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.
If rescue awaits the Emerald Isle, it awaits in Brussels, not Washington. The forces buffeting Ireland’s economy stem primarily from the very American lending habits of its major banks, Allied Irish and the Bank of Ireland, both of which are teetering, and Anglo-Irish Bank, which the government nationalized to prevent collapse in January. The exposure of these three institutions to sub-prime defaults is regarded as enormous, and many of Ireland’s other major enterprises, from Waterford Crystal, to microchips, to its construction industry were entangled in the web.
Ever since Ireland joined the EU in the early 1970s, the influence of the continent and the money transferred from rich economies such as Germany and France to poor Ireland have remade the country. In many ways, the success of Northern Ireland's peace process, while enabled by Bill Clinton's frenetic diplomacy, was built on the prosperity brought by huge wealth transfers from the EU's rich states.
Back in the 1970s, when my Mayo-born father first took me "home," Ireland remained a backward and desperately poor place of high unemployment, high emigration, and fiercely doctrinaire Catholicism. Vespers — the nightly call to prayer of ancient Catholicism — were broadcast over all Irish radio and television networks. Birth control was illegal, and the Church played an open role in national politics. Under such circumstances, the Dublin-based government was viewed as a tool of Rome by the Protestants of the North, making talk of an eventual reunification of the island ridiculous.
By 1998, when the Good Friday Accords ended 30 years of murderous bloodshed between the IRA's "nationalists" and the forces of unionism, including "loyalist" militias, the British Army, and the Protestant-dominated police, the land south of the border had been transformed. Crossing the border from the North to the Republic brought no culture shock or decline in standards. Indeed, after decades of EU funding, the Republic's roads were vastly superior, and its educational system and economy both stood head-and-shoulders above those in the North.
More importantly, the country had thrown off the dead hand of the clerics. Irish art, music and film were thriving. The young increasingly sought work or education in continental Europe, bypassing the old byways of northern England and the United States. The young of Ireland are more secular, pacifist and socialist — more French, if you like — than most Americans. Nowhere in Europe was sentiment against the Iraq War or George W. Bush stronger.
The extent to which Ireland's salvation lay in Europe may be surprising to those lining 5th Avenue today, wearing the "Kiss Me I'm Irish" buttons and shamrock sun glasses. Besides being a safety valve for a small number of young Irish workers, there is nothing on offer for Ireland in Washington these days — no bailout money, no interest-free loans, not even an investment conference. Ireland's politicians, having cast their lot with Europe, would do better to spend more time in Berlin and Paris than drinking green beer at the White House. And, after all, that is how it should be for one small, European island.
More on the Irish economy:
Erin goin' nowhere
Whiskey resists the downturn
Irish bargain hunting