Analysis – State Failures: The Rebel Song of the Good European

By Daniel Finn. Originally published in The Ditch's State Failures.

Since joining the European Economic Community in 1973, Ireland has followed the process of greater European integration every step of the way, from direct elections to the European parliament to the launch of a single currency. As well as embedding the Irish state in an evolving set of transnational institutions, it has had a striking though often neglected impact on our political class in Dublin. 

Irish politicians and opinion formers are keen to stress our identity as good Europeans in contrast to the disreputable shower on the other side of the Irish Sea. This is a decorous form of nationalism for those who would never dream of singing rebel songs or attending an IRA commemoration, sublimated into a respectable ideology of Euro-cosmopolitanism. It is a settled belief in such circles that EU membership has allowed Ireland to overperform internationally. 

The EU has certainly opened up paths for career advancement that Irish politicians could scarcely have conceived in the past. Peter Sutherland, having served as attorney general under Garret FitzGerald, joined the European Commission of Jacques Delors in 1985. His four-year stint as competition commissioner proved to be the launchpad for Sutherland to become the director-general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, a precursor of the World Trade Organization. He went on to be chairman at both Goldman Sachs International and BP. Pat Cox became leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament in 1998 and president of the parliament itself four years later. Since retiring as an MEP, Cox has occupied various positions on corporate boards (KPMG, Michelin), as well as pro-European think tanks and lobbying groups.

John Bruton may well have landed the most prestigious gig to date when he became the EU ambassador to the US in 2004, soothing trans-Atlantic tensions after the invasion of Iraq. Shortly after completing his time in Washington, Bruton signed up as a roving frontman for the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin, which may have influenced his memorable suggestion that holding bankers responsible for the Great Recession was like blaming witches for the problems of medieval farming communities. Bruton’s Fine Gael colleague Phil Hogan took on successive roles as commissioner for agriculture and trade from 2014 onwards. When he had to resign because of the domestic Golfgate scandal in 2020, the US lobbying firm DLA Piper soon hired him to work in its Brussels office. According to Simon Levine of DLA Piper, Hogan’s “unique expertise, experience and perspective” would prove “invaluable”.

It’s easy to understand the enthusiasm of Ireland’s political class for a project that offers them such opportunities. Even if they cannot reach such heights, those who serve as government ministers will have plenty of time to meet with their colleagues on the European Council and the Council of Ministers, reinforcing the sense that they are engaged in vital work of more than local significance. The benefits for the rest of the Irish population are less clear-cut. The good European persona that Irish politicians have cultivated so tirelessly brings with it a tacit obligation to avoid causing trouble for the most powerful actors in the EU. We saw what that meant after the 2008 crash when Ireland became a ward of the EU–ECB–IMF Troika. 

An EU debt per capita burden of €192. In Ireland: €9,000

Eurostat estimated in 2013 that Ireland had assumed responsibility for 42 percent of the total cost of the European banking crisis. The average burden per capita across the EU was €192 – €491 in Germany – while in Ireland it was €9,000. The Fine Gael finance minister Michael Noonan helpfully explained to a Dáil committee what happened when his newly elected government tried to pass some of this burden on to unsecured bondholders in March 2011. Noonan had taken a call from the ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet as he was about to address the national parliament.

“He said if you do that a bomb will go off, and it won’t be here, it will be in Dublin… I can assure this committee that he said it. He did not use the word economic. He said a bomb will go off, a bomb will go off, he did not qualify it,” said Noonan. 

Whatever private feelings of resentment Noonan may have felt at this type of communication from an unelected official did not surface in public during his time in government. Irish government ministers seemed to revel in their status as the best-behaved students on the periphery of the Eurozone, swallowing the Troika’s austerity without complaint. 

This was a time when the government and its supporters regularly urged their critics to pull on the green jersey and stop talking down the country. The green jersey in this case came with a blue-and-yellow scarf.  A photograph of French president Nicolas Sarkozy rubbing Enda Kenny on the head as if he were a charmingly impish schoolboy captured this strange moment in Irish history with a candour that Kenny’s handlers would no doubt have preferred to keep behind closed doors. 

Far from rebelling against such humiliations, Kenny, Noonan and their fellow ministers grasped hold of the opportunity to punch down at a country that occupied a lower position in the EU pecking order. Noonan started in 2012 with a snide remark about the supposed irrelevance of Greek economic turbulence for Ireland. “If you go into the shops here, apart from feta cheese, how many Greek items do you put in your basket?” If a British politician had chosen Guinness or potatoes as shorthand for the Irish economy, it is easy to imagine Noonan donning a pair of green boxing gloves to go with his jersey and demanding an apology for the insult.

The Ireland is not Greece chatter reached a crescendo in 2015 with the election of a government led by Syriza in Athens. The new government calmly explained to its EU partners that the austerity programmes insisted upon by the Troika had been disastrous, converting a recession into a depression and making it harder for Greece to mount an economic recovery while inflicting massive, unnecessary suffering on the country’s population. Instead of supporting these arguments, Kenny wagged his finger. “Here’s a lesson from one small country that you can take some reflection on in terms of building your own economy for the future.” The lesson he had in mind was the need for “constructive engagement” with the Troika – which is to say complete submission to its demands. 

'Who speaks of Syriza now?'

For Kenny and Noonan the difference between the two countries was that Ireland had complied with the Troika’s diktats while Greece had stubbornly resisted doing so. This became the standard explanation deployed by Irish commentators to make sense of the Greek crisis. It’s a preposterous fable. Ireland had possessed a much stronger economic base than Greece before the crash, and the austerity cuts demanded by the Troika, while still onerous, were not as punishing in Dublin as they were in Athens. That was the real substance behind the Ireland is not Greece slogan. 

Syriza eventually caved in after being subjected to the kind of pressure that made Trichet’s call to Noonan seem like a lullaby and went on to carry out another austerity programme intended by its architects to be brutal. When EU officials now present Greece as a success story for their efforts, they mean that it was a triumphant lesson in the perils of defiance. GDP per capita in Greece today is less than two-thirds of its 2009 level. The average annual wage for a Greek worker has fallen from €21,600 in 2009 to €16,200. Having claimed to see a threat to democracy in the rise of Syriza, the EU’s leading actors now ignore the well-documented abuses of power under the current Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis, which have included the wiretapping of opposition politicians, legal harassment of NGOs and even the torture and unlawful deportation of a translator working for the EU border agency, Frontex.

The Irish government played a secondary role in this unseemly episode, but it made its loyalties absolutely clear. As Noonan presented his budget in October 2015, his cabinet colleague, Labour’s Brendan Howlin, directed a taunt at the opposition benches. “Who speaks of Syriza now?” Irish Examiner journalist Shaun Connolly compared Howlin’s intervention to that of “an angry child poking a wounded dog with a stick”.

The Brexit vote in the UK came as a welcome distraction from this track record for Dublin’s political class. Broadly speaking, EU officials supported the Irish position in the negotiations, as did the big member states. They did so not out of altruism, but because it was in their interest. There was a sharp reminder of what that means at the beginning of 2021. The commission of Ursula von der Leyen carelessly invoked the hard-border clause of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was supposed to be reserved for a doomsday scenario, in a plan to regulate the supply of vaccines. 

The commission soon backpedalled on its stance, but the damage was already done. Britain’s Conservative government and the DUP both cited the move as a precedent for tampering with the protocol, with consequences that are still unfolding. It drove home once again a lesson that the Eurozone crisis should have taught us: being a good European is by no means the same as doing what is good for Europeans, including those who live in one of the union’s smaller member-states. 

Daniel Finn is the features editor at Jacobin. He is the author of One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA.

The Ditch editors

The Ditch editors