THE St Patrick’s week party is over. And now it is back to concentrating on The Economic War.
The new Government got the kind of honeymoon that it might not have received if it came to power at another time of year. It took over in the run-up to the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations. There is always a kind of suspension of reality on the national feast day. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that.
By Mick Mulholland
We are entitled to celebrate on St Patrick’s Day, even if there is precious little to celebrate these days. And there is the annual trip to Washington by the Taoiseach of the day.
All previous Taoisigh acquitted themselves well at the White House over the years. Indeed, all Irish politicians have done us proud on the international stage. Mind you, there was probably one exception: remember, all those years ago, when Charlie Haughey hijacked the Tour de France and gave the impression that he, rather than Stephen Roche, had won the day?
But that was in a very different Ireland. Nobody from the previous government could be accused of not representing the country to maximum effect. That said, there was the increasing exodus of Ministers, senior and junior, on the St Patrick’s Day junket trail. One Minister even went on a 15-day trip, unashamedly giving a gesture of contempt to the Irish people at a time of grave economic crisis.
The detachment from reality was appalling. This year, a much smaller number of Ministers went abroad and did not overstay their welcome. The question must be asked again and again.
What is the real value of such trips? Is meeting a government minister at a St Patrick’s Day function going to lead to greater investment in Ireland or an increase in the number of tourists coming here? If it does, could we, please, have some evidence that it is happening, conveyed to us, for example, by way of a Dail statement?
Then, we might cease to be cynical about this annual ministerial exodus, even if it has been scaled down under the new Government. However, the annual meeting between the US President and the Taoiseach in the White House is worth its weight in shamrock.
It is a marvellous opportunity for access to the most powerful political figure in the free world. And it underlines the centuries of affinity between the two countries because our long history of emigration to the US and the significant role Irish-American politicians have played on Capitol Hill.
And so it was the same this year. The new Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, did as well as his predecessors. The occasion was an even greater success because of the announcement by Barack Obama that he would visit Ireland in May. This was welcome news for a beleaguered country. If nothing else, it will give us a positive international focus for a few days, and, hopefully, boost our tourist industry.
Mr Kenny’s visit had nothing to do with the President’s decision to come to Ireland. There is a political calculation, of course. The President will be looking to the Irish-American vote in the next election.
The same calculation was there when John Kennedy came in 1963 and Ronald Reagan in 1984. Kennedy clearly loved every minute of his visit, and Ireland was delighted to receive him because he was the first Catholic of Irish ancestry to make it to the White House. At the time, as now, Ireland was exporting its young people abroad in their thousands.
The Reagan visit was hard to make out, given that it was never clear where the acting began and ended. Bill Clinton’s visit was inevitable, given his involvement in the Northern peace process. In terms of American presidents, he has been our best friend.
That is not to take, in any way, from the Obama visit, nor the President’s obvious delight at the prospect of visiting Moneygall and finding out more about his ancestors.
He also has an affinity with Ireland. And he has promised to help us economically. So it was a good week’s work and full marks to Mr Kenny for rising to the occasion.
But, essentially, it was a party. And now the party is over. The economy looms large: the banking crisis and the requirement to meet the terms of the Croke Park agreement are on the agenda. That terrible word “default’’ can now be heard in the corridors of Government Buildings and Dail Eireann.
That is where we are, so to speak. Mr Kenny knows better than most that basking in media plaudits will not last for ever. From that point of view, he would do himself no small favour by toning down the rhetoric.
Some of the speeches being made by the Taoiseach would be more fitting at the end of a period in government in which the economy was turned around. The Economic War has to be won. And the new Government should not lose the run of itself until it is won
The best speech made in America last week about the Irish situation was delivered by Mr Clinton. As in the case of Northern Ireland all those years ago, the former President was able to put the current Irish crisis in context. He raised, for instance, the elephant in our social and health room: our appallingly high suicide rate, particularly among men.
He spoke about the profound damage the economic downturn has done to the Irish psyche. He added: “The thing that has troubled me most, believe it or not, about this whole economic crisis in Ireland, has been the rise in the suicide rate, not just among the young, where it was already too high, but among those in their prime working years who feel somehow that their whole lives have been robbed.’’
He spoke in optimistic terms about our ability to recover, the beauty of our landscape and our core values as a country. And he had a timely warning about past mistakes not being repeated. Indeed his remarks could be seen as an appropriate rebuke to those who brought us to this sorry pass.
It should never be assumed again, he said, that any given level of prosperity was permanent, that any economic arrangement could not be improved, and that any clever thing done might not be tinged with a little arrogance carrying the seeds of its own destruction. He spoke of how beautiful our poetry and prose are and our wonderful music and dance.
Ireland is a broken country, an international disgrace, shipping its people abroad in huge numbers as it contemplates a wasteland of unemployment and shattered lives at home. In that context, Mr Kenny and his Government must start delivering. And soon.
This week is a critical one at European level. We shall see how they will do. Referring to the destruction caused by Fianna Fail-led governments since 1997 is not a defence any more.
Fine Gael and Labour knew, for quite some time, that they would form the next government. Action has been taken on ministerial transport, staffing of private offices and so on. That kind of reform was long overdue. It is astonishing to think that the previous government did not find it necessary to introduce the same level of reform in its time.
St Patrick’s Day 2011 is history. Now we shall see if the heady promises of election time will yield results.
The Government is to be wished well and also warned that it should not stretch the fragile patience of the Irish people.