Letter from Dublin

Enda Kenny canvassing County Donegal in 2007. From imt.ie.

It is hard to settle on the precise moment the Irish hit rock bottom. For the past three years, since Irish banks revealed unprecedented, billion dollar losses resulting from loans to property developers and the government committed the state to backing those losses, the Irish public has been pummeled by revelation after revelation of their financial demise. Still, November 18, 2010—the day twelve men and women from the International Monetary Fund showed up in Dublin to address the Irish mess—stands out. Until that time, for all of the financial and emotional pain the crisis had caused, and all of the international concern it had engendered, the problem, officially at least, had been Ireland’s to solve. IMF boots on the ground broke the secret everyone knew: the Germans and the rest of Europe were taking over, the Irish be damned. Irish autonomy—the magnet that had pulled thought, word, and deed on the island for centuries—was dead. The editorial board of the Irish Times memorialized the loss the next day and called out the nation for its culpability: “The true ignominy of our current situation is not that our sovereignty has been taken away from us, it is that we ourselves have squandered it . . . It is the incompetence of the governments we ourselves elected that has so deeply compromised our capacity to make our own decisions.”

Ten days later, the IMF, EU, and Ireland announced a bailout package worth up to $113 billion. Then, in December, amid snow storms, burst pipes, water shortages, and the coldest temperatures recorded in the history of country, the Irish government responded to EU and IMF demands for austerity by proposing to cut 25,000 public sector jobs, increase taxes, and reduce public spending by, among other measures, cutting state pensions and the minimum wage. By the end of the year, unemployment stood at nearly 14 percent, with one in three residents under the age of 30 out of work. A stream of emigrants was leaving the country at a rate of 50,000 a year. Fianna Fail, the political party on whose watch Ireland had amassed and then squandered more wealth than the nation had ever seen, was still in power. It was, to steal the line of a writer from Ireland’s former colonial overlord, the worst of times.

In February, the Irish showed their displeasure by going to the polls and voting Fianna Fail out of power. It was not an Arab revolution. Nor was it a display of discontent such as those seen in Greece, Spain, and Iceland, where people have taken to the streets to express anger at their government. Still, it was an old school political shellacking—and a clear message that the electorate was fed up with the party that had controlled the country for the past thirteen years and driven it to financial ruin.

The greatest beneficiary of the election was Fine Gael, a center-right political party that has been the perennial second son of Irish politics. Days before the election, Fine Gael’s leader, Enda Kenny, promised big, claiming he would implement twenty-eight policies—including a renegotiation of the terms of Ireland’s bailout, the abolition of the Irish senate, and the introduction of massive health reforms—in his first hundred days as prime minister. In part as a result, his party squeaked into power, picking up 36 percent of the vote, just enough to put it in charge of a coalition-led government. Though Fine Gael celebrated its newfound power the morning after the election, the vote was widely considered to be a collective act of revenge, not a sign of faith in any political party; hope is a concept that has been absent from Irish public life since the financial crisis began in September 2008.

On March 9 of this year, Kenny became taoiseach, the country’s prime minister. At 59, he had been his party’s head for nine years, but his run had been rocky. Last summer, he was forced to hold a secret ballot vote to beat back an attempted coup within his party. Over a beer in Dublin earlier this year, Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin, summed up the public’s view of Kenny as he took office: “He was widely regarded as someone who just didn’t have the depth and who perhaps wasn’t on top of things—policy stuff—in a way that he should be.” His approval rating was only 39 percent the day he took office. Given this lack of support, and the dire state of the economy, it seemed unlikely that he would emerge from the Irish free-fall unscathed.

Over the next three months, as the Irish economy continued to crater, Kenny reneged on major campaign promises. By June 17, his hundredth day in office, he had all but given up on renegotiating the bailout terms, despite a growing consensus within Ireland that the country would default unless some relief was provided. In early July, an emergency services department in a County Roscommon hospital that Kenny had vowed on the campaign trail “to protect and defend” closed.

Everywhere else in Europe, leaders were taking their lumps as the economic crisis forced tough choices. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s satisfaction rating dropped to 40 percent, its lowest level since she became chancellor in 2005. In France, only 30 percent of the public supported President Sarkozy. Ratings were down for Italian, Greek, and English leaders, too. It came as a surprise then when a poll in late July revealed that Kenny’s approval rating had jumped 26 percent since taking office to 65 percent, the highest approval rating for an Irish prime minister in almost ten years. The result begged the question, why, exactly, are the Irish so enamored with Enda Kenny?

Part of Kenny’s appeal derives from the simple fact of who he is not. When I asked Irish publisher Trevor White about Kenny’s rise, White’s response captured a growing conventional wisdom: “The popularity of Fine Gael is largely attributable to the fact that they are not Fianna Fail. To put it another way, Enda Kenny is not Brian Cowen.” As a matter of policy, Kenny and the previous prime minister, Cowen, are defined more by their similarities than their differences. It is Kenny’s party affiliation and personality that set the two apart and also distinguish Kenny from Bertie Ahern, the three-term prime minister who led Ireland during its boom years.

Both Cowan and Ahern have been widely condemned for their roles in the financial meltdown of the country, but their reputations and, by extension, Ireland’s reputation, have also suffered as a result of their personal indiscretions; this has made it even more difficult for the Irish to accept the shame of the country’s failure. Last September, for example, with the nation on the brink of economic collapse, Cowan, an enormous, dour man known colloquially as BIFFO (“Big Ignorant Fucker From [County] Offaly”) appeared on Morning Ireland, a popular show on the national radio station, RTE. For nine minutes, he stumbled, slurred, and generally sounded like a man who had been out drinking until the early morning, which, it was later acknowledged, he had. Cowan dismissed rumors that he had actually been drunk on air, but the transcript testified to his rank unpreparedness. At one point, he referred to a pay deal between the government and trade unions as the “Good Friday Agreement,” the historic deal cemented over a decade ago that ushered in an era a peace in Northern Ireland. International media picked up the story. The next night, Jay Leno introduced a new game on the Tonight Show, “Bartender, Politician, or Comic,” by showing a picture of Cowan, hair shaggy, mouth hanging open, double chin conspicuously apparent, and asking the crowd to guess the man’s profession. After revealing that Cowan was the Irish Prime Minister, Leno quipped, “So nice to know we’re not the only country with drunk morons!”

In October, as the economic crisis deepened, it was Ahern who took an ax to the nation’s psyche. Cowan’s immediate predecessor, Ahern was forced out of office in 2007 amid allegations that he had accepted a bribe. Throughout his term in office, which coincided with the property bubble that ultimately decimated the nation’s economy, Ahern praised property developers and ruthlessly attacked his detractors, going so far in 2007 as to claim he did not know how people “moaning” about the economy “don’t commit suicide.” After stepping down as prime minister, Ahern took a gig writing a sports column for Rupert Murdoch’s now defunct Irish News of The World even though he was still earning a six-figure salary as member of the Dail, Ireland’s lower house of Parliament. This in itself was too much for some, who considered it an embarrassment that their former leader would stoop to writing sports copy for a tabloid rag to earn a few extra euro.

Then Ahern decided to do a commercial for the paper. The ad hit the airwaves just days after the public learned that the country’s bailout of Anglo-Irish, a bank whose reckless lending during Ahern’s time had crippled the nation, could rise to as much as $48 billion. To put it charitably, Ahern’s appearance was not a stately one: hunched in a kitchen cupboard, surrounded by bananas, peppers, and biscuits, looking sheepishly at the camera while balancing a cup of tea awkwardly on his knee, he makes his pitch: “Never thought I’d end up here, but I have the latest on today’s big match!” The newspaper headlines were merciless: “Former Irish Leader Bertie Ahern Hides in Cupboard In New TV Ad”; “Meet The Latest Laughing Stock As Bertie Comes Out Of The Closet.” The public was disgusted.  When I asked a Fine Gael representative in the Dail about the commercial, he offered perspective: “Just imagine if George W. Bush was spending his time doing commercials for a used car dealer down in Texas.” A YouTube commenter summed up the reaction of many: “Ahern is a f*ck*ng disgrace.”

Kenny, in contrast, has never suffered even a whisper of corruption or greed, and has not displayed any of Cowan or Ahern’s poor judgment since taking office. Clean cut and good-looking, he is known as a family man from County Mayo, a poor, still largely agricultural area on the west coast of Ireland that inhabits a romantic spot in the Irish mind, , much as the Midwestern “heartland” stands in American imagination as the anchor for the nation’s values. It was there that Kenny started his career, not as a politician but as a school teacher. Irish columnist Anne Marie Hourihane has noted that Kenny “looks like a soda jerk from a Norman Rockwell painting.” The image reflects the popular perception that Kenny is a man of integrity, and this belief has helped the country to move on from the embarrassing scandals of his predecessors.

Kenny’s popularity can also be traced to his relentless optimism, which has fed into Ireland’s desire to move on from the dreary commentary and prognoses of the past three years. The domestic coverage of the country’s downfall has been relentless; day after day, the public has been buried by an avalanche of opinions, facts, and figures concerning the country’s financial ruin. In kitchens and pubs across every county, conversations veer ineluctably toward emigration, unemployment, and foreclosure, all of which are now woven deep into the country’s emotional life. Everyone has become an armchair economist, and actual economists have become superstars. In May, the Irish cider brand Bulmers hired writer and economist David McWilliams to be its spokesperson. The Irish Times joked about the synergy of the selection, citing Williams’ propensity to prophesize “doom and gloom” that could “turn you to drink,” but it also highlighted something about Ireland’s political climate. Bulmer’s advertising spokesman explained the decision: “David has very strong views on what’s needed to get the economy up and running again so we felt that his association ties in very well with the theme of our campaign. Our research showed that a simple idea with a very strong nationalist appeal would be well received.”

Over the past six months, no one has capitalized better on the power of a simple idea with a strong nationalist appeal than Kenny. From his first day in office, he has stressed the strength of the Irish character and professed optimism about the country’s future. It did not hurt Kenny’s message when in May there were positive events in Irish public life for the first time in more than three years. On May 17, Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland, making her the first British monarch to set foot in the country since her grandfather, King George V, visited in 1911. Over tea, journalist and historian Emily Hourican confided that, prior to the Queen’s arrival, everyone had been “very slightly nervous” about her being assassinated while there. To protect her, Ireland mounted the largest security operation in its history, spending roughly $45 million on security measures, including the deployment of more than 8,000 police officers and 2,000 soldiers around the country.

Hours before the Queen landed, police found a pipe bomb on a bus headed to Dublin. On her first day, the public was kept behind barriers as she attended a ceremony in the Garden of Remembrance. With Irish President Mary McAleese, she laid a wreath at a memorial for those who had died for Irish freedom, then bowed her head. The image of the Queen paying homage to Irishmen who had fought the English state transfixed the nation. The following night, she attended a dinner in her honor at Dublin Castle and gave a speech on Irish-English relations. She did not apologize for England’s colonial history, but she did offer sympathy and regret: “To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

As everyone realized how well the trip was going, they loosened up. On the Queen’s last day, 5,000 people greeted her in Cork, and she took an unscheduled walk through a fish market, mingling with locals, including a fishmonger named Pat O’Connell who told her that he had not been so nervous since the day he got married. Charmed, the Queen burst out laughing and a camera caught the two genuinely connecting; the photograph, which seemed to capture the joy of the visit for both the Irish and the Queen, was printed in all the papers the next day. As the Queen left, she informed Kenny that she wanted to visit again. Forty-eight hours later, the Sunday Independent newspaper ran a poll: 89 percent of respondents said the royal visit had improved Ireland’s self-esteem; 95 percent said they thought the Queen had won the hearts of the Irish people during her stay.

On the day the Queen left, former Prime Minister Gareth Fitzgerald died. To many, it seemed appropriate that the arc of Fitzgerald’s life concluded on the last day of the Queen’s visit. The son of a southern Catholic father and northern Protestant mother, Fitzgerald had dedicated much of his political life to solving the problem of the North. Twenty thousand people showed up at the Lord Mayor’s House in Dublin to pay their respects on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I arrived at close to 5 PM and stepped into a quickly moving line composed mostly of grey-haired mourners, many bundled tightly and holding umbrellas. Inside, Fitzgerald lay in the middle of an oak-paneled room decorated with the coat of arms of each Lord Mayor since 1841. A Fine Gael man, Fitzgerald had been known as “Gareth The Good” (in contrast to his nemesis, Charley Haughey, the corrupt Fianna Fail Prime Minister of the 1980s) and was widely regarded, even by those who disagreed with his politics, as a man of integrity. The celebration of his life bolstered a Manichaean political narrative—Fine Gael, the honest broker; Fianna Fail, the party of backhanded payoffs—on which Fine Gael capitalized in the last election and on which Kenny has built.

Afterward, I walked across the street to The Dawson Lounge, reputedly the smallest pub in Dublin. I was hoping to see the Leinster-Northampton rugby match. The two sides were playing in Cardiff, Wales for the European Championship, and Ireland was buzzing about Leinster’s prospects against the English side. When I entered, the bartender had his ear glued to a transistor radio. “Is the game on TV?” I asked. He shook his head, as if acknowledging an unpardonable sin, and said that the bar was not carrying the game, hence the radio. “Leinster is getting killed,” he offered as I left. The rest of the bars in the city center were packed, but each was dominated by a heavy silence. Rows and rows of men sat on backless stools, heads cocked high toward televisions on a wall, arms folded, beer tucked into their chest. At halftime, Leinster was down 22-6. It was then that 25-year old Jonathan Sexton gave a speech. In the locker room, he recalled Liverpool’s historic 2005 Champions League Final comeback from a 3-0 halftime deficit and told his teammates that they too would make history if they won. After the game, captain Brian O’Driscoll, who began Leinster’s second half surge by assisting on an early score, called Sexton a “man possessed.” The team stormed back, outscoring Northampton 27-0 over the final forty minutes to run away with a 33-22 win that sparked an explosion of praise in Dublin for the character and resolve of the players.

The next day, Fitzgerald’s state funeral took place. The day after, President Obama arrived. He met with Kenny and visited Moneygall, a tiny town in the Midlands that was home to Obama’s great-great-great grandfather, Fulmouth Kearney, before he emigrated to America. Moneygall had spent months preparing for the visit, cleaning and painting with such fervor that people joked that if you stood still for more than thirty seconds, you would be painted, too. After pulling a red-haired baby from the crowd to kiss and buying a round of Guinness at the local pub, Obama traveled to Dublin to give a speech. By the time he arrived, it was after 5 PM, and the crowd of 50,000 people had been waiting for over three hours. Many of us were penned in security gates in shambolic conditions made worse by inattentive policeman who were rumored to be from the country. At one point, a woman wearing a baseball cap bearing the American flag blurted out, “If I were an American, I’d vote Republican after this!” A young man in a blue windbreaker called out, “If the Irish were the kind of people who rioted, we would be rioting right now!” When Obama finally arrived, the police released thousands of us without so much as a frisk to determine whether we were carrying any of the contraband they had been yelling about for hours through bullhorns. Everyone rushed a quarter of a mile down Dame Street toward College Green, where Obama was scheduled to speak. By the time Kenny stepped to the podium to give an introductory speech, many had forgotten their frustratingly long wait and the crowd was electric with excitement. Kenny’s voice was hoarse as he called out into the crowd, his right hand slicing the air to punctuate each point:

Today, with President Obama, we draw another circle—one in which we tell the world of our unique, untouchable wealth. Wealth that cannot be accumulated in banks, or measured by the markets or traded on the stock exchange. Because it remains intact and alive, deep inside our people. In the heart-stopping beauty of our country and in the transforming currency of the Irish heart, imagination and soul. It’s like the spirit of Leinster last Saturday in Cardiff. Never give up. Never give up and never say die. This is what we call our Uaisleacht. It has sustained us over the centuries. We pass from mother to daughter, father to son—in our dreams and in our imagining, in our love for our country—our pride in who we are. Long into what must be, and will be, a brighter and more prosperous future.

After the speech, I walked to the bar at Buswells Hotel, directly across the street from the Dail. There, I met Gerard Deere, the mayor of Castlebar, a bustling town in Kenny’s home county, Mayo. He and a number of Mayo “lads” were celebrating the events of the week. All having had a drink, their superlatives flowed. Deere glowed with pride and announced that the Prime Minister had been “brilliant.” The others agreed heartily. Their man had orchestrated two smashing diplomatic successes, and presided over the celebration of the life of Fine Gael’s greatest modern politician. Had any doubt lingered in their minds that Kenny—a country boy whom they counted as one of their own—was up to the task of leading a nation, it was gone.

The next day, a small radio station in County Wicklow triggered a media storm when it reported that Kenny had begun his introduction of President Obama with language that was almost identical to the opening lines of President Obama’s November 2008 acceptance speech. For twenty-four hours, accusations of plagiarism consumed the news cycle. Kenny quickly acknowledged that the first forty words of his 470-word speech were almost identical to the President’s victory speech but claimed that his imitation had been an attempt to flatter the President. As quickly as the storm rose, it subsided, and Kenny’s act was seen for what it was: a mere hiccup in an otherwise spectacularly successful week. The Irish mind had been cleared of negativity, at least for a moment. The following week, Fine Gael’s approval rating was up 2 percent.

Kenny has also gained support because his message has coincided with a shift in how the Irish view their own demise. In November, when the IMF landed, the country was consumed with anger at how its own people—primarily politicians, bankers, and real estate developers—had lent and built so recklessly. In the intervening months, that rage has simmered. Many of those who made millions off of the land deals that mortgaged the country’s future retain their wealth while the poor and middle class bear the brunt of the government’s austerity measures. But the Irish have also begun to see their downfall as part of a larger story of greed, one in which German and other European institutions lent money that Irish banks used to pump the economy to its breaking point. Without that liquidity, Irish banks never would have been able to originate the wildly speculative loans that pushed the housing bubble to unsustainable levels.

To date, however, it is the Irish, not “the Germans,” as German banking institutions have come to be known, or Irish bank bondholders, who have paid a price for this greed. In 2008, amid great pressure from Europe, the Irish government guaranteed the debts of the nation’s banks, meaning that the bondholders of the Irish banking institutions that fueled the Irish lending and building spree with capital received that capital back, with interest. It was this guarantee that forced the country to seek a loan from the IMF. Unlike Greece, Ireland has tightened its belt, and complied with the terms of its IMF loan. Now, having played the role of the good boy of Europe, the Irish are asking: What is in it for us?

After President Obama’s visit, I met Brian Lucey, an economist at Trinity College, to ask him about the Irish economy. Like many in Ireland today, Lucey became philosophical—and nationalistic—on the subject of Europe: “What saddens me, as somebody who is very pro-Europe, is that the Irish government—and by that I mean both the permanent and the political government—have given, given, given. They have not been able to persuade or cajole or threaten our European partners to say, ‘We’ve done our bit, what are you doing?’ And simply saying, ‘We’re keeping you afloat’ is not good enough. That’s what families are for. We have saved European banks from meltdown, therefore, some degree of quid pro quo must come back and that is not what we are getting at the moment.”

Prior to the election, Kenny campaigned hard on the issue of the bailout, pledging he would go to Europe and secure a better deal for Ireland. When he took office, however, he had trouble translating his rhetoric into action. By June, he had conceded the difficulty of the process and dramatically altered his demands, seeking a smaller reduction on the interest rate of the bailout package and only on those funds Ireland had not yet drawn down. By mid-summer, one poll showed that 40 percent of the public felt mislead by the promises of Fine Gael and its coalition partner, the Labour Party. Kenny, however, managed to escape political damage. Then, in July, after the poll had been taken showing his extraordinary rise in popularity, Kenny received a massive gift.

Worried that Greece’s financial problems would engulf the eurozone, European leaders called an emergency summit in Brussels. To stave off contagion, they agreed to a second bailout of Greece and also to a sweeping change to the Irish package. Kenny had been asking for a 0.6 percent interest rate decrease. Instead, European leaders gave him a 2 percent reduction and lengthened the term of repayment from seven-and-a-half to fifteen years, with the option to extend to thirty years. In a further unforeseen twist, Sarkozy, who had been demanding for months that Ireland increase its corporate tax rate in return for any reduction on the bailout interest rate, stood down, allowing Ireland to keep the lowest rate in the European Union and maintain its advantage in attracting business. The changes to the bailout terms are expected to save Ireland roughly $900 million a year for the life of the loan. Upon learning of the results of the emergency meeting, Britain, Denmark, and Sweden all agreed to apply the new interest rate to their bilateral loans to Ireland, which will result in further savings. Kenny has not crowed about it, but the success has burnished his reputation while killing any criticism about his failure to win concessions from Europe, an opinion that had yet to hurt him, but was bound to in time.

Surprisingly, Kenny’s position on the Catholic Church has also made headlines and won him plaudits. In July, The Commission of Investigative Report into the Catholic Diocese of Cloyne issued a 421-page report in which it concluded that, as recently as three years ago, the Vatican allowed Irish bishops to ignore guidelines on how to respond to allegations of sexual abuse. Without hinting at the magnitude of his response, Kenny—a Catholic from a deeply Catholic region—came out swinging on the floor of the Dail. In a twelve-minute speech peppered with verbal firebombs, he excoriated the Church for being dominated by “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism,” and “narcissism,” and asserted that Ireland’s sovereignty would not be compromised, even by the Catholic Church, which has commanded significant portions of Irish policy since the founding of the state.

This is the Republic of Ireland 2011. A Republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities, of proper civic order, where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version, of a particular kind of morality, will no longer be tolerated or ignored.” Kenny offered comfort to victims, assuring them that they “belong to a nation, to a democracy where humanity, power, rights, responsibility are enshrined and enacted . . . Where the law—[the victim’s] law—as citizens of this country, will always supersede canon laws that have neither legitimacy nor place in the affairs of this country.

No Irish leader has ever condemned the Church in such a way, and nearly everyone in the country took notice. Dick Spring, the former Labour Party leader who was Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister in the 1980s and 1990s, reflected:  “I think that the content of that speech probably, for the first time in 20, 30 years, really demonstrated a politician who was bringing the angst of the modern Irish people, the angst that they have in relation to the behavior of certain elements within the Catholic Church.”  Historian Diarmaid Ferriter concurred: “[The speech] stopped a lot of people in their tracks . . . The actual words really struck a chord.  It was a win-win for Kenny, if you think of it in terms of the public perception of him, because he was seen to be reflecting a very widespread anger that was there, and he was articulating it in a way that people very much approved of.”

The question now is whether Kenny can maintain his momentum. For all of the positive developments of the past six months, and Kenny’s rhetoric about the fighting Irish spirit, Ireland is still beset by problems. Kenny’s win notwithstanding, the political culture that has resulted in repeated scandal and corruption remains. Historical norms, personal relationships, and a culturally-bred reluctance to stick one’s head above the parapet and criticize the status quo often crowd out any impulse for political change. Even with the new bailout terms, the Irish economy is wobbling, and could get worse. The unemployment rate is over 14 percent. Property prices have crashed to roughly 50 percent of their peak value. Interest rates are rising, stressing hundreds of thousands of borrowers with adjustable rate mortgage loans. The national debt—which The Times of London’s economic commentator, Anatole Kaletsky, has noted “appears bigger, in relation to its economy, than the reparations imposed on Germany after the First World War”—clouds the country’s short and long-term future.

This December, Kenny will have to pass a budget that is expected to include roughly $4 billion in cuts. He has pledged that he will not raise taxes to address the revenue shortfall, but he may have to break this promise, as well as others from the election, unless conditions improve. Spring, a political veteran who has praised Kenny’s leadership to date warns of “a storm ahead.” He said, “I can tell you having been around that table for a long time, when it comes to squeezing money and programs out of the economy, it’s bloody difficult and it will be very difficult.”

Like Obama in the US, at some point Kenny will own the economy, and at that time, the extended honeymoon may end. Even should Kenny falter, however, it is not clear who could challenge him. For now, at least, the Irish have cast their lot with Kenny and he has risen to the occasion. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney once wrote of the pivotal moment when “hope and history rhyme.” Whether Kenny can continue to rhyme his message of positivity with current political events will be the greatest predictor of his popularity going forward—and of whether Ireland can pull back from the precipice and reclaim some of the sovereignty it has lost along the way.

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