Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Lisbon 'No' voters hold the key to salvation

The first Lisbon Treaty referendum vote in 2008 was an astonishing expression of the independent popular will in Ireland, rejecting the advice of the three main parties and insisting on an entirely different approach. That voice carried the day and should have been respected.

Even as the votes were being counted, Brian Cowen was planning to undermine the constitutional will of the people. After a second Lisbon Treaty campaign in 2009, filled with fear-mongering, deceit and the involvement of the European Union in a sovereign constitutional issue, the result of that first referendum was reversed.

For most people, these highly significant events swiftly became history. It was assumed that those who twice had voted 'No', were dispersing. The normal nonsense that passes for Irish politics was apparently restored.

Then a number of things began to manifest themselves. These included revelations about the fallibility of the EU in giving us the benefits promised during the two referendum campaigns. Having been invited to 'Vote Yes for jobs', no jobs materialised. Our Government lost them all.

This, in turn, led to a growing perception that the politicians campaigning for a 'Yes' vote had repeatedly told falsehoods about the threats to Ireland. The main political parties had connived in this deception.

It became clear that the commercial individuals responsible for the huge debt burden remained at the helm of much of the economic structure that had got us into the mess.

Moreover, their political regulators -- the Government and Oireachtas -- were determined to sustain their damaging course of action at the expense, firstly, of the Irish people and secondly, of the developers.

I have feelings for both groups that embrace a mixture of pity and disdain. As a people, we blame the politicians. As an electorate, we are responsible for them being there. In three elections, the last the least seemly of all, we gave power to Fianna Fail and its temporary appendages and let them run this country badly, and, in the end, into the ground.

When it came to blame, we turned on the developers, vilifying them and then subjecting them to a form of economic crucifixion.

The vilification and punishment of developers is being pursued through NAMA.

This brings me to the heart of the matter -- the money.

There is a blanket of secrecy over the operation of NAMA and the banks, with deals being done under cover of the Official Secrets Act or hidden behind "protection of commercial interests".

The deals are worsening the country's debt. NAMA is issuing billions of euro in government-guaranteed bonds to purchase the bad loans from the failed banks. The failed banks will swap these bonds for loans from the European Central Bank in part to repay senior bondholders. Once swapped, these NAMA loans become fully repayable with interest and it is the taxpayers of this country who are likely to foot the bill.

A minority shareholding of the beneficiaries from these deals -- 49pc -- is the people of Ireland. The majority share-holding, however, consists of private investors in NAMA, protected within a Master Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV).

These investors include the subsidiaries of the banks that benefit from taxpayers' funding and guarantee.

Furthermore, it is quite possible that a group of these 'investors', the beneficial owners of the NAMA SPV, can avail of a lenient or zero tax on the profits and dividends made from their 51pc ownership and walk off with a prize at Ireland's expense. Whatever about its legal and constitutional rights to strip developers, why is it that NAMA's potential profit-making on behalf of unknown beneficial owners within the Master SPV are exclusive? Why are the people of Ireland not getting access?

While newspapers are currently obsessing about the Budget and other, often minor, issues, Brian Lenihan has been revealed as having approved, or at the very least did not oppose, a pay-off for the senior bondholders with Anglo Irish Bank to the tune of €7.9bn, precluding a discount or 'haircut'.

As a result, he placed an even greater debt burden on the Irish people -- likely to be indebted to the European Central Bank for the aforementioned amount.

EVERY effort was made to keep this deal secret. It was an unimaginable stroke of stupidity. It still needs examination at what is laughingly known as the House of Final Assessment on how we are governed, the Dail.

It is even possible that some of the NAMA Master SPV investors are the same as these self-same senior bondholders. If this is the case, then they are making money in many ways, with limited risk, due to Ireland's banking guarantees.

Furthermore, the banks, which planned to sell NAMA bonds on the international markets, are now forced, of necessity, to sell to the ECB. This is embarrassing for the EU Commission, which signed off on the NAMA plan, and devastating for Ireland, demonstrating underlying incompetence. The international markets have called our bluff.

The EU is now being persuaded of the need for new restrictions on financial profligacy. It would involve something we were promised would not happen, the reopening of the Lisbon Treaty. Was there ever a better example of profligacy than Anglo's secretive payment, without bargaining, of €7.9bn to unidentified 'beneficial owners of bonds'?

Part of me thinks, yes, we should be punished. And part of me also thinks, yes, because the electorate did this.

Most of me, however, thinks that we should seek to marshal the million people in Ireland who saw this coming back in 2008 and 2009 and were defeated by a level of chicanery that beggars belief. Those voters, if they could be rallied anew, would, or could, change the face of Irish politics forever.