Ireland's had the party - now for the hangover
Jenny McCartney - 20 Nov 2010
The economic crisis in the Republic of Ireland today is the national equivalent of waking up with a blinding hangover to find that while you were making an eejit of yourself at a very long, crazy party, someone stole your wallet and quietly emptied your bank account. Worse, your disapproving parents are banging on the door, offering to lend you enough cash to pay your debts, but only if they can move in and double-check every outgoing for the foreseeable future.
There was a similar descent from cockiness to embarrassment in Britain, but Ireland is a smaller country and it made bigger mistakes. The shape of its crisis is now well known, including the insane property-building boom – greased by bribes from developers to government officials – that has left empty homes scattered all over Ireland, and the Irish government’s fateful scheme to pump billions of euros into the country’s failing banks. Anyone can see what has become of Ireland’s economy: the deeper question is what it has done to its psychology.
There is anger, of course. The “boom” might have been one almighty knees-up for the business and political elites, but to many ordinary people it simply meant the compulsion to mortgage oneself to the hilt, before being pitched into negative equity. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, scenting a potentially fruitful popular fury against the republic’s establishment, has already abandoned his West Belfast power base to stand for election in Louth. Even more widespread is the feeling of shame that an EU bail-out would mean the hemorrhaging of sovereign power in a nation that fought for independence.
Shame, however, simply slides off the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen – previously the country’s finance minister – who informed the public that there was no need to be “in any way ashamed or humiliated at all” by the scrutiny of the International Monetary Fund. The Irish Times begged to differ, eloquently asking in an editorial “whether this is what the men of 1916 died for: a bail-out from the German chancellor with a few shillings of sympathy from the British chancellor on the side”.
It was inevitable that many in Ireland, disappointed by the greedy incompetence of their rulers, would raise the ghosts of the Easter Rising in reproach: the nationalist “ancestral voices” of which Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote so eloquently. We can be sure that Ireland’s ancestral voices would disapprove of the current Fianna Fail government: in that, they would be right.
Yet in recent years, much of Ireland has seemed all too willing to abandon history, religion and identity in the hectic pursuit of a fast buck. The moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church was undermined by a series of appalling child abuse scandals and, as the heat went out of the North, nationalism lost its urgency: money rushed into the void.
I do not wholly mourn the weakening of religion and nationalism in the republic: when their might went unchallenged, it spawned its own variety of damage. But along the way, a nation that felt that politics, ideas and culture mattered was replaced by one that believed unwaveringly in the power of the euro. When the government built a motorway through Tara, the ancient seat of the Irish kings, Seamus Heaney was moved to protest at the desecration of older, spiritual symbols of Ireland: “The tiger,” he wrote, “is now lashing its tail and smashing its way through the harp.”
I can remember visiting Dublin in 1987: it was a poorer place then, but you could almost taste the history in the air and hear poetry trapped in the rhythms of the old men’s talk, in threadbare pubs where the falling sunlight was filtered through the rising smoke. By 2007 it was entirely altered, bristling with talk of property prices and traffic jams. A visit was like encountering someone you were once drawn to, and finding them grown unrecognizably brash.
The Celtic Tiger is dead now, and Ireland will be looking, shamefacedly, for its shattered harp. Just a word of warning, from one who grew up in the North: the healing music will not be found in the hands of Mr. Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein.
The consensus opinion of politicians, economists, and most importantly the Irish people who are bearing the brunt of the economic collapse of their country is very clear. The radical socialist policies advocated by Sinn Fein do not provide a viable solution to their dire situation. They must look elsewhere.