Down But Not Out

Ireland’s current woes do not have to be a sign of terminal decline.

The Eurovision Song Contest may have been cheesy, but in the 1990s it was still taken reasonably seriously.  Winning the event for three years in a row from 1992 through 1994 and hosting it three times was a point of pride for the Irish people.  We got to showcase what a modern and forward-looking nation we had become.  Riverdance exploded onto the scene at the 1994 event.  A dramatic and uplifting performance took a traditionally conservative and somewhat stiff form of dance and put an innovative, dynamic, modern face on it, something we could proudly present internationally as a high-brow cultural expression of who we are as a people emerging from an impoverished past.  We marveled at our ability to put on such a professional performance on an international stage and not mess it up.

The national soccer team was playing well.  We had beaten England and held the Soviet Union to a draw in Euro 88, and were challenging the big teams for supremacy by reaching the World Cup quarter finals Italy in 1990 and the round of sixteen in the USA in 1994.  Crowds filled the streets in celebration and gave a rapturous welcome to the team on their return no matter how far they progressed in the tournaments.  We celebrated not just the sporting success, but also the impeccable behavior of our traveling fans in contrast to “certain other” supporters at the time.

We consistently had some of the strongest economic growth in the OECD.  Business was booming.  European structural funds were helping to transform our infrastructure, replacing creaking old roads with shiny new motorways and upgrading the main Belfast to Dublin railway line to a high speed service on a par with anything on the continent.  The Economist newspaper and other media outlets around the world sang the praises of the Irish economic miracle.

Peace had been achieved in Northern Ireland with the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement, ratified by the people, and the participants in the conflict bought into it to make it work.

Croke Park was rebuilt into one of the largest and most advanced stadiums in Europe, while our Gaelic games carried on providing spectacular entertainment in front of vast crowds, undaunted by the success of soccer and rugby.

Mass emigration, long a scourge since famine times and an inherent part of our culture, had been eliminated. People were no longer leaving the country in droves, and the people of the newly-enlarged European Union were tripping over each other to get in.

We were held up as an example of how small nations could govern their affairs, succeed, and prosper.  Within a generation we had put decades of stagnation and mediocrity behind us.  We had done it.

Where are we now?

A steady drip of scandals has shown that the land of comely maidens and cozy homesteads was nothing of the sort.  The land of saints and scholars was in fact a land of theocratic dictatorship that facilitated and covered up heinous crimes against women and children under the guise of religious piety, a practice that lasted until well into the supposedly more enlightened 1990s.  It was a land of incompetents and gangsters who thrived in a culture where respect for the rule of law was all but non-existent, where the bribe was more powerful than due process.

As our wealth accumulated the whole enterprise took a turn for the worst when we joined the European single currency.  Eager to escape the sphere of influence of our nearest neighbors, we aligned ourselves with the continent even though the vast majority of our trade was (and is) with Britain, surrendering control of interest rates to the European Central Bank. When our economy began to overheat, instead of having a central bank that could raise interest rates to cool it down, easy credit kept on pouring in to the booming economy.

It became a land of naive belief in easy money.  By building, buying, and selling houses to each other instead of actually creating anything of value, we could build upon our hard-earned riches even more, and we could splurge as tastelessly as we liked.  Ostentatious displays of wealth abounded.  We arrogantly sent a puppet turkey to Eurovision to thumb our noses at the whole proceedings.  And when the inevitable happened and the day of reckoning arrived, our hard-earned money was replaced with a massive bill, run up by reckless bankers and developers, their wheels of business oiled by the sleaze seeping out of the brown envelopes containing “gifts” that were “resting in the accounts” of politicians.  Our sovereignty was in ruins, the Germans became our owners and masters.

Peace in the north seems to lurch from one crisis to the next, often exacerbated by the annual marching season, with unionists issuing threats to pull out of government and collapse the institutions established by the agreement that the people voted for.

Airports once again handle the heavy traffic of young people leaving the country, not to watch the World Cup finals for which we were no longer qualifying, but in search of a livelihood that once again is unavailable at home.  And to cap it all we have shown that we are incapable of hosting something as simple as a major music concert.

Is this the end, then?  Was it all an illusion?  Was our prosperity really just an overdraft? Are we doomed to an eternal cycle of emigration that will drain our life’s blood away?  Are we too incompetent to govern ourselves after all, and is the Irish nationalist mission a fool’s errand?

The answer to all of these questions is an emphatic ‘no.’

The Celtic Tiger economy came in two parts.  Celtic Tiger 1.0 was a legitimate achievement.  It was built on exports, exploiting our access to the massive EU market, and taking advantage of an educated English-speaking population that is well able to do business globally.  EU structural funds helped, but this was a small proportion of the economy, never more than 5 percent of GDP.  Celtic Tiger 2.0 was a product of cheap credit and speculation.  There was a greater incentive to invest in property than to make a viable business that was going to work.  When a collective group faith in the never-ending appreciation of real estate set in, the property bubble inflated until it burst.  Yes, controversy will reign for generations about whether or not the Irish people should be on the hook for for the debts of the banks, but it will be cleared eventually, just as Japan eventually clawed their way back from their “lost decade” in the wake of their 1980s asset bubble.

The strengths that built Celtic Tiger 1.0 have not gone away.  Ireland still has access to the EU market, and still has an educated Anglophone workforce.  Emigration may be undermining this, but that is not necessarily a total waste.  We no longer live in a world where distance means lack of contact.  Many of the the bright and educated emigrants are settling in locations that are awash with business and networking opportunities.  In mingling with the movers and shakers of places like Silicon Valley, Irish people are building business relationships that will last and can have long term benefits for Ireland as investors are made aware of the country’s potential, and entrepreneurs in Ireland hear about new business opportunities on the other side of the world thanks to their far flung friends and family who keep them posted.

As for our ability to govern ourselves, there are weaknesses but there are also strengths.  For all of the scandals that lurked behind closed doors in the dark days after independence, Ireland has never been shy about opening up old wounds and cleaning them up, as opposed to leaving them to fester.  The seemingly constant process of running tribunals is painful to watch, but it is a sign of a functioning democracy that has mechanisms in place to find out what the mistakes were and to correct them.

For all the bluster from extremists in the north, nobody would seriously consider a return to the dark days of the Troubles.  The institutions, despite the problems, have endured, just as the Irish people have endured over centuries of turbulence and hardship.

Cynicism and defeatism may be fashionable Irish traits, but they are not the only way of looking at the world or our place in it. Our own worst enemy is a pessimism that we can choose to govern us or choose to overcome. It should be an easy choice to make.