Has Ireland become a nation of yes men?

As the Celtic Tiger roared, it defiantly bit back at Europe by rejecting the Lisbon Treaty. On the eve of a new referendum, John Lichfield finds a repeat unlikely in a country left toothless by recession

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:57

Come on a brief tour of Ireland, or as some locals now insist, "Direland". Our first scene is the all-Ireland ploughing championships, a tent city the size of central Dublin near Athy, Co Kildare. Wind-tanned heroes on tractors are cutting the sod in "straight, neat and uniform" furrows.

Inside a lunch tent, Michael, a 47-year-old farmer from Co Kilkenny, is ploughing through a steam-clouded plate of meat and vegetables. When the EU's Lisbon reform treaty was rejected – and therefore frozen – by the people of Ireland 15 months ago, Michael voted No.

The treaty will come back, lightly annotated, to the Irish people in a second referendum next Friday. Michael believes that this time, it is the patriotic duty of every Irish man and woman to vote Yes.

"Jesus, we've no choice. The country's on its knees. You don't want to go rocking the fucking boat. It's European money that's keeping Ireland afloat. Without Europe, we'd have sunk into the Atlantic."

The scene shifts to a bus stop on the outskirts of Tallaght, an "edge city" of shiny glass offices and shops and dull, grey council houses to the west of Dublin. One of the greatest of Irish writers, Flann O'Brien, regarded conversations at Dublin bus stops as a high form of art. A blonde, fortysomething woman in grey track-suit bottoms says: "How's things?" Second blonde, fortysomething woman, in blue track-suit bottoms, replies: "Terrible. The country is in bits. Mick is off to England looking for work. Ger is the lucky one. He's still in jail." I interrupt to ask them about the Lisbon Treaty. They look at me sadly. "Ah, that old thing. We've more to think about than that old thing. Didn't we already say No once? The country is destroyed and that Lisbon's not going to help us, not if you live in Tallaght."

Still, the opinion polls suggest that the Lisbon Treaty will pass this time with something like 60 per cent of the vote. A tour through a recession-ravaged Ireland this week – from the ploughing festival to the serene countryside of South Tipperary, to the streets of working-class outer Dublin – suggest that there may be unpredictable factors still in play.

In the absence of any noticeable Yes campaign, brilliant scare tactics were used by the No campaigners in 2008. A Yes vote, they said, would force abortion on Ireland; conscript young Irish men into a European army; force French tax levels on all Europeans; and surrender Ireland's hard-won independence from Britain to a European super-state.

Much the same arguments are in force this time. The difference is that the fear factor has switched sides. No country in Europe, save Iceland, has suffered from the global recession more bitterly than Ireland. There is a widespread view that, without EU and euro membership, the "only difference between Ireland and Iceland would have been one letter".

Property prices, after years of a breathtaking, speculation-fed boom, have fallen by 50 per cent and may yet fall further. Unemployment has doubled to 12 per cent in a year. The government has a €15bn (£13.8bn) chasm in its finances, equivalent to 11 per cent of gross domestic product. More than 25,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in a year; another 35,000 are threatened. Irish banks are, in effect, defunct and kept alive by government, and European, cash.

There are 70,000 unsold homes in a country of four million people. On the edge of almost every town or large village, you come across an estate of new or half-built houses, for which there is no possible buyer. "Move in now. Pay in 2012," said a cheerful sign beside a development of "luxury, four-bedroomed detached homes" at Abbeyleix.

Fear may be on Lisbon's side this time but there are other factors which make Friday's vote less clear-cut than the polls suggest. First, the country is so distracted by its many other woes that it is not fully focused on the Lisbon referendum.

Almost every lamp and telegraph poll in Ireland has a Yes or No poster, and sometimes both. The Yes posters are so closely grouped in places that – as one writer suggested in the Irish Independent – driving along a street can be like reading the orgasmic section of Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Ulysses. "Yes, yes, yes, yes!"

The endless, eloquent radio chats on which Ireland is hooked tell a different story. Lisbon scarcely gets a mention. The same is true in the pre-radio form of the chat-show: the pub. The dominant topic of conversation is a new body which the government has set up to take €54bn in bad loans off the hands of the banks; Nama, or the National Asset Management Agency. People accept that it may be necessary to use tax-payers' money to save the banks and the country. They fear that Nama is also a wheeze for saving a half-dozen spectacularly insolvent property speculators who are closely connected with the governing party, Fianna Fail.

This is the second factor which could yet skew the second Lisbon vote: popular fury. Ireland feels betrayed by successive Fianna Fail-led governments which are accused, now that the boom has collapsed, of governing in the interests of bankers and developers, not the Irish people.

"They should take every minister and every leading banker and every big property developer and shoot them all," says Colm Daly, a 25-year-old unemployed builder drinking Guinness in a pub near Tallaght. He plans to vote No.

"It is impossible to overstate the mess we are in," says Professor Michael Marsh from Trinity College, Dublin, one of Ireland's most respected political experts. Professor Marsh is one of the first stops on my pre-referendum tour.

Was there ever such a thing as a real boom in Ireland? Was the economic miracle of the 1990s – when Ireland had the fastest growth of any developed country – always an illusion? No, Professor Marsh says.

There was a genuine "Celtic Tiger" boom, which lasted from about 1994 to 2002. This was rooted not in property speculation, but in Ireland's attractiveness to foreign investors: a young, well-educated, English-speaking population; low taxes and lowish wages; government incentives; and – crucially – Ireland's presence in the post-1992, barrier-free European market. In about 2002, he said, this boom deflated, partly because Irish wages were no longer competitive with those in eastern Europe.

Successive governments kept the good times artificially alive by engineering a property boom. As house prices went through the roof, wages soared to keep up with loan payments. The state became dependent on the tax income from real estate sales. Ireland's future was mortgaged on the hope that the bubble would expand forever. In other words, Ireland is suffering from an even more extreme version of what also happened in Britain and in the US.

Professor Marsh believes that there will be a Yes vote for Lisbon, although probably with a less comfortable margin than the polls suggest. Two things have changed this time, he says. "The economy has collapsed and we no longer think, 'sure, aren't we the greatest little country in the world, and couldn't we give a few economic lessons to the Swiss'."

Secondly, there has been no Declan Ganley effect this time. In the first referendum, the eloquent Irish-born, British-educated, Eurosceptic businessman, "made the middle class, middle of the road No respectable," Professor Marsh says.

This time around, Mr Ganley came to the campaign late and his British accent, and ignorance of some things Irish, have grated on many voters. In one BBC radio interview, he constantly referred to the Irish Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, as "Brian Cowens".

Nonetheless, Professor Marsh says, a Yes vote is not a certainty. The result could still go the other way if the middle classes, dazzled by other problems, fail to vote in large numbers and there is a reasonable turn-out among the instinctively anti-European, urban working class (66 per cent of which voted No last time).

I drive to the ploughing festival. Irish farmers were split down the middle in June 2008. This time – despite their own woes – they are 80 per cent for Lisbon. A large crowd has gathered in the European Commission's tent. Are they thirsty for knowledge about the EU? No. They want to see "Rubot", a robot invented by a young Irishman which can solve a Rubik's cube puzzle in 15 seconds.

Another computer nearby offers to send questions to "this EU thingy" in Brussels. Few people seem to have anything much to ask, despite the efforts of a charming young man called Shane Lennon, in a yellow and blue EU sweatshirt. A convinced young Irish European? Not really.

Mr Lennon is an unemployed 26-year-old carpenter from Limerick who has taken a temporary job at the European Commission's tent. He voted No to Lisbon last time and will vote No again, "because we already voted No once and I don't think we should be asked again. And also for mainly personal reasons that I don't want to go into when I am dressed in this sweatshirt".

I drive on to South Tipperary, where I stay with Fred and Liz Binchy, solicitors in Clonmel. Last time, Mr Binchy says, Clonmel was a typical, anti-Lisbon town. "The people who believed in the Yes felt leaderless. There seemed to be no one coming forward to make the arguments properly. This time it's different. There are local business leaders who have taken trouble, and given money, to ensure that the pro-Lisbon argument is heard."

I also visit Noel Davern, a retired Irish European MP from the 1980s. Mr Davern predicts a clear win for the Yes team in Clonmel, a pretty good bell-wether town for the rest of the country. "People know that, without the protection of EU membership, we would be finished."

If the Celtic Tiger died in 2002, what replaced it? Back in Dublin, I address the question to Fergal Keane, a political reporter and presenter with the state broadcaster, RTE. He suggests that it should have been called "the Celtic Zombie". A dying boom was kept alive and became brainless and, ultimately, dangerous. I am talking to Fergal and to his wife, Tara Buckley, who runs the association of small Irish retail businesses. The problem facing the country, she says, is how to wind it back to the conditions that fuelled the Celtic Tiger boom. Some American economists predict that Ireland could be a world-leader in growth again in the next decade. "Ireland is still a great little country with a lot of things going for it," she says. "The problem is that younger people have grown up with different expectations – expectations of easy wealth that won't be easily satisfied."

The No vote last year was, according to Keane, partly driven by anger at successive government scandals, and partly by the hubris generated by 14 years of boom. Ireland had benefited from EU membership, in cash terms, more than any other country. Its modern identity as a confident forward-looking nation, finally free of the British economic yoke, was created by European membership.

"All the same, many people thought, sure, we've made it now. We don't need to listen to what Europe tells us to do. That's all changed. This time around, there should be three boxes on the Lisbon ballot paper. Yes, No and Yes Please."

Some continental European governments were furious when Ireland, as they saw it in June 2008, bit the hand that had fed it for so long. Another No vote next Friday might be seen – and not only on the continent – as a drowning man stabbing his life-belt. Ireland will probably vote Yes; but fear, anger and distraction can do strange things.

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