Sunday, July 31, 2005

We shoot, they score

You might have missed the initial story that a possible permanent peace was breaking out in Ireland, after all, on the cover of my daily newspaper on July 29th, the top story, giant central photo and biggest headline were busy bemoaning the rather abrupt departure of Hockey Players’ Association boss, Bob Goodenow.
I somehow managed to contain my empathetic grief long enough to glance at the sideline story which caught my eye with a smaller headline: “IRA gives up armed struggle”.
Heaven knows how the laying down of weapons after 36 years of deadly insurgency in Northern Ireland (not to mention the pain and death inflicted by some of Ireland’s angriest sons abroad) could compete with “A legacy of being unappreciated” (the story detailing the deep disappointment felt by the ousted negotiator, one of a number of obscenely rich men tussling night and day over the fortunes of a number of other obscenely rich men, who in turn make their money mostly by literally tussling… on ice) but bless Ireland, plucky little headline maker, it did catch my attention and the story, though possibly long anticipated and less surprising than the departure of Goodenow, may be just the teensiest bit more significant.
Though the language surrounding the statement made by Sinn Fein has been (and continues to be) parsed to eke out the most straightforward nuggets (does this mean that the war is over? is it the end of the Irish Republican Army itself?) and there is some argument over these not exactly trifling details, that the leadership has “formally ordered an end to the armed campaign” that the individual units have been ordered to dump arms and work through “exclusively peaceful means” seems reason enough to rejoice. How about that? A war has ended. Peacefully. Geez.
But it shouldn’t be so surprising; after all, Ireland has been pulling a fairly substantial number of positive stories out of its bright green leprechaun’s hat lo’ these many years.
With an economy that falls second only to Luxembourg of all European Union signatories (remind me to check out just what it is Luxembourg does that is so seriously profitable), a group that includes lesser lights such as Britain, Germany and France, Ireland is experiencing not a renaissance, but a re-birth – a re-birth that through the most diligent of prenatal preparation and postnatal care, bears all the hallmarks of a nation united in explosive growth and prosperity for years to come.
And what did they do? Why, they did all the things your father ever insisted upon: they examined their situation ruthlessly and honestly, made decisions that were difficult or unpopular in the short term, stuck by their plan and continued (and continue) to innovate and build upon those successes.
More than that, and really at the core, they did it with the support and inclusion of the population, whose substantial personal gains are the engines that drive the ongoing ascension of the nation’s collective fortunes.
It didn’t happen overnight. After the second world war when the rest of the western world was gearing up for postwar prosperity, Ireland continued to molder in the past, retaining protectionist barriers and presiding over a national balance sheet that reflected an unhealthy balance of agricultural exports – a full 30% in 1960, mostly animals – against manufactured exports that topped out at a pathetic 19% of the GDP.
The plan (or more accurately, the non-plan) could only hinder growth, add to inefficiencies and pretty much cement swinging 60’s Ireland into a bog of poverty, debt and few – if any – future prospects.
(Interestingly, farm income now exceeds non-farm income as farmers and their families have moved into part-time farming, adding to their income from professional positions in big cities and small towns alike. There’s an attractive balance there that both pleases with it’s practicality while it maintains a beautiful small Irish countryside – another reason why tourism continues as a growth industry.)
By 1970, Ireland had entered the European Union, and with it began to formulate a long term plan to boost its economy as well as the prospects of its people.
Huge changes were made in a government that supported many rather parochial branches; the poorly run telecommunications sector was ruthlessly snatched from the jealous, fumbling fingers of the outdated bureaucracy and with the assistance of EU investment, replaced with a system that to this day has made it the call centre of choice for multinationals at the top of their respective games.
(Apparently two major airlines that don’t even fly into Ireland have relocated their marketing and reservations centres to Ireland, as have many international medical insurance companies and financial institutions headquartered their document processing operations there.
Note also: nine out of ten top international pharmaceutical companies, sixteen out of twenty medical device manufacturers and seven out of ten software designers are all benefiting the world’s current ‘Economic Tiger’.)
And virtually all of the fixes were far from quick: inefficient public concerns – national air, rail and sea carriers – were absorbing significant proportions of the public investment, while local infrastructure suffered. It may have taken until the mid-eighties to achieve dominion over the budgets, but finally the government broke the airline monopolies with the result that prices fell, tourism increased and another employment sector was beefed up.
But the two biggies – the ones without which any of the supplementary decisions made, no matter how innovative, might have ended up failures – was the decision to fundamentally alter the industrial relations climate by choosing to support employer, union and government equally, opening the door to trust-inducing labour negotiations, wage moderation through agreed upon business tax cuts, whilst committing to ensuring social welfare payments would remain untouched.
You could say ‘Voila!’ right now and consider the government had done its job pretty darn well – but there was more: Ireland further committed to making a college education virtually free and available to all Irish citizens.
An educated citizenry complete with established social partnerships that promote competitiveness and improvement via the promise of further tax cuts through economies of scale and ongoing progress.
Success begets success.
Foreign Direct Investment – a concept many industrialized nations including our own consider with suspicion and often ill-concealed mistrust – is the backbone of country whose citizens benefit enormously from the resulting general economic stability. Multinationals continue to invest because the market created has focused on three important factors: 1. An English speaking population (most of the world’s big business is still conducted in English); 2. ‘First movers’ status (early adoption of key concepts); and 3. Low taxes and a stable rate of corporate profits.
Perhaps Ireland is supported by so many other nations and international corporations because Ireland so fiercely and so committedly supports itself.
It’s interesting isn’t it, that as the west concerns itself with ways and means of getting around poorly negotiated free trade agreements, the cost of education skyrockets out of the reach of all but the wealthiest, and our attention is constantly being diverted by a pointless, cruel and bloody war (and we’re learning nothing of its root causes nor how to deal with them) one small country, once known more for potato famines, internecine religious war, grinding poverty and periods of mass emigration, has transformed itself into a high tech marvel of across-the-board prosperity and international goodwill. And with Northern Ireland potentially leaving behind its ‘Troubles’, further expansion seems the next logical step.
But as you’d imagine, they can’t do everything with the same committed, focused will of the west; while they’ve been messing about, beavering away at ensuring economic and social freedoms, educating their citizens and securing multi-billion dollar international contracts, it seems they haven’t spent much time securing a decent national hockey team.
So we’ve got that going for us.

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