What if Ireland really was the 51st state?


Irish people may talk like Democrats but the evidence suggests they act like Republicans, writes Steve Coronella

FOR A displaced American such as myself, living in Ireland during a US election can be an edifying experience.

Since the Democrats and Republicans endorsed their respective candidates a few weeks back, Irish commentators have gone to town in the analysis department.

Whether the forum is the opinion page of the major dailies or the soundproofed confines of a broadcast studio, they've been pontificating long and hard on what a John McCain or Barack Obama presidency will mean for the US and the rest of the world. (Answer: either more of the same or something hopefully different.)

The tone of such discussions can vary, from smug and dismissive to affable and insightful.

But beneath all the speculation and scrutiny surrounding our imminent presidential showdown there's an interesting subtext.

It's a given here that Ireland and its people enjoy a special status within the US political establishment.

But one also gets the impression, listening to Irish commentators, that the Republic would compare favourably, as the 51st member of the union, with the more progressive US states, those beacons of reasonably enlightened governance such as Minnesota, Washington or Oregon.

Sorry, but I'm not even sure Ireland would find a home among the six states of my native New England, which includes many towns and cities colonised by Irish immigrants over the years.

In fact, the evidence suggests that Ireland would be located more comfortably in the conservative midwestern heartland, and might even spill over a bit into the Bible Belt.

If you think I'm just a cranky expat letting off steam after eight years of an impossibly bad government back home, I'd ask you to consider the following:

• In Ireland, 99 per cent of primary schools remain under the management (or patronage, if you prefer) of either the Roman Catholic or Protestant churches.

If you're a social democrat, which is a label the majority of Irish people would gladly wear, this has many obvious and unsettling implications.

Maybe calling oneself Catholic or Protestant has become a simple badge of convenience in modern Ireland, but the fact remains that the administration of almost all primary schools here rests in the hands of a self-selecting few.

This would not be a vote-getter in those US states that most Irish commentators see as their spiritual home.

• Abortion and same-sex marriage are not legal here. Whatever one's personal position on these matters, the fact that the State prohibits them places the Republic squarely in the McCain-Palin camp.

And dare I mention that homosexuality was decriminalised in the Republic only about a decade ago?

• The Republic's centralised Government bureaucracy - from education to health to justice - would do any eastern-bloc regime proud.

When it comes to problem-solving, the Civil Service can see no difference between a struggling rural township in Co Donegal and a distressed innercity neighbourhood in Cork or Dublin.

There is no room - on a practical or imaginative level - for addressing the unique needs of each community. And with very little of their own revenue to work with, county councils are just as constrained.

This is a feature of Irish life that many US citizens - used to electing local city councils and school committees with their own budgets - would find problematic.

• Still on the subject of inflexible bureaucracies, until the last decade or so, RTÉ held a virtual monopoly on all radio and television programming, aided by its exclusive use of the TV licence fee. (On second thought, maybe it's not such a good idea to compare television standards in Ireland and the US.)

• The Republic is still able to entice foreign investment with an exceptionally attractive 12 per cent corporation tax that even the most ardent US capitalist would regard with disbelief (before deciding to set up shop here).

I believe McCain has promised that, if elected, he'll lower corporation tax in the US to just over 30 per cent.

• And finally, the same political party, with the odd junior coalition partner, has been in power in the Republic for the past 11 years - and for 19 out of the last 21 years. Though most Irish people would undoubtedly vote Democrat if given the chance, this doesn't really indicate an Obama-esque appetite for change on their part.

Of course, if McCain Co retain the White House in November, who am I to talk?

• Steve Coronella is a freelance writer