Irish race from bust to boom and back again leaves Germans feeling confused and resentful
BERLIN LETTER:GERMAN PUBLIC broadcaster ZDF treats its viewers on Sunday evenings to a bracing dose of time-warp television called Our Farm in Ireland .
It’s the story of Martin Winter, a German doctor and widower who moves to the fictional town of Ballymara with his three daughters. There he eventually falls in love with local girl Erin O’Toole, described by producers as an “attractive shepherdess”.
Not much happens and the dialogue is witless, but over six million Germans tune in for the sheer escapist value and the beautiful Irish scenery.
In short, Our Farmis the latest incarnation of the idealised Ireland Germans have cherished for decades.
In this world view, Ireland is a wild, romantic place closer to “the nature”, as Germans call it, than, say, the Ruhr or Frankfurt.
The Irish are friendly bordering on manic, loveable but wholly unreliable people who would sell one of their many children for a drink.
A newspaper headline over a recent interview with writer Anne Enright summed it up nicely: “The Irish drink, the Irish fight, the Irish are funny”. In the last decade and a half, though, this consensus view of Ireland has been sorely tested by the march of modernity in the Grüne Insel or Green Isle.
First Ireland’s economy took off, then emigrants returned, immigrants arrived and something resembling modern infrastructure began to stretch its tentacles across the country.
Older Germans with fixed notions of the country would return from holidays and complain to the first Irish person they encountered that the place had finally succumbed to the curse of motorways.
It was doubly galling for many of these Germans – truly, madly, deeply in love with “the nature” in Ireland – to hear that it was probably their tax money that had built the motorways.
Modern Dublin was a mystery – in particular the IFSC, a mysterious place of smoked glass and mirrors that seemed to be beating Frankfurt at its own game, generating vast sums of money after luring over big banks with low corporate tax rates.
As German economic growth hovered near zero, the Irish economy appeared to roar ahead. The beige-wearing Germans with their 12- year-old Mercedes had been overtaken by the sharp-suited Irish in their new BMWs.
Irish economists decided that the German economic model of slow, steady growth had had its day.
They had no qualms in telling Germany that Ireland had seen the future and it was all leverage and Louis Vuitton.
The peak of this Irish confidence-cum-cockiness came with the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.
No one here really cares for complicated explanations when a simple one will do: the “No” vote was Ireland thumbing its nose at the rest of the EU after pocketing its billions.
The final drop of goodwill towards the Irish evaporated last September when Berlin, through gritted teeth, signed loans and guarantees to prop up the Dublin-based Depfa bank, a subsidiary of Munich property investor Hypo Real Estate. Today that bill has reached €102 billion and counting.
“Technically speaking we didn’t have to do that,” one leading finance official fumed to this paper last month. “We could have left that in Ireland’s lap.”
Irish financial experts would disagree, saying the highly illiquid bank was Germany’s problem, even if it operated from Ireland.
Regardless of who was responsible for the mess, it stuck in the craw of the Berlin finance ministry to have to bail out a bank that had deprived Germany of billions in tax revenue by moving to Ireland.
And what was this Ireland, financial officials in Berlin asked, except an economic basket case of fictitious money and very real debts, and regulation so light to the touch that it amounted to a “regulation-free zone”.
After previous banking dramas in 2007, the Depfa episode confirmed many German suspicions that modernity and Ireland don’t mix.
German newspaper reports of the Irish meltdown confirm that view. The Frankfurter Allgemeine headlined its article on Ireland “For They Know Not What They Do”.
After a disorienting decade and a half, many Germans have decided that Ireland is once again a chaotic island run by chancers, a people who are a little too fond of the drink and not the best with money.
That much seemed to be confirmed last week when news reached Berlin that Dublin was dusting off its begging bowl, hoping that Angela would consider a dig-out for her Irish pals.
“If we take responsibility for ourselves, we may obtain some European assistance, especially in connection with our banking sector,” said Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan to a journalist from the German weekly Die Zeit.
“Clearly our banking sector is under threat. That is something our European friends recognise.”
It was like a real-life version of the parable of the prodigal son: after squandering the inheritance he had been given, the son returns home, barefoot and penniless.
There is a cold-eyed realisation here that if something has to be done for Ireland, then something will have indeed to be done.
Talking to Chancellor Merkel’s senior advisers, however, it is clear that no one in Berlin is rushing to prepare the fatted lamb for the Irish prodigal.
A leading government official explained last week, wearing a wintry smile, that Berlin “assumes the Taoiseach will be successful with his cost-cutting programme”. It sounded like the traditional vote of confidence in a football manager.
Watching the unravelling of the Irish economy from Germany, it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps there was more than a grain of truth in the stereotypical view of the Irish as a chaotic, irresponsible bunch.
On ZDF’s Our Farm in Ireland, life is golden and the Germans still love us.
“In the real world, however, we have exhausted Germany’s good will and reverted to type as a nation of loveable rogues who are no longer so loveable.