Letter from Dublin
When I first visited Dublin in the mid-1970s, I was shocked to observe barefoot children in the streets because of poverty. It was a depressing sign that Ireland still had a long way to go to fulfil the economic promise that people hoped for when the country achieved a measure of independence 50 years before. Equally I was astonished to see lifesize crucifixes in people’s gardens, complete with supposedly bloodstained effigies of Jesus. The power of the Church was palpable.
Much has changed in the half century that has passed since. There are no more barefoot children or crucifixes to be seen, and the Irish economy is booming, thanks both to EU membership and inward investment from the US. Ireland is not free of problems, most obviously with a housing crisis that makes securing an affordable home a challenge for many.
But statistics show how the country has climbed out of the economic doldrums that once seemed a permanent feature and how the bulk of the population is enjoying unprecedented levels of prosperity.
So much is clear to anyone who visits the bars and restaurants of central Dublin, or indeed other cities and towns.
Ireland’s self-confidence jumps out from the pages of its homegrown newspapers, which instead of patronising their readers treats them as the intelligent people they generally are.
The Irish Times
Reading The Irish Times is a genuine pleasure. Still published as a broadsheet – a format almost extinct now in the UK – it has a comprehensive domestic and international coverage supplemented by incisive columnists, invariably making you feel better informed about the world.
On the morning after Boris Johnson announced his resignation as a backbench MP in response to an excoriating Parliamentary report about his lockdown behaviour, he got a brief signposting mention at the bottom of page one in The Irish Times and a fuller story at the bottom of page 10.
This seemed entirely proportionate: for Irish readers he is not a great quirky character who has dominated the political scene for years, but a superficial and clearly dishonest individual whose ability to achieve power is, implicitly, a mark of how debased Britain has become.
There are other, much more significant stories, to cover. Unsurprisingly, the paper leads on the revelation that Donald Trump “held on to secret nuclear papers”, but there is a lengthy piece on page 2 about changes to the EU’s refugee policy aimed at relieving the pressure on “frontline border states”. The coverage of EU affairs by British news outlets tended to be pathetic when the UK was a member state, so the chances of reading such a nuanced piece in Britain’s newspapers is now non-existent.
There’s a factual report revealing that Ireland’s state bodies spent a total of €285k on events to welcome President Biden to the country during his visit in April. Britain’s right wing papers would doubtless have carried hysterical comments from Tory MPs about such expenditure, presumably motivated by a wish that even more could have been spent on the King’s Coronation.
There’s a highly informative article looking forward to next year’s European Parliament election – one we’ll have to sit out – speculating that Sinn Fein, the party of the moment, will increase its representation.
A story that will have resonances for Welsh readers relates to controversy over a proposal to build a large wind farm straddling two counties in Ireland’s Midlands. And there’s a special report focussing on Ireland’s housing crisis from an employment perspective, encapsulated in the headline which reads: “More jobs than workers in many sectors leave employers calling for housing solutions”. There are plenty of other articles too.
One factor that quickly becomes apparent is the absence of a looming presence that is inescapable in any discussion of Welsh politics: the role of the British state. However much of an emphasis we place on the Welsh Government’s desire to do things differently with the powers that have been devolved to it, there is always the need to consider the extent of such powers and the degree to which they are constrained by funding issues, where power lies at Westminster.
The Irish government, by contrast, is responsible for its own finances. That, after all, is what independence looks like.
In the wake of Brexit and the years of economically illiterate austerity that preceded it, however, there’s another element that has entered the equation. Perhaps the most telling story to reflect the reversal of roles between Britain and Ireland that has occurred appears as the second most prominent item on Page 1 of Saturday’s The Irish Times.
Headlined “Republic to fund 250 nursing places in North”, its first few paragraphs read: “Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is to sign off on funding for 250 nursing and midwifery places in Northern Ireland in an unprecedented move linked to Stormont budget cuts.
“The Irish Times has learned that the €10m investment will result in 200 undergraduate places for students from the Republic and 50 for students from the North. All will study at Northern universities from this coming September. Nursing degree courses are currently split across Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University.
“Sources say the Department of Health initiated contact with their Northern counterparts at Mr Donnelly’s request after it emerged that 300 student nursing places were being cut for the 2023/24 academic year due to budget constraints amid Stormont’s collapse.
“Southern nursing students will have no ‘golden handcuffs’ post-graduation and will be free to work in the North’s healthcare system, according to Northern healthcare sources.
“The Irish Times understands the investment is non-recurrent and is a ‘one-off’ due to Stormont’s financial crisis, as part of an ‘all-island approach’.”
The story provides proof positive that a once great power has been reduced to accepting help in kind from its former colony.
We can safely predict that such an outcome will not be mentioned by DUP MPs when they next rant about how the Northern Ireland Protocol is undermining the precious Union. Nor is it an issue that the UK Government will wish to dwell on.
How the mighty are fallen.
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