13 December 2001 Edition

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Are we ready for independence?

Ireland has embraced capitalism and is now facing the consequences, writes Robert Allen: we need to rethink and refine the republican analysis.

Colonised since the 12th century, Ireland is the only country in Europe (aside from specific regions, such as the Basque country) where the practice of imperial rule has produced an economy similar to the so-called Third 'underdeveloped' World. All of the factors inherent in Third World politics exist in Ireland. Once an agricultural economy with the potential for self-sufficiency, Ireland is now a partitioned island with an industrial economy completely dependent on the success of globalization, on the unimpeded flow of capital and the exploitation of its labour and its environment.

This tiny island on the edge of the Western World is ostensibly ruled by bureaucrats and politicians in Dublin and Westminster, but it is controlled by the CEO's of the corporate world - the people who dictate the rules and practices of globalization. For much of the last decade of the 20th century the process of controlling the domestic budget, by suspending wage increases, while encouraging consumer spending, contributed to the success of the 'Celtic Tiger' economy. Immigration replaced emigration with net increases to the population bringing the total number of people to almost six million. No one has been able to identify the specific factors that have led to this economic success, why Ireland's economy has fared better than anyone else's in Europe and why, in Third World terms, it has become a model for other underdeveloped countries.


All of the factors inherent in Third World politics exist in Ireland
Perhaps the reason is not so complicated. Those who are given the task of explaining capitalism are unable to do so because they actually do not understand how the free market really works. But ask a low paid worker and you'll be given the answer. It won't be an economic analysis either. And it's highly likely it'll be accompanied by several expletives.

The Irish are known the world over as erudite, friendly, vivacious and warm, and woe betide anyone who should say they are capricious and selfish, cynical and negative, and frequently violent, yet that is now a prevailing characteristic of the "new" Irish. Social background seems irrelevant because it is cynical, selfish desire that drives the individual in modern Ireland. The modern Irish exhibit their individualism in shows of apathy, competitiveness, cynicism, ignorance, racism and sectarianism. We do not see these characteristics because they are hidden behind a sincere, smiling, Venetian-like mask. Kieran Allen summarised this change when he wrote that, "the entrepreneur has replaced the rebel as the hero of modern society". In 1993, the environmental director of an industry confederation confronted me with the cynical cutting edge of this new society. "Do we want to be organic farmers and waitresses or do we want to get on with it?" By 2001 the edge had been sharpened. Quite simply, Ireland is a microcosm of globalization.


It paved the way for globalization, with state policies since adopted by other nations, and it would seem to the ignorant that the foresight of Irish bureaucrats and politicians in the mid-20th century is now benefiting its people. Although an economist coined the term 'Celtic Tiger' in 1994, the Celtic Tiger economy was actually born in 1958 when the Irish government invited foreign corporates (significantly from the USA) to set up shop in Ireland. The idea was that they would teach the Irish how to be successful capitalists. Instead, US (and British) corporates, despite opposition, mostly in rural Ireland, gradually took over Irish society. US investment, initially in pharmaceuticals and subsequently in electronics, in Ireland, is the highest in Europe. Allied to this is the success of the financial services sector, which manages the profits of the corporates. In 1998 the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin managed $116 billion of funds, in direct competition with other tax havens.


Yet, despite this economic success workers, even in the IFSC, have not benefited. Between 1987 and 1997 wages, as a percentage of gross national product (GNP), declined by a quarter. Throughout the 1990s, the average profits, in all sectors, ran 50 percent higher than wage increases. In 1999 the average industrial wage was £329.85 a week for men and £221.86 for women. These figures make little sense until you realise the cost of living - the percentage of this wage that is spent on the basic necessities. When the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) Secretary Peter Cassells stated that many people "cannot afford to buy or rent a house anymore", he was also admitting that employment itself is not the answer and that the trade unions (which have a 520,000 membership - among the highest in European workforces) have failed them because the partnership agreement with the Dublin government has not benefited workers.

The ICTU, in a document about the partnership, recognise that "ownership of capital, especially large amounts of it, still gives individuals and families the most powerful advantage in reaching the top rung of the ladder and staying there." Most people work at the bottom rung of the economy, it said, and are "excluded from economic participation". Workers in this rung "rise early and queue for the first bus to get to work while most people are still asleep. They clean offices and cook breakfasts, make up hotel beds and prepare sandwiches...work in clothes factories and launderettes and do a whole range of essential jobs without which the economy would grind to a halt".


Do we want to be organic farmers and waitresses or do we want to get on with it?
Since the early 1990s Ireland has become a building site. A crane towers over every church and scaffolding seems to climb like ivy over every other building. Pubs do a roaring trade, especially at weekends, even in places where people and money are not constant companions. Cornershops are being refitted as small supermarkets and the buses and trains are always full. The place is truly booming, it appears to the casual traveller. It is possible to look at Ireland's cities, towns and villages and believe that this economic boom, euphemistically called the Celtic Tiger, is actually improving the quality of peoples' lives. You have to scratch the surface to see the reality.

Behind the facade of modern Ireland is the stark reality that almost a quarter of the total population is functionally illiterate, that one in six are living, according to the United Nations, in "human poverty", and that Ireland has the highest rate of poverty in the Western World, after the USA. As Sinn Fein's Robbie Smyth put it: "The squalid reality of the Celtic Tiger is low paid workers, an under-funded health service, under-funded public transport, house prices out of the reach of ordinary citizens, a chronic shortage of local authority housing, a rampant heroin crisis, rural poverty and environmental deprivation in urban working-class areas."

Ireland, like every other industrialised nation in Europe, has a two-tier society. The elite are very rich, a small section of the population are relatively well-off, but the majority live on credit, or on the edge - mostly content with their consumerist addictions and oblivious to the factors that shape their daily lives.


Opposition to globalization in Ireland and analyses of the social implications of an economy tied to global capital has been muted and ignored. The media in Ireland has never understood or wanted to understand what has been happening to a country still thought of as a Celtic Nation, with Celtic sensibilities and a history of struggle with a turbulent Atlantic and capricious weather patterns. But Ireland no longer looks west, it looks east. The population growth is in the urbanised east coast. This gives those who live there a false impression of the country. Not only is Ireland partitioned into two political and economic entities, it is also divided into two cultures - those who live inside the Pale and those who live outside it (just as it was when the British banished the indigenous people to hell or to Connaught, after Elizabeth I unleashed her dogs of war 400 years ago).

None of the establishment political parties in Ireland appear to know what is happening either. Rhetoric is abundant about Ireland's social problems but not one political party has devised policies that see an Ireland able to survive without corporate capital.

Without corporate capital and, despite what many nationalists believe, without British capital, Ireland's fragile economy would collapse. And this is now starting to happen.

Some people cannot envisage a united Ireland, others see no other vision. Those who see these modern Irelands, the 'Republic of Ireland' of the south and west and 'Northern Ireland' in the north-east, do not see an Ireland that can survive without corporate capital and without British rule. Soon they may have to.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1