Global Ireland versus rural Ireland

Notes from the Western Periphery

WOOLLY THINKING Rural Ireland sustains our global identity, but the Government fails to support it.

The Government’s Global Ireland 2025 strategy: strong on hype, weak on evidence

John Bradley

Last week I attended a conference in Paris whose theme was Global Ireland 2025, a Government strategy aimed at doubling the Irish ‘footprint’ on the world.
The participants were from a wide range of academic backgrounds, including history, languages, music, film-making, political science, media studies, geography and sociology. What emerged was an extraordinary and humbling realisation of how the Irish diaspora, scattered across the globe, retains and transmits strong cultural memories of Ireland, even as they blend into their new adopted countries.
Diaspora groups are assisted by Irish government funding, but much of the dynamism in the diaspora is local and personal. Much of the culture transmitted is rural, not urban.
The conference highlighted a gulf that exists between the official Government rhetoric concerning the diaspora (often viewed as support for attracting inward investment, as in The Gathering events), and the natural and unexpected way that cultural influences transmit between generations, even extending into influencing other cultures. We have German pipe bands, Japanese ceilí bands, and Zambian Gaelic-speaking dancers.
Global Ireland 2025, with its State-run focus and mercenary aims, does not emerge from this with much attractiveness.
In recent years I have become tired of Government initiatives and policy strategies that are driven by unconvincing public-relations rhetoric rather than by rigorous analysis and real world experience.
A pointer to modern pseudo-strategising is the claim that ‘Ireland is at a crossroads’. In Government-speak, this implies that circumstances have changed so radically that we can ignore past policies, designed to deal with past problems. We should look to the future and do something completely different.
Another characteristic of Government strategising is that it starts with a big ‘vision’ or ‘challenge’ and jumps to describing just how wonderful that vision will be when successfully realised. This approach may work in sport, but it seldom works in national planning.
The most serious deficit is a lack of evidence deriving from research. Irish official strategising seems to operate in an evidence-free zone. Experts, with their questions, warnings and alternatives are not welcome.

Claims v reality
We are told in a Foreword that Global Ireland 2025 defines Ireland’s global outlook for ‘generations to come’. That it is ‘a continuation of a dream for Ireland that has motivated Irish men and women for centuries’. It invokes Michael Collins’s vision of Ireland as ‘a shining light in a dark world’. It praises former taoiseach Seán Lemass, for setting out ‘a path to national prosperity’ in a wider world. It portrays Ireland in 1922 as ‘a small island on the periphery of Western Europe’ but moving now to be ‘an island at the centre of the world’.
I can understand why politicians (in this case, former taoiseach Leo Varadkar) feel the need to use such hyped language. However, in my lifetime there have been too many occasions when systemic political failures produced catastrophic economic consequences. And in my lifetime we were shut off from world literature by censorship and from world commerce by tariff barriers. Our record of strategic decision making does not inspire confidence!
For example, the claim in Global Ireland 2025 is that: “We are one of the most outward-looking, globalised nations in the world.” But this is true only in a very narrow sense. We became ‘outward-looking’ mainly because so many of our people were forced to emigrate. Our export/GDP ratio is indeed among the highest in the world, but driven entirely by foreign multinationals who use Ireland as a production base. The export orientation of our domestic industry is much lower, and the British market still dominates.
The claim is also made that: “Through Project Ireland 2040, the Government is investing in future-proofing the country at home. Through Global Ireland 2025, we are taking the steps necessary to ensure that we can continue to advance and defend our interests and values internationally.”
However, the Dublin planners push a centralising strategy that is inappropriate for the modern era.
Today, more than 75 percent of the workforce is in services, embracing many activities that do not require large cities. But the Dublin planners refuse to accept that public expenditure on infrastructure is needed in towns and villages where the future of our economy lies and not just in keeping our obese capital city functioning. They ignore the need to dynamise those parts of rural Ireland most closely associated with our cultural heritage, which will otherwise stagnate and decline.

Sustaining our identity
A much deeper exploration is needed of the factors that give Ireland global visibility. The official Government approach embodied in Global Ireland 2025 is unreflective, self-serving, and mercantile.
Even our national failures are interesting. They include the many spectacular economic own goals of the years since independence, but each failure was followed by taking strong medicine and no street riots. The world likes countries who admit their errors, pay their debts and claw back. Telling the truth is more convincing than the hubris of Global Ireland 2025 and the strategic errors of Project Ireland 2040.
The ‘five cities’ may well sustain our national economy, but rural Ireland sustains our identity. We ignore and devalue the dynamism and potential of our regions at our peril. A homogeneous, urban Ireland will not retain global admiration.

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.