A people of who we know nothing?

Notes from the Western Periphery

HUMAN TRAGEDY An elderly woman coated in snow as she sits in a wheelchair after being evacuated from Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv on March 8.  Pic: Flickr.com/manhhai/Vadim Ghirda—AP CC BY 2.0a

The world has shrunk, and our interconnectedness feeds our outrage

John Bradley

HOW horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.’ Famous words from the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 when Czechoslovakia was threatened by invasion from Nazi Germany. Small nations threatened by external violence have been haunted by these words ever since.
Today we do not have Chamberlain’s lame excuse. Our world has become a smaller, more interconnected place for two main reasons. First, the dramatic freedom of movement that is a core value of the European Union. Second, the extraordinary advances in communications technology.  

Interconnectedness
IN the past, we Irish left in droves during bad times and even good times, in search of safety, better lives and opportunities elsewhere. The Communist system effectively imprisoned the people of Central Europe, and after it col- lapsed in 1989 many of them came to Ireland, Britain and elsewhere across the EU
Their presence amongst us greatly enriched our cultural and economic well being. Ireland underwent a transformation from being isolated and inward looking to being global, liberal and tolerant. An example of this produced the pride I felt when I sent copies of last week’s Mayo News to colleagues in Poland. The extensive coverage of the events of the Ukraine war and of the caring actions of the people to provide help any assistance was deeply impressive.
The other factor that has made our world more interconnected is the role of modern media and the internet. Today, we are literally able to look. over the shoulders of people caught up in the war in Ukraine, and what we see is heart- breaking.
We also see politicians as they try to justify their actions and inactions. Before the Russian invasion. Ukraine faced many challenges on its path to democracy. It was not perfect. But the lies about the Ukrainian government being propagated by President Putin are as grotesque as they are transparent. People protesting peacefully in Russia are attacked and dragged away by police, facing long terms in prison. The Russian Ambassador to Ireland uses tortuous Orwellian language, claiming that it’s not a war; it’s a special military action. How appropriate that his embassy is located on Orwell Road!
A constant refrain from reporters on the ground in Ukraine over the past two weeks was their incredulity that, in the year 2022, a European country was invaded, its infrastructure destroyed and its people terrorised and killed. Our comfortable existence in the European Union had lulled us into a dangerous illusion that disputes between nations could always be resolved by negotiation and that common sense usually prevails. But tell that to my Polish, Estonian, Lithuanian and Latvian colleagues who have now begun to think that they are next.  

Plans destroyed
I share the universal anger of people at the human tragedy unfolding in Ukraine. But the despair of Ukrainians who see their livelihoods being destroyed and their infrastructure being blown to bits has a very particular resonance for me.  Last summer I was asked to carry out some research on the Ukrainian regional economies that would assist the Minis- try of Regional Development in Kyiv. This project was part of the quiet, con- structive work that the EU has been doing in Ukraine as its people look to Europe for a better future.
The Ukrainian government and its regional administrations were designing strategies to develop and modernise the economies of the 25 oblasts (administrative divisions) of this immense country, to improve infrastructure, to educate and train its citizens, to modernise its industry and to benefit from closer economic integration with the EU. Ukraine looks to Poland as a model of successful EU-led development that they would like to emulate.
After six months working with Polish and Ukrainian colleagues, I became very familiar with all the regions that now, tragically, feature on our TV screens each night.
But patient development work carried out by the regional administrations will now have to be replaced by emergency reconstruction of infrastructure destroyed by war, recovery from the deaths of many of their citizens, a return of the people who fled the war in terror, and an urgent need to restore peaceful dealings with the rest of the world. The planned improvements being proposed in the pre-invasion Regional Development Strategies are now things of the past.

Reconstruction
BUT we must have hope. We must look to and work for a future where Ukraine is at peace and where the EU embraces it as a new member state and takes responsibility for massive post-war reconstruction that will be required. America did this for a devastated Europe through the Marshall Plan in 1947. The European Union must now step up and do the same for post-war Ukraine.
Such thoughts may seem quixotic in view of the brutality that is now engulf- ing Ukraine. But we need look forward to a time when a massive EU-financed reconstruction programme will rebuild the Ukrainian economy out of the ashes of a destructive war and restore it to an honoured place in the family of peace- loving European nations.  

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.