2013: WHEN DID THE IRISH BECOME SO ACCEPTING OF THEIR LOT? Financial Times. December 13th, 2013
In last summer’s July heatwave, a man in a smart suit and a bowler hat (a sheaf of banknotes stuck in the band) set up a stall outside Dublin’s brutalist Central Bank building. It was a mocked-up confessional box. However, the legend carved into it was not the usual INRI, but that of the defunct Anglo Irish Bank. The performance artist Frank O’Dea was performing his piece Confessions of a Banker. Passers-by appreciated the irony. But now that Ireland has formally exited from the financial terms imposed by the “Troika” of international finance institutions, is the time for satire over? Hardly.
For one thing, its banks still show signs of toxicity; while the Bank of Ireland is raising money from investors, warnings have been issued that AIB is going to need further injections of state money. In a country where the healthcare system is in a critical state of disrepair, teachers have seen their salaries cut and their pensions raided, cultural institutions all over the country are facing swingeing budget cuts and closure, and emigration is soaring back to 1980s levels, the little people might reasonably greet the Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s announcement of the light at the end of the tunnel with a certain scepticism and continue to feel that the joke is on them. All the more so as six-figure salaries continue to be paid to the people in charge of the bankrupt banks and the senior civil servants who slept on the watch while the banks merrily accumulated €106bn of property-related losses. Patrick Neary, the so-called “bank regulator”, was rewarded with a huge handout and a vast pension when he retired amid the wreckage in 2009. Lawyers are also still profitably investigating the mess. Nama, the National Assets Management Agency, which manages the debts of the derelict institutions taken over by the state, paid €260m in 2012 to lawyers; the fees will eventually reach the billions. But as Christmas comes, there is a general wish for good news, and some of it has been supplied. Employment is improving. Exports and manufacturing productivity are encouraging. There were aspects to the Celtic Tiger boom that were not just fairy gold, and some of these have not melted away with daylight: a well-educated, anglophone labour force, a wide range of imaginative start-ups, booming agribusiness and a spectacular success in attracting inward investment from abroad – not all of which has departed. Forbes has just placed Ireland at the top of its list of business-friendly countries. In Dublin and Cork, the festive lights are on and the smart restaurants are full (though, it is rumoured, not solvent). And Mr Kenny’s coalition government must feel some confidence. The Fianna Fáil party, whose hand-in-glove relationship with beneficiaries of the boom was a key factor in the eventual crisis, was punished by the electorate – though Micheál Martin, its smart new leader, has managed to distance himself from his earlier relationship with predecessors. As so often, Irish public discourse is more preoccupied with the past than the present, as a decade of centenary commemorations rolls on; a high point will be the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising – already the subject of frantic planning. But the more recent history of the republic is not the subject of any large-scale inquiry. And Mr Kenny and his government have passed through their long Slough of Despond without having to deal with trouble from enraged indignados. Now Ireland’s return to solvency has been announced, it is worth asking why protest against the betrayal of so many standards in public life has been so muted. The Irish middle class, for all the recent shocks, is still better off than before the boom that started in about 1990. It is still sustained by the backwash of huge property inflation; ordinary houses in respectable Dublin suburbs still change hands for what seems a great deal of money. Its members are also capable of fighting their corner for certain causes – a proposal to remove medical cards from well-off pensioners was defeated by irate campaigners. The gap between haves and have-nots is now much wider than has traditionally been the case in Ireland. But trade unions now behave like they are parts of the establishment; the disenfranchised have stayed off the streets. More generally, the culture of protest has not been active in Irish life since independence. This may be an indirect result of observing events in Northern Ireland with a certain horror, though I suspect it goes further back. In a country that pioneered mass movements for political change, such as the Catholic Association of the 1820s, the Land League of the 1880s and Sinn Féin after 1916, this quiescence is striking. It would be a more interesting question to pursue than yet another commemorative shindig recalling the simpler glories of the past, and might be more enlightening than another piece of ironically despairing performance art. The writer is Carroll professor of Irish history at the University of Oxford and author of the forthcoming ‘Vivid Faces: the revolutionary generation in Ireland 1899-1923’