Are our politicians afraid of success?

Tom Kelly met corporate Irish America up close and personal last week, and found that many of them, passionate as they may be about Ireland, are also Bush supporting Republicans. He wonders whether Northern Ireland’s political class can live up to the challenge of making the tough decisions necessary to make Northern Ireland the same attractive target for American capital as the Republic now is.

By Tom Kelly

Last week I was in New York for the US-Ireland Council for Industry and Commerce dinner, when the guest speaker was Mary Harney. Speaking without a note she gave an engaging and entertaining speech. The evening was held in the prestigious Metropolitan Club of New York.

Given most of the audience were Irish American of either Irish or of Scots-Irish descent, the nearest most of their forefathers (or mothers) would have got to the place was as serving staff, porters and cleaners. But last Thursday without any sense of irony, the Paddies were wined, dined and served by a new wave of mi-grant workers from Eastern Europe.

As Mary Harney pointed out, Ireland, like the audience present, had been transformed. No longer at the back of the bus in economic terms, Ireland was now one of the richest economies in the developed world and is the EU success template for regeneration.

Of course, the tanaiste, like all good politicians, claimed the success was in part due to the involvement of the Progressive Democrats in government. Given the relative stability of the government given to Ireland through the Fianna Fail/PD alliance there is some truth to her claim. The seeds of economic success were most definitely sown by the transformation within Fianna Fail which started with Sean Lemass in the 1960s and carried through various administrations.

A quick glance through the magazine Irish America and it is not hard to see a direct correlation between the rise of the Irish in corporate America and the incredibly high levels of US overseas investment in Ireland. Irish America is not as politically inclined towards the north as one might imagine. Many of the great and the good of corporate Irish America are Republicans. To watch many leading members of Sinn Fein swanking it up and sipping Bollinger with some of the Irish corporate elite in members clubs is quite remarkable. It is very unlikely if Sinn Fein talks up their taxation policies, lest they cause their hosts indigestion post the lobster luncheon.

If the talks in the north bear fruit, it would be interesting to see a Sinn Fein economy minister. While interesting as an experiment, it may not be successful or sensible.

However in fairness, Pat Doherty as chairman of the economic committee proved a good tag team member with Sir Reg Empey when on overseas visits or if hosting inward investment prospects. If and when a local administration gets up and running, hopefully parties will find themselves questioned more on the conflicts between their manifestoes and their actions as ministers.

It is quite trying to be clubbed to death by constitutional politics while our economy stagnates and we are strangled by our over dependence on a massive public sector we cannot afford to keep.

But have our politicians the will to break that dependence? Or will they bottle it in favour of the status quo? As we go forward with or without local politicians driving the economy, what issues are likely to side track us? Well it is likely there will be less talk about job creation and more about the Creation as we are not immune from issues emerging in the Western world.

In the US we saw that ‘moral values’ was the defining issue in the election, more than the moral issues such as the justification of going to war or the immorality of President Bush having presided over more job losses than president Hoover during the Depression. As we go forward one hopes we can avoid the divisiveness of such issues taking centre stage. Somehow I doubt it. The uneasy coalition between fundamental Protestantism and reactionary Catholi-cism could make the entire north a Bible belt which would make one time segrationalist Mississippi seem tolerant.

The with or without God bit in the EU constitution will also prove divisive as referenda take place in Britain and Ireland.

Hopefully those who aspire to hold office in any administration in the north will fire their mettle in defending the human rights of believer and non believer alike. If the recent public response to attacks on migrant workers in our Health Service is anything to go by, I would not hold my breath.

The north cannot continue as an economic backwater. For nearly 60 years successive British governments were happy with the ‘seen not heard’ existence of the Northern Ireland statelet.

The blatant discriminatory tactic of unionists followed by the murderous activities of paramilitaries of every hue meant that existence could not continue. Now British administrations can hear us but wish they did not have too.

Selling the north is not easy and those tasked with the job deserve to get credit. Their efforts are undermined more by inertia than intransigence. How much more difficult would Northern Ireland be to market if migrant workers continue to be attacked? How much harder would it be to sell the north as an inward investment location if we regressed into a theocratic state?

After 30 years of violence, 60 years of discrimination and hundreds of years of hatred, can’t we take a leaf from our American cousins in economic terms and learn to move on?

As Albert Reynolds once asked: “Who is afraid of peace?”

From the early omens many are afraid of peace, but they seem equally afraid of success. It would be a pity to make the opportunity offered by peace no better than the oppression offered by partisan politics.

First published in the Irish News.

  • Moderate Unionist

    Excellent piece of work. If politicians continue to take every opportunity to exploit our differences it will be difficult to build consensus, never mind trust. Of course, we must accept reality that we are a divided society and that these divisions will only heal slowly unless there is a common goal to which all can subscribe.

    IMHO, this is not the constitutional issue, but the economy (including education, environment, security, health, infrastructure as important contributing factors).

    Two major factors present significant threats to our economy,

    A genuine global economy allows skills, labour, finance and technology to flow easily and quickly to any part of the world.

    The development of a knowledge based economy requiring a significantly better educated work force than before.

    Manufacturing agricultural and service jobs will continue to relocate to low cost countries. What will we replace them with?

    We need politicians who genuinely understand these issues and not just how to get a sound bite or to rehash the old tribal arguments. The challenge to our community is a common one and we must unite to face it.

  • ulsterman

    I think you need to be careful here. The Republic of Ireland under the old EU was regarded as a poor state.It got hugh financing from Europe. As well as that A lot of major US companies moved to the Republic because of cheap wage costs and it being in the EU.

    However that could be changing. The EU now contains many countries vastly poorer than the Republic. EU subsidies wil be vastly reduced. Those companies that invested in Ireland may well move to Eastern Europe where there is also a hugh young Labour market but willing to work for a lot less.

    Dublin was recently named as one of the most expensive cities. If people cannot afford houses then that could be a problem.

    Also the political situation appears heading for disaster. If SF win 12-15 seats at an election there arises a situation where no one is able to form a government.

    The conference in America report was interesting but as I have said all is not rosy in the Republics garden.

    God Save The Queen.

  • Billy Pilgrim

    Exactly MU.

    We need to invest in education in order to find our niche in the world economy. We are already have a highly-educated English-speaking population, but we need to start building our economic infrastructure on the ground.

    That means we need to create the conditions where entrepreneurial culture and small businesses can thrive. We need to get the balance between local initiative and outside investment right. Our present policy of whoring ourselves out to massive global corporations in the hope that they’ll throw up their huge sheds on main roads may help to create jobs, but such investments don’t really create wealth, or at least the kind of wealth that stays here. It also causes our town centres to atrophy, thus eating away at civic life.

    We need start thinking in terms of wealth-creation
    instead of – as seems to be the case currently – simply hoping that outside investment will keep us all in work. (Typical colonial attitude that, but I digress.) But we will also need substantial FDI – and for this we’ll need a workforce with high levels of education and specifically-honed skills. We can’t work for less than workers in China and we can’t work the same hours as workers in India but we can develop skills that will make our labour valuable.

    We also have to phase out the military-civil service vice that currently throttles our welfare-case economy. Fact is, we have twice as many civil servants as we need and a security aparatus that is an economic killer. We don’t need the security aparatus as it is currently constituted. In fact, economically we would benefit from total demilitarisation.

    I have said often before that we are an economic smack addict, but one with limitless potential. There’s quite a lot of cold turkey ahead of us but with a bit of maturity and an eye on the big picture we can minimise it, and maybe even get our economy going again.

    These are just a few of the things we need to do, and are goals that both sides of our divided society should aspire to. That said, I remain unconvinced that the reforms – and mindsets – required for such a transformation are possible in the Northern Ireland state as currently constituted, but I would genuinely like to be convinced.

  • Billy Pilgrim


    I always thought you were a cartoon, just taking the piss but now I see you are actually a real person pouring forth real opinions.


    But at least you didn’t mention the Pope…

  • Moderate Unionist

    Billy Pilgrim
    An excellent post, I agree with you but ask one small favour. Don’t digress 🙂 (It pulls the thread into unconstructive areas)

    In support of Billy Pilgrim’s post, I appreciate your contribution to the topic. Your points are worth making, but of course there will be counter arguments. (There was an excellent discussion on your points in previous threads). People are not wrong, they either have a different analysis or they don’t share the same pool of facts. Either way informed discussion defeats prejudice, but people are entitled to a difference of opinion.

  • ShayPaul


    What we need is leadership to push the issues and forget the tribalism. I’m sure the electorate are up for it. A good leader able to construct a powerful administration including captains of industry with vision. Then we could get cracking on a program to move forward, and improve this place for everyone.

  • willowfield

    Good post, Billy P, but could you clarify this, please:

    We don’t need the security aparatus as it is currently constituted. In fact, economically we would benefit from total demilitarisation.

  • Moderate Unionist

    Interesting insight. Maybe we should advertise?

    Objection noted and understood but maybe we should focus on the significant areas of agreement 🙂

  • James

    “Interesting insight. Maybe we should advertise?”

    Just advertising is not the answer. You need to come up with the right message and motivation first. They do not need you. You must make the place appear appealing to them.

    If they wanted to invest in a soggy clime, they could far more easily put their funding into the Seattle-Tacoma area where the only problems are Sasquatch and Artesians, not the Buckfast Brigade and the IRA.

  • Moderate Unionist


    The “advertise” was in response to ShayPaul’s observations on the qualities required of our political leadership who should and must understand the points you are making.

  • George

    “It is quite trying to be clubbed to death by constitutional politics while our economy stagnates and we are strangled by our over dependence on a massive public sector we cannot afford to keep.
    But have our politicians the will to break that dependence? Or will they bottle it in favour of the status quo?”

    This is the crux, dismantle the current system and rebuild it anew. At the moment, it seems most politicians are happy to continue feathering their nests rather than bite the economic bullet, which includes demilitarisation.
    We have been down this road before, have we not Willowfield.

  • willowfield