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Obituary: Peter Neary, economist at UCD and Oxford

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Peter Neary

Peter Neary

Peter Neary

Rarely involved in controversies about policy and hence not widely known to the public, Peter Neary was regarded by his colleagues as the outstanding Irish economist of his generation and one of the few to have established a truly worldwide reputation.

He was elected to numerous prestigious academies and professional bodies internationally, including the presidency of the European Economic Association.

Born in Drogheda in 1950, he studied at UCD and Oxford, was appointed a full professor at UCD at the unusually early age of 29 and returned to Oxford — where he passed away last Thursday — in 2006. Along the way he published more technical papers in the leading economics journals than the rest of his Irish contemporaries put together.

Peter’s infrequent excursions into debates about economic policy included the expression of serious reservations about the abandonment in the late 1990s of the independent Irish pound, which had been around since 1928, in favour of the European common currency, the euro.

This decision was presented politically as a kind of promotion to a European Super League, but his concerns about the consequent constraints on policy were shared by many colleagues.

There was such political momentum behind the decision that the grumbles of economists gained no traction. The abolition of the currency went on to create some of the conditions that fuelled the bubble and limited the policy options when it burst.

More recently, in an address to the Royal Economic Society, of which he had been president, Neary argued against the hard Brexit chosen by the UK government on the grounds that an open, trading economy would suffer economic damage through diminishing access to its closest and most natural markets.

One of the firmest conclusions in the study of international merchandise trade is that distance from markets is a handicap and that geographical neighbours make sensible trading partners.

The economics department at University College Dublin was a rather mediocre affair until the 1970s. Former students returning from graduate studies abroad, of whom Neary was already the most prominent, began to insist that publication in the top international journals was the standard to which people should aspire.

He went on to join the editorial boards of several such publications and contributed widely cited articles, mainly in the field of international economics, to most of them.

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With the late Brendan Walsh, who passed away five years ago, Neary led a general upgrading of both teaching and research at UCD over his 26 years at Belfield.

This was mirrored elsewhere in Ireland, embracing the customary and entirely healthy competition with Trinity. The result is economics departments at Irish universities are stronger and Neary, despite leaving for Oxford 15 years ago, is a large part of the reason why.

Neary took teaching seriously, as did many of his senior colleagues at UCD, often choosing to take the introductory courses themselves, to the great benefit of  new students.

If sheer technical prowess elevated Peter above his peers, he stood out from almost all the other Irish economists in one further, and crucial, respect. He had no interest whatsoever in football.

Zero, to the point of discouraging any tendencies in that direction manifested by the succeeding generation. Whenever the conversation in the bar after seminars turned to the beautiful game, which was always, Neary’s eyes glazed over, and he fell silent. He just did not get it.

He got economics, though. Most practitioners can do the mechanics, but Peter could also do the intuition and could see where a line of argument was headed quicker than the person making the case.

His published work includes influential papers on international trade, the nexus of industrial policy and the role of the state in research and development, as well as inventive uses of index number theory in measuring and comparing economic magnitudes over time and across countries.

This sounds like dry stuff, removed from immediate policy concerns, but all of it is policy relevant. And always cognisant of complexity: the real world cannot be caricatured, and a workable analytical framework will rarely be simple.

Peter Neary had been ill for many months and the National University of Ireland decided to award him an honorary doctorate in a virtual ceremony last Thursday week. It was the most recent of many honours he received throughout a stellar career and unfortunately the final one.

My condolences to his family and friends. Ní fheicimid a leithéid arís.


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