DUBLIN – Robbie Burns got it right: ‘O wad some power the giftie gie us/ Tae see oursels as ithers see us!/ It wad frae mony a blunder free us/ An’ foolish notion.’

This might be a good time, as we prepare to plunge into our annual orgy of paddywhackery, to consider the way others see the Irish.

I can’t imagine that any other nation in the world is so obsessed with that question.

Unfortunately, though, the obsession has never freed us from blunders and foolish notions.

It has always taken the form of upholding certain images of Ireland and repudiating others.

Over the course of the last half-century or so, these images notably included:

One. Mountains, lakes, turfstacks, donkey carts, colleens in shawls.

Two. Riots, assassinations, burning buildings.

Three. The Tiger era, when the world stood amazed at our our economic success and wondered what lessons it should learn from it.

Four. The crash, when everybody found out that the lessons were the same old, sad lessons.

We tired of the first image, tired of the leprechauns and shamrocks. We were horrified by the second. We took immense pains to assure foreigners that the violence was confined to one part of the country.

But that did not prevent them from saying, for years on end: “Ireland? Boom, boom!”

What a relief when the the Tiger replaced the Wolfhound as a national symbol!

How we basked in the international praise! How eagerly we quoted the endorsements from the European Commission and the chiefs of the European employers’ federation!

Not all foreigners were equally enthusiastic.

The global financial crisis began, by common consent, in August 2007. But years before that, people in the American mortgage business had seen what was coming down the tracks.

And the ‘New York Times’ had looked farther afield. It had looked at Ireland and seen, not gold, but fairy dust. Not an endless boom but the ‘Wild West’ of European banking.

So we can’t say we weren’t warned: by the ‘New York Times’; by George Lee and David McWilliams; by countless newspaper columns and editorials. But we closed our ears to the warnings.

Just human nature? Not really.

Our posture exhibited another Irish characteristic, self-delusion on a heroic scale. And along with the self-delusion went a set of attitudes, contemplation of which must make any thinking person shudder for our society.

This week Transparency International, which inquires into corruption world-wide, published a report on the specific Irish form: “legal corruption”.

Many things are illegal: for example, to bribe councillors. Nowadays, at any rate, that occurs on only a small scale.

It may or may not be legal to engage in unorthodox financial practices (and it’s very revealing that public figures rushed to tell us that “nothing illegal” happened in recent times).

A great many things are certainly legal but also plain wrong, and deeply harmful to the proper ordering of society.

Transparency International did us a service by pointing that out, by giving some details, and by prompting us to think about connected issues like restrictions on press freedom and the wretched standard of public discourse.

Underneath all that lies something far more menacing.

For the deeper question is, have we lost our moral sense? And, like the question about how others view us, this is a good time to ask it.

People who are desperately worried about their jobs, their businesses, their children’s future may not be in a mood for moral argument, but we need it.

Heaven did not decree that we should be rich yesterday and poor today. The seeds of the bust were always in the boom.

That is not merely a criticism of the way the boom was squandered, though money certainly was flung away by the billions.

It is a criticism of the whole basis on which our society in general, and our politics in particular, have been run for decades. And it is a criticism of the lack of moral integrity which permitted that to happen.

At the height of the boom, I had a conversation with one of the European employers’ chiefs whom I mentioned earlier. He lauded Ireland as a model capitalist economy, “free of corporatism”.

I tried in vain to disillusion him.

Since then, we have reaped the whirlwind of our native form of crony capitalism — while suffering at the same time from our own form of corporatism.

Along with the crony capitalism went the phony social partnership, which collapsed at its first real test and which the Cowen government, bereft of policy or direction, now desperately seeks to restore.

Everybody knows the motivation: fear of public sector strikes and of wider social unrest. This danger is one of the few things the Government seems to understand. It evidently has no grasp whatever of the moral issues.

So here’s an idea for St Patrick’s Day.

It’s too late to stop the shamrock-in-the-White House event, but let the rest of the Cabinet and junior ministers cancel those first-class flights.

The last thing we need is foreign leaders saying nice things to them. Let them forget about how others view us.

Let each repair to an island, alone or accompanied by a philosopher or theologian (we still have philosophers and theologians, though you might not think so).

There, possibly for the first time in their lives, they can engage in self-examination. There they can have concepts like duty and service, and social solidarity, and national pride explained to them.





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