Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Ireland

We’ve just returned from a very nice vacation to the Emerald Isle.  We circumnavigated the island, with stops in Dublin, Cork, Killarney, Clare-Galway, Donegal, Belfast (UK), and back to Dublin in the ten days we were there.  We saw wonderful sights, made new friends, and had fantastic weather.  Ireland truly offers an interesting contrast to our homeland.  For that reason, I feel compelled to put my thoughts down before they wander off into the dark recesses of my memory.
First, as a small nation of about 4 million, it has an incredibly rich heritage, and perhaps because we are tourists that is what is most presented to us, but time after time we were reminded that before the potato famine of 1845 to 1852 they were a nation of 9 million.  In the following 160 years they’ve not been able to replace that loss.  While the information is presented, the unasked and unanswered question is why?  What I take away from this is Ireland has become a nation of little opportunity and emigration has become the accepted path for those young adults seeking a better life for themselves and their family.
The European Union is essential to the survival of Ireland as a nation.  The roads, motorways, and much of the new housing seem to come from the EU in the form of grants and subsidies.  Our tour guide noted that Ireland was hard hit when the economic bubble burst in 2008 and the EU provided them with financing to meet government needs, with an expectation of payback by 2016.  The Conservative government had elected to repay the loans by implementing an austerity budget and not increasing corporate taxes.  This places the burden directly on the people and would, hopefully, encourage new industry to come to Ireland because of its lower tax rate.  Intellectually I can understand this, but looking at the flight of young people and the unemployment rates in the country I am not sure this is anything more than tax protection for corporations and banks.
After six years it appears the people have decided on a change based the governments approach.  The thing that stuck me was the policies that individuals took issue with are things we here in the US take for granted.  For example, the government proposed levying a fee on water use, and implementing property taxes.  The day we arrived was Election Day in Ireland and as a result of these changes the Liberal and Nationalistic parties of the Republic appear likely to assume majority roles in Parliament.
Finally, a few thoughts on “The Troubles.”  As we toured Belfast we were reminded of the peace process brokered by the Clinton Administration and George Mitchell.  It appears, on the surface, to be working and the city is now open and full of an emerging vitality.  But, and this is a big BUT, the underlying causes for the repression and terrorism that was Belfast from the 1960’s through 1998 are still there, lurking just below the surface.  There are walls filled with the calls for freedom of IRA members held responsible for deaths, and other walls filled with art depicting both the IRA and the Ulster Defense Association dressed in their balaclava’s threatening with their assault weapons aimed, and seeking “justice” for their supporters.

As long as the minority Catholic supporters of the Republic and majority Protestant Loyalists continue to exist and thrive within the community I would expect that Belfast is at risk of a new outbreak should something spark the tinderbox.  This is not unlike what we have in America within many of our inner cities, and may just be an unfortunate and natural by-product of high unemployment and social stratification, what I do see as different is a political system working to avoid that situation, while here in America we seem to ignore the potential until it occurs.


Jeannette said...

Not only does a vacation not stop your incisive thinking, it seems to get it going!

W.B. Picklesworth said...

I'm pretty sure that there are more Irish in America than in Ireland.

But here's another idea that I've been wrestling with. The economic success of America and other western countries come at a cultural cost. A person could frame this with a couple of rhetorical questions:

1) Why do you begrudge people the opportunity to rise up from poverty and improve their lives and the lives of their children?

2) Have you seen the effects that dislocation and un-rootedness have had on people, particularly more recent generations? They have no idea who they are - and the family and the church are crumbling as people go lurching about trying to invent meaning for themselves.

I'm pretty sure Ireland isn't the solution. After all, it's accepting handouts from the EU and has been letting go of its Catholic identity somewhat (Divorce being the obvious example of this, from what I hear.) Nevertheless, I find there is something attractive in a country or culture that maintains a strong sense of identity across the generations - even if it it economically poorer than it might otherwise be.

John said...

A set of interesting questions, but I think I would go back to your first idea that the economic success of America and other western countries comes at a cultural cost.

Is it economic success that is the engine for cultural change or is change the by-product of industrialization and technology? Even economically unsuccessful countries are seeing dramatic cultural change with the introduction of new technology.

W.B. Picklesworth said...

I'm not actually a Luddite, but it's tempting.

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