'All Pain, No Gain': The Irish Backlash to Europe's Austerity Plans
And In One Small Irish Town, Loophole Allows for Return to Pre-Euro Currency
In the small town of Clones, near the Northern Ireland border, an unique experiment is underway that uses a little known loophole to help a local economy ease the pain from a ravaged national economy.
The loophole, explains The Guardian's Henry McDonald, "deems that up to 285m punts [the older Irish currency] stuffed under Irish mattresses, inside piggy banks, salted away as souvenirs in shoeboxes or in latent bank accounts, are still legal currency."
"Holders of the old currency are invited to visit Clones and hand over their punts in exchange for blue and yellow laminated vouchers which are then usable at any of the 45 businesses that have signed up for the scheme."
McDonald's reporting occurs in the context of a looming national referendum in Ireland this week that will determine whether or not the Irish people will accept the European treaty which puts spending limits on national economies and impose austerity measures in exchange for access to bailout funds from the IMF and the Eurozone's central bank.
A "yes" vote in Ireland indicates acceptance of the EU's demands, while a "no" vote -- favored by Ireland's leftist parties -- would reject austerity.
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An Irish "No" would not by itself derail the fiscal treaty, because only 12 eurozone countries are required to ratify it for it to come into force. Already, Romania, Portugal, Greece, Slovenia and Slovakia have done so. However, it would embolden increasingly powerful anti-austerity campaigns in bigger eurozone countries like Italy and Spain, any of whose failure to participate could effectively sink the project.
"A No vote in the only popular poll on current efforts to save the euro would be hugely damaging to the treaty, in that it would signal to investors that if it was put to a vote in many countries, it would not get past," said Hugo Brady, of the Centre for European Reform.
"The sense of a backlash against austerity would be much enforced."
Leading the No vote is Sinn Fein, whose combination of Irish nationalism and hard-left economics has struck a chord with many. The party, which now has 20 per cent support in southern Ireland, puts much of the blame on Ireland's banks, whose reckless lending inflated an unsustainable property bubble during the boom years.
But Sinn Fein's nationalists have also made much of how the new treaty will leave Ireland open to huge European Court of Justice fines if it breaches spending rules. In comments that give him unlikely common cause with the Euro-sceptic wing of Britain's Tory Party, the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, said: "We believe in the democratic rights of our citizens, who have the right to sack governments. You can't do that with the European Commission or the European Court of Justice."
Like Leftist parties in Greece, Sinn Fein says that even if Ireland were to say No, Europe would still have no choice but to offer bail out-cash, a claim denounced as dangerously misleading by its opponents.
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Three days before Ireland's crucial referendum on the eurozone's fiscal pact – a vote that could complicate further the debate over austerity in Europe – the citizens of Clones are already taking matters into their own hands. Butchers, bar owners, shopkeepers, barbers and ordinary citizens of the County Monaghan town have in effect resurrected the old Irish currency bearing the faces of past Irish heroes such as Catholic emancipator Daniel O'Connell as the punt exchanges hands and is tucked into the tills.
They are all taking part in an experiment to boost a town ravaged by the economic downturn. It exploits a financial loophole which deems that up to 285m punts stuffed under Irish mattresses, inside piggy banks, salted away as souvenirs in shoeboxes or in latent bank accounts, are still legal currency.
Holders of the old currency are invited to visit Clones and hand over their punts in exchange for blue and yellow laminated vouchers which are then usable at any of the 45 businesses that have signed up for the scheme.
"There have been people coming from as far south as Kerry and as far north as Antrim to spend money in the town since it began this spring," explains Ciaran Morgan, the 21-year-old university student who, along with his father, dreamed up the idea.
Inside his family's store on the road up to the border, where crucifix nightlights are on sale alongside tins of pet food, Morgan explains that he came up with the plan after seeing a report on the internet about a village in Spain that was using the old peseta as an alternative to the euro.
"We checked with the central bank in Dublin and we were staggered to find there was around 285m punts that could still be exchanged as legal currency.
"We got the plastic vouchers printed in China and then started the project in March. Customers who have punts come to the town, go into a shop or business, and they then get the euro equivalent on the voucher which they must spend here in Clones."
But despite the unexpected boost, the signs of the Irish economic crash are still stark along Clones' main thoroughfare, Fermanagh Street. Finbarr Dunwoody, the president of Clones Chamber of Commerce, points to the boarded up shops as and the many for sale and to let signs.
"As you can see, 50% of the businesses in our main street are closed," he says.
"If we take one more euro into the town as a result of this scheme then it is surely a good thing. I was absolutely bowled over by the amount of punts still out there in the country so hopefully if we got 1% of that 285m it would be great."
The reintroduction of the euro in this border town, whose shops also accept sterling from Northern Ireland customers, has focused minds on the future of the single currency as the Greek crisis rages on and ahead of the republic's referendum on the EU fiscal treaty on Thursday.
Dunwoody like the overwhelming majority of people in Clones, is glad to see the familiar faces on the punt but uncertain about which way to vote on 31 May.
The chartered surveyor displays the kind of ambivalence towards the single currency and the EU treaty that should worry the pro-European government urging a yes vote back in Dublin.
"Isn't it a real sign of the times that a town like Clones has to examine the potential of bringing back the old currency?" he says. "Maybe it's a flavour of what's to come, maybe it's a little warning to Brussels that the likes of Clones and indeed Ireland may have to find their own way out of this mess.
"Look, I would hate to see us leaving the euro – we got a 20% boost to our economy when we joined – but who's to say? I am wavering on the yes-no – one day I'm yes and one day I'm no. I've not made up my mind yet."
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