Elegy for the Celtic Tiger

November 29, 2010

More than 100,000 people took to the streets of Ireland's capital of Dublin November 27 to protest savage budget cuts to be imposed as a condition of the European Union-International Monetary Fund bailout of Ireland's failing banks and the government that rescued them.

The crisis has its roots in the period of wild speculation and manipulation in the 2000s when the booming economy in the Republic of Ireland became known as the Celtic Tiger. When the banks went bust in late 2008, the government came to the rescue, but the system's continued crisis has pushed the government to the brink of default.

Brian Cowen, Ireland's prime minister, or taoiseach, and leader of the Fianna Fail party, has promised to resign--but only after Ireland legislators in the Dial pass an austerity program. Meanwhile, the new government will likely be led by Fine Gael, which supported the bailout.

Eamonn McCann, an Irish socialist and columnist for the Belfast Telegraph in Northern Ireland, a part of the UK, describes the corruption at the heart of the Celtic Tiger economy.

REMEMBER THE old Wolfe Tones' ballad:

Wrap the green flag round me, boys,
To die were far more sweet,
With Erin's noble emblem, boys,
To be my winding sheet.

Ah yes, the good old days, when anybody who questioned the magnificence of the Celtic Tiger could be dismissed as a begrudger who should go jump in the Lake Isle of Innisfree. (Southern) Ireland had at last taken her place among the capitalist nations of the world and could face the future with chest expanded.

But let's not look across the border in any sense of (I've always wanted to use this word) schadenfreude. Let us instead recall the fervor with which some in the North rejoiced in awed admiration of the Tiger and heralded the day (no later than 2016, one leading optimist predicted) when the North would provide an extended habitat for panthera hibernicus tigris and thus vindicate the Men Who Died on Easter Week.

Where are they now, eh? Well, some of them were outside the Dail on Sunday night, waving Tricolours and explaining that the only reason they'd voted for the bank bailout in September 2008 was that Fianna Fail had told them lies about the nature and scale of the crisis. Fianna Fail had fibbed: now there's an excuse-and-a-half.

Tens of the thousands marching against austerity in Dublin on Saturday
Tens of the thousands marching against austerity in Dublin on Saturday (Indymedia Ireland)

In fairness, this is the same excuse offered by the Redmondite opposition party and likely leaders of the next government, Fine Gael. Nor can I recall any mainstream newspaper, North or South, arguing that that the bailout would make matters worse. The siren voices came from a small bunch of economists, who could be dismissed as eccentrics, and extremists on the far left well known as subversive ignoramuses.

I cannot recall any warnings from the European Central Bank or the European Commission that southern Ireland was headed for a crash. There was tentative concern certainly, but about the effect of the deposit guarantee on other (mainly British) banks and renewed complaint that the 12.5 percent corporation tax put other countries competing for foreign investment at a disadvantage. The objection was that the measures would unfairly benefit the Republic's economy, not direct it toward destruction.

The wider capitalist world? The phrase "Celtic Tiger" was coined in 1995 by an admiring economist from Morgan Stanley, likening the Republic to the "Asian Tigers" (South Korea, Singapore, etc) whose growth rates at the time were phenomenal. The Cato Institute--a Washington think tank "dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace"--urged the rest of Europe to note the way low tax on business and light-touch regulation had powered the Republic ahead of its competitors.

So it would be churlish to blame opposition parties for taking Fianna Fail at its word in September 2008. Hadn't the whole world (almost) endorsed the Ahern/Cowen strategy...except that Fianna Fail leaders had demonstrated over the years that their word wasn't worth its weight in dirt.

SIX MONTHS before the night of the bank guarantee, September 29, 2008, Bertie Ahern had resigned as Taoiseach, following a series of hilarious appearances at the Mahon Tribunal, where he explained one huge deposit in his personal bank account as the proceeds of a dig-out by pals in Manchester, not all of whose names he could remember, another as winnings on the horses, a third in sterling as accumulated paychecks, suggesting strangely that the Taoiseach's salary had been paid in the currency of the Saxon.

The veracity of Ahern's evidence to the tribunal was called into question by Eamon Dunphy on the Late, Late Show. Within weeks, Ahern was graciously letting it be known that he might accede to the urging of innumerable citizens and stand for the presidency.

It makes a sort of sense. But what was he doing other than handling his personal finances in the widely approved way his Government was handling the finances of the state. His pals in the media, as well as in business and politics, thought it great crack.

It's not just Fianna Fail and a couple of gobdaws called Brian. It's not just the Irish elite either. It's the whole shebang, the global system. It's capitalism.

The last thing we need now is the Wolfe Tones' ballads chorused outside government buildings. We should turn instead to the prophetess and all-round wonderful person Chrissie Hynde:

When we watch the children play,
Remember how the privileged classes grew.
And from this day, we set out
To undo what won't undo.
Looking for the grand in the minute.
Every breath justifies
Every step that we take to remove what the powers that be can't
And the children will understand why.

So they will.

First published in the Belfast Telegraph.

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