N. Ireland Politics

Is it safe to bank on capitalism?

There was an exceptional flash of anger from the normally mild-mannered EU Commission President Manuel Barroso in the European Parliament this week.

He was responding to criticism of Ireland's bail-out plan by Socialist MEP Joe Higgins, who said: "It is a mechanism to make working-class people throughout Europe pay for the crisis of a broken financial system and a crisis-ridden European capitalism."

Mr Barroso replied that the problems in Ireland were caused by its "irresponsible" banks and the "lack of supervision in the Irish market," an implicit dig at Irish politicians.

If the socialist member had wanted support for his argument he shouldn't have looked towards the EU Commission, but instead the Bank of England.

For the shocking opinion of its deputy governor Paul Tucker is that capitalism - not just the European variety - has a fundamental flaw, the effects of which we are experiencing across the globe in varying degrees.

In an interview with the BBC's Business Editor Robert Peston he puts it this way: "If we have a system where banks take the upside but the taxpayer takes the downside, something has gone wrong with capitalism, with the very heart of capitalism, and we need to repair this".

Mr Tucker was one of a number of key players who contributed to Peston's powerful analysis of the 2008 crash and the ongoing ramifications on the BBC2 programme this week, Britain's Banks: Too Big to Save.

The title is a play on Bank of England governor Mervyn King's earlier assertion in 2009 that banks should not be allowed to become "too big to fail" as this leaves politicians with no option but to bail them out - as happened in 2008 - when they run into trouble.

His deputy is now saying that little has changed to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2008 and what Peston's programme implies is that next time taxpayers will no longer be able to absorb the losses, even if it remains the only policy option.

If English bank regulator Paul Tucker and Irish socialist politician Joe Higgins agree on the structural flaw, they are likely to disagree strongly on the remedy.

The solution being put forward by regulators is to force banks to keep more capital assets in proportion to the amount they lend and to split the speculative divisions from the normal banking activities.

The problem is that reform requires global action.

As Ireland heads towards an election now set for 11 March, it will be interesting to see how the debate around the country's financial woes impacts upon political fortunes.

Can Irish bankers and regulators take all the blame, or does international capitalism itself require urgent reform? And how does a small country like Ireland influence such a vast global debate?

I'll leave the final word to Mr Tucker.

"Capitalism can't work unless these financial firms at the centre of the heart of capitalism can be subject to orderly failure," he said.

"The rules of capitalism need to apply to them just as they do to non-financial companies."

On Sunday's Politics Show we examine the latest political events in Dublin, we investigate why there's a preponderance of politicians in Northern Ireland who've changed allegiance since the last election, and we report from the Alliance Party conference.


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