Sustainable Politics and the Crisis of the Peripheries: Ireland and Greece: Volume 8

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(19 chapters)
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Writing in The Economist's Voice, Christophe Chamley and Brian Pinto set out a number of reasons against the bailouts which have been offered to Greece and Ireland by the International Monetary Fund and the European Central bank.1 Their main concerns were focused on high risks surrounding privately held bond spreads, or the threat of debt restructuring, otherwise known as a default. The emergence of serious concerns about the state of Spanish, Italian and even American debt levels in the summer of 2011 has created an uncertain economic future globally.

The word ‘myth’ is usually misused by social scientists who think of it as being equivalent to an untruth. However, more accurately, a myth is a basic organising story, often recounting the origins and development of a people; as such it offers meaning, a way of understanding the path their development took. In this sense, the Celtic Tiger is a myth, as it was a story told about the final arrival of the Irish people at their long elusive goal of development and plenty. All that went before was the pre-history of many failures until the conditions became right for the final breakthrough. One of the functions of myth is that it legitimises a particular hierarchical ordering of social, political and economic power; to the extent that it does this through investing the order of society with a sacred significance, it reinforces a power hierarchy and makes it much more difficult to critique and undermine. In these ways, the account of Ireland's success that we call the Celtic Tiger was a myth, and it proved a very successful one since it won general acquiescence throughout society, including from academics and opinion formers.

The quote above was taken from the actor Brendan Gleeson, who struck a chord with Irish people in his outburst about the lack of care shown to the old and vulnerable during the years preceding the economic downturn in 2008. In the Irish case, it has always been the marginalised and poorest who have suffered at the hands of the pride and greed of the ruling elite. This chapter will establish an understanding of the ideologically driven and often tragic economic planning undertaken in the Irish state since Independence in 1922. The chapter will outline the problems associated with political elites which then became manifest in the socio-economic life of the country. These problems were political, but also cultural, and shaped the difficulties that have befallen the Irish state in almost every decade of its history.

‘The children we are dealing with, they are so damaged – their lives are so damaged – they are beyond repair!’ The Clinical Psychologist who said this1 went on to talk about a cluster of children with whom she had worked, children all from the same community, who had Speech & Language Disorder (S&LD), or (and sometimes both) Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder (S&LD/ADHD).2 What is remarkable about that therapist's statement, made casually, and at the same time a statement by a professional, is the insight expressed in the clause, amplified by the parentheses surrounding it and by and the stress on the word, ‘their lives are so damaged’, that these children's speech and language and related cognitive difficulties are not to be understood psychologically, at the level of the inner life of the individual child, but rather in a broader, holistic sociological context – ‘their lives’ as a whole. In other words that the speech and language disorders of children are to be grasped and understood by use of Mills’ (1959) ‘sociological imagination’ whereby we can come to see and to understand the recursive interrelationship between a person's personal biography, their private troubles of milieu, and the broader historical and public issues of social structure, only by comprehending both together.

How can we explain the absence of resistance, especially among unionised workers? Writing in the 1921 about the interaction between economic downturns and political responses, Leon Trotsky made the following pointThe political effects of a crisis (not only the extent of its influence but also its direction) are determined by the entire existing political situation and by those events which precede and accompany the crisis, especially the battles, successes or failures of the working class itself prior to the crisis. Under one set of conditions the crisis may give a mighty impulse to the revolutionary activity of the working masses; under a different set of circumstances it may completely paralyse the offensive of the proletariat and, should the crisis endure too long and the workers suffer too many losses, it might weaken extremely not only the offensive but also the defensive potential of the working class. (Trotsky, 1974)

This chapter will examine the rise and downfall of the Irish Green Party from a party of protest through their elevation as junior coalition partners in the national government from 2007 until 2011. An ‘Event History Analysis’ (EHA) (Berry & Berry, 1990) through an ‘Issue History’ (Szasz, 1994) will be applied to the key events in this process, in order to illustrate the key motivations, moments, potential successes and enduring difficulties which emerged during this time. An Event History Analysis provides an explanation for ‘a qualitative change’ that occurs as a result of key events in an organisation's history (Berry & Berry, 1990). An Issue History requires a trans-disciplinary analysis of events using theories and methods from history, sociology, political science, sources from the state, the media, surveys and the social movements, in addition to theories of political economy and postmodernism, to analyse various interrelated facets of the salient ‘issue’ being studied (Szasz, 2004, 2008).

Although the trigger for the European economic and financial crisis was the subprime and subsequently banking crisis in the USA, the true roots of theEuropean malaise are to be found in the structural weaknesses of the European growth and Euro area development model based on debt financing of public and private expenditure and investment. These drivers were amplified by the lack of effective economic policy mechanisms from both the monetary and fiscal sides of macro-economic management. The global financial crisis of 2007–2009 did not cause the underlying imbalances that are currently acting to tear apart the Euro area monetary and fiscal systems. Instead, it crystallised markets and public attention on the underlying core cause of the overall Euro crisis – the insolvency of the public financing system of the European Union (EU) member states.

Even though Greece is today one of the oldest EU members, it has often been criticized as a ‘laggard’ in the process of European Integration. This critic also applies on its Environmental Policy. While the negotiations for Greece's accession to the European Economic Community were fervent1 and their results mostly welcomed by the Greek people, a ‘slow start’ was the reality. The then newly elected Socialist government had adopted a non-amicable stance against Euro-Atlantic institutions2 (at least on a rhetoric level) which also had a significant effect on the country's Europeanization.

Over the summer of 2007, Greek forest wild fires made international news. In June, the flames consumed a large part of the Mt Parnitha's National Park, close to Athens, sending thousands of Athenians out into an unprecedented demonstration, demanding immediate protective measures and tougher legislation. By early September, the blazing infernos around the country had destroyed 670,000 acres of forest, olive groves and farmland while the death toll stood at 77 people.

During the past 30 years environmental policy was never between the top priority areas of public intervention in Greece. Legislative measures related to the protection of human health and nuisance from private economic activities were introduced as early as in the beginning of last century. The post dictatorial constitution of 1975 provided, for the first time, specific provision for the protection of natural environment. However, a comprehensive framework legislation regulating all facets of environmental degradation was adopted only in 1986 but remained, for a long period, practically inactive since the necessary implementing decisions were issued with considerable delay. The country's accession into the EU, in 1981, provided a cognitive and material basis for the modernisation of environmental policy through the incorporation of the environmental acquis into domestic law and building up of domestic administrative capacities through the use of the structural funds. However, low prioritisation of environmental protection in the domestic policy agendas of successive Greek governments continued to affect domestic administrative structures and policy traditions.

To plan environmental policies it is important to identify factors influencing their effective implementation. Regarding Greek environmental policy, several factors have been underlined in the literature influencing its implementation. These include, among others, the structure of state mechanisms, the existence of clientelistic networks, the weak civil society and specific characteristics of political culture (Bromley, 1997; Lekakis, 1995; Spanou, 1998). In the recent literature the social capital of a community has also been recognized as having a significant influence during the implementation of all stages of environmental policy (Jones, Sophoulis, Iosifides, Botetzagias, & Evangelinos 2009).

The events of the summer of 2011 have affected the international financial sector immeasurably, with concerns about defaults in Spain and Italy, and the United States. The United States was further rocked by a downgrading of its triple A status by the rating agency Standards and Poor. In the preceding weeks, news that a deal had been reached which would provide the second bailout for Greece was greeted with relief across the financial world. However, the fiscal crisis which had threatened the very future of the Eurozone was not addressed by this intervention. In Ireland, the news that interest rates for their bailout would be reduced with a longer time for payback was also seen as welcome, allowing for a domestic budget that would not be so austere as to prohibit growth. However, both Greece and Ireland remain peripheral nations in the ongoing fiscal crisis which has destabilised the global financial sector. A political solution to this fiscal crisis appears beyond the capabilities of elected officials who are caught between populist electoral concerns about austerity measures and a neo-liberal fixation with credit related growth, the basis of which underpins ‘the casino capitalism’ of the global investment markets.

Dr. Liam Leonard is a lecturer in Sociology, Criminology, Human Rights and Environmental Politics at the Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland. He is the series editor for the Advances in Ecopolitics Book Series. He is the author of a number of books and articles in the areas of sociology, politics, environmentalism and criminology. His list of recent internationally published books includes: The Environmental Movement in Ireland, the Transition to Sustainable Living and Practice, Environmental Movements and Waste Infrastructure, Global Ecological Politics, and Sustainable Justice and the Community. He is the founder and editor of the Journal of Social Criminology (CRIMSOC).

Dr. Kieran Allen is a senior lecturer at the School of Sociology, University College Dublin. His research interests include Contemporary Irish Society; Marxist Theory; Globalisation; Work and Industry and Max Weber. He has published numerous books, book chapters and journal articles.

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Advances in Ecopolitics
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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