Dan O’Brien vs Ballyhea: Why The Sunday Independent Still Wants To Eat Your Brains


‘Propaganda’, by El Roto

Against my own advice offered last week, I want to look at a Sunday Independent article published last Sunday. It is by Dan O’Brien, former Irish Times economics editor and, presently, Chief Economist at the Institute of International and European Affairs, as well as a Sunday Independent columnist. It supports my thesis that the Sunday Independent wants to eat your brains.

The article is headlined ‘Demonstrators’ analysis of the bank bailout is deeply flawed‘. The article deals with the now-renowned Ballyhea Says No campaign. This campaign against the socialisation of private banking debt has been running for the past three years, with weekly marches against this imposition.

The organisers of this campaign have kept it going despite a media establishment that frequently asks why Irish people do not protest, but when it comes to actual examples of protest, does not want to know.

Ireland’s media establishment has frequent bouts of foaming indignation at some aspect of public expenditure. However, it has turned a blind eye on the whole to the funneling of tens of billions of euro in public money to unsecured private bondholders in Irish banks.

In so far as Ireland’s media establishment has addressed the matter of bondholder bailouts, it has been to present the payouts, even in the case of unsecured bonds, as a self-evident necessity, a situation impervious to political action.


In spite of this, the Ballyhea campaigners have doggedly kept records on the sums involved in these operations, and sought to raise public awareness of the extent of the scandal.

The principal concern of Dan O’Brien’s article is not the fact of these bondholder payouts and their social cost in terms of health, education, welfare, jobs and lives. Rather, it is the ‘Ballyhea protesters’ analysis’ relating to the ’cause of the crash‘.

He doesn’t name any names. He doesn’t quote anyone’s remarks, spoken or written. He summarises these unnamed individuals’ analysis in the following terms:

The Ballyhea protesters argue that the underlying cause of the crash was a badly designed euro and a central bank in Frankfurt that did not do its job. They believe that when the consequences of these failures manifested in a banking collapse, the powers that be in the eurozone forced weak Irish governments to socialise the costs. On the basis of this analysis, they argue that justice demands other European countries repay the Irish state the approximately €65bn spent on the bank bailout.

O’Brien continues:

the Ballyhea protesters say that foreigners forced Irish governments to ensure that Irish taxpayers repaid all investors in the domestic banks

He characterises their argument in the following terms:

Blaming others for all our woes did little for this country over decades. Doing it again would be equally fruitless.

This foreigner-blaming would be fruitless because

the prospect of other taxpayers in Europe (many of whom have paid for bailing out their own banks) gifting Ireland €65bn is next to zero

Thus O’Brien has characterises the Ballyhea protesters as embodying both insular xenophobia and political naivety.

Ballyhea’s detailed position on bank debt can be found at this link. Its analysis of the origins of the crisis draw on analyses of Belgian economist Paul de Grauwe, quoted in the linked article, and Constantin Gurgdiev, to the point that, in so far as O’Brien sees Ballyhea’s analysis as ‘completely flawed from start to finish’, he is really taking issue with the analysis of De Grauwe and Gurgdiev.

There is no reason why O’Brien shouldn’t take issue with such analysis as he says fit, but he should at least outline who he is arguing against. He does not do this.

If you read the Ballyhea position, it is not at all a matter of ‘other taxpayers in Europe’ ‘gifting Ireland €65bn’. On the contrary, one of the concrete proposals, prominently featured, is

a levy on the finance industry that will see the billions their recklessness has cost the peoples of Europe restored to those balance sheets, perhaps that levy going directly to the ESM for redistribution to those countries affected.

You may think this measure is realistic, you may not. But it is a gross distortion of the expressed Ballyhea position to say, as O’Brien does, that Ballyhea expects a ‘gift from other taxpayers in Europe’.

(Unless, of course, you believe that ‘taxpayers’ is synonymous with ‘finance industry’. For someone who works as an economist for an entity whose foundation members include Goldman Sachs International and AIB (as well as SIPTU, curiously), it would certainly be an interesting explicit political position to adopt.)

Nor is it a we-poor-Irish-them-evil-foreigners position, as O’Brien suggests. On the contrary, the Ballyhea proposal, whilst recognising the particular burden placed on people in Ireland, acknowledges the need for a Europe-wide solution, and justice for other peoples of Europe.

Why the focus on Ballyhea, then? If their analysis is so flawed, why bother? Where was the need for Dan O’Brien to make such an egregious misrepresentation of their position?

Perhaps it has to do with prominent Ballyhea participant Diarmuid O’Flynn’s recently announced campaign to get elected as an MEP (as I understand it, he is not going to be endorsed as a candidate by the Ballyhea Says No group). O’Brien makes no mention of this salient fact in his article.

The fact that banking debt could appear as a contentious issue on the terrain of political institutions is, I think, a potentially significant development. Yes, left-wing parties also say they want to repudiate the debt, but this is only one item of their platform, and these parties have limited appeal in Ireland’s political culture.

By contrast, Ballyhea has been an explicitly non-party political undertaking from the start, seeking to unite as many people as possible on the matter of debt. It has won widespread respect for its integrity and steadfastness, with the occasional pat on the head from Ireland’s media, including in O’Brien’s article. But what happens if Ballyhea moves from inocuous mascot to a real political presence?

The broader European context is significant. Whilst O’Brien seeks to paint Ballyhea as ignorant Little Irelanders, they have actively sought to engage institutions at a European level in spite of political intransigence in Ireland. And contrary to the juxtaposition O’Brien offers between the Irish public and the rest of the body of European taxpayers, no such opposition exists in fact.

The matter of illegitimate debt is a political question across the European periphery, manifesting itself in various social movements, but also in political platforms such that of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. In fact, the country that has the most onerous private banking debt burden –Ireland- is the country in which the matter of illegitimate debt is least discussed.

Contrary to the image O’Brien conjures, then, it is he -and by extension, the Sunday Independent, and Ireland’s media establishment- who are the Little Irelanders.

O’Brien, as you would expect, sees things through the eyes of the Irish political and media establishment, in which there is no alternative plane of political activity to that of the European Union’s member states and their respective national governments.

In such a view, the national governments are the indisputable representatives of their citizens. This is the case even when these governments operate within a framework -a financial architecture and a set of supra-national political institutions- that destroy their citizens’ lives.

The simple-mindedness of this view can be seen in his admission that the bank bailout was an injustice, but that it was the result of ‘an Irish government – rightly or wrongly – doing what it believed to be in Ireland’s best interests’. This is a cock and bull story, from start to finish, but it is a myth that Ireland’s media machinery constantly reproduces.

To illustrate, here is a phrase: ‘the occupation of Crimea was the result of a Russian government -rightly or wrongly- doing what it believed to be in Russia’s best interests’.

Is there anyone in these parts who would not recognise such a phrase as an obvious identification, on the part of the speaker, with the Putin government in Russia?

Is there anyone in these parts who would believe that what the Russian government sees as ‘Russia’s best interests’ might coincide at all with what people at large in Russia see as their best interests?

The answer to both questions is No. This is because people hear stories about Putin and his oligarchs and the effect of their material interests over government policy.

In Ireland, however, many people are frozen in an illusion. The illusion is that a government that consistently prioritises the interests of the financial sector and property speculators and companies seeking to avoid tax, over the health and education and welfare of the population, is the population’s unimpeachably legitimate representative. Hence there is nothing that can be done. The public must pay the price for the speculative crazes of the financial elite, because it happened under a government that represented the public. In certain cases, this illusion is sustained through newspapers owned by a Malta-based billionaire who hates paying tax and is close to the incumbent government.


But another illusion, which is equally important from the standpoint of those who make their living either from the privatisation of what is public or advocating such courses of action, is the sense of debt as an inescapable moral obligation. It is not. It is a political relation. Political relations can be changed. Sometimes this causes political upheaval, and sometimes it involves campaigns such as the one undertaken with such doggedness by those in Ballyhea. And anyone who seeks to tell you otherwise is either a con artist, a moron, or both. What is more, they want to eat your brains.

1 Comment

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One response to “Dan O’Brien vs Ballyhea: Why The Sunday Independent Still Wants To Eat Your Brains

  1. Unsurprising that the economist who was captain of the cheerleading squad for the “soft landing” narrative purveyed by our political establishment, now finds himself in a similar position with respect to the next spin-doctor-derived policy narrative offered by our establishment elites.

    Equally unsurprising that he has found himself so eminently employable by such monoliths of power in our institutional frameworks of authority.

    For what it’s worth, I think your zombie theme is worth running with in the future.

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