The new Ireland bustles with hope Vote: Northern Ireland could follow its route to wealth if the peace accord is approved tomorrow.

May 21, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Angela Kennedy saw Australia as a land of opportunity in the late 1980s, a place where she and her Australian-born husband could start up a biotechnology firm.

But now, Kennedy is back home digging in her Irish roots, expanding her company, raising her family and grabbing a slice of the new Irish dream.

"Here in Ireland, it's full of buzz and people doing entrepreneurial things," she says. "It's full of hope."

Ireland's hope and economic glory will be on display tomorrow when voters go to the polls to put their seal of approval on the Northern Ireland peace accord.

The referendum is expected to earn overwhelming approval in the southern Irish Republic as new political ties are established with Northern Ireland, the six counties that remain part of Great Britain.

In return, Ireland will rewrite its constitution, relinquishing its long-held territorial claim to the north and defining its aspirations and people by ancestry, cultural identity and heritage.

The Irish could just as easily be defined by their wealth. The country is in the midst of an economic boom. The old Ireland off arms, sleepy towns and poverty -- a place the Industrial Revolution passed by -- has been swept away.

This is the land of the Celtic Tiger, where millionaires are being minted at the rate of three a week and where 1,200 overseas companies operate. The new Ireland is bustling with such firms as Intel and Hewlett-Packard and is dominated by the growing capital of Dublin, with its confident business community, trendy restaurants, soaring house prices and traffic jams to rival New York at rush hour.

While Ireland accounts for only 1 percent of the European Union population, it's attracting 23 percent of all U.S. manufacturing investment in the EU, the government says. The country's gross national product has grown an average of 5 percent a year in the past 10 years and 7 percent in the past three.

"Competitiveness, professionalism, the Irish are now taken very serious from a business perspective," Kennedy says. "They have been called the Celtic Tiger and it doesn't happen by accident. The Irish know what they are doing."

There's no time to settle the old nationalist scores with the British when there is money to be made.

"We've grown up a lot. We don't hate the British the way our mothers and fathers did," says Fiona Coppinger, who helps run a dress shop in Leixlip, which has been transformed from a tiny village into a boom town in the past 10 years as high-tech plants sprouted on once lush green fields in the nearby countryside.

"In the 1980s, there was a dark cloud over everyone," says Coppinger. "We wondered if there was going to be a future here. It got so bad I had to get away to New York to work as an au pair.

"Now, we don't worry about paying the mortgage. Everything seems positive."

The booming economy is a major reason that the Irish government under Prime Minister Bertie Ahern was able to cut this peace deal with the British government and eight local political parties in Northern Ireland. In many ways, the old impoverished Ireland dominated by the Roman Catholic Church was perceived as a threat by the Protestant majority of the North.

But the new Ireland isn't a threat. It's a model for what could happen if the North chooses a peaceful path.

Ireland is growing fast with such industries as financial services and telemarketing. And its people are confident.

"We can stand on our own two feet," says Chris Horn, whose rags-to-riches tale is the stuff of computer software dreams.

With two others, the former college professor founded IONA Technologies in 1991. Now the firm has 10 offices around the world and is publicly traded on Nasdaq.

"You have a lot of young, confident people here, forming their own companies, being willing to build world-class organizations," he says. "There's a realization that we are a well-educated country, that we can be as good as anyone else."

Ireland's route from poverty to wealth is a familiar tale in Europe.

In 1973, the country joined the European Economic Community, forerunner to the European Union. Suddenly, Europe's economy was open to Irish products. More important, Europe's pocketbook was, too, as Ireland began to receive billions of dollars in subsidies.

The country invested its subsidies wisely, targeting sectors such as electronics, improving roads and boosting education.

"If you go back 30 years to the early 1960s, we had 36 percent of the work force in agriculture, which was positively Third World. Now, it's down to 10 percent," says Terry Baker of the Dublin-based Economic and Social Research Institute.

"Now, we have a balanced, mixed, modern industrial economy. Because it is such a small country, we obviously don't produce everything. An awful lot of what we manufacture we export, and what we consume, we import.

"We don't make cars here. So any car that is used is imported. Equally we do export an awful lot of components for cars."

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