So you think they're watching?
We do like to think of ourselves as a special little country. And in that we're not unusual. All countries think they're special; such self-regard being nothing more than a scaled up version of an entirely natural narcissism. There being no mirror big enough to check a nation's hair in, foreign opinion on our affairs is a handy proxy for that gigantic looking glass humanity never got around to building. Which is all well and good, but Ireland has lately becoming obsessed with foreign opinion, convinced the world's eyes are tracking our every move. Commentators warn us to stay in unless we're fully decked out in our Sunday best, for fear a ragged hem here or a scuffed shoe there will bring the full weight of international opprobrium down upon our heads. Get out the trackies and put down the shoe polish, says Jason Walsh, because nobody's looking.
There is an idea abroad. The idea that negative reports about Ireland in the foreign press are damaging to the country. Politicians and commentators have leapt onto the airwaves to bemoan the negative Nellies in the press whose dispatches are, mysteriously, making Ireland look like a country with a broken banking system, mass unemployment and a grim future of austerity and privation. Imagine that.
As someone who writes these supposedly negative reports, this latest twist in the story of Ireland’s slump was obviously of great interest to me.
The main problem is, it just doesn’t ring true. In fact, as far as the mainstream press goes, Ireland is only of interest either as a curiosity or as an avatar for a bigger picture, such as the potential decline of the EU.
Sometimes the presentation of stories is annoying, no question. If I see another picture of an IMF official walking past a beggar I may start screaming. It’s not as if said beggar was a banker right up until Chopra and chums first popped-over, chequebooks at the ready. No, the Irish could produce grinding poverty all on their own, even during the boom, thank-you-very-much. But clever-clever images accompanying news of the latest cuts are not what the Irish elite and those who repeat their stunning insights are whingeing about. What Irish people are bothered by is anything negative being published at all, for fear it makes us look bad.
Well, here’s some news hot off the press: it’s not being published. Seemingly the least self-aware nation in the world, Ireland labours under the illusion that every foreign newspaper is jam-packed with results from the latest Irish opinion polls and detailed descriptions of the minute changes in economic policy brought about by the new Fine Gael-Labour government.
Well, sorry, but they’re really not.
Let’s talk about ourselves
Gerry Feehily, Donegal born English language editor at PressEurop, a web site that translates and edits stories from across the EU, and Ireland editor at Paris-based weekly Courrier International says interest in his home country is strictly limited to major events.
‘No-one is really interested in dear oul’ Ireland, as you can imagine,’ he says. “There is a lot more [interest in] stuff on Greece, in fact. A factor in this is that the Greeks act-up while we just take it lying down.’
He’s right: by any imaginable standard, riots are more newsworthy than endless moaning.
Countries themselves facing meltdown do pay a bit of attention, but primarily for their own reasons.
Evangeline O'Regan, a Spanish-Irish journalist on the international desk of Spain’s La Gaceta explains: ‘From a Spanish point of view, the press has portrayed Ireland – the rise and fall of both economies was based on the construction sector – as a mirror in which to reflect itself. It’s a case of a domino effect, and Greece and Ireland were the tiles that toppled before Spain. Also, there was a lot of interest in recent general elections because the Fianna Fáil meltdown was seen as a warning sign for Mr. Zapatero.’
It’s a common view – because it is self-evidently true.
‘Ireland wasn't featured much in Croatian news until the bailout and the threat to the euro,’ says Nikolina Sajn, a journalist at Jutarnji List in Croatia. ‘The news exploded and for a while it was all over the media, but usually in the context of whether the euro was doomed altogether. For us it was interesting because Ireland had until then been our ideal of where as a country we wanted to go, and how we should use the EU membership, once we enter the club.
‘But, to be honest, it was usually just daydreaming of using the millions from the EU funds, not much of a serious analysis, because, other than also being a small country, there's not much parallel between Croatia and Ireland anyway,’ she says.
Newspapering over the cracks
My own experience writing for the American press is that Ireland itself is of limited interest except when it tells a bigger story. A story about people, one with universal themes, will beat one about interest rates every time. We can all relate to anger in the face of joblessness or being forced to emigrate. But the idea that the foreign press and its readers are glued to Ireland’s every move is a vainglorious fantasy – and our leaders know this perfectly well.
When Irish politicians, commentators and the sybaritic investment class moan about Ireland getting a bad press they are only interested in a particular kind of press: the financial media.
An article in the Financial Times arguing Ireland is bad place to invest strikes greater fear into their hearts than ten leader columns in the Times of London saying Ireland has taken the wrong path or news stories in Le Monde outlining the sequence of events that saw the country reach for the begging bowl.
The same goes for other business organs such as the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg. Journalists may believe their own propaganda about being the ‘fourth estate’ and ‘speaking truth to power’ but the truth is much less grand(iose). The political class knows better: its backward failure to develop Ireland’s economy means the country is more susceptible than most to any decline in foreign capital washing up on the shores. This, and only this, is what they care about.
Where there has been a surge, now dying down, in general coverage of Ireland it has been patchy and written for reasons other than Fáilte-Ireland inspire misty-eyed love of the ‘Emerald Isle’.
Irish liberals may hang on every word Paul Krugman writes about Ireland in his New York Times column and blog, but anyone who thinks he’s specifically interested in the place is delusional. Krugman, like all columnists, is too busy grinding his own domestic political axe to concern himself with Ireland’s fate.
There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, he’s just doing his job properly: using Ireland’s decline to explore the future of the EU, particularly its relationship with the United States, as well as making sense of American post-crash policy for his readers. After all, news – the plural of new – is not mere tittle-tattle, it’s a product of the Enlightenment and is supposed to provide people with the information they need in order to orient themselves in the world in which they act. In an era when our actions seem entirely meaningless it’s easy to see why so few people now understand this.
Somewhat closer to home, the British press has, to a degree, discovered the existence of the island to its west, but again, entirely for its own reasons.
After decades of covering the place only when a car bomb went off (or covering the endless process of swapping car bombs for a pretend parliament), the Guardian, for instance, has developed an interest in Ireland. Stories appear near daily and the newspaper’s web site is now home to a ‘business blog’ about the country.
One particular treat was Polly Toynbee’s claim that Ireland was not part of the ‘civilised world’ and was engaged in ‘tax piracy’. This is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, Toynbee is frequently mistaken for a radical but in fact not only supported the Blair regime but also, in the 1980s, the right-leaning SDP split from Labour. As such it should come as little surprise that she is closer to a tax collector than a radical reformer. Secondly, it exposed the Little Englander mentality buried under her pseudo-leftist stance. Ireland is not simply a location for tax avoidance; it is also a country with a citizenry who are being put through the wringer by EU diktat. Moreover, low corporate tax regimes are not a uniquely Irish conceit – plenty of British, French and other companies pay next to nothing in tax due to special arrangements of their own.
Ireland’s reliance on its 12.5% corporation tax rate is problematic, but not for the reasons that have Toynbee up in middle-class arms. The problem is that Ireland has fetishised foreign direct investment at the expense of ever developing a productive economy. But Toynbee doesn’t care about that – all she cares about is where her taxes go, and Britain’s contribution to the ECB-IMF ‘bailout’ of Ireland is to her what paying for social services is to other good burghers.
Of course, Toynbee is far from unique in this. In fact, were it not for her cod-leftism her position would almost be worth celebrating as having the virtue of honesty as an expression of national self-interest.
Us and them
It’s not just the native political class that wants to curb negativity about Ireland. This week I conducted an interview with a business owner on the issue of government support for industry. Having spent five minutes (rightly) excoriating Irish industrial policy he suggested I not be ‘too hard’ on Ireland, saying, ‘It never hurts to put on the green jersey.’
This is the same mindset that told us that shopping in the North was ‘unpatriotic’ – not only a throwback to backward Free State nationalism, but also proof positive that making the personal political has been a blind alley.
He is in for a disappointment. The article, which will be published in a few weeks in a well-known business magazine, says Ireland’s economy is decadent, unproductive and lopsided and that Irish business is more interested in rent-seeking than productive investment. In fact, except for the absence of plunder and slavery, it’s hard to make a case for Ireland having ever moved much beyond what Marx (and Adam Smith) called primitive accumulation. The bottom line is this: skipping directly from an agrarian economy that was incapable of supporting the population (during the twentieth century more Irish people lived abroad than at home) to the let’s-pretend post-industrial economy may not have been a terribly smart idea.
How did I manage to get a foreign publication to run such an article, given that I’m arguing they aren’t really interested in Ireland’s woes? Simple. Ireland’s failure to industrialise is a useful avatar for the industrial decline right across much of Europe and the West.
When the readers are confronted with this, they won’t be thinking about us, they’ll be thinking about themselves. Do they care about Ireland? Will it harm the country to publish it? Pull the other one.
Jason Walsh is the Ireland correspondent of the CS Monitor in Boston. He also contributes to newspapers and magazines in Ireland, Britain and various European countries. He is writing here in personal capacity. Visit his web site at: jasonwalsh.ie