Over the New Year I’ve been pondering the implications of a discovery I made while researching my book on the Famine* namely that one of its principal legacies to Ireland was what the psychiatrists called ‘learned helplessness’. The beliefs that no matter how one tried there was nothing to do in the face of catastrophe save succumb to it or emigrate. There was no possibility of getting back at those who brought about the disaster. In the case of the Famine and in today’s Ireland people are either accepting whatever burdens have been placed upon them with varying degrees of despair or they are getting out.
If one looks at the plight of modern Ireland and comments in astonishment; ‘and nobody is going to jail!’ one can be certain that the automatic knee jerk reaction will be; ‘No! And nobody will go.’ The correct response of course would be for thousands to gather in the streets outside the Dáil demanding the prosecution of the politicians, the policy makers, the regulators who did not regulate, the overseeing civil servants who did not oversee, and the decision takers in the banks and other financial institutions who indulged in spectacularly reckless trading.
The good people, the would be educators of their families, the hard workers are being lashed into carrying the nation’s burdens while the decision takers responsible for their misery ride off unscathed in to the sunset with their pay offs and their pensions and knowing smirks on their faces.
How can we punish the people responsible for Ireland’s present economic and psychological woes? Crime is up, so is unemployment and Irish suicide rates are now acknowledged to be running at 50% above the pre- financial crash levels. On top of this the country has lost its sovereignty and stands in a Brussels dole queue while it’s young people stand in airport queues to emigrate.
The people are coping bravely and industriously with the threat of unemployment, new taxes and wage cuts but those responsible go Scott free. The government has made no effort to beef up the fraud squad whose good police work is ultimately largely rendered impotent because of a public service embargo necessitated by the credit squeeze which prevents the hiring of essential expertise; forensic accountants, solicitors, senior counsel and so on. Thus the people who caused the embargo to be instituted escape unscathed and a government reluctant to proceed against key figures in the worlds of law, politics, the Civil service and finance is enabled to shirk its duty of rendering the mighty as well as the meek amenable to the law.
When it first came into office the government did make an effort to set up Dáil committees of Inquiry which would have brought relevant figures to the Dáil to explain themselves as is done in London and Washington. However the attempt was made valueless by the half-hearted way in which the government went about winning the referendum campaign which would have been necessary under the Irish Constitution to allow these committees to be set up. The referendum was lost, paradoxically in part because the public had become so mistrustful of the politicians that they shrank from giving them further powers.
Moreover a phalanx of former attorneys general further discouraged the public by signing their names to an open letter stating that the proposed committees would interfere with a man’s right to his good name and the judiciaries’ right to independence.
One of the signatories to that letter Mr Dermot Gleeson, was the chairman of Allied Irish Bank. Another was Mr Peter Sutherland of Goldman Sachs. Incidentally another referendum called for by the financial crisis was one which was necessitated by the reluctance of judges to accept the same pay cuts which other ordinary citizens had to undergo.
There is a great sense of unfairness abroad in Ireland. As I write these words people are agonising over where they are to get the money for yet more taxes due later this year, a property tax and a beginning to Water rates with the introduction of meters. The Irish are no less patriotic and hardworking than they ever were and just as willing to accept sacrifice for the public weal, but that sacrifice should not be borne solely by the innocent people who would be far more willing to shoulder their burdens if they felt that the guilty suffered for their crimes along with the innocent. It’s time for the government to either revive their original committees proposal or introduce some new initiative to wipe the smirks off those fat cats’ faces.
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Tim Pat Coogan’s new book, ‘The Famine Plot, England’s role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy’ published by Palgrave Macmillan is available in bookshops now.