College year being over I can think again about other aspects of reality. Such as the mess it’s in. I made it to a meeting about economics and change, and we were discussing why in Ireland we seem to be just letting this shit happen to us. The conclusion was that it is not just inexplicable passivity on the public’s part, all sorts of pressures are placed on people to make them keep their heads down. Some of them subtle, some brutal.
Somebody used the memorable phrase “The criminalisation of dissent”, and I had to draw this.
Stop, Press: For some protesty goodness, why not try these two short plays at the Town Hall Theatre? They’ll be followed by (optional) discussions with real historians and economists about the parlous state of the parlous State.
It’s that time of year again. The time when I do my taxes. Yeah, I know it’s not the time you do your taxes, but it is the time I do mine. About six months late, on average.
Once again, we open the form all a-tremble, excited to see just how many wholly indecipherable questions – perhaps entire pages – they’ve added this time. It’s not so long since they re-formed the form for the self employed so that non-accountants could read it. Year on year since though, entropy has dripped back in. A clause here, a category there, and now about 90% of it doesn’t even seem to apply to me. I guess some people’s businesses must be very different from mine, making very different things.
Money, to name one.
At least the online version has asterisks to mark the required fields. I figure I can’t go too wrong if I just fill all those. Then I scan for places to put in expenses and allowances I can apply for. Did you know by the way that if you are getting any form of social welfare payment you are entitled to a PAYE tax credit on top of your normal tax free allowance? I have no idea why, I can only guess it’s because tax is deducted at source from welfare payments – in some sort of entirely notional way. Anyway, ours is not to reason why, ours is to remember to tick the box. It may come in useful if they disallow some of my larger expenses again.
Antique erotic netsuke are research materials, dammit.
While getting my tax affairs in order, I remembered that I’d received an email from the new Local Property Tax agency. We didn’t use to have any residence-based taxes in Ireland, a Fianna Fáil government abolished them one time in a spree of vote-buying. Now that another FF administration has driven the economy off a cliff we have to have them back – though of course it’s the parties now in power that get the blame for it. Political lesson: If you create the most mess, nobody asks you to clean up.
Anyway I hadn’t paid much attention to the email. It’s a tax for property owners and I don’t own any property, I just rent a small apartment in an old four-storey building in the middle of town. Reading it now though, I find that seemingly I do. According to “our records”, as the tax people put it – by which I think they mean a hat – I own the building. Not just the room I live in. The whole. Fucking. Building. Walls of solid stone four feet thick, older than the United States, a good restaurant downstairs. According to an official government agency, it is all mine.
I tell you one thing, I’m not paying any more rent.
It was strangely reminiscent of that military coup where the signal to attack was, of all things, the Portuguese entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. With coded announcements, the President snatched away from a diplomatic mission, an emergency all-night sitting of the house, and plenty apparently deliberate misinformation, “Project Red” saw Ireland taken over – though not by the military.
If you went by the news coverage, you might be forgiven (a special offer, today only) for thinking that we just escaped the jaws of disaster here. On the contrary – Ireland avoided an acute short-term problem by making an awful long-term commitment. A very, very, very long-term commitment. We were forced into it at what might be termed fiscal gunpoint.
On September 30th 2008 in the wake of the collapse of Lehman brothers in the US, the Irish government pledged to guarantee the banking industry here. Not just the banks’ deposits but all their liabilities – including the vast amounts they’d borrowed from banks overseas to fuel the country’s property speculation bubble. That figure turned out to be truly mind-boggling – over €400 billion. That is more, even after inflation, then all of Germany was forced to pay in reparations after World War I.
You might fairly ask how the government of a small country could hope to come up with €400 billion. They couldn’t of course. It was a bluff, a confident front designed to ward off market chaos and speculation. But if you’re bluffing, you don’t bet the house. The government exposed the country to a liability that beggared belief. Indeed, beggared the lot of us.
It’s been argued in their defence that the industry lied to them, directly, about the scale of their liabilities. That’s true, but they knew damn well that there was something seriously wrong anyway. These banks had been making staggering profits for a decade mainly by lending people money on excessively easy terms, thereby boosting the price of housing, thereby creating demand for bigger loans… Banks had been enjoying a prolonged bonanza, but it was a bonanza of debt raised against assets that no one could seriously argue were not grossly overpriced.
Why had banks not simply raised the price of borrowing, to profit more from less lending – and at the same time moderate demand? Because there was no limit to the amount of money they had to offer. Other banks, in the US, the UK, but mainly in continental Europe, were lending them as much as they could shift. There was a global credit boom going on of course, there was an (originally) quite genuine boom in the Irish economy, and to cap all this there was no longer a national currency to wildly inflate and so damp things down as had happened in booms gone by. Ireland represents perhaps 1% of the Eurozone economy, so even incandescent levels of overheating here were not going to drive up the cost of money. Money was, as odd as this may sound, too cheap. Yet keeping inflation down was the main – indeed about the only – guiding principle of the European Central bank. It, or rather its political masters, chose to pursue a policy which might have been reasonable for the Eurozone as a whole, but which was utterly unsustainable for Ireland.
Some people, mainly politicians eager to share out their responsibility, have blamed the population for borrowing too much, as if economic meltdown is caused by sudden outbreaks of cupidity. Those who borrowed more than they should have did so in the main because banks were quite literally pushing money on them. Like many, I opened my post one morning to find I’d been approved for a loan I hadn’t asked for. Certainly far too many got into property, but the housing boom was not only driven by speculation. Another major factor was that thanks to all this cheap credit, house prices were rising far faster than incomes. People worried – not unreasonably – that if they didn’t buy a house soon they would never be able to afford one. Lenders fuelled the fear with the marketing image of the “property ladder”, the idea that if you wanted any chance of owning a good home in the future you needed to buy a bad one now. Many, many awful houses and apartments were sold – and even more built. The entire Irish banking industry had in effect become a Ponzi scheme, profitable only as long as there was new investment. When the market fell it fell like a lift with the cables cut. In doing so, it called the government’s bluff.
At which point they could and should have said “You got us. Of course we can’t possibly afford to pay that much money. Ever. It’s an insane figure.” And they would have been right of course, we can’t. Even after realising the assets of the collapsed banks and throwing in the national reserves, we’re still left something like 70 billion short. They even had an excellent excuse to renege on the guarantee when it came to light just how much these banks had been lying to them about their assets. They should have known better, sure, but officially they didn’t.
Unfortunately however government needed to pay more than just the billions in bank debt. This Ponzi scheme had essentially become the tax base. Not only was a lot of revenue raised on property sales, a simply ludicrous proportion of the population was by then employed in building buildings that no one would ever actually want but which existed solely to be traded on the bubble market. Without this income the exchequer couldn’t even keep public services going, pay doctors and teachers and police and pensions. But the fact that our economy looked to be (and indeed, was) on the point of collapse meant that the country couldn’t borrow cash on the market at anything approaching an affordable rate. The only institutions with both the money and the motivation to lend to us affordably were those of the Eurozone, the very ones who were to a large degree responsible for the collapse. In return, they held us to the untenable: The undertaking to pay back all the money our failed banks had borrowed to fuel the property bubble. The fear being that if we didn’t, the banks that lent to our failed banks would in turn fail, and so on.
So the Irish government’s gamble didn’t save our banking industry; virtually ever lending institution in the country (honourable exception: the Credit Union movement) went bust. But it probably stopped the European banking system going down like the world’s most expensive set of dominoes.
This is what really rankles. Instead of being punished by the market for poor – indeed, reckless and harmful – investment decisions, these institutions are going to be rewarded just as if they had made profitable decisions. They’ll probably give themselves bonuses. And these rewards will be paid not willingly by the market but unwillingly by the taxpayers of Ireland whose jobs and lives they so damaged. And the taxpayers’ children. And their children, if there’s anyone left here by then. Those of us who had the willpower to resist the easy credit have to reward them, just as if we’d taken it. Those who lost their homes because they could not afford the repayments to these institutions, still have to reward these institutions. Those who now own homes worth a fraction of what they owe on them but who are nevertheless still making repayments to these institutions, will see their taxes go to these institutions. The injustice of it is barely conceivable. Ireland is paying roughly 42% of the cost of Europe’s banking crisis. We can’t possibly do it of course. That’s why the Eurozone governments and ECB cut the deal that all the fuss has been about. To help us.
To help us pay back the money we didn’t borrow.
You may have seen the headline figure, that this is meant to save us €20 billion. Are they writing off some of the debt? No. On no account are we to even contemplate not paying any of that money. The twenty billion is just the difference between the “easy” interest we’ll get from them and a rate we might have paid otherwise. They’re giving us easy terms to repay the debt we don’t owe. Some deal.
This explains why we had to shut down the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation – formerly Anglo – literally overnight. While most of the bad debts of the various failed Irish institutions were still being held by this “zombie bank”, there lingered some remote possibility that a government would have the guts to say “Look, the state has no moral duty to pay back failed private investments. Goodnight.” We almost certainly would have negotiated a deal rather than just pulled the plug of course, but we had that bargaining chip. Instead we’ve cashed in our last chance for freedom. Whereas repudiating Anglo’s debts would not have been technically or morally a loan default – indeed, might have been seen favourably by the markets as the shedding of a liability – there is no way out of our commitment to the ECB. Short, that is, of crashing out of the Euro in flames.
So now we are committed to this vast payment. That still doesn’t mean we can pay it of course; indeed, attempting to will just drive us deeper into recession. We will inevitably default on this, as Germany defaulted on the onerous Versailles treaty terms. It will just be later rather than sooner. The only achievement will be a few more years – perhaps decades – spent impoverishing ourselves to enrich those irresponsible lenders.
The “deal” won yesterday was quite the opposite – a scared and desperate government buying time and in doing so, condemning their country to indefinite economic servitude. Death of the Republic would hardly be an exaggeration. Democracy is effectively suspended; the government we elected to overturn the errors of the last has repeated and even amplified them. We are being dictated to – not by the military, not by a despot, but by an industry.
Over four thousand women from Ireland are known to have obtained an abortion in England or Wales last year, a figure that probably under-represents the true numbers significantly. Why are they having abortions abroad and not here?
If you could sum it up in a single word, that word would be “hypocrisy”.
We have a hypocritical Constitutional ban that has the effect not of preventing abortion, but of making it someone else’s problem. It allows us to pretend it hardly happens at all, that we live by higher ideals. In fact, we live a lie.
And oddly, to an extent it is not even our own hypocrisy. The amendment was the result of a manipulative campaign coming largely from overseas, particularly the British organisation SPUC, that intended to make Ireland a showcase for Conservative Christian values. They wanted to prove it was possible, despite the examples of the US, UK and most of Western Europe, for abortion to be banned in a country where women had a vote.
Yes, a clear majority disapproved of abortion. They don’t necessarily approve of enforced birth either though. Irish people are no strangers to moral complexity and contradiction, and even if doctrinal absolutes came easy in those post-Papal-visit days they would not have stayed that way for long. But the amendment to the constitution stifled that moral debate by rendering it pointless.
It still stifles it. Even now we are hung up – insanely – on whether a danger of suicide constitutes a legitimate threat to the life of a pregnant woman. Of course suicidal feelings are a real threat to life, but some want to pretend the danger away in case it is used as a pretext to give abortions to those who merely want them.
This is all mad. Why are we trying to force women to give birth when, for whatever reason, they do not want to give birth? Only remorseless ideology produces such inhumane law.
Ah but the unborn are people, you can’t kill them!
Except they are not. That is just a religious doctrine, a philosophical view, forced into our Constitution to make hypocrites of all of us. Who is to say at what point human life begins? We could leave the decision to priests, to doctors or scientists. But I think instead we should leave it up to the woman who has to bring that life into the world.
Several people have asked me how our laws can directly contradict our own Supreme Court, which ruled that a pregnancy may be terminated when it threatens the woman’s life. How was this disconnect allowed to continue until somebody died? It’s not easy to explain, but I gave it my best shot.
It’s a constitutional impasse. The Supreme Court cannot force the introduction of a law, nor can it strike down existing legislation. It can only reject as unconstitutional bills referred to it by the President before signing. So the existing law – a blanket criminalization of abortion (for which the penalty is life imprisonment!) – stands, even if it is in conflict with the constitution.
The government has a clear duty to amend the law to reflect the Constitution – indeed, has had that clear duty for 20 years now – but legislature is meant to be the sovereign voice of the people so nothing has the power to force it to legislate, and neither major party wants to handle the political poison chalice of abortion. Even with the Catholic Church in general disrepute, religious observance at an all-time low, and polls showing strong support for abortion in some circumstances, framing the legislation would still spark huge ideological conflict in the conservative grassroots of both. And it takes a lot to shift the idea that abortion = killing BABIES, especially with religious right organizations able to wallpaper the country with pictures of cute foetuses at will. (They’re not short of funds, they have strong links with the religious right in the US.)
In 2010 however three women brought a case to the European Court Of Human Rights, which basically told the government that pretending a major women’s rights issue would just sort of somehow go away was not acceptable. And so it did what governments do – commissioned an inquiry to elect a commission to create a report, so weakening their identification with the eventual legislation, and of course delaying the fateful day a little longer.
A little too long for Savita Halappanavar.
The bitter irony for the religious right is that it’s the “Pro-life” amendment they campaigned for back in 1983, in the hope of keeping out a (then) rising tide of liberalism, that makes the antediluvian abortion law unconstitutional – because it describes an equal right to life for the woman¹. They didn’t want any woman’s right to be mentioned of course. They would probably have been happy with the innocent foetus having a prior right to existence over a necessarily sinful adult woman. Relatively sane legislators at least managed to insert this in the process of framing a constitutional amendment bill. But in a horrific case in 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that the suicidal feelings of a pregnant child rape victim constituted a threat to her life, so making that grounds for an abortion.
The religious right saw this as a potential – even deliberate – opening for abortion on demand. Now all a woman would need to do is say she felt a bit low and she’d get an abortion. So they actually campaigned to amend their amendment to explicitly discount suicide as a danger to the woman’s life.
Naturally the populace rejected this. We’ve heard about the judgement of Solomon.
When we rejected it, they tried to introduce it again. We rejected it again.
And you know what makes this all surreal and ridiculous? There is abortion available on demand in Ireland, and has been for decades. Not within Ireland, no. But a twenty minute plane ride away. You can go to Britain² or many other parts of the EU. I don’t claim this doesn’t put significant obstacles in the way, especially of poorer women, but thousands obtain terminations every year. Our bizarrely dated, draconian law prevents hardly any abortions at all.
Not that the religious right hasn’t tried to change this as well. When it was established that a woman in certain circumstances – i.e, she might die – was legally entitled to the abortion she couldn’t legally have here, they campaigned to prevent woman travelling abroad to have abortions, or obtaining information about abortion services in other countries. In a way it’s a shame they didn’t get their way. If women were being given ultrasound scans in the airports, if we had Internet filters to block sites that mention abortion, if adverts were cut out of papers and magazines, then their illiberal ideological madness would have been seen for what it was. We’d probably have abortion on demand here now. The ideological posturing survives because in reality it makes little difference.
Unless of course you are too sick to travel.
Sorry for that excursion through the history of nasty. We now reach the current situation, where things have been finessed with “guidelines” for medical practice – essentially, a life-saving medical procedure that inadvertently kills a foetus is not an abortion. Which seems all quite humane – until you have a situation like Savita Halappanavar’s, where terminating her pregnancy was not an operation necessary to save her life but merely one that would have reduced a hard-to-quantify risk to her life. Now I think a sane person would say that if the foetus cannot survive then there is zero conceptual, never mind moral, reason not to abort. Unfortunately the law as it stands was not created by any sane process.
But as luck would have it, the report I mentioned has just been completed and is about to be published – right into this storm of moral outrage. I am cautiously confident that things will change now.
²Or “the mother” as the amendment calls her, in some quite extraordinarily loaded language. ²Britain rather than the UK advisedly, as in a weird cross-border mirroring, abortion is also illegal in Northern Ireland. Presbyterians seem no more hot on women’s rights than Catholics.
This evening I stood for an hour in Eyre Square Galway thinking of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian-born dentist who died in hospital here. While investigations are ongoing, it appears that she was refused the termination of an already miscarried pregnancy, a procedure that might have saved her life. There seems little room for doubt that this was an avoidable tragedy caused by our wholly inadequate laws.
This is the hospital I go to when I get sick. Where my mother gets regular check-ups. Where my father was pronounced dead. It is the hospital attached to the University where I study science now, where I once took courses in women’s rights. I’ve always had confidence in it and its staff. But they made decisions here that were not based on medicine, but on a certain doctrinal viewpoint. That is wrong.
If they made an immoral choice though, they made it under the threat of an immoral law. Or we should say an immoral absence of law, thanks to one political leadership after another running scared from its duty to enact legislation clarifying this issue, and despite a Supreme Court judgement that found a blanket ban on abortion unconstitutional twenty years ago.
So what is the legal position on medical abortion in Ireland? Frankly your guess is as good as mine. According to the Constitution:
The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
This seems to suggest that there are circumstances in which a pregnancy can be terminated in order to save a woman’s life, and in practice this can happen. An ectopic pregnancy – the condition where the embryo implants and begins to develop outside the uterus – will be removed without compunction. It would be monstrous to give an embryo which could never survive the same rights as the woman it would inevitably kill.
And yet Savita’s foetus had no hope of survival and the threat to her life, while not certain, was severe. Why was a non-viable pregnancy allowed to cause her unimaginable distress leading almost certainly to her death – were they hoping a miracle would somehow save its life?
No. They did not terminate the pregnancy because they didn’t consider they had the right to. The foetus was a person with an inviolable right to life, so the fact that it was going to die was not morally relevant; you can’t kill people just because they’re going to die soon anyway. Only in circumstances where it was absolutely certain that the continuation of the pregnancy would lead to the woman’s death could they have moved to end it, and outside clear-cut cases like ectopic pregnancy such certainty is of course rare.
So they went instead with the moral – but wholly fictitious – certainty that the foetus was a human being with a right to life that must be respected, and Savita Halappanavar died.
The idea that human life begins at conception is not a scientific fact. Nor is it ancient knowledge – conception was only understood fairly recently. It is a doctrine. We might as easily consider human life to begin with the first breath. (Indeed that used to be the belief.) We might consider that it begins at some point between conception and birth, even that it begins before conception in some spiritual realm. But a foetus is not a baby any more than the separate sperm and ovum is, and to treat it like one is just a doctrinal fantasy. Enforcing that fantasy on real people can only lead to tragedy.
“It’s hard to know which way to vote,” my mother said today. We’re having a constitutional referendum on whether children should have the right to be recognised as individuals rather than as the property of their (biological) parents – which, simplifying violently, is the situation as it stands.
Don’t worry, my mother’s not ideologically opposed to freedom for kids. Like many others she was just confused by all the argument. The law requires the state – and state media – to give an equal hearing to both sides of a constitutional referendum. So if we ever decided say to put a clause against genocide in the Constitution, the government would have to publish booklets that were 50% in favour of massacring whole ethnic groups. Which would be interesting.
And this referendum has found so little mainstream opposition that it’s already spotlight time for the loons. Sinn Féin are in favour, for God’s sake. Even the Catholic Church isn’t opposing it openly. So people with some really quite odd opinions have been dug out to appear on TV. “Who is this John Waters?” she asked. “A wanker,” I explained.
There are some opposing arguments that are not irrational, but the overwhelming majority of people who have to deal with issues around child protection seem to be for this change, so it’s them I think I’ll go with. But whichever way you feel, I hope you do vote – if only to take advantage of the chance to protest against the horrific economic punishments being forced on this country. I don’t mean spoil your vote – referendums are too important for that. Someone made a brilliant alternative suggestion:
You have to fold your ballot before you put it in the box. But there are no rules about how you fold it.
Fold it into a paper aeroplane, to symbolise the ultimate fate of the children for whom government professes to care. Imagine the impact it would have when they opened the boxes on national TV if we all did it.
It’s something of a tradition that the simplest possible program, and therefore the first one you’ll ever write, is one that prints out “Hello World“. It’s cute and sweet because it makes the computer seem intelligent and aware – if only just.
I know how it feels. So I’m dropping by here to say hello to the world. I haven’t seen much of it, living as I am in a tunnel of projects and meetings and assignments. And yes, programming.
Also, to say that if you’re in Galway now’s your chance to march with the lovely people from Ballyhea in their ongoing protest against giving all our money to reckless and irresponsible bankers. You know, the ones I went to Frankfurt with. And when I say march, to be honest it’s more a saunter. Despite the seriousness of the issue it’s as good-humoured a protest as you’re likely to find. They’re forming up at the station corner of Eyre Square at 10:45. I urge you to join in.
Once again, my apologies for being a lousy correspondent. At some point or points I will switch tracks and be able to write to you engagingly about the new world I’m exploring here. But as of now my brain is overloaded. I’ve written my first computer programs, built a database by hand, interviewed people, held project meetings. It’s been a month and a half. I feel like my thumb has been jammed down on the fast forward button. I’d like to tell you about all that I’ve learned, but it seems less like learning and more like being swept out to sea on a tide of knowledge. I don’t think I have the authority to explain any of it yet.
This is a polite way of saying that I have no idea what I’m doing.
So meanwhile, some more pictures from my wonderful visit to Skycon at the University of Limerick. UL is a young university and so has one of the most modern and impressive campuses in the country, though it can’t compete with what we have in NUI Galway of course.
OK… What the freaking freak is that? The department of bizarre architecture? We don’t have one of those.
And I bet these buildings hardly look impressive at all when the sun isn’t shining.
Another shot of that “Living Bridge” over the mighty Shannon. Our campus has a bridge too though. Actually, our campus is crossed by a bridge.
A bit of nature for ye now. It was a lovely day for invisible spiders.
Back in the hotel after, with the gang from NUI Galway’s Computer Society. (The decent hotel where Randall Munroe was put up. We stayed in a Travelodge, a sort of footlocker for people.) What is everyone looking at with such interest – a video perhaps? Cartoons? No. Server logs. They’re using phones to view what’s happening on the club computers.
It’s a little bit of America in the garden, really. Behind, entirely covering a disused shed, we have virginia creeper. In front, a staghorn sumac. I wonder if there’s any reason these two lurid plants should come from the north-eastern Atlantic seaboard. Maple too, come to think of it.
Is there some predator there that can’t see the colour red? Just as it’s getting hungry, all the trees suddenly go invisible. Fiendishly clever.