I recently returned from the longest stretch of time at home in Ireland since I left in 1993. In the 2 months I was there I witnessed Ireland at one of the most crucial periods in it's history. I never left Ireland because economics pushed me out. I left because I was curious for other things and places. I wanted to know what the world could teach and show me. Little did I know that 1994 would mark the beginning of the period in Ireland's economic history which later became known as the 'Celtic Tiger'. They were boom years like no one had ever known and Ireland bought and spent like never before. For the first time in it's history it began to experience what was perceived and packaged as economic freedom.
In an economy driven by credit which was encouraged by the government and driven by the banks Ireland became one of the wealthiest countries in the EEC and living standards were calculated to be one of the highest in the world. The Irish who had been forced to emmigrate in the 70's and 80's came back in droves, immigrants flooded into the country, housing prices went through the roof, waiting lists for BMWs and Land Rovers bulged with 25 year olds with more money than sense. People borrowed and consumed and the culture and fabric of the country changed profoundly. To steal from Yeats, a Terrible Beauty was born.
Over the years on brief visits home I was quietly shocked at the changes I saw take place. Ireland was becoming a country not unlike the United States in it's appetite for consumerism. In this respect it was quite apparent what was going on. Scandals and tribunals of government and business corruption abounded and were allowed to. When the downturn came here it was going to hurt and it was going to hurt very very bad.
In what was Ireland's equivalent to the Enron debacle, Anglo Irish bank was nationalised in Jan 2009 after it was discovered that it's chairman hadn't disclosed details to the inland revenue of some €87 million in loans (ie: taxpayer money) he received. After all what is €87 millions amongst friends? Ireland was now firmly entrenched in it's recession which many say is actually a depression. The banks have been bailed out to the tune of €54 billion. Sound familiar? Welcome to the band aid to neo liberal free market economics.
Multi national corporations that were lured here in the 80's with low corporate tax rates are now leaving. The eastern european immigrants are going with them back home to the countries where these same companies are now setting up shop. Unemployment is soaring at 12.5% in a country of only 4 million. Joblessness is affecting a wide demographic of people and many are leaving. And on top of all this CEOs are still getting bonuses in the millions.
Despite all this and what I think was a feeling of helplessness amongst people there is a resilience there. Nov 6th I followed 20,000 public sector workers marching through the center of Dublin. Strikes are becoming more widespread and increasing in numbers. On Nov 26th last a staggering number of 250,000 workers striked across the country against the public sector wage cuts planned by the government.
Today is the eve of what will be the most dreaded state budget ever. During the boom when budgets were announced no one paid attention. There was no need to. The country was awash in money. Tomorrow's will be very different.
If Ireland is to recover it has to seize the opportunities that recession presents and seize them now. The key element being to realize that the old way of doing things cannot continue. How Irish people position themselves now to deal with this and a new way of living and doing business, whilst living in a rapidly changing world, will be the deciding factor in the future of generations to come. Fortunately the majority now realize this.
Ireland's future is not in it's current government. It's future lies in redistributing wealth and bringing equality back into the equation. It lies in innovation and entrepreneurs with their eyes on sustainability at all levels. Oh and an awful lot of resolve to see wrong made right.
In this sense Ireland's choices are not that different from the ones most of us must make.