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Daily Telegraph
3 October 2010

Ireland's party is well and truly over: now it's hangover time

Brand Ireland partied while the credit flowed and the good times rolled. But now the hangover has hit, writes Irish historian and broadcaster Ruth Dudley Edwards.

Our universities have become breeding-grounds for Islamism
Unfinished construction work at the South Central development in Sandyford, near Dublin, once some of the most expensive real estate in Europe Photo: BLOOMBERG

The party's over, the detritus is everywhere and the Irish people are holding their heads and blaming themselves and all the other partygoers for their monumental hangover.

It was the kind of lavish and uninhibited party you might expect from a convivial host who had just won the lottery.

From the mid-1990s, Brand Ireland celebrated having moved beyond peddling a cultural heritage of disaffected writers and theme pubs presenting the same smiling face and diddly-ay-di music in San Francisco or Beijing, to become the ultimate role model for aspiring economies everywhere.

The Celtic Tiger could shut up about an ancient famine and instead delight in being the fastest-growing economy in Europe and – at last – an importer rather than exporter of people.

We tended to attribute our sudden economic success to brains and internationalism rather than EU subsidies, low corporate taxes and the English language, but what the hell, we were dancing. The Irish are a volatile people: we move swiftly from tears to laughter, from sentiment to anger and from repression to letting it all hang out.

David Norris fought bitter battles all the way to the European Court of Human Rights to force the decriminalisation of homosexuality, wrung in 1993 from a reluctant Irish government; it was only a few years afterwards that the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, was opening a Wilde pub and Bosie Bistro; these days, polls show Norris as the front-runner for president in next year's election.

It all happened so quickly. The term "Celtic Tiger" first surfaced in a Morgan Stanley report in 1994, which noted a growth rate that bore favourable comparison with tiger economies like Hong Kong and Singapore.

From 1997 for 11 years, an amiable Taoiseach, Fianna Fail's Bertie Ahern, was the tiger's poster-boy, slapping the backs of bankers and property developers at the annual four-day fund-raising bash in the Fianna Fail tent at the Galway races.

With another amiable prime minister, Tony Blair, he presided over the Good Friday Agreement that was supposed to end violence in Northern Ireland, and, unassuming and persuasive, in 2004 he was given a standing ovation by EU leaders for having miraculously brokered a deal over the European constitution.

By now credited with innovative conflict resolution as well as charm and a soar-away economy, Brand Ireland's reputation rocketed.

As Tony Blair – never a man to ignore the engaging superficialities – puts it in A Journey: "U2 became one of the world's biggest bands, Bob Geldof was a hero, Roy Keane became the best football player of his time. Irish business, Irish art, Irish culture, in short Irish everything took off." Hmm.

But the Northern Ireland agreement enshrined sectarianism and violence is growing; the European constitution crashed and burned and its sneaky resurrection as the Lisbon treaty was rejected in the first Irish referendum; U2 has become notorious for intelligent tax-avoidance; and Geldof and Keane flourished in the UK, not at home.

There were hard questions to be asked about the condition of the Irish economy, but the Irish establishment hates dissent, so they were ignored. Notoriously, in mid-2007, Ahern said of the Celtic Tiger critics that he could not understand why those "sitting on the sidelines, cribbing and moaning, don't commit suicide".

Crony-capitalism was cool. Seanie FitzPatrick, the multi-millionaire who as Chairman of the Anglo-Irish bank specialised in lending vast sums to property developers, sat on the boards of Irish public companies.

Ahern's conflict-resolution skills helped to keep Ireland virtually strike-free, but the low-wage economy – that along with tax-breaks had attracted foreign investment – disappeared during his time as taoiseach, as incomes soared along with welfare benefits to well beyond the EU average.

By 2005 a middle-ranking civil servant might reasonably expect to have an easy job, a holiday apartment abroad, a cleaner from Eastern Europe, a house that was worth 20 times his income and a future in which he could watch his grandchildren grow up nearby.

Today the same person contemplates his worthless bank-shares, his maxed-out credit card, a dead property-market, wage cuts, tax rises and worse, and as unemployment soars he sees his desperate children becoming the latest generation of Irish emigrants. Like most of the Irish, he no longer trusts any institutions: politicians, the Catholic Church, bankers, regulators, he spits on them all, egged on by a sensationalist media.

Yet though the Irish are angry, they are also quiescent. As a Catholic people, we understand guilt, and the Irish know they contributed to their own downfall through greed, recklessness and overindulgence.

As for Seanie FitzPatrick, the bailing-out of whose bank may cost the Irish taxpayers €34 billion (£29 million) — 32 per cent of GDP — his hangover would seem to be less acute than that of the Irish people. Yes, he is bankrupt, but half of his property and pension pot were safely vested in his wife’s name.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


© Ruth Dudley Edwards