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Irish people still mad as hell over fat cats

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A worker removes the Anglo Irish Bank sign from a location in Dublin last week. Anglo Irish was the worst offender in the Irish property crash
There was a very minor, very brief, but also very interesting court case here last week.  It involved a journalist I happen to know, a work colleague of mine for many years. 

My friend, the former Irish Press reporter Des Nix, had been caught by the Gardai (police) in Dublin driving at a little above the speed limit, and he had been issued with the usual €80 automatic fine. 

Dozens of these fines are issued every month for parking violations and minor speeding offenses.  You get the penalty notice in the post and if you pay on time you don't have to go to court.  That's what most people do. 

But Des, a law abiding, solid citizen in every way like the vast majority of people here, decided that he was not paying.  Instead he wrote back to the Garda office and said that he was returning the speeding ticket and that he was refusing to pay the fine.  

He was refusing to pay, he explained, not because he was denying that he had unintentionally exceeded the speed limit, but because money going to the state was now being used as "a slush fund to pay gangster bankers."  

He said in his letter to the fines office that his refusal to pay was "an act of civil disobedience."
Having failed to pay the fine on time, he was summoned to court. He appeared before the judge last week, but the prosecuting Garda (police officer) failed to turn up in court on the day so the case was dropped. 

After his court appearance Des told reporters that he thought it was unacceptable that the government should act as the "bag men" for the bankers and bondholders who are taking money from "people who never had any dealings with them."  

Which is precisely how the vast majority of people here feel. They deeply resent the fact that ordinary taxpayers here are now being saddled with the vast bill for the IMF-EU bailout, and that most of the money is being used to pay back the foreign banks and bondholders who gambled on the Irish property market and lost.  

A huge chunk of the money that is raised in taxes here -- and in all other sources of state revenue like my friend's speeding ticket -- will in the future be going to pay back the massive bailout from the IMF-EU.  Even paying the interest on the bailout money each year is going to take a significant amount of state revenue.  

As we have pointed out here before, the primary reason for the €85 billion euro bailout is to prevent an Irish default and to enable our now state guaranteed banks to repay all the money that was pumped in here by the German and French banks and the bondholders who all wanted a piece of the action in the Irish boom. 

Most ordinary people here feel that this is unjust and unfair.  They deeply resent the fact that so much of their tax money in the years ahead will be used in this way instead of being spent on schools, hospitals and all the other services provided by the state which are in need of improvement. 

They deeply resent the fact that so much money is going to be sucked out of the Irish economy every year at a time when we desperately need it at home to get things moving again.  

In fact resentment is far too mild a word to describe the feelings of the majority of people here about what is happening.  A better description would be seething with anger. 

People here mistakenly believed that the new government would be able to offer an alternative solution to the deal negotiated by the previous administration.  Now they have woken up to the truth.

Now they realize that the new government is not able to offer any alternative to the economic crucifixion of the country.  And they are boiling with rage as a result.

Talk to anyone here right now and that fury comes pouring out.  Some people talk about leaving the country rather than staying and seeing their taxes being used to pay off the billions the banks owe. 

But others -- a small but growing minority -- talk about staying and refusing to pay into an economic system they now see as unjust.  What they are really talking about is civil disobedience. 

The stand taken by my friend Des Nix is probably one of the first examples of the kind of action that a lot of people here might decide to take in the future.  Which is why what happened in court last week is potentially revolutionary. 

Suppose people decided to stop paying not just speeding tickets, but car tax, waste collection charges ... even income tax? 

This might seem far fetched now.  But those of you who are old enough may remember the tax marches that brought the center of Dublin to a standstill back in 1979.   That was over what was perceived as an unbalanced tax system at the time, an internal matter.

But the situation facing taxpayers here now -- all taxpayers -- is a far greater injustice, with everyone being forced by external forces to carry a heavy tax burden for at least the next four or five years (and possibly much longer), not to improve life here but to repay the billions our banks owe to foreign banks and bondholders.  

There is no sign of widespread civil disobedience here yet.  But mark my words, give it time. 

Des Nix may have been the first.  But he won't be the last.  Unless there is significant debt restructuring and burden sharing with our EU partners and the IMF -- unless the foreign banks and bondholders accept that they have lost a lot of the money they lent into Ireland -- there is going to be trouble. 

Unless this is done the ordinary Irish taxpayer will have to carry the entire enormous debt burden, and that will cause public outrage because it is seen as totally unfair.  Not much has happened yet because although the recession is deep and unemployment is high, the real impact of what is happening has yet to hit us.

When the cumulative effects of the cutbacks and tax hikes really start to hit home in the years ahead, there is likely to be a mass reaction with street protests and possible widespread civil disobedience.   

It may only take a single issue -- something like the means testing of the old age pension, for example -- to set it off.  But once it starts I believe it will be difficult to contain, and the authority of the government and the cohesion of Irish society will then be at risk.  

This may seem alarmist at this stage, but there is a serious underestimation at EU and IMF level of the anger and bitterness that is now festering among ordinary people here at the situation we face. 

The bottom line is that the boom was not driven by ordinary people here, yet they are being forced to pick up the tab for its collapse, a tab so big that it has bankrupted the nation, stolen our economic sovereignty and will swallow a huge part of the taxes we pay for years to come. 

Over the past week we have seen several developments which have added fuel to the flames of fury here.  First up was the revelation that the former head of Ireland's biggest bank AIB, the black hole which has been taken over by the state, got a €3 million severance package when he was removed last year. 

He was part of the senior management team throughout the period of the boom when AIB went completely off the rails.  Yet he has walked away with a personal fortune at a time when thousands of ordinary people are struggling to keep their heads above water. 

That is just one example.  Details of the departing pay and pension packages given to many senior managers who were key figures during the boom were published last week and added to the outrage of everyone else. 

Also last week, two important reports were published. The first was the one on the collapse in Irish banking which was commissioned by the last government and produced by the respected Finnish banking expert Patrick Nyberg. 

Finland came through a banking crisis over a decade ago which is why he got the job.  
But his report was disappointing.  It told us what we knew already, that the crisis was caused by poor regulation, flawed lending policy and what amounted to a "mania" in the banks which replaced normal risk management. 

What Nyberg did not do was name names.  He did not identify all the people who had been in the key positions in the various banks when the mania was in full flow.  Instead he spread the blame across all of Irish society. 

The following sentence from his report was run as a headline across the front page of The Irish Times: "The extent to which parts of Irish society were willing to let the good times roll on until the very last minute, a feature of the financial mania, may have been exceptional."

This enraged ordinary people even more. Was Nyberg saying that we were all to blame for what went on in the banks? 

Were we all to blame for the tens of billions that were lost in property speculation?  Were we all to blame for the failure by politicians, regulators and banks to calm the market? 

The other report which emerged last week was the one recommending the sale of state assets (like the electricity and gas utility companies) to pay back some of our debt.  This may well result in higher prices and even poorer service for ordinary people. 

And the bottom line is that it is unlikely to raise more than €5 billion when our total debt is now heading for €250 billion.  So we would be selling the family silver to give the money to the foreign banks and in the end it would not make much difference, except that ordinary people would eventually lose out.

Much more of this and my friend Des Nix will not be the only one making a stand.

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