Conor Ryan: The Celtic tiger is losing its teeth and seeking refuge in religion

'Another abortion debate will distract attention from concerns about health and transport services'
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The Irish soccer team returned from Iran last week a step nearer the World Cup. The traditionalist Gaelic Athletics Association scrapped its notorious Rule 21, which prevented Northern Ireland police playing hurling or Gaelic football. And Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, still wins plaudits for pushing IRA decommissioning. Yet beneath this modernising façade, the Celtic Tiger is losing its roar.

The economy got the jitters after 11 September. Predictably, Aer Lingus is fighting for its life and has to shed 2,000 staff. Unemployment is rising and may double over two years. Hundreds of jobs go each week, many in the media and hi-tech industries that gave the Tiger its teeth. House prices are falling. Economic growth, averaging 8 per cent since 1995, could fall below 2 per cent next year. The government is abandoning promised tax reforms and borrowing for the first time since 1997, and cutting back on many of its spending plans to pay for school and hospital commitments.

But Ahern is taking refuge in Catholic nationalism. He plans another abortion referendum (to tighten the ban up a bit) ahead of next year's general election. And he recently presided over the reburial of 10 IRA martyrs from the early 1920s in a mawkish ceremony reminiscent of an earlier age. Coincidentally, the Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Desmond Connell, had to apologise recently for insulting his Protestant counterpart by suggesting that Archbishop Walton Empey was not one of his church's "high-flyers" and that he "wouldn't have much theological competence". These events had uncomfortable echoes of the time when one of Connell's predecessors, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, was Archbishop of Dublin and Eamon De Valera was running Ireland.

As archbishop from 1940 to 1972, McQuaid banned Catholics from "Protestant" Trinity College and vetoed everything from censorship to health legislation. His career coincided with that of his friend, De Valera, founder of Ahern's Fianna Fail party, Taoiseach from 1932 until 1959 (barring short interruptions by two coalition governments) and president from then until 1973. De Valera saw his people on St Patrick's Day 1943 during the country's wartime neutrality as "satisfied with frugal comfort [who] devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit" enjoying "the laughter of comely maidens". This set the tone for decades, where the Church ruled on social and moral issues and the Irish economy did little to stir itself. Narrow nationalism was the prevailing political orthodoxy. Yet the country had little cause for smugness: more than 400,000 Irish young people emigrated in the 1950s, mostly to Britain.

Only in the 1960s did Ireland open up economically. But it took three more decades before divorce was legalised and contraception made freely available. The election of Mary Robinson, a liberal human rights lawyer, as president, in 1990, suggested Ireland had come of age.

Remarkable economic growth saw emigration giving way to immigration for the first time. The Good Friday Agreement buried irredentist nationalism, as the republic's territorial claim on the North was dropped. Even the Catholic Church's power was reduced after a series of scandals.

Now the Church is reasserting itself. Catholicism may have lost many adherents, yet 64 per cent still attend weekly mass nationally, three times the European average. Huge crowds emerged to witness the 78-day tour of a casket containing the bones of the 19th-century French nun, St Therese of Lisieux, earlier this year. Cardinal Connell's appointment by Pope John Paul in February itself reflected a new conservatism. In 1997, Connell called the decision of President Mary McAleese (herself a staunch Catholic) to receive communion in a Protestant cathedral "a sham".

Connell is also a strong advocate of a third abortion referendum. Though abortion is illegal, special protection for the unborn child was inserted into De Valera's 1937 constitution in 1983, by a two-to-one majority. The wording caused problems. So another referendum in 1992 accepted that Irish women could still travel to Britain for abortions, following a case where a 14-year-old rape victim was prevented by court injunction from doing so. But voters left open the question of whether risk of suicide was sufficient grounds for termination. Catholic bishops and conservative independent Dail deputies (whose votes the government needs) have long since wanted that ambiguity closed. Hence this latest ballot.

There is scant evidence that Irish hospital practices have changed on abortion, although Irish medical council guidelines recently ended total ethical opposition to abortion, accepting it where there was "a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother". And one poll found that 62 per cent of Irish voters believed some of the nearly 7,000 Irish women who travel to Britain each year for abortions should be facilitated at home. Even so, Bertie Ahern should win a referendum: only 37 per cent support abortion on grounds of potential suicide.

Yet Ahern is no Fianna Fail traditionalist. Separated from his wife, Ahern lives with his partner Celia Larkin, who accompanies him to official functions (not always without diplomatic incident). He has modernised his party, distancing it from the sharp practices of his mentor, former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, who was recently dragged through the courts on tax evasion charges. Ahern abandoned traditional Irish neutrality in the war on terror. He has presided over remarkable economic progress (though public service improvements have been slower). And before the recent reburials, he seemed to have little time for nationalist shibboleths.

In part, that's why today's Ireland still feels dynamic. Change may be more deep-seated than it seems. Though the economy is jittery, it remains among the strongest in the developed world. Aer Lingus may have problems, but Ryanair posted profits up 39 per cent. Young people are well educated and the apparent strength of the Church has caveats too: attendance at mass is "very important" to only 14 per cent of young people compared with 76 per cent of pensioners.

Ahern may simply be playing politics. Another divisive abortion debate will distract attention from concerns about the Irish health and transport services – and the economic slowdown – in the run-up to the general election. The reburial ceremony aimed to prevent his Republican supporters defecting to Sinn Fein (which could win half a dozen seats next year). He is right to worry after Gerry Adams's success on a prime-time RTE debate on Friday night. But it's a dangerous game. If he is not careful, Bertie Ahern could undermine the strengths of today's Ireland – and lose any credit for the economic and social progress of the late 1990s. Before it is too late, he must realise those gains are too important to be sacrificed for cynical electoral advantage.