How much the current Irish banking and public finances
debacle is going to contribute to a pan-European or even global conflagration remains
to be seen. Whether or not the Irish troubles are going to engulf Portugal,
Spain and God knows who else in a financial tsunami is a matter for the
prophets of doom – and there are plenty of them around – to work out.
The worry is that this crisis may end up being a much greater
catastrophe on a global level that it is for Ireland itself. We can only hope
that the measures which have now been put in place, the funding from the IMF
and the oversight that goes with it, will be sufficient to dampen the shockwaves.
The scale of what has happened is greater than any single
event since Ireland secured her political separation from Great Britain nearly
100 years ago. The consequences of these events may change the political
landscape of the Irish Republic in a way which many have longed for for decades while the historically burdened system has remained as doggedly in place as her beautiful mountain ranges in
Connemara or Killarney. As Dermot Desmond, one of Ireland’s leading financiers,
one who has come through this debacle with his reputation unscathed and his
wealth intact, said recently, “The era of Civil War politics, passed on as a
family business across generations, must be laid to rest.”
But while we may describe the events of the past three
years as a debacle, it is wrong to describe them as a catastrophe. Real catastrophes
cause permanent and irreparable damage and destruction. There is
no doubt but that fortunes have been lost – for the most part by the foolish.
There is no doubt there will be a degree of hardship for innocent bystanders.
But in the longer term these are all things from which we can recover.
In the lead-up to
the final capitulation of the Irish Government to the
inevitable on Sunday night – its request for international assistance, with strings attached – a great deal of attention has been paid to the so-called shame and humiliation of a proud nation which won its
independence at such a high cost.
There has been something of a grand delusion about
Ireland’s vaunted sovereignty. Cries of woe uttered by Brendan O’Neill
Hume in Spiked over the past few days — bewailing the arrival of the men in black from the IMF and
the ECB — was media romanticism. For most Irish, talk about the nameless, faceless and unaccountable
bureaucrats taking control of a freedom-loving little island on the western
European seaboard is nonsense.
The plain people of Ireland saw the matter in a
much more practical light. A group of incompetent politicians who had been
badly served by their own nameless, faceless and unaccountable bureaucrats have
had to surrender a measure of their control to a (hopefully) competent team of
bureaucrats who will be no more nameless or faceless than those they will now
have reporting to them.
Pride has been hurt but the Irish will “get over it and get
on with it.” They are a resilient people. They are not afraid of emigration.
They have been doing it for two centuries and are used to it. There are 80
million of them around the world. This reality is part of what gained Ireland
its second place after Singapore in the globalisation world rankings a handful
of years ago. Independence is a delusion. Mutual dependence is what has come
clearly into focus as a result of all these events.
An illustration of Ireland’s and Britain’s mutual
dependence was brought into focus in the Westminster Parliament last week when Chancellor
George Osborne revealed that Ireland is the biggest market for British exports.
Ann Marie Hourihane pointed out in The Irish Times: “[I]n 2009 Ireland bought a
total of £23,767 million in British goods and services. That was £15,918
million in goods and £7,849 million in services. More than Brazil, Russia,
India and China. However, if you add Hong Kong’s figures to those of mainland
China you get a total £24,370 million British goods imported there, so
Ireland’s figure is marginally below that.”
British embassy statistics revealed details last summer
about the extent of Irish participation and investment in the British economy –
the number of Irish directors of British companies, for example – which reveal
a very different picture from one of proud and splendid isolation. As Hourihane
commented, “They provide George Osborne with a good reason for offering us a
big loan and they provide us with a very good reason for grabbing George
Osborne and holding on tight.”
“It is not just true,” she added, “that Ireland consumes
Britain’s food, its fashion, its football and the fun and rudeness of its
tabloid culture, its golf, its opera productions, its West End shows, its
Formula One, Downton Abbey and Masterchef – we are
part of it.”
Dermot Desmond has remarked that Ireland’s success since
the foundation of the State is often best observed from outside rather than
from within. In an address in Dublin he pointed out that “We are an island
nation with real spirit which has time and again fought against and dealt with
enormous economic challenges. Today is no different and to appreciate those
challenges we should examine the facts of the current situation and not the
emotion. Today Ireland exports total €84 billion compared to 1990 when our
exports were €18 billion. The growth in technology and other knowledge-based
sectors has driven the success of Ireland.”
He recognised that the boom we have just experienced created an unsustainable
bubble in property but holds that “the fundamentals of our position in 20 years
have been undeniably transformed. Debt to GNP in 1987 was almost 125 per cent
and it took almost one-third of the tax take to pay for the interest alone. Mistakes
may be painful to bear witness to, but they are incredibly valuable if learned
Another pundit, Agnes Aylward, recalled something from history which she
saw as very pertinent to the situation facing Ireland today. Over 150 years
ago, Thomas Francis Meagher first publicly unveiled the flag which would
subsequently become the Irish Tricolour. Within a year of doing so he was tried
and sentenced to death for his part in the failed Young Ireland rising of July
1848. That sentence was subsequently commuted to penal servitude for life in
Van Diemen’s Land, modern-day Tasmania.
Before his deportation, he wrote to a friend about the future. It was
the darkest of times in Ireland, which was just emerging from a famine which
had taken the lives of millions. But he wrote: “Yet I do not, could not despair
of her regeneration. Nations do not die in a day. Their lives are reckoned by
generations, and they encompass centuries. Their vitality is inextinguishable…
Greece has so outlived her ruins and her woes. Italy has so outlived her
degeneracy and her despotisms. Thus too, shall Ireland survive all her
sufferings, her errors and disasters, and rear one day an ‘Arch of Triumph’
high above the wreck and wilderness of the past. This is my sincere faith.”
Ireland did so and the Irish have no doubt but that the darkness they
are experiencing now will give way to a much brighter future.
Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin. He
blogs at Garvan Hill.