In his 1976 poem, ‘A Part of Speech’, Joseph Brodsky says Russian narratives of the future and of history are informed by language, not facts.
“… and when “the future” is uttered, swarms of mice rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece of ripened memory which is twice
as hole-ridden as real cheese”.
Current events in Ireland import his observations to our own milieu.
March and April mark the peak of the Centennial celebrations season in Ireland – the months of remembering, interpreting and occasionally re-writing the already troubled historical narratives of the nation to reflect the distant 1916 Easter Rising. The ripened memory is hole-ridden by interpretations and narrations, though the factual history of the event could easily be explained in simple timelines.
Thus the focus of many analysts has drifted from the original Easter Rebellion to the future. The culmination of this was a rather simple, yet far-reaching, observation by President Michael D Higgins that modern Ireland is a society that has yet to achieve the core perceived objectives of the Rising: the story of Ireland is still being told. This notion of Irish sovereign incompleteness, one hundred years from the Rising, is an important and complex one.
To some, extracting relevance from the Rising means projecting historical myopia into an evolving future: the ideal of national independence defined by physical boundaries. Nationalist rhetoric, historically apt, but backward-looking, has been one of the significant themes in the Centenary. For others, including myself, relevance is less about the ideals of the original Rebellion, and more about the nature of the Irish state and its elites within the context of the modern reality, framed forcefully by the memory of the Global Financial Crisis.
Put simply, irrespective of the wishes of the 1916 leaders and the generations of Irish national leaders who followed them today’s Ireland is, economically-speaking, a vassal state, dependent on fortunes, choices and policies determined well beyond our shores.
Perhaps the saddest part of this truth is that this state of affairs is the direct outcome of the willful co-opting of Irish elites by our external masters: the technocracies of Europe and the Multinational Corporations.
As in 1916, today Ireland has little control over its own destiny. And just as in 1916, there is only a small minority of the Irish people willing to confront this reality. No matter what the Irish President declares about the ‘Irish story’ being a continuing saga, we are subjects of the world order that our leaders, aided by the silent majority of us, have not the will to alter. Still less the capacity.
Over the hundred years that separate the Easter Rebellion and today, Ireland has travelled an impressive path of economic growth – a path that is still new but which is celebrated today as our major achievement. However, attributing the economic success of today to the struggle for independence in the past is a false narrative. Apart from the fact that on average Irish citizens were doing well before the Rising, asserting Ireland’s economic independence from the UK required a period of painful and exceptionally protracted misery that stretched from the Rebellion into the early 1970s.
When we finally did get growth to ourish, we squandered its fruits. And though we have growth it has not yielded independence.
The economic renaissance after 1973, attributed to TK Whitaker-promoted economic openness and FDI-focused development, did not mark meaningful economic sovereignty for the country. Rather it represented a shift in Irish economic dependency from reluctant participation in UK-centric trade, investment and labour markets to an enthusiastic embrace of the EU as an opportunity for the beggarthy-neighbour model of tax arbitrage policies and to comprehensive prostration to corporate markets, first represented by the ‘civilised’ foreign direct investors, lately – by the blackmail-wielding bondholders and vultures.
The fruits of 100 years of striving for independence is an economic culture of dependency. Which, in cold and impersonal language of economic statistics, looks like this:
In 2014, Ireland spent more than the EU and euro-area average as a percentage of GNP – 0.87-0.88% – on social housing, against the Euro area’s roughly 0.72%. In return, we got a spiralling homelessness crisis and a ratcheting length and duration of social housing queues. We posted the second highest GDP per capita figure, based on EU purchasing power parity, but only average (for the euro area) levels of actual real individual consumption. We got the fastest growing economy in the EU, with OECD-topping investment figures.
But we also have average or below average growth rates in construction spending (+3.1% in the first nine months of 2015 compared to the same period of 2014) and our companies’ investments in machinery and equipment was down almost 18%. In fact, January- September 2015, total investment growth, excluding intellectual property – domain of smoke and mirrors generated by the tax-shifting MNCs – was down 9.5%, just as official total investment figures for the economy were up 26.8%.
Consider the following simple exercise. We used to believe that the true state of the Irish economy was described by our Gross National Product (GNP) because, unlike GDP, it ‘accounts’ for profit expatriation out of Ireland by our hyperactive MNCs. Official national accounts tell us that in 2015 Irish real GDP and GNP grew by 7.8% and 5.7% compared to 2014. Stripping out the increase in Intellectual Property investments over the first nine months of 2015 compared to the same period of 2014 implies GDP growth of 3.3% and GNP growth of 0.5 %. That’s right: GNP growth, if MNC-led ‘domiciling’ of foreign patents and research and development outputs into Ireland is stripped out of our national accounts, implies the Irish economy remained basically flat.
In human terms this manifests itself in families losing their homes to vulture funds – a process actively facilitated by our sovereign leaders. It looks like patients in hospital corridors and on trolleys and names on years-long waiting lists, as investment increases are swallowed by inefficient management practices which are actively facilitated by our sovereign leaders. The state of the economy above is attested to in lavish though somehow jaded bank adverts and property promotions once again commanding our media, while the banks prolong their clumsy extend-and-pretend dance around mortgages arrears. Credit to the real economy shrinks and the cost of private credit rises relative to ECB funding rates and government debt yields, as our leaders toast their governance successes.
President Higgins is correct: one hundred years after the Easter Rebellion, Ireland remains a sovereign project still in progress – incomplete, and increasingly likely to remain so over the next hundred years. Hegemonies change, vassals remain.
Or, as Brodsky said in the same poem:
“Life, that no one dares
to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,
bares its teeth in a grin at each
encounter. What gets left of a man amounts
to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech”.
And the part that remains is certainly not macroeconomic statistics – dodgy ones.