Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Irish eyes are... frowning.

Dublin this February has been raw. The constant topic of conversation has been the icy blast and wet weather. Yet Cicero endures it and pays a visit to the fair city. Well, to be honest, Cicero has never thought that it really was that fair. In its tourism marketing Dublin makes much of its Georgian heritage, but in reality, much of the city has not been not well looked after. Huge mistakes stand out- like the Central Bank building, which towers over the narrow streets of neighbouring Temple Bar like a troll amongst a flock of sheep.

Although on business, I take the opportunity to catch up with some old friends. One, David McWilliams, now has some celebrity in his home country as an economist and as a social commentator. I attend a well attended talk he gives at the new building of the Abbey Theatre. David is a master of the pithy phrase, and he engages the audience with his customary charm- lifting his points from his new book, "The Pope's Children", he provokes and teases his audience with well judged and humorous controversy. The title of the book reflects the peak of the baby boom in Ireland, which came in June 1980- nine months to the week after the visit of John Paul II to this most catholic country.

Later David and I meet for a drink with Konstantin Gurdgiev, an academic economist at Trinity and editor of Business and Finance magazine and his wife, and discuss modern Ireland. Inevitably, the astonishing rise in property prices is an early theme. I note that one side effect has been that so much Irish money has been funneled into international property funds that Ireland has- very ironically, considering its history- become the landlord of of large parts of Europe. David lauds the rise of the Irish credit market. I am not so sure- the evidence of excess that he produces makes me think "over capacity", and to wonder whether the country, in a world where it can not devalue its currency, might not be on the brink of some fairly wrenching economic change. Another theme, across my stay, has been the problems of Dublin's traffic. Living in London, I find it hard to believe that a city so much smaller could have such problems. In fact the sclerosis of traffic reflects years of underinvestment. No coherent metro, no traffic relief schemes, no integrated transport system at all. In short transport in the city is a mess. Yet, as we go for dinner at one of the new, elegant restaurants, it is clear that much else in the city has changed substantially for the better in so many aspects.

As I return to the sleekly modern boutique hotel on the banks of the Liffey, I reflect on the atmosphere. Sure, it is fair to say that Ireland is in much better shape than it used to be, however, there is a sense of unease about the future. In another meeting, the head of one of Dublin's financial services companies is scathing about what he sees as the fecklessness of modern Ireland. The failure to invest, while times have been good, he suggests, has undermined Irish competitiveness. The fact that the Irish are now, for the first time in centuries, attracting immigration is a source of bemused pride, but even here there is still further unease. Although David forecasts a second generation Pole as Irish PM before the mid century, there are those- who have a more purist eye on Irish culture- who are less happy.

The shock of change is leading to a backlash. Where once, the country wanted to be Liberal in the manner of the Nordic countries, now Ireland is looking to its more basic cultural traditions. Subscription to Irish language schools has rarely been higher. Gaelic games are more popular than ever. I sense a country that wants to turn to its unique cultural traditions for reassurance. David suggests that this is a happy outcome, and that it reflects a pick and mix approach to the most eclectic parts of Irish identity. I am not so sure, I sense a country that wants to turn in on itself, that is struggling to accept new immigration, that is nervous about the future. The economic cycle has been kind to the country over the past twenty five years- what happens if Ireland faces a more challenging economic environment? I see no answer, but am troubled.

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