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Fintan O’Toole: Ireland is nobody’s little darling any more

We’ve lost our exotic allure without replacing it with the attraction of efficiency

We're nobody's darling any more. Last evening, Ireland failed in its much-hyped bid to have Dublin named as the new location for the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which must move its headquarters from London after Brexit. Dublin also failed to get the runners-up prize of the European Banking Authority's headquarters. Last week, Ireland finished a distant third of the three contenders to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. An awful truth is surely dawning: the great welcome we have for ourselves is not entirely reciprocated even by our nearest neighbours. The currency of Irishness is dropping even faster than sterling on the international exchange of soft power.

We've lost the allure of the exotic but failed to replace it with the attraction of efficiency. It's very hard to be both one of the most globalised economies in the world and what the beer ads used to call "magical mystical Ireland". Indeed, even what's left of magical mystical Ireland is thoroughly globalised and commercialised. The small cabin of clay and wattles made to which visitors were meant to be drawn by Bob Geldof's lovely reading of The Lake Isle of Innisfree in the Rugby World Cup bid video has been rented out to 20 tenants at €500 a month each. All of our bids traded on "history and culture" but other places have histories too and almost all of them invest far more in their cultural facilities than we do.

Future promises

Yet we're not particularly cutting-edge either. The Rugby World Cup bid was sunk, in part, by the fact that much of its IT infrastructure existed in the realm of future promises. In this field, we are one of the most promising nations on Earth – world-leading broadband has been on our to-do list since the late 1990s. Our EMA bid stressed our scientific culture – yet we are the only western European country that can't be bothered with membership of the great particle physics research project, Cern.

And the same goes for social infrastructure. The EMA’s 900 staff members and their families were promised access to “quality childcare in a variety of formats” in Dublin’s bid to lure them. It did not mention that Irish childcare costs are the second highest in the OECD or that the “variety of formats” includes stark variations in the quality of its providers.


Do we really expect other nations to raise a glass to toast our replacement of the Double Irish with the Single Malt?

When the European Union was a conglomeration of rich western nations, Ireland was its poor little orphaned cousin. We were charming and harmless. And when Europe was peaceful and apparently post-historic, with all of its vicious psychoses safely stored away, Ireland's Troubles had a paradoxically romantic quality. Tragedy gave a sense of depth to Irish fecklessness. The peace process provided a dramatic narrative of hope and reconciliation. But we're not poor any more and we're not tragic – and it turns out that Europe's own dark past is very much alive. The peace process, if it figures at all, is both puzzling and boring – try explaining to a concerned European why exactly there is no devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Bad neighbour

More than any of this, though, Ireland is a bad neighbour. We expect everyone to love us even when we facilitate global tax avoidance and renege on our commitments to help prevent catastrophic global warming. The revelations in the Paradise Papers about the way multinational tax avoidance was being facilitated even while the Government was announcing big reforms don’t inspire international affection. Do we really expect other nations to raise a glass to toast our replacement of the Double Irish with the Single Malt? We can point all we like to the hypocrisy of other countries, but the fact is that Ireland is regarded around the world, fairly or not, as a tax haven that enriches itself by playing beggar my neighbour.

Best fans in the world, WB Yeats, the Cliffs of Moher, on for the craic, culture and history, Guinness, Bono – sure who's like us?

Speaking of hypocrisy, we were quick to condemn Donald Trump’s repudiation of the Paris climate change accords, but our own performance in complying with those accords is abysmal. The 2018 Climate Change Performance Index published last week ranks Ireland 49th of 56 countries and by far the worst country in Europe. We are much closer in the rankings to Saudi Arabia than we are to Slovakia, let alone to leading performers such as Sweden. And all our fellow nations tend to hear from us on the most critical issue facing humanity are excuses, exceptions, whinges – poor little Ireland, it’s not our fault if our cows keep farting.

But we still expect to be the world’s sweetheart. Best fans in the world, WB Yeats, the Cliffs of Moher, on for the craic, culture and history, Guinness, Bono – sure who’s like us? This stuff might be alright for the holidays but it doesn’t convince anybody when there are real stakes on the table. We can’t get away with being the red-haired rogues whose bad behaviour is forgotten when a cheeky smile lights up our appealingly freckled faces.

Weirdly, the only people who really do love us are the English and they’re sailing off into their very own sunset. Ireland badly needs friends, especially in Europe. We won’t get them by charmingly rhyming The Lake Isle of Innisfree with the IFSC. We have to earn the respect that comes from being a good neighbour.