Monday, May 25, 2015

Things Change

“Ireland hasn’t just said ‘Yes’ … Ireland has said: F*** YEAAHHHH”
—Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the Irish government’s Equality Minister, in a tweet on Saturday
Last week was an extraordinary one in Ireland.

For me it began on Monday morning when, after dropping off my daughter at school, I met an oncoming phalanx of gardaí (police) in our local village that forced me to the side of the road. I and my fellow motorists sat and watched as a seemingly endless parade of large black vans with gardaí escort passed by.

I knew immediately what is was about. No less a personage than Li Keqiang, the premier of China, was on his way from Ashford Castle to Shannon Airport. The night before he and his entourage had visited a farm here in our parish, in the company of Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny and other Irish government officials. Needless to say, this sort of activity is fairly unusual in our normally quiet corner of the country.

No sooner had Li Keqiang left than the area was visited by Britain’s Prince of Wales and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. (That’s Charles and Camilla to tabloid consumers.) I personally had no roadside encounters with them, but the first day of visiting was based in Galway, just down the road from us, and they stayed in a beautiful lakeside castle that we happen to know because we once attended a wedding there.

The emotional highlight of the royal visit came on the second day when the couple visited Mullaghmore in County Sligo, site of the death of the prince’s beloved grand-uncle Lord Mountbatten. The 79-year-old was killed in 1979 by an IRA bomb blast along with Charles’s 14-year-old godson Nicky Knatchbull, Nicky’s 83-year-old grandmother, Lady Brabourne, and a local boy, Nicky’s friend Paul Maxwell. Three others were badly injured. One version of events is that afterward the IRA received 2 million pounds as a reward from then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad (late father of the current president) at the behest of the Soviet Union. So it must have been very difficult when Charles was to take part in an arranged handshake with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams who, according to some anyway, would have authorized the bomb attack. But that bit of necessary political showmanship paled next to the genuine outpouring of emotion among the local people, who have since lived in the shadow of that day and the fact that the name of their harbor has become synonymous with an atrocity.

But the event last week that drew the most worldwide attention was, of course, the passage of the marriage referendum. Ireland not only became the first country in the world to approve gender-blind marriage by a popular vote, but it is now apparently the only country to have marriage defined in its constitution.

And despite the fact that Ireland is a predominately Catholic country and has always been considered socially conservative, the vote was not even close. Moreover, the public pre-election debate was for the most part civil, polite and respectful. The campaigners for the “no” side were gracious in their defeat.

Given that a mere 23 years ago committing a homosexual act in this country would have been a crime, I find this turnaround in Irish society nothing short of remarkable. Much of the momentum for the change came from the young. Motivated by heartfelt feelings of inclusiveness, my own daughter and her friends were nothing but enthusiastic for the referendum’s passage. But a surprising number of older voters supported it too.

How can we explain this rapid change in the thinking of Irish society? The standard answer is that people starting thinking for themselves because they threw off the repressive yoke of the Catholic Church. And why did that happen? Because people were disgusted about revelations about church scandals, including clerical child abuse. But the abuses had certainly been going on for a long time? What happened specifically in the late 20th century to cause people to view the church and traditions differently?

Obviously, the causes of change are going to involve a lot of factors and will be complex. But here is something that was going on at the same time. For much of its history Ireland was a poor country, but the standard of living went through a marked improvement toward the end of the 20th century. More prosperity results leads to more education and sophistication and independent thought and behavior. And how did Ireland become more prosperous? It was in a position to benefit from the technology boom and it drew employers into the country with a strategy that included, among other things, favorable tax treatment. That would be the same tax treatment that many are now calling a “give away” to greedy businesses and accusing of “robbing” governments of tax revenues.

Yes, the economic boom (dubbed the Celtic Tiger) wound up coming to a dramatic and terrible (but ultimately temporary) halt for various reasons but, before it did, a lot of people’s lives were improved and Ireland became a more socially liberal country. The irony is that many of those cheering the loudest over Ireland’s new marriage law are some of the same ones who dismiss the Celtic Tiger period as mainly being one of greed.

Other people will undoubtedly interpret things differently. But as far as I can see, the change in Ireland is simply additional proof of something I have observed for some time. In good economic times, all other problems tend to improve. In a bad economy, all other problems tend to get worse.

That is why I believe that sound economics should be the first priority of every politician and every voter.

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