Good Irish v bad Greeks?
Opinion: The importance of following Miss Prism’s logic
Protesters demonstrate against the visit of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel last week in Athens, a day after Greece returned to international bond markets. Photograph: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images
The guiding spirit of official Ireland for the last five years has been Miss Prism. She is the governess in The Importance of Being Earnest and author of a three-volume novel of “more than usually revolting sentimentality”. Its essential principle is, as she explains, that “the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily”. In dealing with the banking crisis, this has been the essential principle of both the last and the present governments. We are the good Europeans and we will end happily because Europe will reward us. And who are the bad? The Greeks, of course. But the Government seems to have forgotten Miss Prism’s addendum to her point about people getting their just deserts: “That is what Fiction means.”
In constructing its own sentimental novel of virtue rewarded, the Government went out of its way to position Ireland as the anti-Greece. In doing so, it did not stop short of outright and utterly tasteless mockery of the distress of the Greek people. In December 2012, Michael Noonan joked that he was thinking about ordering T-shirts with the slogan “Ireland is not Greece” printed on them. The previous May, he airily dismissed Greece as a place of no consequence whatsoever for Ireland. “Apart from holidaying in the Greek islands, I think most Irish people don’t have a lot [of connections with Greece]. If you go into the shops here, apart from feta cheese, how many Greek items do you put in your basket?”
As well as being crass, this was rather ungrateful. The truth is that the reduction in the punitive interest rates Ireland was being charged by our gallant allies in Europe for the so-called bailout loans was entirely thanks to Greece. While our lot were doing their best Uriah Heep impressions, the Greeks made it clear that they simply wouldn’t pay interest rates that gave the European Central Bank substantial profits on the back of their misery. The stroppiness worked: the ECB and EU Commission capitulated and the interest rates were cut – saving Ireland many billions of euro. Our Government proceeded to claim credit for the positive consequences of Greek gumption.
The mockery of the Greeks was necessary, however, to make a point: that Greek obstreperousness would be punished in the end. The Greeks were the mad pyromaniacs threatening to burn down the euro zone house. The Irish were the good Europeans who burned down their own house rather than allow the contagion it contained to spread to Europe. But just as there is a God who will deal out justice in the long run, the even greater god of the markets would ensure that we ended happily and they ended unhappily.