Ireland's changing face

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By John Metzler

Sunday, June 29, 2003

Dublin — Forty years ago President John F. Kennedy journeyed to Ireland on what was originally planned as a 36 hour State Visit — the trip turned into a four day political love fest stressing family roots and non-stop hospitality. What was more, Kennedy was coming back from his momentous trip to West Berlin, where the memorable phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner” made the American president an overnight icon in Europe. Now returning to his ancestral roots, JFK was to hit yet another home run in on the Emerald Isle.

Yet the still socially insular country of 1963 was a very far cry from today’s increasingly Europeanized socio/economic success story that is contemporary Ireland.

The stereotypical Ireland of high unemployment, emigration, and quaintness, could disappear like a morning mist.

The Celtic tiger economy of the 1990’s witnessed Far Eastern style growth rates contrasting the traditionally sluggish and state dominated economy. Injections of foreign investment, a major reduction in taxes and more open markets served as the force for change. While the Irish traditionally emigrated especially to the USA and Canada, these days the trend has largely been reversed with many people returning home after having spent time abroad.

Currently, there’s immigration into Ireland, much of it from European Union countries where the lure of jobs and prosperity appears as the proverbial pot of gold.

Former Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald writes, “No less than 30 percent of those born in 1966, had to emigrate in their late teens or early 20’s, a two-and-a-half time higher proportion than had been suffering this fate a mere nine years earlier.” He adds, “Happily however the restoration of the economy to good health by the end of the 1980’s meant that one third of these emigrants were able to return to jobs here.”

But the just released 2002 Census reports that the total 3.9 million population is more urban and ethnically diverse than ever. The Irish Times states, “The survey quantifies the huge social changes of the past decade including the growth of immigration, the legalization of divorce, and increase in the number of lone (single) parent and no-children families.” The Times adds sadly that, “Irish families are now among the smallest in Europe with fertility rates dropping to the lowest level recorded — the average Irish family now has just 1.6 children according to the 2002 census down from 2 in 1991.”

While 88 percent of the population remains Roman Catholic, the number of Muslims has increased dramatically. So too has been the arrival of large number of asylum seekers and refugees Ý many of them illegal. Many economic migrants are illegally in the country to avail themselves of generous state benefits, although the problem remains miniscule as compared to the United Kingdom.

Sadly many of the social values of the past are replaced with a secular trendiness and an embrace of an increasingly humanistic agenda. Not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton’s book is a bestseller in Dublin, yet I’m reminded of the Irish fondness for fiction and fairy tales.

Ireland defines itself in a European Union identity rather than he old insular and Anglophobic mode. Membership in the European Union has opened the proverbial horn of plenty for the Irish as the EU offers generous subsidies from for everything such as roads and agriculture.

Yet it’s the massive American and German foreign investment, attracted by generous tax breaks and a well-educated work force, which has been a major catalyst for change. While growth is not as meteoric as in the 1990’s, the Central Bank of Ireland expects the GDP to increase 2.75 percent for 2003. Naturally a strong Euro and high inflation have made Ireland a less attractive place for business to invest or for tourists to visit.

Prices have jumped accordingly with real estate prices at near London and New York (you read correctly) levels. A pub ditty the Celtic Tiger Blues goes, “The buildings are all rising, and the rents are rising too.” It appears Ireland has joined the world.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for World

Sunday, June 29, 2003

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