second most popular party in Ireland behind Fine Gael, and Adams being the most popular party leader. The Labour Party’s support has dropped significantly since it has been supporting the treaty. 

Meanwhile, Kenny reportedly also backed the idea of a stimulus package in EU talks over the weekend (in that case, a European stimulus package being promoted by new French president Francois Hollande). However, the Irish Independent reported that Kenny does not want a stimulus introduced into a renegotiated financial treaty, as some European leaders have proposed, in part because that would bolster opponents’ claims that the treaty can be changed after the Irish vote. 

The Independent notes that Kenny is also skittish about a Financial Transaction Tax being implemented in the Eurozone countries, as some have proposed, since such a measure (widely backed by progressives) would put the Irish financial industry at a comparative disadvantage if London’s investment industry were not subject to the tax. 

In his televised speech, Adams also called for the reunification of Ireland with Northern Ireland — Sinn Fein’s central platform — as a way to increase investment and create jobs, saying:

A united Ireland makes sense, a single island economy makes sense…It does not make sense on an island this size and with a population of six million to have two states, two bureaucracies, two sets of government departments and two sets of agencies competing for inward investment.

The Workers Party of Northern Ireland opposes the treaty. Though Northern Ireland citizens can’t vote in the May 31 referendum, many unions and labor leaders see the struggles of those in Ireland and Northern Ireland as one and the same, as evidenced at the Belfast May Day parade several weeks ago. 

Irish members of Parliament have time off the week of the vote to canvas voters about the treaty, according to the Irish Independent, which humorously warned residents to lock your doors” in anticipation of the visits. An anti-treaty Op Ed by David McWilliams in the Irish Independent said the treaty defies basic logic regarding the economic behavior of individuals versus economic systems, noting that it might be wise and valorous for any given individual to cut spending and save money, but if everyone does that at once, the economy freezes up. McWilliams wrote:

The vast majority of employed Irish people are employed in the domestic sector. This means that we buy and sell stuff to one another. This implies a golden rule, that many business people fail to grasp: your spending is my income, and my spending is your income.

Paul Krugman made a similar argument in The New York Times, writing that spending cuts in a depressed economy just make the depression deeper.” Like treaty opponents, Krugman attacked Irish leaders’ claims that Ireland’s economy has been recovering since instituting a previous round of austerity measures. 

It seems the numbers do show Ireland is severely struggling economically. But in two weeks traveling around the country, I personally could not help but be struck by how prosperous Ireland appears compared to the U.S., where drastic cuts in public spending have also been hotly debated. In a wide variety of Irish cities, towns and rural areas, I saw few vacant buildings or signs of homelessness, extreme poverty or decaying infrastructure; by contrast, energetic and apparently effective public campaigns to eliminate litter and improve road safety were obvious everywhere. 

It was evident that many struggle to make a living in Belfast in Northern Ireland, where Protestant residents still throw bricks and bottles over the wall that separates Shankill from the Catholic neighborhoods. Paddy Campbell, who leads famous (and excellent) Black Cab tours about the Troubles, noted that Belfast is only now developing a tourist museum about the Titanic as well as other investments expected to create jobs that two decades ago would have been unthinkable given the violence and inequality. But even in the neighborhoods where Catholics have suffered extreme marginalization and repression for centuries, there were not the outward signs of economic desperation that one would find in New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago or countless other U.S. cities.

These observations don’t mean I doubt the seriousness of Ireland’s economic crisis or the significance of the treaty decision. Rather the trip has driven home for me just how dire things have become in the U.S., which was once the place many thousands of immigrants from Ireland fled escaping famine, repression and poverty to pursue and often achieve the American Dream. 

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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