“This will take an awful lot of hardship.”
“It doesn’t take much.”
Both of the foregoing contradictory statements are true of Ireland’s economy and mood of the moment.
On the one hand there is the demoralizing game of pass-the-parcel being played by the politicians with the report of the popularly-termed An Bord Snip Nua which contains the horrific list of cuts which the economists say are needed to get the economy back on track.
On the other is the clearly observable mood of national cheerfulness brought on by a combination of welcome ephemera which have nothing to do with the economy.
The fine weather, the success of the rugby players and U2’s Barcelona opening are helping to offset the gloomy impact of the incessant flow of news bulletins about job losses and yawning trade deficits.
It is many years since Thomas Davis wrote that there was no nation on earth over whom music had such power over as the Irish. He was writing in an era of famine, but he had hit on an essential truth of the Irish character which has carried them through many a fearsome trial and may do so again in today’s circumstances.
The race does have a priceless gift of being able to seize the moment if an instant of distraction or of uplift beckons. The sun appears briefly and, from God knows where, people flock to the beaches. A famous horse runs at a race meeting, and the punters forget the dole queues to spend money no-one knew existed.
The gift of laughter and an ability to make music out of spoons and bones helped the Irish to survive the horrors of mining or ditch-digging in disease-ridden swamps. The obverse side of the medal is of course depression and alcohol and substance abuse.
But here, in the now, where I am on the Aran Islands the sunshine is causing the Irish to revert to tradition attitudes. Instead of going abroad for the sun they are flocking to the Aran Islands to enjoy its spectacular beaches and incredible cliffs. In place of Germans and Scandinavians I now meet clouds of cyclists who pay me the compliment of taking me for an Islander and addressing me in half-forgotten, school book Irish.
But for how long will the sun shine? The sportsmen enthral? The day of reckoning can not be postponed indefinitely. And the passing of the parcel will have to stop sometime.
No soft words
The government somehow managed to get the IMF to tone down its recent report on the Irish economy so that while stigmatizing Ireland for creating the most overheated economy in the developed world, at the same time it still managed to sound vaguely complimentary about how it was dealing with the consequential crisis.
However An Bord Snip contains no soft words. It is the day of reckoning. It contains the precise recommendations for slashing welfare and public service budgets which the government hopes will induce the international financial community to keep Ireland afloat.
Various drafts of its real or imagined contents have been well leaked. They range from cutting children’s allowances, reducing the number of Gardai, dropping some 10,000 superfluous civil servants off the State pay roll to removing certain appendages from members of the Cabinet (a particularly well-received rumor this last).
For some weeks now the publication of the Report’s contents has been expected almost daily. But what has been received instead have been circumlocutory official statements to the effect that: “It is expected that the Report will be presented to the Minister for Finance tomorrow.”
So far tomorrow has not come and the statements about ministerial, presentations are being (correctly) interpreted as code for “Jaysus lads. If we publish that any savings we might make will go on paying riot police.”
This is not an entirely unreal forecast. Already the elderly have taken to the streets over the withdrawal of medical cards and at least one section of the trade union movement, the electricians union, has shown its willingness to disregard government urgings for restraint by serving strike notice, not over the now universal pay cuts, but for a wage increase.
The gardai and civil servants unions might well be expected to respond with demands for thousands of job cuts by exercising the nuclear option. Realistically speaking, a government which has already been ravaged in last month’s local government and European elections could be looking at near total extinction in any forthcoming general election.
And, fears for a general election apart, there is the looming question of the re-run of the Lisbon Treaty. It is generally accepted that a central factor in the electorate’s rejection of the last Lisbon Treaty referendum, which made Ireland the sore thumb of Europe, was anger at the government’s performance.
But there were other considerations such as fears about abortion being introduced to the Republic, the ending of the traditional policy of neutrality and the unlikely, and un-lovely, shared attack on the Treaty from the left-wing Sinn Fein and the right-wing Libertas party.
Since that referendum the Irish government has managed to secure remarkable concessions on the neutrality and other issues from the European Parliament. Moreover both Libertas and Sinn Fein suffered reverses in the recent European elections so there were strong grounds for supposing that in the Lisbon Treaty’s Second Coming, next autumn, the measure would succeed.
Ordinary common sense would appear to dictate that it would pass, if for no other reason than that there is a general realisation that the Republic of Ireland’s continuation as a sovereign State depends on the support of the European bank, but if An Bord Snip were to trigger a bloody-minded reaction on the lines of the electricians action then anything could happen.
And so the Awful and the Cheerful reign over Ireland at the moment. I’m afraid that as the summer fades into winter that rugby alone, or even the exploits of the great Kilkenny hurling team, will not sustain the national mood. But Davis’s words still hold true and after all the Irish spirit did survive the famine and the awful effects of building the canals through the dreadful, fever-infested swamps of New Orleans.
- First published 6th July 2009 at IrishCentral.com