The new Ireland and its booming metropolis-Europe's capital for six monthsby John O'Farrell / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The weekend that turned June into July was a busy one in Dublin. Tina Turner bawled her lungs out, gay activists paraded through O’Connell Street, football fans having supported Germany against England switched allegiance to the Czechs for the final, drummers drummed Ireland into the EU presidency, President Robinson f?ted President Havel at Dublin Castle, and assassinated crime journalist Veronica Guerin was buried.
“I want to be a president who will speak less and work more. To be a president who will not only look out of the windows of his airplane but who will always be present among his fellow citizens and listen to them well,” wrote Havel in January 1990. When he flew into Dublin airport, he would have seen, looking out of the window, the neat, tree-lined residential suburbs hugging the coast from Killiney to Howth; then the ranks of the northside’s private and public housing estates; then the seven towers of Ballymon, each named after an executed signatory to the 1916 proclamation of the Irish republic; finally, before the airport runway, the little airport church, from where Veronica Guerin’s body would be removed on the following, Saturday, morning.
To visit Dublin these days is to visit a booming metropolis, with rising house prices, an assertive cultural life with confident and well-educated young consumers and citizens. The boosters are working overtime to position the republic as a truly free state; liberal in outlook, easy on the eye and good for business. Mary Robinson is genuflected to as a statesman worthy of any European democracy and is being touted as the next secretary general of the UN. She is revered by English republicans as a template for a replacement for the Windsor dynasty, balancing the dignity of her office with being among her fellow citizens, listening to them well.
Temple Bar, Dublin’s “cultural quarter,” has been transformed from rotting warehouses to a chi-chi left bank wonderland of art, apartments and cool commerce. Multinational corporations are queueing up to open shop. Almost everyone encountered exudes that ring of confidence that dare not be contradicted, the belief that the rising tide, 30 years after Sean Lemass promised, is finally lifting all boats.
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eighty years is a long time. Germany was divided for 40 years and is still struggling to reconcile the different perceptions of life, even language, which evolved in the two states. Partition in Ireland has been a spatial and psychological fact for twice that time, and the inevitable has happened; whatever becomes of the squabbling tribes of the north (and most people still believe in peace), the south will march on regardless with its own perspective on identity, culture and politics.
Among the hypotheses about “What To Do with Northern Ireland?” no one in the republic ever assumed that it would make any difference to life down below. This goes beyond fiddling with the constitution’s articles 2 and 3. The make-up of the D?il, the role of the president, the statute book, relations with the EU, UN and UK, treatment of minorities, the economy, cultural expressions, the first language (still officially Gaelic), local councils, the two soccer teams-none of the above are discussed as if they would be affected by the outcome of the peace process. And the reason is identity. Much to the horror of the northern nationalists the fact is that the 26 counties is, for most of its citizens, the psychic boundaries of “Ireland.” The six counties are different; not entirely British, but not as “Irish” as, say Cork or Sligo. Northern Catholics are sympathised with, but in a distant way, like Bosnians except closer. Until the 1994 ceasefire, only some 10 per cent of southerners had spent a night in Northern Ireland, and despite the packed trains to Belfast, most punters go home the same day, weighed down by Argos bags. Most southerners do not know any northerners, particularly northern protestants, who equally do not cross the Rubicon, called the Boyne.
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within “ireland,” also, is another country, away from the pomp, protocol and patronage that our distinguished visitors see. Most countries follow Lyndon Johnson’s advice and keep their one-eyed granny off the porch. What is scary is that many among Dublin’s political class believe the official script.
There are some ghouls at the feast such as the growing intolerance for the poor, and the one third of the population where the unemployment is concentrated. We have Parisian-style “apartment life” as promised by the boosters. We also have Parisian-style slum ghettos circling the city, with modern Euro-riots, drugs and unemployment out of sight and out of mind, as the shocked faces of our legislators (and journalists) showed during last April’s by-election in Dublin West.
Ireland can pat itself on the back for a remarkable turnaround in its economic fortunes and the implementation of its liberal agenda of social reform and rights culture. We are finally, as Garret FitzGerald promised a decade ago, all Europeans now. But are we being entirely truthful to ourselves, as well as our visitors, about the state we’re in? n