I’m going to step away from my normal subject matter for once today. You’d have to have been living in a hole on the dark side of an utterly deserted island to have missed the fact that Ireland is, not to put too fine a point on it, financially up the creek.
It’s hard to avoid the news that the IMF have hit town and are not even going to lay a wreath on the grave of the Celtic Tiger. We’ve had the boom times and are now facing the bust.
I don’t write about the economy. The only stories I cover tend to be the ones that are sparked by the money running out. Even though both my books are about millionaires, when you’re writing about murder, even a farcical quasi attempt at one, money is never anything more than set dressing. Death is the same whether it takes place in leafy suburbia or in a squat. It’s egalitarian that way.
But it’s hard to ignore what’s going on in Ireland at the moment. Ireland’s party is over and the hangover has hit. We’re left with a shambles of a government and a lot of lessons still to be learnt. Ireland is the teenager with Europe, caught running up the phone bill and about to be denied car privileges for the foreseeable future. The recession we’re in the middle of has hit the world but it’s knocked us for six. Suddenly we discover that when the money was there the bills weren’t paid and the debt collectors are knocking on the door.
But what brought us to this point after so many years of prosperity? Why were the health and education systems left to fall into disrepair while the population bought holiday homes in far flung places and patio heaters bristled in every back yard? When I think about the situation this beautiful country has got itself into my heart bleeds. The situation we’ve found ourselves in has a feeling of inevitability and that’s not just because the party went on too long and we all succumbed to a national orgy of excess. The problems have been there for almost as long as the republic.
Right from the start the writing was perhaps on the wall. A health service funded by an illegal gambling operation for example. The Irish Hospital Sweepstakes were famous for a flutter across the world and Ireland ended up with an enviable network of hospitals across the country. Now those hospitals are closing or scaled down one by one. The Sweepstakes themselves ended up in a sad little scandal as it was discovered that even when the cause was a noble one corruption wasn’t far behind.
I remember listening to an episode of the old BBC radio comedy show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again. The show starred John Cleese and The Goodies, Bill Oddie, Graham Garden and Tim Brooke Taylor. In an episode from the 60s which involved a skit about a trip to Ireland they made a crack about finding the Irish Government sitting in a woodland glade with brown paper bags full of money. Now before all my Irish readers jump on me for referencing an Irish joke by a British show I’ll point out that it’s the subject matter of the joke I’m interested in here. The brown paper envelopes in the 60s…so reminiscent of the one businessman Ben Dunne handed former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, eliciting the now immortal response “Thanks a million big fella” back in 1991.
Then there’s the offshore gas deposits that would provide enough money to give Ireland a very nice little nest egg indeed. But they were sold off to Shell by Minister Ray Burke (who’s since been jailed for corruption in other, unrelated, matters) in the late 1980s.
A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the government (who for most of the independence of the State have comprised of Fianna Fail, with or without a minor coalition partner) have plundered the country for every cent they could get while investing as little as possible of the country’s money into the services that make a functioning economy. The observer could very well have a mental image of a robbery interrupted. As the lights come on in a bare wood panelled room the black clad robbers are stuffing as much loot into their pockets as they can before the cops arrive. There’s a filing cabinet overflowing with rifled papers, some of which are smouldering in the empty grate. When the cops do arrive our robbers fall back on tried and tested denials. “It wasn’t me Gov, no one saw me do it. You can’t prove nothing.”
Of course I’m not the casual observer. I live here and work here. It’s hard to build a fantasy scenario when you’re afraid of how much the looming budget is going to dig into your pay packet. Something really fundamental’s going to have to change here if things are going to get better and stay better. Ireland is a wonderful country, and don’t let anyone tell you different. But it’s been run into the ground by a load of people who shouldn’t have been let near a business let alone a whole country. For a republic that was born out of so much idealism it’s heartbreaking to see it brought so low. Greed and ineptitude has won out and now all that’s left is to pick up the shattered pieces. Let’s hope something better rises out of the wreckage and Ireland can learn from past mistakes.