Now reaping the benefits of independence struggle


The flourishing state of our economy was one reason why people were happy to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising and to feel grateful towards those seen as having, at a high price to themselves, taken a decisive step towards independence.

The critics, while majoring on more emotive subjects, tried to accredit the proposition that independence had been an economic failure for 40, 60 or 80 years, redeemed only by the Celtic tiger era. As pointed out by Garret FitzGerald, the Celtic tiger did not suddenly spring fully formed into the world, like Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus.

Without decisions of a sovereign government from earlier periods, the take-off could not have occurred. These included from the 1960s: development of an education system geared to the needs of a modern economy at second and third level; the low rate of corporation tax from 1980 for manufacturing industry and international services; arguably, the separation from sterling in 1979; the devaluations of 1986 and 1993; and the decision to join the euro and, going further back, the development and refinement of tripartite structures for industrial relations, reflecting in part the influence of Catholic social philosophy.

That critical assessment of the economy over the intervening period mistakenly implies that economic criteria are the sole justification of political independence. Most revolutions carry some cost.

Certain critics sounded faintly reminiscent of former settlers in Africa who had returned to Europe by the 1970s, shaking their heads over the deteriorating quality of life in newly-independent states.

The latter-day attachment to John Redmond and Home Rule from correspondents expressing a southern Protestant perspective would be touching, if a couple of generations ago most leaders of that community had not averred that Home Rule would be as disastrous for Ireland as some letter-writers now tell us that, until recently, independence has been.

With what is independent Ireland being compared? To Ireland under the Union? From 1801 to 1921, the later 26-county area suffered extensive de-industrialisation, a depopulation through famine and emigration on a scale unknown across Europe, and, as vividly shown by accounts of the 1913 lock-out, some of the worst and most unsanitary urban living conditions in these islands. While latterly some positive economic and social progress was made, the Irish people wanted the opportunity to govern themselves.

Redistribution of wealth under the Union was mostly from the periphery to the centre. Even under the Treaty, the Irish Free State had to take responsibility for part of the British national debt (until cancelled in 1925 as a quid pro quo for accepting the Border) and pay land annuities to the Exchequer.

Independent Ireland built up an initial industrial base with some success in the 1930s, had largely cleared the slums and tenements by the 1960s, and by the 1970s had begun to reverse decisively population decline.

Should independent Ireland be compared to Northern Ireland? Northern Ireland did not have an easy time of it in the 1920s and 1930s, and by the end of that period both parts of Ireland were running neck and neck. During the war years and the post-war period, Northern Ireland moved ahead and seemed to gain the edge, when the South appeared to stagnate. Today, in contrast, unionists aspire to replicate the dynamism of the South, but keeping a certain distance.

The core of the argument seems to come from an oversimplified understanding of Prof Joe Lee's stimulating work Ireland 1912-1985, which was to act as a spur to better performance from a low point in Ireland's economic fortunes. Joe Lee compared Ireland in particular to certain Nordic countries that had over the century done much better.

Much of his criticism of the State's performance was about Ireland's suffocation in an English mental embrace and over-reliance on English models, and on "the jaded alternative to an Irish identity, an English identity in Ireland". His point was that between 1910 and 1970 Ireland recorded the slowest growth of per capita income of any European country except the UK.

How can anyone so distort Joe Lee's analysis as to suggest that the cure for an up until then disappointing performance would have been to reinforce economic dependence by keeping Ireland shackled to Britain under 26-county home rule? His work, parallel with Ictu research and the seminal NESC report of 1986, led towards the adoption of a full European model of social partnership from 1987, something that the British previously abandoned.

Partly thanks to that development, the perspective from today's Ireland is a far more comfortable one, with even the British Conservative finance spokesman George Osborne coming over to study the Irish experience.

Long before the difficult decade of the 1980s, most people were satisfied that the sacrifices involved in winning independence had been well worthwhile, confident that sooner or later the fruits would be demonstrated, as has now happened far beyond any previous reasonable expectation.

A distinguished former economist Michael Casey (April 19th) from the Central Bank, whose traditional role has been largely superseded by the European Central Bank, and on the other hand, an old-style sovereignist eurosceptic, Anthony Coughlan (April 27th), remind us that many important economic decisions are now taken elsewhere.

It is nonetheless still a major advantage to be a sovereign State with seats at many international tables, rather than, as was and could still be the case, a province of another more heavily populated island.

Independence in 1922 was not starting too soon. It would have been much better in the late 18th century. A 32-county Home Rule in the 1880s, or even as put on the statute book in 1914, if there had been any hope of implementation in that form, could have provided a benign and peaceful alternative path, as was recognised at the time.

Can anyone today seriously justify the arming and threat of civil war which prevented it? That said, for the South at least, we are glad to have come as far as we have.