Economy: Ireland for sale

18 March 2011 – Presseurop Notebook

It seems a rich, if not bitter, irony that on the feast of Saint Patrick, the day Ireland pats itself on the back, that its new government should announce a plan to sell off its state assets, the “crown jewels”, as the Irish Independent puts it. Although the Dublin daily doesn’t go into the specifics of what jewels will go under the hammer, a recent report by NCB, an Irish securities firms, suggests that these could be in the areas of energy, ports, forestry, networks. Price tags for these are hard to come by, though it’s been suggested the latter two could go for €1.3bn and €5bn respectively.

One possible way to come up with a total might be to combine the total cut the IMF is supposed to take (€10bn) and the €2bn cut from the proceeds the government wishes to use to “create jobs” in the “energy, water and telecom” sectors. Ironically enough, these are the same sectors it is thinking of selling off, so the process by which jobs are supposed to be created afterwards is far from clear. Nor is it clear where the government will rustle up the further €5bn to complement its proposed €7bn jobs stimulus programme, as it’s clear, after selling off its forests, ports, gas and electricity companies, there will be nothing left to sell off.

Unemployment in Ireland is nearly 15%, one of the highest rates in Europe. And while any kind of truncated job stimulus programme is to be welcome, coming as it does, as the Independent writes with a note of relief, “with IMF/EU approval”, there still remains the black hole of Ireland’s banks which, with IMF/EU approval, the government is committed to keep feeding. Indeed, Ireland’s new Minister of Finance Michael Noonan, after strangely quipping that he is not “a bookie” (a bookie?) admitted that he “does not know” if the banks would need up to €35 billion in the EU-IMF agreement. Indeed, as the Irish Independent notes, the terms of Ireland’s bailout are such that any “windfalls” – money set aside for the job stimulus? – might have to go into repaying the debt.

All this was churning around my head as I went to the Irish embassy in Paris for the St Patrick’s evening do, in an extraordinary 18th century building with lofty ceilings, heavy green velvet curtains, golden ornamental mouldings, exactly the kind of environment, in this rushed, cramped city, where you have the space, the breadth, the height, to think. Out of a 400 strong gathering, 75% of us must have been Irish, with faces and manners that are distinctively from “back there” – 700 kilometres away.

It’s hard to describe – everybody is immediately a lot taller than the French. Men in their 50s and 60s have ruddy, appley cheekbones, and their suits, albeit black and costly, don’t hang properly. There’s inevitably someone with a bouffant of pure white hair, curly like an old rug, squinting at everyone. An old nun is sitting in a chair with a plate of sandwiches, someone stooping over her. The younger women are wearing triangular-like outfits from the nineteen fifties that don’t really suit them. And then there’s the atmosphere. Unlike the French, who “grignote” (snack) when taking drink the Irish do not make a stampede for the petit fours and canapés, but head straight for the bar. The Guinness, poured out from little air-travel sized cans, and then placed on a metal disc which, as if by magic, helps produce the creamy white head, ran out after an hour. Everyone laid into the whiskey and the gin as a result.

Ireland’s new Minister of Agriculture, Simon Coveney, gave a speech. Typical of Irish politicians, he comes from a family of Irish politicians, but he was also young and intelligent, with clearly that charisma, a type of buzz, that inhabits those who have been elected to public office. He told a couple of nice stories about early visits to Paris, the St Patrick’s Day parade in his hometown in County Cork. Initially dubious, as I often feel faced with people who are more powerful than me, I found myself laughing along.

And then something happened. Something like a switch tripped and the Minister began talking of the challenges stricken Ireland faces. The room tensed, as he laid out the government view, so similar to the last government’s, of the sacrifices ahead, of more austerity, of a ruined domestic economy, of suffering, of hope. He invited investors to come to a country which was now much cheaper than three years previously. It was obviously not easy for him, talking like this – with less fluency and warmth – on these dry technical issues. At a certain moment he called Ireland a “company”, and not a “country”. As he spoke, I thought I would like to hear a politician speak with the same warmth about politics as about what we term “real life”. I also thought, given our Irish character, as the country prepares to sell off the little that is left of it, that the last thing we would do is confront him on such an enormous issue.

As the Minister finished his speech, he looked across the room, and said “As for that man at the back, shaking his head vigorously, I’d be happy to have a talk with him later.” He was looking in my direction. I looked around. There was no-one there. Even now, I’m still wondering whether he was referring to me. I distinctly remember at one moment harrumphing. I think I must have rolled my eyes once. When he left the podium, however, I loped off to the bar, like everyone else. I am Irish too. I would have been completely unable to debate something as enormous, as vital to the country’s interests, as this. Because it's all so embarassing. Being Irish, I think we have a default gesture, one obvious when the country was rich and madly heading for the drop, and now poor, and desperate for investment, and money, and heading for the drop. It’s a gesture which is to cross your fingers, scrunch up your eyes, your body clenched, hoping the good times last, the bad times don’t.

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