LRB Blog: A Moment of Clarity

On Wednesday afternoon, excerpts from a speech by the Irish finance minister Michael Noonan to the Bloomberg Ireland Economic Summit in Dublin, purportedly copied from the Irish Times website, appeared on PoliticalWorld.org. The contributor, PaddyJoe, accused the newspaper of removing a paragraph from an earlier version of the story, in which Noonan, speaking about the Irish government’s ability to secure a ‘Yes’ vote in the upcoming referendum on the European fiscal compact, was apparently quoted as saying:

In all other countries people are concerned about growing inequality. In Ireland we need to keep focus on more important issues of corporate profitability and tax protection we offer international organisations. This is not the time for drastic moves to the left simply to suit populist demands for simplistic idealism of ‘social justice’.

The story quickly spread on social media. Most people, including me, interpreted Noonan’s surprisingly frank comments as yet another example of the Irish political phenomenon that Conor Cruise O’Brien, paraphrasing Charles Haughey, called GUBU: grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. And, by extension, almost certainly true.

Noonan, a pugnacious Fine Gael member of the Dáil since 1981, was already on record as having told the same Bloomberg event that there was no threat of contagion from the crisis in Greece spreading to Ireland: ‘If you go into the shops here, apart from feta cheese, how many Greek items do you put in your basket?’

By yesterday evening, it was clear that Noonan’s unbelievable quotes about his government’s commitment to corporations over citizens couldn’t be believed. An Irish hacker and anarchist claims to have inserted the paragraph into the original news report of the Bloomberg speech. He says that he removed the interjection, but not before it had been copied from the Irish Times website. The Irish Times denies that the initial report was hacked or that its website ever carried the quotes attributed to it on PoliticalWorld.org. The most likely source of the paragraph was a mash-up of the original news report of the Bloomberg speech. [Text amended on 28 May.]

‘The quotes were so surreal but utterly plausible,’ says Gavan Titley, a lecturer in media studies at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. On Thursday, the Fine Gael minister for enterprise, Richard Bruton, during a debate on the treaty on Today FM, said that the referendum would be rerun in the event of a ‘No’ vote. He quickly retracted his ‘mistake’. Bruton’s comments ‘are regarded as a gaffe’, Titley says, ‘but actually are just an exceptional moment of clarity.’

One thing Noonan definitely did tell the Bloomberg summit is that ‘the Irish economy is in a much better position that it was this time last year.’ His optimism isn’t borne out by official statistics: In April 2011, the Irish government predicted an annual GNP growth rate to 2015 of 2.4 per cent. This year, that figure has been reduced to 1.4 per cent. In April 2011, it was estimated that 101,000 jobs would be created by 2015. The projection has now been reduced to 61,000. In 2011, public debt, supposedly the core focus of austerity policies, was expected to fall to 111 per cent of GDP by 2015. The figure has now been revised upwards to 117.4 per cent.

As recently as last month, Michael Noonan was saying that Ireland would not need a second EU/IMF bailout. The taoiseach, Enda Kenny, is now warning that only a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum on 31 May will guarantee Irish access to European bailout funds.

This post originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

Irish Emigration is No Lifestyle Choice

Every St Stephen’s Day I play soccer with a group of school friends in Longford, my hometown. It’s not a pretty sight – 22 over-fed men, their prime fast disappearing over the horizon, huffing and puffing on the local Gaelic pitch – but it’s been a tradition for well over a decade, and old traditions die hard.

In recent years, our annual kickabout has taken on a decidedly international feel. Now we’ve got players jetting in from Dubai and Australia, Brighton and Barcelona (although, sadly, we’re still no closer to Barca-style tiki-taka soccer). There’s incongruous bronze suntans on show in the wan winter light, t-shirts bearing logos from bars half a world away and erstwhile schoolmates asking one another decidedly non-existentialist questions about ‘where are you these days?’

Doubtless my yuletide teammates – university-educated, under 35, upwardly mobile, ostensibly living it up in far-flung places – were the kind of people Michael Noonan had in mind when he waded into the emigration debate last week. ‘There are always young people coming and going from Ireland. Some of them are emigrants in the traditional sense, but simply there are people who want to get off the island,’ the Fine Gael Finance Minister said during a press conference on the Troika review of Ireland’s bailout program.

Noonan, who has been in the Dail since 1981 and earns a hefty six-figure salary for his troubles at Finance, went on suggest that it is wanderlust, not joblessness, that’s behind the rise in emigration: ‘For a lot of people going, it’s not being driven by unemployment at all. It’s being driven by wanting to see another part of the world.’

The most generous reading of Noonan’s remarks – elsewhere Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty described the minister’s comments as ‘deeply insulting’ – is that emigration for Irish people is a lifestyle choice, like changing hair colour or opening a Twitter account. Unfortunately, this establishment trope, echoed in 2010 by then Fianna Fail minister Mary Coughlan’s description of emigration as ‘not a bad thing’, flies in the face of reality. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute, more than 40,000 Irish people emigrated in the year to April 2011. This figure is expected to almost double this year.

With unemployment running at over 14%, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, much less a social scientist, to work out the connection between an economy choked to death by a punitive IMF/EU bailout and a seemingly endless succession of austerity budgets, and the lengthening queues at long haul flight desks at Dublin airport.

And if Irish people are so predisposed to emigration, as Noonan insinuates, why didn’t more leave during the boom? Going back to my annual soccer game (the last time, I promise): five years ago almost every single player lived within the state, most drove down from their homes in Dublin or Galway for the Christmas holidays. They lived and worked in Ireland because that is what the vast majority wanted to do. Based at the time in Belfast, I was probably the closest our game had to an exotic import (and definitely had no tan to show for my travels).

Branding emigration as a ‘lifestyle choice’ isn’t just a crass and out of touch aside from an aloof government minister. It’s part of a wider shift that depoliticizes Irish emigration, reducing it to a personal choice to stay or go that each individual makes, a self-interested decision which Irish state and society has no right to influence. Government, then, is no longer responsible for stemming the tide of emigrants at home, and is able freely to abdicate its responsibility to provide real opportunities for young people beyond ‘here’s a decent education, here’s a plane ticket, good luck’.

Depoliticizing emigration has effects outside Ireland’s geographical borders, too. If the lads playing soccer on St Stephen’s Day are wide-eyed flaneurs, freely choosing to sell their labour around the world in a global economy, any claim to a political voice back home is severely weakened. You chose to leave so why should you have any say in how the country is run now?

It’s a tired argument rehearsed ad nauseam during debates about extending voting rights to Irish emigrants before the 2011 general election. Since then positive noises made by Fine Gael and Labour about emigrant voting on the campaign trail have dissipated somewhat in a climate where government paints emigration as a youthful jaunt around the globe, rather than a difficult, often unwanted relocation.

The appointment by President Michael D Higgins of former Hackney councillor Sally Mulready as emigrant advocate on the Council of State is to be applauded. As is the government’s announcement that the issue of emigrant voting rights in presidential elections is one that will likely be discussed in the Constitutional Convention that is planned for this year.

But as long as emigration is construed as a lifestyle choice, unmoored from the social, political and economic reality at home, calls for meaningful change in Ireland and wider political representation for emigrants abroad will continue to fall on stony ground.

 This piece originally appeared in the Irish Post.