Power points: an Irish-German affair
Germany has long had a love affair with Ireland, but recent economic developments have put a strain on the relationship. So how does Europe’s most powerful economy view Ireland, and what does the future hold for the alliance?
IRISH VISITORS to Berlin usually head to the television tower or the Reichstag dome for views of the German capital. Few Irish know of the spectacular view atop the 20-storey tower in the Ku-damm Karree shopping centre – even though they own it.
Despite a prime location on Berlin’s leafy Kurfürstendamm boulevard, the labyrinthine shopping centre has been largely vacant for years. With its dirty grey facade and ghostly passageways, the Karree is the embodiment of the German-Irish complex.
When Sean Mulryan’s Ballymore group bought the centre for more than €200 million in 2007, locals agreed it was an astronomical price for a problem property. The centre had never worked because there was no room for anchor tenants on the street front, which was occupied by two historic theatres. To solve that problem, the Irish investors decided they would flatten both to make room for a new €500 million development.
“Ballymore were arrogant and naive in equal measure,” says one well-placed source. “They under-estimated everything – except the purchase price.” Protests against the demolition prompted a tense stand-off, then the financial crisis hit and Nama moved in on Ballymore’s assets, including the Ku-damm Karree.
“It was a high price for a site that didn’t work. Ballymore took a chance and that money is gone now,” says Ralf Bock, Ballymore manager for Germany. Two-thirds of the money paid was Ballymore’s own money, he says, and one-third came from Bank of Ireland. “But it’s a property the Irish taxpayer can be sure will rise in value, their money is safe.”
Ballymore is under pressure from Nama to offload the property. There’s talk of a Turkish shopping mall mogul moving in but, with nothing concrete, key tenants are moving out.
For now, the Karree is a Nama-controlled wreck, cast adrift in a perfect storm of ambition and hubris. Deals like this triggered the eurozone crisis, welding Ireland and Germany together like never before.
For decades, we happily snapped up German jobs, kitchens and cars. German visitors to our island, meanwhile, embraced a surrogate heimat – an idealised homeland even more green and lush than the one Hitler co-opted and poisoned for generations.
Each had something the other wanted – their economic strength for our lightness of being.
Then, after an economic reversal of fortunes, Germany took a dive while flights to Berlin filled up with Irish men thumbing property portfolios. Some were serious players with serious cash, others were fly-by-nights out to make a quick buck with other people’s money. Few were aware of Article 14 of Germany’s post-war constitution, which states: “Property entails obligations. Its use shall also serve the public good.” It is this cultural blindness that has come back to haunt us all, as our EU/IMF programme confronts us with our largest partner. The question is: does the German-Irish relationship have a future or will, as a German saying goes, money matters end the friendship?
Before considering what they think of us, it’s worth considering what, if anything, we know of them.
The boom years opened Irish eyes to European delights, from Swedish design to Spanish wine, but Germany remained trapped in central casting. The two most popular German films of recent years dealt with Hitler and the Stasi. In one major Dublin bookshop last week, only eight of the more than 100 books in its German section were not devoted to dictatorship. The fiction section is almost German-free; the biggest success of recent years, Hans Fallada’s Nazi drama Alone in Berlin, was first published 65 years ago.
A visit to a similarly-sized Berlin bookshop reveals an embarrassment of Irish literary riches: Binchy and Banville, Enright and Tóibín. German public radio this year produced not one but two marathon radio dramatisations of Ulysses.
On Sunday evenings, millions of Germans indulge in soft-soap dramas with whimsical titles such as Our Farm in Ireland. Irish folk festivals are a weekly occurrence.
During Euro 2012, everyone here had a laugh over “Angela Merkel Thinks We’re Working” – from the Bild tabloid to the lady herself – while the best-selling broadsheet described Irish fans’ Field of Athenry farewell as a “goose-bump moment”.
“We’ll miss the Irish fans,” wrote the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily. “Free as birds and gloriously uninhibited.”
Germany’s love for Ireland is complex and deep, and exists in a separate dimension to the eurozone crisis. Polls show repeatedly that Germans make a clear distinction between Ireland and Greece: like Angela Merkel, they think the Irish are working but that the Greeks are not.