Ireland is an exceptional country, well so I think anyway. I know this is the easiest plug that any person can give a home town crowd “there’s nowhere like …..” and you get your applause. The concept of exceptionalism is more commonly identified with the United States, were the notion of this being a special place is hammered home time and again. My nephews who are all Americans, do have a real sense of civic pride as they are quick to tell me that they can recite the Pledge of Allegiance perfectly, practicing it every morning in school before class starts.
I know to many of you reading this, the whole concept of American Exceptionalism is such a toxic concept. But, for me it’s one of the reasons I love going to the United States. This unapologetic sense that, we are an important country, with a unique way of life and we are going to put it up in lights. It is just such a sea change in many ways from Ireland.
Over the past few years with recessions, bailouts and austerity it is very easy to become jaded and cynical about the direction of the country. I know all too well myself, how this recession has forced close members of my family to seek work elsewhere and the lack of opportunities that exist across the island. It’s incredibly tempting to think that place is quite frankly a kip which is governed by a mix of the incorrigible and the incompetent.
However, if you find yourself thinking that just take a moment to step back and look around you. Ireland suffered one of the biggest economic collapses in Europe in 2008/9. Yet today figures were released that showed today that the country has the fastest growth in the European Union, with debt being repaid ahead of schedule and the national credit rating upgraded (again!). The general public have suffered emigration, austerity and change, and the overall response? They rolled up their sleeves and got on with the job.
You might think, big deal; Ireland came out of a recession. But I look around Europe, I see governments either unwilling or unable to take on the real task of reform and just getting on with it and the result is stagnation and massive civil unrest. I look back into history and see that Ireland in the late 1980’s performed the same miracle turnaround in its overall direction. This economic performance in my view can only be achieved through an exceptional workforce adapting to change and getting on the task at hand.
Then you have the opposite side of this coin, political apathy. Anything I have read about the British/Argentine IMF bailouts was a great sense of apathy in the immediate years that followed and this sense of failure plagued those countries for years. Yet, I looked at the scenes of thousands out yesterday in Dublin protesting about their governments policies on water charges and I cannot help but think that this country has not been broken at all by the EU/IMF bailout in 2010.
This exceptionalism knows no border too. As I write this in Belfast City Centre, I am reminded of our brutal conflict that claimed so many lives over the last 30 years, in the Linen Hall Library there are the front pages of the main newspapers illustrating the sheer horror that people in this country had to endure. Going back even further the dominating Harland and Wolff cranes reminded me of the Belfast Blitz in 1941 which saw parts of this city bombed to pieces by the German Air Force.
My city has suffered war, peace, boom and bust, yet today I see people out shopping and bars gradually filling up with Christmas parties. You wouldn’t think we are one of the least prosperous cities in the United Kingdom or that we are just 16 years out of a long period of Trouble, but that is what makes this country exceptional. This province of Ulster, the Six Counties, Northern Ireland or whatever your choice of name is has not been beaten by violence and is sure as hell not taking the recession lying down either. For me again, exceptional
We have our Unionist brethren, who contribute such an important part to our national discourse. I know some Unionists reading this hate the fact that I think they’re Irish, but an Irish nation without a Unionist identity is not, in my view a complete nation, nor would it be exceptional without them.
All of this is very political of course; I could list the variety of cultural and academic works we contribute to the world. I could list our contribution to some of major agreements in the European Union, but I have to end this post somewhere.
Ireland is an exceptional country for a multitude of reasons and we need to start saying it more. Not to use it as a way to shield us from difficult problems, but rather as a way to project ourselves to the world. Look around the world on St Patricks Day and see the amount of people who want to feel a part of this tiny island race. We sometimes forget that combined there are just over 6 million of us.
We pack a punch way beyond our size, which probably explains why as a nation we’ve never been knocked out. This is my country, an exceptional place to live, work and be born into. It is ok for us to recognise and act like it every once in a while.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs