Tuesday, 3 August 2010

A New Ireland

I was in Ireland for six days recently. It rained so hard I half expected Noah to come floating by on his ark. However, on the fourth day I awoke in the Talbot Hotel to gaze out across a sun-drenched Wexford Harbor that I thought existed only in memory.
A hotel room in your hometown - the emigrant’s comeuppance when parents have passed on and the house is gone.
Ah well, I have to admit that I’ve felt more at home on recent visits. The casual arrogance of the Celtic Tiger era is so over you begin to wonder was it just your imagination; until friends assure you that it was indeed real but generational – those who had experienced Ireland “in the rare old times” knew the score, while those who came of age in the last fifteen years were finally seeing the flip side of the coin.
There’s a rage sweeping the country, somewhat similar to what we feel towards Wall Street and our own political establishment but much more focused.
How many of us even know the names of the politicians who deregulated the US financial industry or the identities of the gamblers and bankers who almost brought the whole economic system crashing down around our ears?
But Ireland is a small country where no one is more than a couple of people removed from the “captains and the kings.” It also has a very vibrant, in-your-face press with a keen nose for scandal, and a coiled contempt for those who have “lost the run of themselves.”
It was open season on Sean Fitzpatrick, former chairman of the once highflying, but now nationalized, Anglo-Irish Bank, and rightly so. And yet you had to wonder at the ferocity of the hunt, for the world will always be well stocked with snake-oil salesmen.
It begs the question though: how did so many people suspend judgment on Fitzpatrick and his ilk? What happened to good old Irish common sense?
Many of us over here have loved and lost in various US stock market and property bubbles? But the sheer amount of borrowing and speculation in Ireland is staggering. Shacks were selling for over half a million Euros. Did they really believe that property and stock values would always appreciate?
My own memories of Ireland are of a people deathly afraid to go into any kind of debt. My father’s visit to a bank manager to negotiate a small overdraft was an unhappy day; while I could never bring myself to ask my grandfather to explain “bailiff,” such was the dread he invested in that muttered word.
Obviously, the psyche of the country changed radically over a couple of decades.
Still, even though Ireland’s immediate economic situation may be worse than ours, their citizens are better prepared to weather it. The most leveraged of the big banks have been nationalized, while all financial institutions are “encouraged” to show leniency when faced with unpaid mortgages and foreclosures.
Meanwhile those who have lost their jobs are cushioned by a substantial safety net; university education is free and health-care is guaranteed by the state.
For the most part, Irish rage is self-directed. Though there is much bluster against Fitzpatrick and the rest of “the boys,” you get the distinct impression that the nation is aware it turned away from native values and is now grudgingly prepared to pay the price.
Sure, you hear Sarah Palin equivalents on call-in radio shows but no one is misguided enough to vote for them. There’s bitterness in the air but it smacks of “never again,” rather than let’s hold hands and jump off a cliff together.
People are disgusted with politicians but rather than “throw out all de bums,” they’re fiercely determined not to elect anyone even worse.
You can feel a political realignment coming though it’s anyone’s guess what form it will take. One thing for certain, it will reflect old values rather than the beg-borrow-and-spend notions of the last fifteen years.

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