Chapter 4: Modern Model States
The Celtic Tiger
Ireland was synonymous with emigration. Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries Ireland’s biggest “export” was its people; they were desperate to escape the wretched conditions of their homeland. Only recently was this trend reversed, with Irish émigrés returning to work in the republic’s burgeoning hi-tech and other industries.
In absolute numbers, the Irish immigrants were not large; there were far more Chinese and Indians who emigrated. But as a percentage of their home population, the number of Irish who left was truly staggering. During the Great Famine of 1845-48, out of a population of eight million, two million left: one in four! Imagine what would have happened had a quarter of China’s population left!
Today Ireland is recognized as the largest exporter of software. Among aficionados of fine glassware, Ireland is the source of Waterford crystals. To many Malaysians, Ireland is one of their destinations of choice for university education, especially for would-be doctors.
This remarkable transformation occurred within a period of a generation or two, well within the memories of some currently living. The transformation began in 1959 when Prime Minister Sean Lemass, replacing his ageing old-fashioned predecessor, began a process of economic development by welcoming foreign investments. A common enough strategy for any newly independent country, but for Ireland it was a major change. By 1973 Ireland had joined the European Community, the precursor of the European Union (EU). With that Ireland changed from an inward-looking nation obsessed with nationalism into an equal member of the EU, confidently looking forward to the newly globalized world.
For centuries Ireland was part of England. It came into its own after the obligatory “war of independence” in 1921. To be sure, only part of the island is independent, the mainly Catholic southern counties. The northern six counties remain part of Britain and continue to be a source of much grief, both to the British as well as the residents of Northern Ireland, Protestants and Catholic alike. This partitioning is hotly debated in Ireland even to this day, with one side accusing the other of treachery and selling out. To put things in perspective, Ireland is only slightly larger than Sri Lanka. And the Sri Lankans too are thinking of partitioning their war-weary wretched little island between the Singhalese and Tamils.
Ireland may be independent, but the colonized mentality and the consequent excessive nationalism it bred persisted long afterwards. This uneasy relationship between colonizer and colonized is best captured by the movie Titanic, chronicling the maiden voyage of the luxury liner that was sunk by an iceberg on its way to New York. The ship was carrying the English gentry on holidays, and hordes of Irish immigrants seeking a new life in the New World.
The memorable and recurring scenes were of the rough and uncouth Irish hero confined below deck together with the rest of his countrymen, while the cultured heroine and her fellow English aristocrats were safely ensconced on the luxurious upper decks, separated physically and presumably upwind from the messy crowd below. That such a negative portrayal of the Irish did not evoke much protest reveals how far the Irish have come. I am sure had the movie been shown a generation earlier there would have been howling protests of unfair stereotyping.
As a reflection of the time, the movie does indeed capture the mood and ambience accurately. At the time of the Titanic, signs like “No Irish Need Apply” were prominently displayed in New York, London and elsewhere, perhaps even at the construction site of the Titanic itself. Today, America has seen two presidents who claimed Irish ancestry (Kennedy and Reagan). Mary Robinson, the former Irish President, is a top Human Rights honcho with the United Nations.
When Ireland became independent it went through a period of stagnation and civil strife, a fate shared by many newly independent countries. Having been released from under the less-than-benign English rule, the Irish did not have much desire to be associated with any foreigner. They became inward looking and self preoccupied. The ever dominant Catholic Church became even more entrenched in the lives of the Irish. It is said that Ireland suffered from two forms of colonialism: one from London, and the other, Rome. When they got rid of the first, the second became even more powerful, as if to fill the vacuum left by London.
A 1937 constitutional referendum reaffirmed the supremacy of the Church. Among its provisions was making blasphemy a crime. (Three quarters of a century later in Malaysia, PAS is considering a similar archaic legislation!) The Catholic Church in Ireland may have become stronger and richer because of its “special” position, but the Irish continued with their worldly misery.
The other effect of the ascendancy of the Church was that the few remaining Protestants felt increasingly out of place. They too emigrated, taking with them their skills, capital, and enterprising spirit, the very key elements Ireland needed badly. Today non-Catholic Irish remain an insignificant minority, whereas at one time they were as many as a fifth of the population.
Ireland’s modernization began under Lemass. It became outward looking, welcomed foreign investments, and adopted free trade and less protectionism. It was ready to throw its lot with the emerging European Common Market. The immediate effect of that membership was the bonanza Ireland received in equalization payments and enhanced price support for its farm products. Instead of depending on the lousy prices the British were paying, Ireland was now getting higher European prices plus subsidies for its agriculture.
Trade with Europe and elsewhere expanded. Whereas in 1960 Britain took nearly 70 percent of Ireland’s exports with barely 7 percent going to Western Europe, by 1987 exports to Britain dropped to 34 percent and the European Union increased to 39. Ireland was finally breaking its ties with, or more correctly its dependency on Britain. Ireland may have been independent since 1921, but for the next half a century it remained essentially a client state of Britain, at least economically.
Being bound to the world has its ups and downs. Ireland is now no longer sheltered from global events. Economic woes in Europe and America directly impact her exports and economy. On the whole this outward turn brings immense prosperity. Although Ireland’s per capita income still lags behind those of many EU states, its living standards are up there. More significantly, its people are no longer emigrating, at least not in droves.
The Irish are serious about attracting foreign investments. In addition to excellent infrastructures, Ireland offers low corporate tax rate of only 10 percent, as well as capital grants of up to 60 percent. It also has a highly educated English-speaking work force, a plus for American companies.
Next: The Celtic Tiger (Cont’d)