Sunday 15 December 2019

Kevin Myers: Our debt is daunting but it is nothing compared to the tasks China faced after Mao

If the official, worst-case scenario bailout of Anglo-Irish is €34bn as announced yesterday, then we had better brace ourselves for a final cost of €50bn. So we have a few options before us. The first is to cry "Ochone, ochone", wrap ourselves up in sackcloth and ashes, and blame someone else: otherwise known as National Route One.

The signposts for an alternative route are there before you every time you buy a Chinese takeaway, or if you eat some Irish strawberries today. The signposts were in the headlines on Wednesday, which reported the final settlement of the German war debts from 1914-18.

Go into any Tesco, on this, the first day of October. You will see delicious Irish strawberries and raspberries that are far juicier and sweeter and fatter than the soft fruit you could have got (had you been born) in high summer 25 years ago. There is a single explanation for this: K-E-E-L-I-N-G-S. Before the K-revolution, Ireland was largely dependent on imported soft fruit. I remember travelling around west Cork in high summer and seeing nothing but Dutch strawberries. And if you like your strawberries to taste and feel as if they were carved from raw potato, then the Dutch strawberries are the boys for you. But some of us have higher aspirations for a garden party than a plate full of peeled and red-dyed uncooked Golden Wonder served in whipped cream.

As for raspberries, you might as well have been asked for papaya with webbed feet, they were so rare and expensive: and when you could actually buy them -- during a single weekend in mid-July -- they were well on their way to being jam.

And then Keelings came along, and all was changed. These days, for much of the year, you can buy excellent Irish soft fruit, and though not all of it is from the K- family, it was they who set the standards, and they who extended the season -- from the spring to the autumn. Now, many food-snobs would have us confine fruit-consumption to the original season in which the fruit grew. That would mean potatoes from July through to February, grapes only in the autumn, oranges only in mid-winter, strawberries in July, beri-beri in November, rickets at Christmas and famine for Easter.

So I welcome Keelings spreading the season, so long as the fruit they produce is full and sweet and rich. And it is -- which is why no one ever would dream of buying potato-flavoured "strawberries" from that vast North Sea gas-warmed glasshouse-prairie 15 feet beneath the Zuiderzee. The Keelings have done what once seemed impossible; they've turned Ireland into a major exporter of soft fruit.

Doing what seemed impossible is the key. It brings us to the story that on Wednesday, Germany repaid the last of the debts from the Great War. Contrary to myth, the reparations levied on Germany after the 1914-18 war did not bring about German economic ruin. The Germans did in the 1920s, what they were later to do in the late 1940s and 1950s, and again in the 1990s after the Wall came down: They Got On With The Job.

Yes, there is a strain of self-pity in Germany, as there is in all European cultures, but there is, far more importantly, a wonderful can-do attitude. The Mercedes-Benz union occurred in the 1920s, and its legendary Series One saloon was the best car in the world for 20 years.

Meanwhile, Junkers was revolutionising air transport with its all-metal low-wing monoplane airliners. The famous Junkers Ju-52 was a product, not of the Third Reich, but of the 1920s. Siemens in that same decade changed hydro-electrics forever at Ardnacrusha. Yet this was the very period in which German industry was supposedly "crippled" by reparations.

The German economy actually prospered, even while it was paying off reparations (just as France of the Third Republic of the 1880s entered a golden age, and also rebuilt Paris, though saddled with colossal reparations from the Franco-Prussian war). Then along came Herr Hitler, who crossbred lies with self-pity, and produced the myth that Versailles had crippled Germany. Utterly untrue.

And why the Chinese takeaway at the start of this column? Because the Chinese know adversity the way we know rain, and the Dutch know polders. But it never defeats them. Look at the boat people who came here 30 years ago with nothing. Where are they now? Not in the dole queue (where you'll see no Chinese, ever) not on welfare, and most of all, not complaining.

The debt mountain facing us is daunting -- but it is nothing compared to the tasks China faced after Mao, or Japan and Germany after 1945. Consider what those societies subsequently achieved.

Within 30 years of World War Two ending, both Japan and Germany had built car factories in the USA; and within the same period after Mao, China was the owner of the largest stockpile of US dollars in the world, and was an exporter of hi-tech goods on a par with Germany.

"Ah, we haven't got the enterprise," goes the old Hibernian whine. "We can't do that." Wrong. One word -- "Keelings" -- says we can.

kmyers@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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