Connect to share and comment

Ireland should look east

Opinion: The country's economic salvation will come from Brussels, not Washington.

NEW YORK — “Go where Ireland takes you,” reads the cheery ad that ran in some of the most expensive magazine and newspapers spaces in America this week of St. Patrick's Day.

The full-color, two-page spread in the New Yorker magazine, for instance, showed a map of Ireland — no inconvenient divisions between North and South, mind you — with the island’s famous tourist attractions drawn in: Blarney Castle, the Cliffs of Moher and Waterford Crystal.

Absent, of course, is the “bankrupt” sign on Waterford’s storied glassworks. Missing too are the angry protest marches against Ireland's nearly insolvent banks. Nor is there any sign of rioting nationalist gangs who threw Molotov cocktails at police in the Northern Irish town of Lurgan Sunday. The killings of two British soldiers and a police officer by renegade Irish Republican Army dissidents over the past two weeks have shattered a decade of relative calm.

As the great Irish-American diaspora celebrates its heritage today, the Republic of Ireland, the independent country that makes up most of the island of Ireland, is now nearly as prostrate as it was in the 1970s, when it ranked as Europe's basket case and the "Troubles" in the North raged night and day. Now politicians from both sides of the border are pulling out the stops to take advantage of lingering sympathy for the "old sod" among the diaspora.

After a decade of prosperity, Ireland has found that its meteoric rise to the top of the European Union’s measurements of wealth and economic growth were about as real as fairy dust. Now, with tens of thousands of young Irish preparing to emigrate — a jarring experience for a generation that thought its native land had turned the corner — their Prime Minister met Barack Obama today with more than green beer on his mind.

Along with Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson, and his coalition partner and former enemy, Martin McGuinness, the ex-IRA commander turned peacemaker, Prime Minister Brian Cowan hoped to use the annual Irish-American gathering at the White House to convince Obama that Ireland warrants special attention.

Cowan has a particular agenda: He pressed Obama and the many lawmakers he has visited to extend to two years the already unique working benefits the Irish enjoy in America. Like many other Irish leaders, Cowan himself worked in the U.S. as a young man, doing demolition in New York City one summer. Winning this exception would be a political coup for him, but it is far from certain to pass Congress.

Even if it does, however, the world has changed since Cowan’s youth. In the first decade of the 21st century, America cannot save Ireland. Aside from the fact that America’s own “wealth creation” has been largely a statistical mirage so far this century, Ireland, North and South, now feel culturally or economically closer to their European Union partners than their American cousins.