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As world stock markets reach record highs in May 2013, as the idea of a treble-dip or even a double-dip recession in the UK is rapidly rethought, as bankers’ bonuses ascend once more towards the stars, as Anglo-American commentators assure us that the shattering crunch of September 2008 is receding into the past, spare a thought for Ireland, where in a sense it all began.
It was in Ireland that a national banking crisis first hit hard, shortly after the Lehman Brothers collapse. The Fianna Fáil government, led by Brian Cowen as Taoiseach and the late Brian Lenihan as finance minister, cavalierly guaranteed the future of the cowboy Anglo-Irish Bank, owned and mismanaged by their friend Sean Fitzpatrick, who had lent €72 billion (mostly to the construction sector) and lost most of it. The knock-on effects led to a spiralling commitment to other Irish banks, whose half-witted chief executives had tried to play catch-up with Fitzpatrick’s corrupt strategies of lending and ‘growth’ – particularly in relation to the deranged world of property speculation and the building boom. (The property-related losses of all Irish banks are calculated at about €106 billion.) Thanks to the Cowen-Lenihan policy of guaranteeing and protecting the international bondholders whose loans had propped up the Irish banks, Ireland’s economic future was rapidly delivered into the hands of European finance moguls, along with effective economic sovereignty, at the expense of domestic policies of unrelenting austerity for the foreseeable future – everything Fianna Fáil swore would never happen. Five years on, how does the country look?
Before considering this sad question, it is worth remembering how it appeared before 2008. The astonishing boom of the 1990s, when Ireland was the so-called ‘Celtic tiger’, was probably running out of steam by the early 2000s. Warning signs had started to appear, notably in the way growth was now concentrated in the building and construction sector, the increasingly unsustainable sweetheart tax deals introduced by Fianna Fáil governments for their builder friends, and the readiness of some of the American companies who had invested in Ireland (lured by bottom rates of corporate tax and various other blandishments) to move their plant to cheaper climes.
Nevertheless, underlying strengths remained: a highly educated English-speaking workforce, a young and dynamic age-profile, a plethora of electronic-savvy small businesses that had sprung up around Dublin and other cities, booming new agribusinesses, and a strong export profile. Above all, there was a sense of cultural and entrepreneurial confidence which was astonishing to those of us who remembered the country in gloomier times. This was reflected in the most amazing reversal of all: a land famous for its emigrants was now a focus for immigration, from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. The face and culture of the country was changing beyond recognition.
Back in the early 2000s, some analysts were warning of the growth of inequality, the failure to invest in the infrastructure of secondary education and health services (not to mention the rapidly compromised environment), the danger of over-reliance on a property bubble underpinned by low interest-rates, the signs that capital investment was ready to migrate, and the corruption and cronyism that characterised the incestuous relations between politicians and the construction sector. When I published a book called Luck and the Irish in 2007, tentatively making some of these points, it was suggested in some quarters that I was simply betraying sour grapes because I had left Ireland too early and missed out on the fun. The far more specific and ominous (and ultimately prescient) predictions of the economist Morgan Kelly, who in that same year forecast both exactly what would happen to the property bubble and the likelihood of a bank collapse, were received far more angrily. The then-Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, suggested that people who felt like that should just go and commit suicide. Ahern, who famously did not believe in having a bank account and relied for his personal finances on what he inelegantly termed ‘dig-outs’ from rich friends (usually builders), would in time see the apparent suicide of his own political party. His own retirement job, rather than graduating to the presidency, as he had allegedly expected, instead involved writing a sports column for the News of the World (an institution which would before long commit hara-kiri in its own fashion).
Even as cracks appeared in the fuselage of the high-flying Irish economy, most commentators soothingly predicted a ‘soft landing’. To Irish taxpayers and the mounting number of unemployed, not to mention the sick and the old, this is a brutal joke.
Those whose landings have been softened are, oddly, the people put in charge of the bankrupt banks, the senior civil servants who oversaw much of the dégringolade towards national ruin, and, of course, the lawyers. The Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, which was effectively Anglo-Irish Bank sustaining a vampiric existence beyond the grave before being ignominiously wound up, paid its half-dozen executives salaries north of €500,000 (or rather, the taxpayers did). Then there is NAMA, the National Assets Management Agency, a body set up to administer the derelict financial institutions taken over by the state and what remained of their Ponzi-style operations. Last year, €260 million went to legal panels hired by NAMA to carry out due diligence on loans that should have been carried out by lawyers and the banks they worked for in the first place. The legal fees accrued by NAMA’s operations over its projected 10-year span will be at least €2.6 billion. Special ‘allowances’ for civil servants (effectively extra pay for no reason, negotiated during the years of the locust) are to be retained at a cost of €73 million. The ludicrous figure of the Irish ‘bank regulator’, a supine bureaucrat called Patrick Neary, who oversaw the years of wild west finance and lunatic loans, retired in 2009 with a golden handshake of €630,000 and a pension of €143,000 a year.
In line with the jawdropping lack of accountability that characterises Irish public life, neither the government nor the banks have produced any comprehensive inquiry into the disaster. And while legal proceedings are being slowly pursued against Sean Fitzpatrick and his colleagues, it seems unlikely that they will ever amount to anything.
Irish suburbs still feature lookalike Macmansions with his-and-hers 4x4’s on the tarmac outside. Yet one of the few new businesses just opened in Dublin’s once-smart Harcourt Street, ‘GDP’, is a consultancy offering advice to people with unsustainable levels of debt. GDP’s chief partner and front man is none other than Nick Leeson, the man who bankrupted Barings and moved to Ireland after he came out of jail. ‘The level of indebtedness has quite shocked me,’ he has remarked virtuously. Meanwhile, the little people bear the cost, as unemployment rockets and the young – once again – leave Ireland in droves.
Where are los indignados? A small and rather well mannered camp of Occupy protesters set up its tents on the plaza of the Central Bank building, an ugly behemoth erected (against planning regulations) on the edge of Dublin’s bohemian quarter, Temple Bar. In 2010 an infuriated and insolvent small builder from Achill Island rammed his JCB into the gates of Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Irish parliament. A minor shareholder threw eggs at Bank of Ireland board members at the 2009 AGM, when the shares stood at 12 cents (they had been just under €11.00 in the summer of 2007), but the 2013 meeting passed off quietly (shares now stand at the dizzy height of 18 cents and the outgoing chairman still pockets €843,000 a year). An angry correspondence raged earlier this year in the Irish Times about the parlous state of Irish hospitals, where visiting relatives now routinely take on the duties of feeding and looking after patients. Indeed, the journalistic profession numbers several brilliant and articulate critics of the status quo, such as Fintan O’Toole, Anne-Marie Hourihane and Gene Kerrigan, as well as scourges of the bankers, builders and politicians on the take, such as Shane Ross, Frank Macdonald and Colm Keena. The formidable Irish commentariat is as incisive and opinionated as it has ever been, but is anything changing?
Not, apparently, in the political configuration. In the general election of early 2011, Fianna Fáil received a historic drubbing – effectively wiped out in Dublin, humiliatingly reduced elsewhere in the country – while a Fine Gael–Labour coalition assumed government, hog-tied to austerity measures and swingeing spending cuts, thanks to the commitments made by its predecessor. While the rabbit-in-the-headlights pronouncements of Cowen and Lenihan, who routinely denied that an international bailout was on the cards while it loomed ever more inevitably, have since been repeated by equally inept politicians in other European countries, this effrontery struck a particularly infuriating note in Ireland, and the politicians were duly punished. Fianna Fáil, the once-hegemonic party built by Eamon de Valera, seemed effectively to have been destroyed; there was much talk of a domesticated Sinn Féin, perhaps together with an Irish Labour party restored to some kind of social-democratic rationale, reconfiguring the face of Irish politics.
Two years later, however, this chimera has disappeared like so many others. Fianna Fáil is still in opposition but leading in the polls; an astute new leader, Micheál Martin, has banished the grotesque figures of his predecessors to the attic while stage-managing a low-key, but notably successful, annual 2013 party conference. Meanwhile, the government of Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore bobs along in the slipstream of the continuing Eurocrisis. Still, the people stay off the streets.
In Ireland’s past history, a coming change has often been heralded first in the cultural sphere. This is most obvious in the early years of the 20th century, when innovations in drama, literature and Gaelic revivalism presaged a wider radical critique of the status quo, eventually displacing constitutional nationalism altogether. In the view of WB Yeats, who was centrally involved, the ‘long gestation’ of the Irish revolution was grounded in a seismic shift of literature and art.
What is happening in Irish culture today? The Irish government, nervously eyeing one of the few areas of national life apparently untainted by the shocks and revelations of the last five years, is wont to claim that here – at least – the country can still boast a world-class export record. With the banking system destroyed, sovereignty subsumed into the EU, and emigration and poverty back at 1980s levels, the Irish can still ‘do’ culture. So it has been claimed at the annual meetings of the Global Irish Economic Forum, where it is argued that for all the traumas of recent years the country can still count on ‘cultural capital’ and ‘creative investment’ to maintain its international profile and reputation.
This was recently emphasised by a high-level conference at Dublin Castle called ‘Culture and Heritage Tourism: an emerging economic engine?’ Festivals of one sort or another and museum gate-numbers are frantically canvassed as a new service industry. Much effort has been put into a tourism/culture initiative for the summer of 2013 called ‘The Gathering’, an umbrella under which visitors and returned emigrants are to be welcomed to the country and encouraged to spend money in a variety of ways: dance competitions, food festivals, yoga schools and the like. However, the film star Gabriel Byrne, who had previously acted as a cultural ambassador for Irish initiatives abroad, spoiled the party by resoundingly denouncing the project as exploitative. And it seems ironic that the name of the enterprise echoes the Irish novelist Anne Enright’s Booker-winning study of death, dislike, dishonesty and dysfunctionality in an Irish family.
In fact, the worlds of Irish politics and Irish culture exist in parallel universes. A series of philistine or distracted ministers for the arts, whose portfolio is periodically gathered up with sport, tourism and other miscellaneous responsibilities, have made it embarrassingly clear that their interests lie elsewhere, while influential civil servants have over the last year or so reduced the powers and scope of organisations such as Culture Ireland, a semi-state body with a brilliant record of promoting creative new initiatives. The government has also short-sightedly removed the autonomy of institutions such as the National Library and the National Museum, in the interests of ‘rationalisation’ (as well as radically downgrading the Environmental Protection Agency). Above all, constant reductions in the budgets of the Arts Council are threatening the existence of the theatre, opera and dance companies which have transformed the cultural life not only of Dublin, but also – through commitments to touring programmes, as well as the setting up of local companies – the country at large. During the balmy days, there were moves towards a proper national heritage organisation, equipped with money and ‘teeth’, to protect the environment and the threatened beauties of Irish architecture; there were calls for an overarching institution, like the British Council or the Alliance Française or the Goethe Institute, to represent Irish culture abroad. There seems little chance of that now.
What does seem to be happening is an articulation and analysis of resentment, anger and rage in art and culture at a less ‘official’ level, as evidenced in a swathe of projects in visual art, theatre and performance, and literature. Some of these have recently been intriguingly profiled in a film by Donald Taylor Black called Skin in the Game, shown at the Cork Film Festival last November; others are presented and monitored by a project called ‘The Future State of Ireland’, which started as a symposium at Goldsmith’s College, London, last year and continues an active existence on the web. It features hard-hitting and provocative reflections of the current Irish malaise through performance art, film, photography and other forms of artistic commentary. The Ireland of no-go ‘ghost estates’, derelict cityscapes, abandoned public projects, and alienated and demoralised youth is projected in images that insistently lodge in the imagination. Performance art duo Kennedy Browne produced a haunting film of mock interviews to illustrate The Migration of Capital – human capital, reminding us that even three centuries ago Jonathan Swift’s acerbic commentary on his native land stressed that a country’s wealth is its people.
In Skin in the Game, an artist builds a house constructed of decommissioned banknotes, inserted into a redundant and pretentious ‘prestige building project’ in Dublin’s Smithfield Market. Images recur, of deserted building estates and unfinished business HQs in docklands looking eerily beautiful, of ghost shops shuttered-up in ex-chic streets, while abandoned envelopes pile up on the doormat. To answer the question ‘Where are the people?’ these images are counterpointed with studies of emigrants on the point of farewell, a classic subject of Victorian genre paintings made relevant once more.
This kind of commentary is also reflected in Irish theatre, where the state of the new-old nation has been explored in a number of striking ways. In April, the avant-garde Dublin theatre company Rough Magic revived Digging for Fire, a powerful 1991 play by Declan Hughes, which anatomised Ireland on the cusp of what would be called the Celtic tiger. Brilliantly prescient, it suggested, back then, a country unsure of where it stood in terms of prosperity, post-Catholic morality, a culture based on advertising and shock media, the end of emigration as an inevitable option, and the Americanisation of business. Was Ireland to be ‘a folksy little village’ or ‘the 51st state in terminal stages of urban breakdown’? Above all, one of the characters demands, ‘how can you live in a country that doesn’t care about lies?’
Seeing the play again last month, against the background of the two rollercoaster decades since its first performance, I cannot have been the only person for whom these interrogations seemed relevant in a new way. The answers are not coming from the politicians, or from any other sector of the shell-shocked Irish establishment. It seems likely that the questions will be raised, and responses floated, from elsewhere, from what Yeats called ‘the cellars and garrets’, where artists and social radicals mingle on the margins of respectable life. Whether the evident anger that fuels them will be transmuted into the mainstream of Irish life, or find its own outlet, remains to be seen.
This article appears in issue 20.1 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, crossposted with thanks.