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Our reputation has gone down drain with economy

HOW they used to preen themselves in the days of the Tiger! The second richest country in Europe, if not the world. The envy, and the teacher, of other nations.

These are the same people who have bankrupted the country and mounted for us the disgraceful spectacle of this week's shambolic events in Leinster House.

Of course it was all rubbish in the first place. Income and wealth are not the same thing. After the boom, after the crash, we have ended up poorer, not richer. Parts of our infrastructure have collapsed. Billions upon billions in bank deposits have fled the country, along with 100,000 of our best and brightest people. We could do with the one-and-a-half tonnes of gold allegedly stolen from Tunisia.

And those people who once admired us so much? The humble new members of the European Union, greeted by Bertie Ahern in his role as Emperor of the Universe on that ghastly "Day of Welcomes"? Or the major nations, on whose good will we rely?

Or the International Monetary Fund? It is a measure of our disintegration, moral as well as physical, that when Ajai Chopra arrived in Dublin, signalling the end of our economic independence, it came as a relief.

In fact, the IMF had had its eye on us for many years. Its first warning about the trends in the Irish economy was issued in 2000. The European Commission issued similar warnings during the boom.

Did anyone take a blind bit of notice? Actually, yes. Charlie McCreevy responded. When he was Finance Minister, the EC chided him for "fiscal looseness". In reply, he told the commission to go and jump in the lake.

That wasn't just Charlie being Charlie. It was typical of the Fianna Fail party and Fianna Fail ministers. Some have compared them with children revelling in a sweetshop. I would say, more like Russian "gangster capitalists" or medieval robber barons.

Through the boom, and well into the crash, they thought they could do exactly as they pleased. Brian Cowen said he would govern as he thought fit. We were told that the bank guarantee would cost us nothing.

One of the most extraordinary features of the period has been the lack of interest in, and refusal to learn from, the foreign reaction. All the more extraordinary in view of our obsessive interest in how others view us.

We loved to hear from them in the days when they talked about leprechauns, music and charm. We liked it even better when they switched to our successes in high technology and attracting investment. Somehow we managed to ignore them on two points: first the warnings, then the commentary when we crashed.

Some of the commentary was gloating and offensive, but that came only from the anti-Irish sections of the British media. Most was sympathetic and well informed, but sharp.

There was a bit of political reaction, and reaction from the likes of the tweeters and bloggers. They noticed that our troubles had become an international issue when they became a threat to other economies and to the stability of the euro. Instead of taking due notice, they complained that other countries were pursuing their own interests -- as if they could expect any country to do otherwise.

But this week no sensible person could fail to take notice of something as important as the shambles in Leinster House.

President of the European Commision Jose Manuel Barroso lost his temper with Joe Higgins. People in Barroso's position do not often "lose it" in public. But this time, under provocation, he let go and said vehemently that we had brought our troubles on ourselves.

He wasn't just speaking for himself. He was speaking for the entire European establishment. They see us as having behaved badly and getting fair punishment.

So now, in addition to losing our prosperity and losing any pretence that we have a workable political and bureaucratic system, we have lost our international reputation. It will take years, perhaps decades, to restore it.

This is tragic. Our ancestors set up a foreign affairs department in 1919 while they were fighting for independence. We went on to make a name for ourselves on the world stage -- in a role appropriate for a small country which knew that all independence is limited, even for superpowers.

And all of this was contingent on the belief, of ourselves and others, that we knew how to manage our own affairs. The Cowen Government has proved that it does not know how to manage a flower stall.

The only thing it can do now is to exit Merrion Street with whatever shreds of dignity it can gather about itself. But that will save, at best, only a little of its own self-respect. It can do nothing for the nation at large or for its successors, to whom it passes on a toxic legacy.

This legacy does not consist only of a devastated economy and an ineffective administration. It is also moral and psychological. The national spirit is on the floor.

Very soon, Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore will have to set about trying to revive it. I hope they know what an Everest they will have to climb.

The remnants of Fianna Fail, for their part, will have to set about something they have never done in their long history. They will have to take a deep look at themselves. They will have to ask themselves how, and when, they forgot the meaning of the words "independence" and "republic". But they must first forswear -- publicly -- the boasts, the arrogance, the false pride, and the preening.

Irish Independent