Ireland’s unofficial motto used to be Céad míle fáilte — a hundred thousand welcomes. Since the country entered its financial crisis seven years ago, those warm words have been displaced by something more strident: “We are not Greece”.
As the commentator Fintan O’Toole noted in a piece for the Open Democracy website recently: “If government ministers and technocrats wore T-shirts, this slogan would be imprinted on those in charge of managing the crisis that hit Ireland in 2008.”
Yet as eurozone finance ministers meet in Brussels on Monday to press Greece to seek an extension to its €172bn bailout, Irish ministers seem insistent that Athens complete every last yard of its gruelling austerity programme just as the Irish did. “They’re saying, ‘We’ve done our homework, it wasn’t easy, and part of the homework is keeping Germany happy, and the Greeks are being unrealistic’,” says Tom Healy, director of the Nevin Economic Research Institute.
This lack of solidarity with Greece from Dublin is notable. It echoes the position of Spain and Portugal, who also argue that they have taken the hard steps needed to stabilise their economies and fiscal positions, and that there can be no special concessions for one EU member state. It chimes with the government’s insistence — argued most forcefully in parliament this month by Michael Noonan, the finance minister — that Ireland’s enormous sovereign debt, which he said was 110 per cent of economic output last year, is sustainable.
The government’s stance has drawn criticism from commentators, economists and opposition politicians. They say Greece deserves more support as a fellow eurozone economy in distress, and that the Irish position is a cynical move to ensure that Greece gets no concessions not offered to the Irish.
Michael McGrath, finance spokesman for the opposition Fianna Fáil party, says: “We have been quite dismissive of the Greeks and their predicament — we have done nothing to position ourselves to help them.”
Stephen Kinsella, an economist at the University of Limerick, says the stance reflects not just the Irish desire to be in the German camp but a newfound closeness between Irish and German officials who have worked together on Ireland’s financial rescue. “They have each other’s mobile numbers; they have gone out to dinner together,” he says.
But Mr Kinsella says that should not prevent a more accommodating approach to the plight of Greece, especially given the risk that it might be forced to leave the eurozone. “If that is the threat, Ireland should be making much more constructive noises,” he says.
The Irish position is not illogical, however. More than a year after its bailout expired, the economy is growing strongly, job creation is accelerating, and it has regained full access to international capital markets. Officials say they have no intention of allowing the Greek crisis to threaten that recovery. There is a strong collective Irish desire to avoid the mistakes of the recent past.
Moreover, the Irish experience of austerity and the bailout is different from that of the Greeks. During the three years of Ireland’s €67bn bailout about €28bn, or 15 per cent of gross domestic product, was sucked out of the economy through spending cuts, tax rises and other measures. But Mr Kinsella says social welfare spending, for example, did not fall dramatically, and while there was a rise in inequality, some of the austerity measures, especially in tax rises, were “fairly progressive”.
That helps explain why Ireland has no equivalent to Syriza, the radical new leftwing Greek government, or Podemos, which is surging up the popularity stakes in Spain on an anti-establishment platform. Anti-austerity politics in Ireland is unfocused and marginal. Even Sinn Féin, the most hardline Irish political party, has failed to capture it — and in any case the party is one of the oldest in Europe.
The once-loud Irish demands for debt relief — including, in its early days, from the current government — have faded. But with a general election due in about a year, a change of government could reignite them. The risk in Ireland’s unsympathetic stance on Greece, some people say, is that Dublin will fail to win friends for debt relief if it needs them again. “We should be supportive of a pan-European debate on debt sustainability,” Mr McGrath says. “We’re still a very highly indebted nation.”
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