Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Forty Shades of Green

This weekend I was reading the FT, which in recent months has been an exercise in watching the devout flounder at the exposure of their gods as idols. Two articles struck me for opposing reasons: Martin Wolf declaring that governments werent spending enough, that the stimulus packages were too small; and Matthew Engel writing about being in Northern Ireland on the border. If the first was an example of how quickly thinking can radically change direction when a paradigm shifts, the second was an enraging example of how persistent old attitudes can be. Its tone and portrayal of the 'Irish question' was so antiquated that it would not have been out of place in a nineteenth century pamphlet on the Papist threat.

The article declared that 'the time-honoured British task of keeping its neighbour quiet is still not complete'. Sharing a border with Republic, it argues, not only exposes Britain to the risk of terrorism from the IRA, or 'Ireland's latest murderers', but also to the risk of smuggling, which 'has been a way of life', and the incompetence of Irish officials whose response to a passport, he posits, is "Oh Jaysus, here's another of them bleedin' things, where's the fella wit' the steps?". The tone of exasperation is most pronounced though when he declares that the Celtic Tiger seemed to constitute 'an era when Ireland seemed to have had the Irishness sucked out of it - papism having been replaced by mammonism' but alas it was nothing more than a chimera. The sum total of this portrait was to equate Irishness with lawlessness, incompetence, buffoonery and Catholicism.

Recent events - the corruption at Anglo-Irish Bank, the demise of the Celtic Tiger - have seemed to confirm this portrait to the outside world and show up how the brief 15 years of prosperity were an exception, a fluke and one, many argue, that was not of our making. The same author today in the FT in an article entitled 'Prosperity just a blip for old Ireland' said the boom was 'essentially construction led'. An English banker once told me, not having picked up that I was Irish, that the Celtic Tiger was purely demographic - because 'they're breeding like rabbits'. Another common argument is that it was solely the result of EU money.

None of these arguments acknowledge that the causes of the boom were many and that some of them were luck but others were simply hard work. Having a young population helped, but it wasnt just that they were young but also well educated, hard working and English speaking. EU money and membership was vital but it was coupled with smart policies. Property, in the last few years, did play a big role but it was not the driver. The boom began in the mid 90s due to a huge export drive, built on 30 years of investment in human capital. Ireland was lucky that these many things converged at a particular moment to produce a period of unprecedented prosperity, but - as with most overnight successes - it was built on many years of hardship and hard slog. Equally we have been deeply unlucky that it all unraveled at a moment of unprecedented global crisis, but we were also the architects of our own troubles. Crony capitalism did become a feature of the boom and we let that happen. As ever, the causes of the boom and the bust were not singular, partly the result of our actions and partly the product of greater forces . Falling back on old stereotypes to make sense of reality - that's not just racist, it is incredibly simplistic thinking and very poor journalism, a failure to grasp the dialectical nature of culture and human experience. It is the kind of the thinking that has led us into crisis not only in Ireland but globally.

I would be the first to admit to and adamantly point out the deplorable and dispiriting characteristics of the Irish people. Often, I think we are a small minded, insular, petty people, who do not ask enough from ourselves or our leaders, we put mercy above justice, we protect the 'cute hoor', we sit on the fence on moral questions that demand a stance, we are deeply anti-intellectual. But equally Irish people can be among the most spirited, warm, decent, generous and witty. From this Island have hailed great boxers and great poets, saints, scholars and swindlers. There are many more than forty shades of green. As with all people and all peoples, we are both and all of these things. To focus only on either facet is myopic and naive. So on this St Patrick's Day I celebrate Irishness in all its complex, infuriating and elevating richness.