Ireland throws off vestiges of its colonial past

By William Pomeroy, People's Weekly World, 29 March 1997

British people were stunned at the end of January by the publication of a study by a parliamentary economics research body showing that The Republic of Ireland has now leaped ahead of Britain in national income per person, standing at $10 higher per head. The report confounds the image that xenophobic Britons have long pinned on Irish people, made the butt of jokes about ignorant yokels or bog-trotters.

Last year Ireland's gross domestic product (GDP) had a growth rate of more than 6 percent for the fourth successive year (it hit 10 percent in 1995) while Britain's GDP was a faltering 2 percent. The Irish national debt is falling, the inflation rate is kept at a low 1.6 percent, and Ireland is listed as one of the prime investment areas of the European Union which it joined a decade ago.

Irish analysts claim that their surge of growth has been linked in part at least with that independent decision, which enabled Ireland to move out from under the shadow of Britain on which it had remained dependent despite freedom from British colonial rule over 75 years ago. The dependence was not only for the British market for its agricultural products but for the export of its unemployed labor.

The most persistent stereotype of Ireland has been of a backward, poverty-stricken agricultural country from which vast waves of uneducated, unskilled labor fled, to Britain, the United States and elsewhere in search of a livelihood. This began with the disastrous potato famine of the 1840s which caused a drop in Ireland's population by two million between 1845 and 1851, of these 800,000 died from starvation or malnutrition, the rest emigrated.

It coincided with the great Victorian construction boom in Britain, needing armies of unskilled labor for building railways, road, canals and factories. Hundreds of thousands of Irish navvies (for navigator, as the canal diggers were called) were employed from that wave of emigration. Another occurred in the depression years from the late 1920s, and another in the 1950s when postwar reconstruction brought Indian and West Indian workers as well to Britain.

Historically Ireland played that role for Britain, while big British and Irish landowners ruled the colony in semi-feudal manner and the society was dominated by an exceptionally conservative Catholic Church.

The current trend in Ireland is a break with that past. Most important has been a loosening of the tie of reliance on Britain, in favor of broader ties with the European Union. That decision was based on a coming to the fore of entrepreneurial groups and an entrepreneurial spirit, with determination to modernize Ireland to equip it for the new direction.

As a capitalist drive it did not rely on an assault on trade union rights and worker living standards as Thatcherite Tory rule was then pursuing in Britain. An emphasis on job creation and on relating with the unions as social partners minimized conflict (although the attitude of unions seems to be a temporary wait-and- see truce, and the proportion of people living below the poverty line—set at 60 percent of the national wage—that has risen from 31 percent in 1989 to 35 percent in 1996 can lead to struggles as sharp as those at present in other EU countries.

An impressive modernization of Irish society has, however, been occurring, in the economy, in culture, and in social practice. A transformation of education is taking place, the average Irish worker no longer ill-educated and unskilled. The country has been trying to produce a trained work force for employment in the high- tech and software industries that comprise much of the inward investment flow from the EU and the U.S. that has been fostered by an open-door investment policy.

An example has been the large 1996 investment by IBM in a high- quality project in Mulhaddart that created 2,850 jobs. A decade or two ago the work force for such projects would not have been available.

There has been no more impressive evidence of the reversal of the former backward image of Ireland than the present switch in the flow of employment. Today, instead of unemployed Irish navvies in exodus to Britain, British workers are flocking the other way across the Irish Sea to jobs in Ireland, where construction is growing by 6 percent a year and there is a shortage of skilled workers, already absorbed in high-tech and other industries and the more skilled construction work.

At present there are advertising posters around Britain with a figure pointing like Kitchener in the famous World War I appeal, now saying We need you back in Ireland! addressed to Irish workers who had emigrated to Britain. The wages now are much higher in the Irish construction industry than in Britain. It is reported that the posters brought 2,000 Irish worker telephone calls within days.

A new self-confidence derived from its new status can be seen in the Irish Republic's more active role in pressing Britain for a resolution of the British-bred crisis in Northern Ireland. An economically more prosperous Ireland is a more persuasive argument than ever for a united Ireland.