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Hunting the Celtic Tiger

The recession has unleashed some old prejudices about Ireland being a third-world nation built on EU handouts.

John Hearne

Topics World

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The glee with which Ireland’s economic troubles have been greeted in the international press, and the English press in particular, is no surprise. It reflects a general relief that the stereotypes – the ones confounded by the Celtic Tiger years – have become fully functional once more.

Working as a management consultant with an Irish company in the mid-1990s, I spent a month on-site in London advising a large, recently privatised UK utility on its treasury systems. Their financial control procedures required that staff from outside the department electronically authorise the very large transactions that such treasury departments routinely make. On one occasion, the external staffer arrived and sat down at the terminal to complete the brief procedure. ‘Ulster Bank?’, he chortled, reading off the name of the bank to whom the payment was headed. ‘You’re really scraping the bottom…’

He didn’t get to finish the sentence because he was hastily shouted down by his more tactful colleagues. I was introduced as ‘just over from Dublin’. The implication was of course that Ulster Bank – that Irish banks in general – were in some way less than other banks.

The boom that followed very soon after this period was welcomed in some quarters, albeit with a certain amount of condescension. In 1997, The Economist ran a cover story – ‘Europe’s Shining Light’ – showing a map of Ireland with a Ready Brek glow around it. But elements of the British press understood the boom in Ireland solely as a function of European largesse. This segued nicely into Euroscepticism at home, but it also kept faith with the old prejudices: The Paddies Can Do Nothing on Their Own.

In covering the Irish ‘No’ vote in the Lisbon referendum last year, the Daily Telegraph suggested that Ireland has benefited more than any other country from EU handouts: ‘Jobs have flowed into Ireland like oil being pumped through a pipeline. Dublin has been transformed from a near third-world city into a cosmopolitan metropolis, complete with street cafés, space-age trams and Chanel shops.’

In reality, EU membership benefited Ireland primarily in the same way it benefits all other members, through access to markets and the imposition of fiscal discipline. The independent economic think-tank, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI), has estimated that between the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) and structural funds, total net receipts from Europe approximated just six per cent of Irish gross domestic product (GDP) annually from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Economic success came primarily as a result of demographics, the labour market, a consensual economic strategy and foreign direct investment.

Sections of the UK media have, of course, had a troubled relationship with Ireland for centuries. In The Eternal Paddy, Michael de Nie’s study of Irish identity and the British press through the nineteenth century, the author cites the following from an 1867 edition of the Daily Telegraph as evidence of a general exasperation over the whole Irish question: ‘Ireland is afflicted with an incurable disease and though we may use the strait-waistcoat for her mad fits, we can have no certain hope of seeing her one day clothed and in her right mind.’

Much of the invective over the more recent past, the last 40 years in particular, was reactionary stuff arising from republican violence, but underlying that you had a simple xenophobia that sometimes got shipped out on the thinnest of rationalisations. The Daily Mail, in particular, had several swipes at Ireland through the Nineties, culminating in 1996 with an attack on then-EU agriculture commissioner Pádraig Flynn which laughed at his accent and included references to pigs, potatoes and the IRA. Flynn sued the paper. The Guardian, too, has given plenty of space to Julie Burchill’s hatred of the Irish, including an astonishing 2002 column which described Ireland as a child-molesting, Nazi-supporting theocracy.

So now. The economy has blown up in our faces. The comfortable old prejudices are hauled from the back of the wardrobe like a coat suddenly back in fashion. ‘Prosperity Just a Blip for Old Ireland’, says the Financial Times. It’s the ‘old’ in the headline that echoes the Telegraph’s rhetorical shrug of 140 years earlier. The Irish, eh? God bless ‘em. At it again! Now, anyone for a pint and a bit of the ol’ craic?

In The Guardian we are ‘Liechtenstein-on-the-Liffey’ while the Daily Telegraph has us all washed up. In 2004, The Economist conducted a survey of the best places in the world to live, taking account of a range of quality-of-life factors. Ireland came out on top. But now the same organ has dubbed us Reykjavik-on-the-Liffey, having slid from top of the heap to bottom of the pile in five short years. Meanwhile in reportage, the Celtic Tiger has acquired quotation marks which hover above it like the horns of a devil.

In Germany, the schadenfreude is tempered with angst over the possibility that they will be called in to bail us out when things go sufficiently pear-shaped. The headline in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung told us as much about Germany’s own self-image as it did about its attitude to Ireland. ‘For They Know Not What They Do’. Only the Germans could cast themselves as the crucified Christ and the Irish as the terminally misguided architects of their own, and everyone else’s, doom.

And the rest of the world, because it looks so infrequently in our direction, relies on a handful of clichés to illuminate the way. Beneath a headline which offers some play on the luck of the Irish, you’ll find references to Guinness, the Famine, potatoes and the Emerald Isle. There’s lots of Google journalism: patchworks of secondary sources, and plenty of just plain bad journalism.

Time magazine ran a piece flagging the six signs by which we will know the recession is coming to an end. ‘From a global perspective, the trading in bonds for developing countries that might default on their debt, nations such as Ireland and Ukraine, need to stop changing hands at distressed levels.’ Apart from the fact that the sentence is a syntactical mess, it’s simply wrong to describe Ireland as a developing country.

The same week, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s news programme Lateline ran a piece from Dublin in which the Potato Famine was twice invoked. The segment also included an interview with a charity worker who talked about the resurgence of the First World War disease, trench foot, which is now apparently prevalent among laid-off immigrants forced to tramp the streets looking for work. The Huffington Post ran a piece by Sheldon Filger, author of Hillary Clinton Nude, which suggested that the economic contraction erased ‘almost overnight the economic gains of the past several years’ in Ireland, as if the Germans had come down from the cross to repossess the motorways.

The Toronto Star‘s contribution to the debate repeated the joke reportedly popular in The City following the Icelandic collapse. What’s the difference between Iceland and Ireland? One letter and about six weeks. Except in the Star the difference had lengthened to six months. Who knows, with a rub of the green and a few pounds from the Germans (God bless yer sowl, sor), we might kape the divil from the door a while longer.

John Hearne is a freelance writer living in Galway, Ireland.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black wrote about how EU leaders were blackmailing the Irish electorate. Brendan O’Neill reported on the bile directed at the ‘ungrateful’ Irish. Frank Furedi called the EU an alien imposition on Ireland. Patrick West wondered if Ireland is now less Irish. Or read more at spiked issue Ireland.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World

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