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
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
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
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
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.