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Ireland Calling with John Spain
Ireland: A Nation Divided
January 16, 2008
by John Spain
UNTIL very recently, whenever someone mentioned in conversation that Ireland was divided or that the country was split in two, they could only have been talking about one thing — partition.
Ireland was divided in two between the north and the south, between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It still is, of course. But now that the IRA has ended the war and Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley are cozying up like long lost buddies, the border doesn’t seem to matter that much anymore.
It’s still there, but already it’s being chipped away day by day as new business arrangements and utility frameworks are put in place to bring the two parts of the country ever closer together. The new level of power-sharing that has now been established for electricity generation and distribution across the island will be just as significant, in the long run, as the power-sharing that is going on at Stormont.
But even if the border is becoming as irrelevant as it is invisible, there are still two Irelands in Ireland. Now they’re different ones ... and they cover the whole of the island.
There’s the Ireland of the Haves. And there’s the Ireland of the Have Nots.
In the Ireland of the Haves, people talk about school fees, global warming and how soon Finance Minister Brian Cowen will replace Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern.
They worry about the Green Party’s new plans to outlaw the sale of traditional light bulbs and thereby force people to use the new low energy light bulbs in homes across the country. And they worry about the new tax rules that come into effect this summer that will make high carbon emission cars and SUVs a few thousand euro a year more expensive to buy and run than a low emission vehicle.
In the Ireland of the Have Nots, they talk about lousy wages, rising prices and how much the bosses earn. They worry that soon they won’t have enough money to go out for a few pints in the pub they can’t even smoke in anymore.
They worry about violence in the miserable housing estates they live in, about drug gangs, about being targeted, about cars being burned out a few streets away.
The division between the two Irelands, it seems to me, is wider than ever.
No one is actually starving, of course, because welfare payments are better than they have ever been. It’s not like it was back in the 1950s when there were still slums in Dublin that were the worst in Europe, and poverty was real enough to mean that people lived in cold and hunger.
It’s different now because everyone is better off. It’s been like that for the past few decades, and after the Celtic Tiger boom it’s more true than ever that people are much better off than they used to be.
But being better off is relative. You can have a widescreen TV in the house and eat pizza every second night and still feel that you’re poor.
And there are an awful lot of people here who feel like that. Now that the construction boom is over and the economy is slowing, they are looking with envy at the people who did really well out of the Celtic Tiger boom, the ones with the flash cars, the designer clothes and the tan from the skiing holiday. They are looking and they are asking themselves why?
The buzzword in Irish companies these days is “outsourcing.” That’s where you take the jobs that used to be done by your traditional well-paid workforce and outsource them to cheap start-up companies where there are no unions, little or no holiday pay and wages that are half what you were paying. And if anyone complains you say you have to do it or the jobs will go abroad.
And even if you’re not outsourcing, you can use the ready availability of thousands of immigrant workers from Eastern Europe to force your own workers to moderate their wage demands, work harder and longer, accept poorer conditions and so on. It’s the joys of having an open economy, of globalization or just being part of the bigger European Union.
Call it whatever, if you’re a thrusting young executive you soon learn how to work the system as you squeeze and squeeze your enterprise so that your bosses will be impressed and eventually will make you one of the bosses yourself.
The result of this is that the gap between the salaries that executives and professionals get in the Ireland of today and what the people who work for them on the shop floor, so to speak, has never been wider. And the gap down to those at the bottom, who may not have any job at all, is wider still. The Grand Canyon comes to mind.
But there is a difference now. The difference is that after the Celtic Tiger, the Have Nots can see what the Haves have accumulated in a way that was never possible 50 years ago.
They can see the wealth, the self-indulgence, the greed. And it fills them with envy, bitterness and anger to a degree that was never experienced here before.
Sociologists in Irish universities are continually scratching their heads about what is going wrong with Irish society. In my view the answer lies in the divided Ireland we have created today.
It lies in the gap between those who have done really well and those who feel they should have done much better and are frustrated and angry because they didn’t. That’s what underlies a lot of the binge drinking, the cocaine epidemic, the dysfunctional families. And that’s what underlies much of the violence that is so common here now.
Two stories were in the news here today (Monday, January 14,). They were not the top stories and they were not particularly about today (they could have happened any day here) and they’re not really all that important. But in a way they illustrate the kind of rage I’m talking about that exists in today’s divided Ireland.
The first happened in Limerick on Sunday night. A Polish man in his twenties was walking home in a suburb of the city when he was attacked by a large gang of youths who kicked him around a bit before pouring petrol over him and setting him alight.
At the time of writing it’s not clear what this was about. But it seems most likely to be a racist attack.
It illustrates again the problem there are in parts of Limerick, and other cities, with large gangs of youths roaming around intimidating anyone who crosses their path.
The second incident happened near the Finglas suburb on the Northside of Dublin on Sunday evening. A man who was drinking in a bar was attacked by two others, one carrying a hammer and one swinging a samurai sword (believe it or not, an increasingly popular weapon here because you don’t need a license to own one).
The victim’s hand was chopped off. Again, it’s too early to say what this was about.
The victim in Limerick was severely burned in the face and has been transferred to a hospital in Cork where he is in intensive care. The samurai sword victim underwent hours of surgery today as doctors tried to reattach his hand. The outcome for both is uncertain so far.
As I said, we don’t know yet what these two attacks were about. But the circumstances of these incidents are less important than the level of savagery involved.
Life has been cheapened here. It’s what life is like all too often on one side of our new divided Ireland.
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