Exiting the bailout represents a modest reward after years of broken dreams
Opinion: We can take some satisfaction from the fact that we had the discipline to extract ourselves from the mire
Ajai Chopra (left) of the IMF and an unidentified colleague pass a beggar as they make their way to the Central Bank in November 2010. Photograph: AP
I am trying to work out how I should feel on the 15th of next month when Ireland exits the monetary bailout that has enabled us to pay our public servants and keep the ATMs working for the past three years.
My mind keeps going back to the story about Daniel O’Connell, who stopped to talk to a gang of labourers breaking stones for a new road.
“What’ll Ireland be like when we have Repeal, Dan?” one of them asked eagerly.
“I don’t know,” the Liberator admitted. “But one thing I do know. You’ll still be breaking stones.”
What is the 2013 equivalent of breaking stones, I wonder? Struggling to hold on to an over-mortgaged home? Praying that the medical card won’t be called in? Scouring the internet for work at the other end of the world? None of these will change when we can say that we are once again economically sovereign. And yet something significant will have happened, even if, as now seems likely, there will be further “terms and conditions” attached to a contingency fund to be drawn down if the markets turn against us.
It is no small thing to lose sovereignty; to be obliged to follow the dictates of strangers. And it is no small thing to regain it. It may not be entirely fanciful to draw some comparison with what happened when we attained political sovereignty in 1922.
My father watched the last of the British troops marching from Beggar’s Bush barracks to the North Wall to leave Ireland. He and his generation saw the birth of the State. It was a source of pride to salute a new flag, to elect deputies to a new parliament, to hear Amhrán na bhFiann played on public occasions.
I think I will feel a little better for knowing that my country can at least manage its own housekeeping bills. I think I will be happier to know that decisions on the spending of my taxes will be taken by people that I can vote for – or not. And I will feel some satisfaction in knowing that obscure politicians in the German Länder have no further business in what we do here with whatever we have.
Of course December 15th will not be like 1922. The vacating of the troika officials’ rooms at the Merrion Hotel will not have the historic resonances of Michael Collins taking over Dublin Castle. The final exit of Ajai Chopra from Government Buildings will not have any of the formality of Lord Lieutenant FitzAlan’s departure from the Viceregal Lodge in the Phoenix Park.
But maybe there will be some parallels.
The 1922 generation hurried out to put green paint on the pillar boxes and change a few street names. They began to address each other in Irish. Johns became “Seáns” and Marys became “Máires”. There were new stamps, new judges, new police.
But many realities had not changed, including most of the practical ones. The currency had a new design but it remained, in effect, part of the pound sterling. The Army shouldered British guns that required British-manufactured ammunition. Virtually everything we had for sale (principally agriculture-based) was dependent on the British being willing to buy from us.
From December 15th, all going well, we will be trusted once again to behave like adults and given back our cheque books. The State’s financial negotiators can walk into the world’s banking halls and look the gnomes who run them in the eye, knowing that Ireland’s credit is good. Yet we will be more deeply in debt than we were at the beginning of the economic crisis. Our banking system will still be a way off being fixed and we will continue to have the third-highest rate of unemployment in Europe, after Greece and Spain.
The illusion of freedom, whether economic or political, can be dangerous. Éamon de Valera thought in 1933 that because Ireland had some of the trappings of statehood it could renege on the financial provisions of the treaty upon which that State had founded. The economic war that followed devastated an already fragile economy, drove hundreds of thousands to emigration and condemned Ireland to penury for 30 years.
There is the danger, when the men from the troika have left, that we will have similar illusions; that we will go back to auction politics, where we elect those with the most promising goodie-bags and that we will think we can live again like nabobs on borrowed money. At least with Mr Chopra and his friends in town there has been a sense that someone was keeping a rein on things.
There are people in powerful positions in the EU and in the monetary institutions who believe that, given the freedom to do so, the Irish will screw it all up again. Just as there were those in 1922 who said it was inevitable, once the imperial power would have pulled out, that the Irish would go to war among themselves. There is not much evidence that we have so reformed our public institutions that we have eliminated any such risk.
So how should we feel on December 15th? We cannot pass over what has been lost and what continues to inflict pain upon so many; the broken dreams, the suicides, the desperate struggle for so many to pay
the bills, the cutbacks in public services, the tens of thousands of young people who are gone.
Maybe we can take some modest satisfaction that having landed ourselves in the mire we subsequently showed ourselves capable of some discipline and common purpose. We can be thankful that an improving world economy may be working in our favour. And we can resolve never again to fool ourselves into believing that lead can be made into gold or that lasting prosperity can be created by selling and buying houses from each other. There won’t be dancing in the streets but we can mark a little progress.
Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times