Friday 22 March 2019

Pompous, out of touch elites look down on Ireland from on high

European ambassadors' complacent portrait of the country reflects their own world view rather than ours, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

“From the ‘poorhouse of Europe’ to the Celtic Tiger to the economic crash to the Celtic Phoenix, it has been a bumpy ride,” runs one gem. You don’t say? Photo: Andreea Chiper
“From the ‘poorhouse of Europe’ to the Celtic Tiger to the economic crash to the Celtic Phoenix, it has been a bumpy ride,” runs one gem. You don’t say? Photo: Andreea Chiper

Eilis O'Hanlon

There's a scene in Casablanca where Humphrey Bogart looks through the intelligence that the Germans have gathered on him. "Are my eyes really blue?" he asks in mock wonder.

It can be difficult to recognise oneself as seen through other people's eyes, so it's entirely possible that any bafflement about modern Ireland as it's portrayed in a newly released letter by six EU ambassadors is simply a reflection of that.

Or it could be because the document in question is a facile piece of back-of-an-envelope drivel; a catalogue of inanities plucked from Dublin middle-class dinner party conversation.

The 4,000-word missive was written as a private briefing document by the ambassadors of Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and Holland, and circulated to capitals around Europe as a guide to the current state of the country. Think of it as the diplomatic equivalent of a review on TripAdvisor.

The good news is that Ireland comes out of it looking well. "Today's Ireland," the diplomatic note reassures its exalted readership, "is liberal, welcoming, vibrant, outward-looking, economically successful." Any fears that visitors to Ireland would find us all on our knees, doing a decade of the Rosary before rounding up single mothers, are suitably allayed. Phew.

The bad news is that, if this is what European leaders are relying on to get their insights into member states, then they'd be better off just reading an article on Wikipedia. "From the 'poorhouse of Europe' to the Celtic Tiger to the economic crash to the Celtic Phoenix, it has been a bumpy ride," runs one gem. You don't say?

"The decision of the UK to leave the EU causes strong economic, political and civic challenges for Ireland." Indeed. It's also been rumoured that water's a bit wet. Is this really what these highly educated, highly paid people come up with as part of their mission to represent Ireland to Europe and vice-versa? Does no one back home ever say: "Er, is that it?"

It says it was written after "a series of interviews with stakeholders within the Irish society". But who were these people? How were they selected? Did any of them say anything that went against the grain, or dissented from the complacent orthodoxy which binds together the world views of these various ambassadors? If so, there's no trace of it in this briefing.

Suspicions are raised from the start, when the first person to be mentioned by name is Fintan O'Toole, the "highly acclaimed columnist for The Irish Times".

When these people describe someone as "highly acclaimed", what they generally mean is that he talks their kind of language and tells them what they want to hear. More Irish Times folk are given a nod later on. Then there's the "Irish government official" whose opinion is also quoted. If this circle of "stakeholders" gets any smaller, it could hold future meetings in a phone box.

English journalist Quentin Letts recently published a book called Patronising Bastards that lambasts in humorous form what he calls the "snooterati" which now runs the world. Pompous and out of touch, these grandees are convinced that they represent the future and that anyone who doesn't fall into line as they set about reshaping the world must be some rude peasant.

The complacency of this world view is laid bare eventually as, buried deep in those 4,000 words, the ambassadors note: "Its woes meant that the Irish State had to be bailed out by the EU and the International Monetary Fund."

That's a nice way of putting it. Much nicer than saying that more powerful forces exploited Ireland's weakness after the crash and forced it to take on the continent's collective bank debt. That would mean admitting that the countries which these career diplomats represent, Germany not least, might have had something to do with the crisis, too.

This is what happens when a bunch of mandarins with gold-plated pensions echo back one another's opinions in one giant ideological circle jerk.

Then they have the gall to say that "capital investment was virtually non-existent during the crisis years". And why might that have been? It's a mystery alright.

What's terrifying is how pleased they all are with themselves, while utterly failing to understand things like the rise of populism. Try getting out of your bubble. Talk to ordinary people instead of one another.

The ambassadors briefly mention rising rents and house prices, but what we get here is an eagle's eye view of the country, seen from on high as they soar above the little people.

No doubt Irish ambassadors are sending home equally inane briefings about their own postings. The difference is that it doesn't really matter what we think of most of the countries in which we have a diplomatic presence because our influence over them is somewhere between slight and non-existent. Europe is different. Its deliberations will shape Ireland's future.

In that respect, it's not hard to see where their excellencies are coming from. "What's next for Ireland?" this diplomatic note ponders. "The country has many important decisions to make in the near future that will shape the society for the decades to come. To name a few: deciding on the next step of Europeanisation..."

So that's where all this was heading. It's infused with an underlying desire for Ireland to decisively break the economic connection to Britain in order to facilitate its further "Europeanisation".

Diversification of exports is never going to be a bad thing, but the prevailing assumption that Ireland will be better off turning its back on Britain is easy for them to say. The UK is as hard for Ireland to ignore as a bear in the kitchen, and that's unlikely to change any time soon. What matters is protecting the country's economic base. Europeanisation can wait.

Ireland is not at risk of a populist upsurge. But one would think, with all that's going on in Europe, from the election of a eurosceptic government in Italy to protests in Germany against the influx of migrants, that political elites would pause a moment and proceed more cautiously. Instead, it's always full steam ahead.

The Irish, they assert condescendingly in reference to the breakdown in the Catholic Church's authority, have "started to think for themselves". Maybe their excellencies should try doing it, too.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss