Ireland’s rebound is European blarney

In a column written for the New York Times, Fintan O’Toole argues that Ireland is suffering to maintain an unreal image of slimmed-down perfection

Mon, Jan 13, 2014, 15:18

I was talking just before Christmas to a young man who sells shoes in a department store in Dublin. He told me that a television news crew had filmed interviews in the store the previous day.

They wanted to know if sales were picking up during the vital holiday period, indicating that the battered Irish economy was, after five grim years, on the rise at last.

Most of his colleagues said that, actually, sales were rather sluggish. One was more hopeful and said that there were signs of improvement. When the young man watched the TV news that night, he was not entirely surprised to find that the only interview that had made the cut was the one with the optimist.

Everyone wants Ireland to be a good-news story, proof that a willingness to take the pain of prolonged austerity will be rewarded in the end. Ordinary citizens are hungry for some hope. The government, in the words of Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, was “determined that Ireland would be Europe’s success story”.

An influential board member of the European Central Bank, Jörg Asmussen, says: “The Irish program is a success story.” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany praised Ireland as an example of how crisis countries could turn themselves around.

The only problem is that, for most of us who actually live here, Ireland’s success story feels less like “The Shawshank Redemption” and more like “Rocky.” We haven’t been joyously liberated; we’ve just withstood a lot of blows. We’re still standing, but we’ve taken so many punches that it’s hard to see straight.

Yes, things are finally looking up, but the hopeful vision is clouded by two nagging questions. Did they need to be so bleak for so long? And has the harsh medicine actually cured Ireland’s ills?

For conservatives, in particular, Ireland is the Tyra Banks of nations: a model country. The only problem is that they can’t quite decide what Ireland is a model of.

For a long time, when Ireland was booming, it was the perfect face of light regulation and low taxes. (With impeccably bad timing, Senator John McCain cited Ireland’s low corporate taxes as a model for the United States in his presidential election debates with Senator Barack Obama in 2008 - just as Ireland was sliding into crisis.) Now, with Ireland tentatively emerging from its long slump, it is being cited as the great exemplar of the virtues of austerity.

As the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, a fiscal hawk, put it in October: “Ireland did what Ireland had to do. And now everything is fine.” Ireland was a success story when it was partying wildly and it is a success story when it is the Grim Reaper of international economics. Binge or purge, we can do no wrong.

We Irish are eternal optimists, but Mr Schäuble’s belief that everything is fine is a rare example of a German outdoing us in irrational exuberance. It is certainly true that, if you were to walk around the rebuilt Dublin docklands, with their shiny European headquarter offices for Google, Twitter, Facebook and Yahoo, and their slick cafes and hotels, you might conclude that if this is what an Irish crisis looks like, an Irish boom must be quite something to behold.

The supercool new Marker Hotel and apartment complex, which opened its doors in April and cost €120 million ($163 million), could be in Los Angeles or Dubai. It looks down on the buoyant American architecture of Martha Schwartz’s Grand Canal Square and a plush Daniel Libeskind theater. In a country wrecked by a spectacular property bubble, house prices in Dublin have begun to soar again, rising 13 percent in the last year.

We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.

News - direct to your inbox

Which Daily Digest would you like?

Politics on Twitter

Connect