Business

Blame and shame in Ireland over financial crisis

Cleere's pub Kilkenny (Photo by Naoise Nunn)
Image caption Kilkenomics is an annual event bringing together comedians and economists

Walk into Cleere's pub in the medieval city of Kilkenny in the south east of the Republic of Ireland and you could be in any Irish bar.

There's a crackling fire burning in the grate, men are gathered around tables supping the local creamy Kilkenny ale and the air is thick with discussion.

But the topic of the day is less likely to be the progress of the city's championship-winning team in Ireland's national sport of hurling and more likely to focus on the country's other national obsession - the state of the economy.

This pub is one of many in Kilkenny playing host to the annual Kilkenomics festival, a quirky mix of economists, comedians and the general public discussing the state of Ireland's and the world's finances.

Ever since international lenders bailed out Ireland in 2010 to the tune of 85bn euros ($110bn; £70bn), Ireland's four-and-a-half million people have lived under a regime of punishing austerity and plummeting property prices.

The country is still coming to terms with what many see as the collective madness that gripped both ordinary people and the financial world in the run up to the economic crisis - leaving banks ruined and many householders owning property worth much less than the mortgage they owe on it.

Former US bank regulator and criminologist Prof Bill Black, who was responsible for aiding prosecutors during America's savings and loans crisis of the 1980s, is a regular at Kilkenomics. He would like to see many more financiers in Ireland and beyond prosecuted for what went wrong in the run up to the 2008-9 financial collapse.

Image caption Prof Black is also the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One

And he says one of the reasons more people have not faced prosecution in Ireland is the attitude of the Irish people.

"The Irish love to blame themselves," Prof Black says. "I have been invited to a bunch of the countries that have come through this crisis to help them and Ireland is really distinctive compared with the rest of the world.

"In Ireland there is an absolute love affair with guilt in this crisis. You don't see that in Iceland, you don't see that in Spain or in Italy. They all want to blame the largest bankers. But here in Ireland they say, 'well, but, we were guilty too'."

'Terrified'

Comments from some of the younger festival-goers back up that view.

One pupil visiting Kilkenomics along with fellow economics students from a nearby school says: "It's a bit difficult to point the finger because so many people were heavily involved. How do you prosecute a whole country?"

So, who was to blame?

David McWilliams, one of the few economists in Ireland to warn of the economic collapse ahead of time, says it is unfair to point the finger at Ireland's homeowners.

Most were young families struggling to buy homes: "To implicate those people in complicity seems to be far and away from what actually happened, which is that they were terrified onto the property ladder, terrified."

Image caption David McWilliams says an entire generation has debts they will never repay

Pub-owner John Cleere agrees that Ireland's property developers were to blame for much of what went wrong and that ordinary people were innocently caught up in the property bubble.

"I remember one guy... lining up to buy a house and the following week it had gone up by 35,000 [euros]. But the property developer had no qualms about it. His answer was 'the market can take it, the market can take it'."

'Brass necks'

Others think the Irish people still hold property developers in too much awe. One woman says until that mindset changes, public shame won't be imposed.

"We still have rallies for the big developers supporting them. I think it is embedded in the Irish psyche that we admire these people more than we disapprove of them."

Prof Black believes that attitudes like these are getting in the way of an effective response to clearing out the finance executives who might have been responsible for bank collapses in Ireland.

"It is hard enough to prosecute elites when you have the people behind you. But if the nation is going, 'well, we were not so good either' you don't get the political dynamic," he says.

Irish comedian and writer Colm O'Regan agrees: "As a country we have a propensity to feel more ashamed rather than angry at times.

"But at the same time we have a sneaking admiration for people with brass necks and thick skins who appear not to have any shame and not to be hampered by it.''

David McWilliams says that in a small country with a tiny financial and political elite it has been hard to call to account those at the top.

"For many, many years we have had politicians behave without shame. We have had politicians over the past 30 years who - even after the evidence emerged that their hand was in the till - they still walk into tribunals as if they were saying, 'the effrontery of you, the Irish citizens, to be actually taking us to task!'"

Prof Black, a veteran of many prosecutions of finance executives, says only the threat of prison frightens them into considering their actions.

"Prison is a mind numbing and terrible experience and it is the only thing they fear.

"There are thousands of senior executives between the United Kingdom and Ireland who should be going to jail - and it is the only thing they fear. Fines are nothing."

In the Balance is broadcast on BBC World Service. Listen to the Kilkenomics episode of In The Balance via iPlayer or download the Kilkenomics podcast.

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