BALLINA, Ireland–Even by Ireland’s legendary standards for rain, this summer has been particularly wet. But it not the weather that accounts for the gloom in the Emerald Isle. As heavy rains were pushing the River Moy, which flows through this Co. Mayo town of 8,000, above flood stage, the attendees of the Humbert Summer School (a kind of think tank) were pondering this solemn subject: “Can Ireland be redeemed?” The answer was maybe, if there was a single answer.
Ireland is in the grip of two crises and is facing a third—three crises that undermine its national self-confidence and imperil its economic future.
Crisis One: A shattering report on child abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland has found that it was systematic and extended possibly over centuries; that it was known and tolerated by the highest levels of government; and that it was also known and tolerated by the Vatican. Indeed Tom Arnold, head of Concern, a Dublin charity, told the conference that the Vatican did not act because it believed the church would be undermined and it wanted a devout Christian country to counter the secular nature of neighboring Britain.
The child abuse scandal, which dwarfs church sex scandals elsewhere, is alleged in Ireland to have been more pervasive, more institutionalized and to incorporate cruelty, especially by the notorious Christian Brothers, a disciplinary educational order. For the Irish, with their large families and sense of family values being paramount, the full extent of the scandal has been devastating, causing a great swath of the population to wonder how long they have been living a lie.
Crisis Two: The Irish economy is in tatters and, by most analysis, will not recover in tandem with the rest of the world.
In recent years Ireland has enjoyed prosperity, the like of which it has never known in history. It boomed partly because of European Union structural funds and partly because of American computer companies, which located there to take advantage of the population’s high literacy rate. Computer firms flooded cities like Galway: once a dreamy seaport city more famous for its bookshops than its millionaires.
The boom caused Ireland to be dubbed “The Celtic Tiger.” Ireland was growing faster than any other economy in Europe.
With dynamic growth came overheating and property speculation. And with property speculation came banking insanity. The banks were eager, too eager, to lend against inflating property values. Sound familiar?
But now, the banks are being bailed out and the taxpayers are howling. Justice Vivian Lavan told me that no houses are being sold because no one knows how to value them. Unemployment, under control for 15 years, is back and climbing beyond 13 percent.
On the horizon is Crisis Three: Once again, the Irish have to vote on the Lisbon Treaty: a document that tidies up odds and ends in the structure of the European Union. A year ago, Irish voters rejected the treaty to the considerable annoyance of the rest of the EU and the embarrassment of the Irish government.
Now Irish objections have been met and a new vote, critical to Ireland’s continuing influence in the councils of Europe, is scheduled for Oct. 2.
Ireland, with a population of only 4.5 million, has worked tirelessly to extend its influence through “good offices” and diplomatic maneuvering. Now, that is imperiled. Ireland may well again bite the hand that has fed it generously.
In favor of the treaty are the main Irish political parties (Fine Gael and Fianna Fail); the Irish business establishment: and the inward investors, including American companies like Shell Oil and Dell. Against is a strange coalition that includes the nationalistic Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Irish Republican Army), extremely conservative Catholic groups, Greens and a band of hippie activists. On paper they are not much, but they defeated the Lisbon Treaty last June. They argue that Europe will legalize and promote abortion, imperil Irish neutrality, raise taxes and dilute labor laws. Proponents say there are cast-iron guarantees on all of these issues, but detractors say they are not worth the paper they are written on. The Oct. 2 referendum on the treaty will test a battered island. –For North Star Writers Group