Ireland: Two Decades of Progress
How has Ireland overcome its history to become one of the most affluent countries in the region?
- Apart from the normal stresses and strains of fast growth, Ireland moved smoothly from one of the poorest countries in Europe to its new status as the Celtic Tiger.
- Money began to flow from the European Union into Irish agriculture — in the form of subsidies — and infrastructural upgrades.
- Twenty years ago, there was a sense that the Irish could always prosper in New York or Sydney but never in Ireland.
- Ireland was ready for a future as a theme park — a place of quaint people, wonderful writers and prodigious drinkers.
With Irish house prices rivaling those in England, and Ireland facing a surge in immigration, it is difficult to realize that just two decades ago, Ireland was a basket case. Worse, it expected to remain the sick man of Western Europe.
At that time, the government declared Ireland had to accept the reality of structural unemployment at 22%. The best and the brightest were leaving Ireland in droves for England, the United States and anywhere else they would be accepted. Reportedly, there were hundreds of thousands of Irish illegal immigrants in the United States.
The best that Irish politicians could think of was to set up a system of Irish bonds, modeled on Israeli bonds, enabling some of the members of the Irish Diaspora to bankroll their ancestral homeland.
Worse, a sense of fatalism seemed ingrained in the Irish psyche. Despite Ireland’s enormous contribution to the world, there was a sense that the Irish could always prosper in New York or Sydney but never in Ireland. Think tanks debated why Ireland could not produce entrepreneurs on its own soil, while the Irish flourished abroad.
This fatalism, it was postulated, came from Ireland’s bitter history. One lecturer at The Humbert Summer School, a think tank in Ballina, Ireland, suggested that the Irish had an overly-developed fear of failure that kept them from entrepreneurial endeavors. Others postulated that the closeness of the Irish population to the Catholic Church exacerbated the pervasive fatalism.
On the face of it, the pessimists were right. Irish talent was siphoned off by countries offering more opportunity, particularly the United Kingdom. And Irish infrastructure was appallingly inadequate for the 20th century — many roads were shared with sheep, tractors and the ubiquitous peat trailers. Irish ports were good enough for the ferries from England and not much more. And the rail system was a fright.
The future of Ireland, it was believed, lay in agricultural exports, tourism and remittances from abroad. Ireland was ready for a future as a theme park — a place of quaint people, wonderful writers and prodigious drinkers. Not a good basis for a modern country.
Also there was the constant rumble of trouble from the north, convincing the Irish that they would never know prosperity or peace. Irish fatalism, which had set in centuries before, could be summed up in James Joyce’s iconic work “The Damned.”
In the lives of nations, things seldom happen overnight. However, prosperity came close to overnight for the Irish republic. First, with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, money began to flow from the European Union into Irish agriculture — in the form of subsidies and infrastructural upgrades.
Second, Irish literacy found a world market via computers in the 1990s. Ireland did not need ports and railroads when it could export on the information highway.
Third, with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, it was clear that peace was coming to Ireland. Coincidentally, the grip of the Catholic Church on Irish life was loosened by the revelation of pervasive sexual misconduct.
Apart from the normal stresses and strains of fast growth, Ireland moved smoothly from one of the poorest countries in Europe to its new status as the Celtic Tiger. Prosperity fired the silver bullet into Irish fatalism, exorcising the failure of centuries.
To what extent is the conquest of fatalism a model for other fatalistic societies in Africa and Latin America? It is probably more of a guide. The Irish had some powerful advantages, including their high level of literacy; an Irish exceptionalism, which was better understood outside the country than inside; and the millions of people of Irish descent around the world — more than 40 million in the United States.
Latin American and African countries have the advantage that they are less consumed by their history, less inclined to dwell in the past. If a nation can overcome its history, it can overcome its fatalism. And if it can overcome its fatalism, personal responsibility thrives. Two examples are Botswana and Costa Rica.
Botswana, now the jewel of Africa, had the advantages that it was never exploited by Britain, and when it was created — as a result of the Jamison Raid — it was cut off from South Africa and the horrors of apartheid that were to come. Expectations in Botswana are high, and the excuses that are heard all over Africa are fewer.
Costa Rica — where the population traces its history only back to the Spanish conquest — is less fatalistic, more forward-looking and more prosperous than many Latin American countries.
The movement of Africans into Europe and Latin Americans into the United States introduces those people to cultures that are immediately less fatalistic — cultures where success is a reasonable expectation — cultures where human endeavor is held to account, not fate.