Yesterday in the Irish Times Fintan O’Toole returned to the subject of his column from the previous week, which is now known as Ireland’s Great Oil and Gas Giveaway (or GOGG for short) and deals very effectively with the Minister for the Environment Pat Rabbitte’s response to it, also published last week in the pages of the Irish Times.
I believe it’s a very significant column, although in its conclusion it falls some way short, in my view, of being able to explain the forces at play that lead Pat Rabbitte to behave in the way he has with regard to GOGG (in short, championing the terms of the giveaway and trying to silence dissenting opinion).
While O’Toole is to be greatly commended for highlighting the scandal behind the immanent sell-off it leaves the explanation for such decisions shrouded in mystery (why do they keep doing this? Have we learned nothing?). But more significantly it doesn’t examine why these decisions provide such good terms for the gas and oil companies, and not for the Irish people, apart from attributing it to a habit of mind and top-down policymaking.
However, I’m being a bit unfair to O’Toole. After all, it’s perfectly clear that he is operating, successfully, in an environment in which there is a moratorium on any serious discussion about the structural weaknesses of the economy, the government’s role in maintaining that structural weakness and the nature of economic power in Ireland. Perhaps that’s a little odd to say that there is a moratorium considering how much the economy is discussed, and how we now know so much about our admonished ‘golden circles’. But when I say ‘the structure of the economy’ and ‘the nature of economic power’ I am, of course, talking about class.
But perhaps O’Toole is testing the boundaries of that moratorium when he says:
“The question of what we’ve learned is stark. In September 2008, our system of governance – Civil Service, regulators, government – faced a historic test. It failed catastrophically. Why? Because, under the pressure of the banking crisis, it fell back on its ingrained habits and attitudes. It had acquired the habit of doing what the banks asked it to do. In a closed system of decision-making, that habit made a grotesquely irrational decision seem like common sense.
Just as the Department of Finance was habituated to doing what the banks wanted, the mindset of the Department of Natural Resources is shaped by the perceived needs of the oil and gas companies. That mindset has proved to be resilient. Two successive ministers – Eamon Ryan and Pat Rabbitte – have entered it from the outside, with some history of scepticism, and quickly gone native. Each has ended up speaking a language that is indistinguishable from that of his Fianna Fáil predecessors.”
I don’t think that I would distort the above to turn the sections I’ve highlighted into the following single statement:
The governing political culture of our Civil Service, regulators, and government has a mindset dominated by an ingrained habit and attitude of doing exactly what the banks or oil and gas companies want, and which has proved to be resilient through successive governments.
The question remains though: why does this political culture exist and why has it proved so resilient through successive governments? If we are unable to understand this so called ‘habit of mind’ we will never know why we continually have “closed, top-down policymaking, with minimal information and no serious willingness to consider alternatives”, and which always provides “awful results”. If we are going to change anything, we will have to go a little deeper.
One of the reasons why I think that Conor McCabe’s book Sins of the Father is so significant is because it is able to discuss the Irish economy without any regard for this moratorium on class and power relations. In the book the existence of ‘class’ and how it operates in Ireland is not mentioned specifically in a theoretical sense. But it does draw attention to it through a detailed examination of the patterns behind the policy decisions of successive governments since the foundation of the state. Towards the end of the book Conor quotes economist Morgan Kelly, another frequent commentator who tries to come to grips with these top-down decisions without an understanding of class.
Kelly is responding to the then proposed nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank, which, he argued, marked “a decisive watershed in Irish democracy”.
“With it an Irish government has coolly looked its citizens in the eye and said: “Sorry, but your priorities are not ours.”"
Glossing that quote from Kelly, Conor writes,
“This had always been the case, of course, going as far back as the 1927 Banking Commission.”
Because at that point in the book Conor has already shown how private banking interests effectively dictated the course of economic policy since the foundation of the state. These include the maintaining parity with Sterling up until 1978, despite two economic crisis due to the devaluation of Sterling; the keeping of Irish bank deposits in Sterling in UK banks, rather than investing in bonds because of the dominance of exporting live cattle to Britain in the Irish economy in the 30s; the late and slow development of a Central Bank in the 40s and the nullification of its powers of regulation in the 50s; accepting the banks reluctance to provide credit for Irish businesses and leading to a reliance of FDI investment without the development of parallel indigenous industries in the early 60s; the fueling of property speculation on the back of that investment in the late 60s, for a market that didn’t exist and for the government, spending money via tax breaks only to become tenants paying landlords (effectively a second time) in order to soak up the empty office space; the entry of banks into the mortgage business which fed off the privatisation of Ireland’s social housing stock in the 70s; the use of ‘urban regeneration’ as a fig leaf for section 23/27, which allowed ‘investors’ to hide profits behind a tax break in the 80s; the setting up of the IFSC, and the changes in Corporations tax from the early 90s on, and most obviously now to the setting up of NAMA and the bank guarantee.
So ‘our’ priorities, in Kelly’s construction are those of the banks. But banking interests do not constitute a class by themselves.
What Sins of the Father shows is that there has never been any significant interest in generating a dynamic indigenous economy that can produce genuine growth capable of benefiting the domestic economy as a whole – and one which would be dedicated to the interests of the majority of the population. Rather there is a tendency to use the resources available to provide external entities with the ability to exploit what we have for a rent – a fee – a nominal profit, which goes exclusively to members of a particular class without entering the real economy. Profits are then poured into speculation by this class as the only ‘viable’ means of creating wealth.
This continuation of an extraction of rent and using it to speculate indicates that there is not a significant industrial or indigenous enterprise class in Ireland that can invest and creates jobs through manufacturing or by developing the extraction of the natural resources available in the country. What does exist, instead, is a ‘comprador class’.
As Michael Burke explains in his review of Sins of the Father, published in the Tribune magazine the comprador class are those who hold on to power by keeping the economic system of the colonial power pretty much in place after the colony becomes independent because it benefits them personally to do so. They choose to be the ‘hunter’, rather than the ‘hunted’.
“Under capitalism, every imperial enterprise ends in disaster for the population as a whole. But there is too always some section of the local population which benefits- or at least softens the blows – by collaborating with the colonisers. While they remain the imperialists shape the entire economy to their needs, usually in the extraction of natural resources, raw materials or even simply enforced labour.
But when the colonisers are forced to leave, for whatever reason, they attempt to leave the economic relationship with the imperial centre unchanged as far as possible. There is too a section of the population, ‘the hunters’ whose well-being depends on reforming the inherited economy and society as little as possible.”
Throughout the history of the Irish state the dominance of this class has lead to the stymieing of real economic development and the perpetuation of the model of extracting rent and feeding it into speculation. In Sins of the Father Conor details how the continuation of the exportation of ‘live’ cattle, a process that was well-established in pre-independence Ireland, meant that Ireland couldn’t develop an indigenous sector capable of producing a multitude of many different goods from those cattle in Ireland.
This fact seems to escape even the most illustrious of economic historians writing on Ireland today. Professor of Economic History, Cormac O’Grada in his Irish Central Bank Whitaker lecture, Five Crises (June 2011), made the following point:
“In 1940 the Free State produced 4.5 million pair of leather footwear and 1 million pair of rubber footwear. Only a quarter of a million pairs were imported. But this was not self-sufficiency, because although Irish tanneries produced most of the necessary leather, only about half of the hides they used were home-produced, and virtually none of the chemicals, nails, and other components. Naturally, the raw materials for rubber boots and shoes were all imported.”
It does not seem odd to O’Grada, given that Ireland was exporting cattle to Britain, that it should be necessary to import ANY cattle hides to produce shoe leather. It certainly seemed odd to Ibec, a US consultancy firm hired by the Irish government in 1952 and who pointed out that Ireland’s determination to continue exporting live cattle to Britain was a missed opportunity to develop real income within the Irish economy. In the report An Appraisal of Ireland’s Industrial Potentials, which was widely praised and completely ignored at a policy level at the time, they wrote:
“It appears to an outsider that the overall pattern of the Irish cattle industry has been organised in a fashion that serves the convenience of the economy of the United Kingdom rather than its own economy. The historical basis of this mode of procedure is easy to understand, if not condone, but its persistence for so long a period after the Republic of Ireland had won its political independence is somewhat of an enigma.”
They then calculated what could potentially be earned from the production of finished goods from Ireland’s cattle:
“The initial processing alone in Ireland of live cattle worth £20 million would add £3.6 million of processing activity to the Irish economy. This figure would be raised to about £6 million if the United States ratio was applied. There would be available on the Irish market an additional £3.5 million hides (468,000 times 60 pounds times 30 pence per pound) for local processing which, since the fellmongery and leather category adds some 41% in net product to the cost of materials, might contribute another £1.4 million of processing activity.
This could make a substantial contribution also to Ireland’s exchange position since Ireland’s leather imports in 1949 (net of leather exports) amounted to £1.3 million. If the additional supply of leather from a domestic source was not of a suitable type to displace imported shoe leathers, it might be used substantially to increase leather manufacturers of other types in Ireland.
Estimating upon the analogy of Ireland’s boot and shoe industry, in which the net product amounts to about 70% of material costs, this could increase manufactures based on leather by £2.52 million, (£3.5 for hides and £1.4 for leather processing minus £1.3 imports times .7). Offal value should amount to at least £3 per beast, and that would provide another £1.4 million of raw materials for processing.
The initial survey relating to ECA’s Technical Assistance Project TA 44-74, indicates that over £2.6 million of protein feeds and related by-products could be produced from presently wasted bones of domestically slaughtered animals (of all types), mortality carcasses and fish offal. This could be enormously increased as a potential through processing more cattle at home… [and] that should be the ultimate goal… (p.72)”
So what is the connection between the exporting of ‘live’ cattle and the comprador class that lead to the bank guarantee, NAMA, the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank and Ireland’s Great Gas and Oil Giveaway? As Conor mentioned on Dublin Opinion in a post published last year when he began writing the book and which echoes the main argument of Sins of the Father:
“The structural deficiencies in the Irish economy, whereby indigenous capitalism is a ‘middleman’ capitalism of banking, finance, construction and landlords, start to make sense once the cattle industry – the bullock in the room if you will – is pointed out and commented upon.
The world and people which NAMA is designed to protect – the property developers and financial middlemen – grew out of the accordance which developed between the ranchers and the State from the late 1950s onwards.”
It is the structure of the Irish economy, and its skewing in the interests of these ‘middlemen’ that has led to these ‘awful results’. This skewing in their interests of course means that the rest of the economy, and the interests of the majority of people in Ireland, can be disregarded.
And we can see this benefit to ‘middlemen’ in a number of places.
It’s in the profits as a percentage of turnover in the retail and wholesale sector, for example, which far outstrip the EU norm. In this sector nothing new is being created. Rather it is being bought in and resold, at a vast profit, just like the ranchers took healthy calves from small farmers and resold them after fattening to the Slaughterhouses in the UK, again, for a considerable profit.
Based on Eurostat data (from between 1995 and 2007 – data for 2008 only appeared today) we can see that in 1995 Irish wholesaler’s profits as a percentage of turnover was 26.6%, while the Eurozone mean was 18.9%. However, in 2007, during the years of our ‘credit-fuelled’ boom, Irish wholesaler profits as a percentage of turnover rose 48.1%, while the Eurozone mean dropped to 18.2%. That, by any measure, is a considerable difference.
In retail it went from 5.8% in 1995 to 24% in 2007, while the Eurozone mean went from 6.2% in 1995 up to 8.6% in 2000 and then back to 6.5% in 2007.
Yet these sectors remained internationally uncompetitive because these staggering levels of profit were not reinvested in their businesses, but instead were driven into banking and property speculation.
It’s also in the only sector that enjoyed a stimulus package from the Fianna Fail/Green government – the motor ‘industry’ (the parenthesis is required as again, nothing new is being created). An argument regularly used by right-wing economists against a stimulus lead recovery warns of the dangers of ‘leakage’ – where taxpayer’s money pumped into a sector leaks out through the purchasing of products imported into the country. Basically the argument is that the profits go to the countries where these products are produced. Well, the sector with the biggest, most egregious leakage is motor sales, and yet, it got a stimulus. The car scrappage scheme which ended in June this year, after an extended run, is considered to have lifted sales of cars in 2010/11 by 21.9 per cent, according to the Irish Times. No wonder Alan Nolan, Director General of the Society of the Irish Motor Industry, said the scheme had been “very successful”.
“More than 12,000 cars have been sold as part of the scheme this year, with over 29,000 sold during the whole initiative”.
And the question needs to be asked: did the importing and selling on of foreign cars really need a boost? This was a sector after all that went from earning 4.8% profits as a percentage of turnover in 1995 to 30% in 2007, while at the same time the Eurozone mean went from 16.5% to 14.4%.
The interests of the comprador class is also seen in the phenomenal growth of ‘Irish’ exports from MNCs which is often nothing more than laundering earnings through transfer pricing and booking profits gained externally through Ireland to avoid tax. As Conor points out brilliantly in the opening of the chapter on Industry, these are all too often referred to as ‘our’ exports, when they are nothing of the sort.
We can see it in the support these MNC get from the Irish government despite the relatively small tax returns (compared to profits) and the very low proportion of the Irish workforce employed by them (the real benefits in terms of employment accruing to those who have always had access to third level education). It is well known too that FDI investment contributes very little to the real economy. However, those who do benefit from it are the accountancy firms providing auditing services and tax advice, the property speculators using MNCs as anchor clients in office developments, and the legal staff who pour through legislation to ensure that profits are safe for MNCs while they are here.
Lastly, we can see it in the way that Ireland treats oil and gas companies. In the current (July/August 2011) edition of History Ireland Conor tells a fascinating story about the selling of Irish oil and gas rights in1961 which contains so many of the essential elements which will be repeated down through the years of Ireland’s Great Oil and Gas Giveaway, right up to the present day.
“In March 1958 an oil company was registered in Dublin with a view to securing exploration rights for the 27,000 square miles of the Irish republic. The principal shareholders were George Collins, Roger Messman and Charles Rinehart. All three were from America and each held a £1 share in the company, which they called Madonna Oil. Nine months later they were granted exclusive exploration drilling rights by the minister for industry and commerce, Seán Lemass, for the sum of £500. In 1961 a two-thirds share in those rights was sold for $450,000. Over the course of the next ten years the lease changed owners and was reduced in size, but by 1975, following the discovery of gas off the coast of Kinsale, Co. Cork, the lease was valued at £31 million.” (a version of the article is available here on issuu).
What is significant about Conor’s History Ireland article is that it shows how the selling of licences by the Irish government was not necessarily to provide the means for oil companies with the expertise and resources to start extracting the oil and gas, which we are supposed to benefit from through a ‘tax on profits’ gained from the selling of that oil and gas. Instead it was to provide the means for speculation, where licences are sold and resold based on the speculated return on what that oil and gas might be worth in the future.
As Fintan O’Toole points out in his latest column on the subject, Statoil, which was originally Norway’s state oil company, is heavily invested in the Corrib site, but Ireland isn’t. What is so different about Ireland’s and Norway’s experience?
If we were to believe Pat Rabbitte it is the luck of geology. The finds in Norwegian waters were large and easier to exploit. If Ireland’s coastline and jurisdiction has such bounteous resources, the argument continues, why is the Irish coast not ringed with oil rigs? In a response to this question on Laurence Cox’s post which highlights his translation of Norwegian oil expert Helge Ryggvik’s Norwegian Oil Experience, Laurence points out that despite the considerable wealth that Ireland’s oil reserves have already provided for oil companies and individuals, it is only now that such reserves are beginning to get increasing attention from international investors. This is because
“a field has not only to contain oil and gas. It not only has to contain them in commercially relevant quantities which can be extracted at a profit. It also has to contain them in quantities which can be extracted with a higher rate of profits than can be gained by investing in other fields.
This is why older Norwegian fields are now being run down (in the same way British coal mines were a couple of decades back) so that Statoil can invest elsewhere. They still contain reserves, but there are now greater profits to be generated by investing elsewhere.
Ireland seems (and such things are always impossible to know for certain except in retrospect) to be moving into a period where because of a combination of factors it makes sense to invest in exploration (the costs are not trivial) and extraction. This is why we have the Corrib gas project now and not thirty years back; and it is why Rabbitte is now overseeing the allocation of a new round of blocks for exploration (the first stage of the process).
This is not new – the process of moving from field to field, and between different types of field, has a long history. It now makes financial sense (but is ecologically disastrous) to extract oil from tar sands, for example, in a way that it did not four decades back.”
Norwegian Oil Experience, A Toolbox for Managing Resources shows that Rabbitte’s arguments are nonsense. Oil companies are still happy to invest in oil fields even if a significant proportion of the ‘wealth’ extracted from that field (as opposed to tax on ‘profits’ which through the alchemy of accounting may never appear) goes to the state.
What this opens up, especially with the terms for the selling of the licences that Pat Rabbitte seems so happy with, is a new round of speculation where the potential value of any find ramps up whenever there is an increase in oil prices or the exploration of previously difficult to exploit fields becomes more viable through advances in technology. Add to that the attractiveness of the current system which allows the writing off of costs against tax (even costs incurred in other countries) and the ability to sell back the oil or gas to the country its extracted from at a profit and you have a bonanza.
But again, how does this Irish comprador class benefit from this? Well here’s Colm Rapple writing in 2006
“Independent Newspapers’ boss Tony O’Reilly has secured himself a free ride in an exploration venture off the west coast which will personally net him a 7% stake in oil and gas finds that could be worth over €20 billion according to some analysts.
The drilling has yet to start but seismic exploration has already pinpointed two large oil and gas prospects under the seabed some 200 miles south west of Kerry. O’Reilly’s company Providence Resources estimates that they could contain over 25 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas and over 4 million barrels of oil. That’s very big, even by international standards.
But it’s not only the direct benefits of exploration itself…
“A lot of money can be made and lost in trading exploration shares. On Monday after the Providence announcement over 57 million shares worth €3.8 million changed hands in Dublin. There were a total of 458 deals recorded during the day.
Of far greater concern, however, than the prospect of another bout of speculative exploration fever, is the clear evidence that the Government is giving away our offshore resources on the cheap. ExxonMobile has leaving Providence and Sosina with what is known in the business as a “carried interest” in the licence. It will be bearing all the costs in return for an 80% stake.”
In his most recent post on this website Colm returning to the same deal, in light of a report from Providence Resources issued in July 2011.
“A hydrocarbon prospect 120 miles off the Clare coast could, on conservative estimates, yield enough oil and gas to supply our needs for over twenty years according to a report on the Tony O’Reilly controlled Providence Resources. (……)
The Government licence covering this area was initially issued in 2006 to Providence Resources in conjunction with a small Scottish company, Sosina Exploration. The prospect was so attractive that they were able to do a deal with the US oil giant Exxon Mobile under which it took an 80% stake in the licence while allowing Providence and its partner, Sosina Exploration, a free ride on the other 20%.
Exxon Mobile subsequently sold half it’s stake to the Italian oil giant ENI. It bought a 40% stake but will be paying 50% of the costs including the drilling of two exploratory wells. It obviously has reason to be optimistic.
This was one of the most obvious blunders made by the Government in its handling of our natural resources and much of the blame must be laid at the door of the officials who advise ministers on what to do. Both Exxon Mobile and ENI were willing to give up a 20% free equity stake to get their hands on this licence. It went to Providence and its Scottish partners. That stake could just as easily have been retained by the State.”
“It went to Providence” – that says it all.
Colm Rapple is member of the SIPTU Oil and Gas Review Group that drew up a recent SIPTU report Optimising Ireland’s Oil and Gas Resources which argued very reasonably that “until an alternative model can be devised and agreed a moratorium is required on the granting of new authorisations and on existing exploration licences, lease undertakings, petroleum leases, and the opening of new acreage.”
Which of course is a moratorium I can agree with.
The report provides a number of possible alternatives, all based on existing systems in other countries and all of which could be adapted to an Irish situation perfectly – if only there was a willingness to do so at governmental level.
This is the report, along with a call for a public review of the terms by an Oireachtas committee before these long-term licences are issued that Pat Rabbitte was so ‘contemptuously dismissive’ of on Prime Time recently, according to Fintan O’Toole last week.
Why Rabbitte reacted this way is certainly not a mystery, just as it is not merely a habit of mind or falling back on old attitudes, like a drinker, sworn off drink only to hit the bottle again after a few weeks of sobriety. He, like everyone else in government and in the governments before that, is nothing more than an agent of Ireland’s comprador class – those parasites upon the back of parasites, as William Wall so accurately described them, eating the country from the inside out.
That is why our government since the beginning of our economic crisis in 2008, believes that it is okay to sacrifice the real economy to austerity – despite the useless damage it wrecks upon the lives of those who live here. The comprador class doesn’t live in the real economy – only we do, PAYE workers, small business owners, and in greater numbers, the unemployed. If we understand that and face it head on, we will be able to begin changing this country.
What Sins of the Father provides us with is the means to start doing that. So let’s do it.
* Fintan O’Toole began his column yesterday by suggesting that if we allow the sale of oil and gas licences under the current terms as Rabbitte has indicated our ‘children and grandchildren will see us as a weak and inept generation’. Perhaps this is a coy reference to the title of Conor’s book (joke).
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