In Roddy Doyle’s novel The Commitments, later adapted by Alan Parker into a successful film, the protagonist Jimmy Rabbitte seeks to inspire his band of budding soul musicians by telling them: ‘The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads. An’ Dubliners are the niggers o’ Ireland. An’ the northside Dubliners are the niggers o’ Dublin. Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.’
Asked in an interview to explain this assertion, Doyle responded: ‘Ireland, and all its members, represents a country that was a colony. So Ireland never quite fits the European patterns: Ireland is different, is darker… Overcoming the legacy of colonization and becoming independent gives the idea that you are second wage, that you are a nigger.’
This is not a fiction writer’s flight of fancy. Ireland’s experience of imperial oppression and economic underdevelopment undoubtedly gave it a unique empathy with the colonized countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America – unique certainly in comparison with the post-imperial powers of Western Europe.
Such solidarity was reinforced by a lingering folk memory of the Famine in the mid-19th century when a million-and-a-half Irish people died of starvation and fever and a further million fled the country. The Great Hunger left deep emotional scars in the Irish national psyche, a syndrome not overlooked by Irish international aid agencies when they drew historical parallels between 1840s Ireland and the developing world in their fundraising efforts.
They were usually knocking on open doors. The Irish have been exceptionally generous when confronted with contemporary famines, consistently donating more per capita than any other European country to emergency-relief programmes such as Live Aid (initiated, of course, by an Irishman called Bob Geldof). This tradition of donating was first developed by the myriad Catholic overseas missions which emerged in the latter half of the 19th century. Even in the mid-1960s, when Ireland was still a largely agricultural country, there existed more than 60 such missions, with around 8,000 personnel deployed throughout the southern hemisphere. Back home, generations of Catholic schoolchildren devoutly raised donations for the ‘black babies’ of Africa.
Mary Sutton of the leading aid agency Trocaire has observed: ‘Much of the inspiration for Ireland’s early interventions in the field of international development co-operation drew explicitly on Ireland’s own historical experience. Seven hundred years of colonization made Ireland unique among the members of the OECD, the rich countries’ club… While others could be assumed to have self-interested motives in relation to developing countries, Ireland’s motives were pure.’
Her colleague Justin Kilcullen, Trocaire’s director, summed up this national self-image when he noted in an article in The Irish Times: ‘Within the European Union, Ireland has a proud tradition, spanning many decades of solidarity, with Africa. As the rest of the world exploited the continent, Ireland was providing support.’
Back in the mid-1960s, reflecting on the workings of the UN (where he was a member of the Irish delegation), Conor Cruise O’Brien drew a sharp distinction between nations that were instinctively imperial and those that instinctively identified with the oppressed, styling them the ‘gloaters’ and the ‘brooders’ respectively. He had no hesitation in placing Ireland squarely in the ‘brooders’ camp.
But in the last few years the Irish have dramatically kicked their habit of brooding on past misfortunes. And they have been encouraged to do so by the new rulers of the global economy, such as the IMF and the World Bank, who are fond of citing Ireland as a model of what can be achieved if countries slash their corporate taxes and open the floodgates to foreign investment.
In the crude terms by which the IMF measures national progress Ireland today is considered incredibly successful. Having posted exceptional growth rates for much of the last decade – exceptional certainly by European standards – its economy has been branded the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and its exchequer is awash with cash. This is a far cry from the fiscal crisis confronting it in the mid-1980s when its national debt seemed to be spiralling out of control – and when smug commentators in London referred to ‘Third World Ireland’ and Bob Geldof branded it a ‘Ba-na-na Republic’.
But even since the Celtic Tiger started to roar, successive Dublin governments have persistently failed to meet the UN target for overseas development aid, that is 0.7 per cent of gross national product (GNP). Year in, year out, the generosity of the Irish public towards the world’s poor has been nowhere near matched by its tightfisted politicians.
Today, well into the most spectacular and sustained boom in its history, the Republic is, at 0.35 per cent of GNP, still just halfway towards the UN goal. Some have taken a stand. In October 1998 the minister of state with responsibility for overseas aid, Liz O’Donnell, threatened to resign over the level of the aid budget. ‘I have stated in plain language that our present level of aid is unsatisfactory,’ she told Ireland’s parliament, the Dail, at the peak of her exasperation.
O’Donnell was persuaded by party colleagues to stay in her post even after the Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, all but froze her department’s budget. And her persistence appears finally to have borne fruit. Dublin is belatedly moving up the donor league table. Ireland’s aid programme this year will be 25-per-cent up on last year, rising to $234 million. And it is on course to reach $328 million (0.45 per cent of GNP) by 2002. The announced increase was welcomed by the development agency Concern as a positive interim step towards reaching the 0.7-per-cent target by 2007.
That is now the Irish Government’s publicly stated ambition. A pledge to meet it was made to the UN last September by Premier Bertie Ahern, who also spotlighted the importance of overseas aid to both Africa and Ireland at the EU-Africa Summit in Cairo: ‘Support from the EU through its regional development and cohesion funds played a role in our current economic success,’ he acknowledged.
The new aid policy has already paid handsome diplomatic dividends. The argument that Ireland could provide a bridge between the developed and developing worlds was one of the key cards played by the Irish Government in its recent successful campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council.
But it is not all boom and bloom in Dublin. It has been deemed necessary to direct a proportion of the increased overseas aid into an educational campaign to counter racism on the domestic front. One major effect of the country’s sudden economic prosperity is that the island has become for the first time a magnet for refugees. Although many of these migrants (mainly but not exclusively from eastern Europe) offer a solution to the country’s severe labour shortage, they have all too often been made to feel distinctly unwelcome in the ‘Land of a Thousand Welcomes’. Hostility was fuelled initially by the popular press in Dublin, which portrayed the new arrivals as both a burden on the social-welfare system and a serious potential law-and-order problem.
Mercifully, the media has adopted a more responsible tone towards asylum seekers in recent times, reminding aggrieved members of the public that few can match the Irish in the economic-migration stakes. Mass emigration has usually served as the main social safety-valve whenever the Irish economy has been in the doldrums.
But those days of economic failure are over, according to the dominant neoliberal political élite in Dublin, who were delighted when US President Clinton, on his last state visit, lavished praise on them for creating ‘such an open economy’. Bertie Ahern reciprocated by pointing out that ‘the Celtic Tiger has been called a part-American Tiger with a green face’ – an appreciative reference to the 470 US-owned companies which have established branch plants in Ireland, mainly in the electronics, information-technology and pharmaceutical sectors. Much of the software driving PCs across Europe is made in Dublin or Galway whilst the ‘wonder-drugs’ Prozac and Viagra are manufactured for European consumption in County Cork.
Such investment has brought unprecedented prosperity to many parts of the Republic, but it is equally clear that the Irish economy has developed a dangerous dependence on US transnationals – a danger suddenly visible now that the US economy has entered another serious cyclical downturn. Sustaining the Irish economic miracle will be a massive struggle for the Irish Development Authority, which has netted noticeably few inward-investment projects from America or anywhere else this year.
Meanwhile, Ireland has come to resemble a mini-America in a more disturbing sense. The gap between rich and poor in the Republic is now wider than anywhere else in the Western world except the US. The UNDP’s Human Development Report – the best annual guide to where countries rank in terms of quality of life – shows Ireland to be still languishing in 18th place (Norway knocked Canada off the top spot this year).
Paul Cullen, Development Correspondent of The Irish Times, captured the mounting unease felt by many of his compatriots when he commented: ‘All our economic indices are clicking in the right way; we’re earning more than Germans, Japanese and Britons, yet the report shows that much is not right. Our life expectancy is not as it should be; our society has huge inequalities and massive illiteracy… So have we pursued economic growth at the expense of a more rounded development and an improvement in the quality of life that touches all bases?’
It would seem that Ireland is about to become both a ‘gloater’ and a ‘brooder’ on the global stage. The Dublin Government will no doubt gloat over its new-found prosperity and generosity towards the world’s poor. But, if he is as socially compassionate as he professes, Bertie Ahern will find it hard not to brood on the fact that the brutal inequalities long associated with the ‘Third World’ are becoming an established fact of life in Ireland as well.