The Celtic Tiger blues

Ireland: Suffering the malaise of too much economic growth too fast to absorb comfortably.

July 25, 2000

SURVIVAL of Prime Minister Bertie Ahern's center-right government by a confidence vote of 84-80 in Ireland's lower house of parliament saves it through the summer, if not for the two remaining years of its term.

By normal political indices, Mr. Ahern's coalition should be invulnerable. The Irish Republic is seized by run-away prosperity. For the first time since the potato famine a century and a half ago, it endures net immigration. No longer is Ireland's chief export its people.

Some of the Irish diaspora is returning for jobs not found in England or North America. Foreigners with no claim to Irish ancestry are joining them.

On top of that, Mr. Ahern's close cooperation with Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair is hatching peace and reform in Northern Ireland, however shakily. For that alone, he ought to be at the peak of popularity.

But the corruption trial of Charles Haughey, the dominant prime minister of the 1980s, drags on. Mr. Ahern is not only Mr. Haughey's successor as leader of the Fianna Fail party, but was his finance minister. Tarnish, like luster, rubs off.

More than that, the Celtic Tiger suffers the ills of success. Dublin housing prices are out of sight. Firms ought to move to the underdeveloped West, but the roads won't carry the freight. A massive infrastructure program is planned but can't be built overnight.

Ireland's prosperity is not homemade. The Republic is the platform of choice for multinational high-tech manufacturers producing for the European market. The well-educated, highly motivated, modestly paid and English-speaking work force appeals to U.S., Japanese and Korean managements made speechless by continental tongues.

And the Irish government is not master of its own economy. Never was. Formerly an appendage to the British economy, it severed that bond by going into the European Monetary Union while Britain remained outside.

Ireland's problems are those most Europeans would like to have. Yet the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference issued a long report on the spiritual and emotional oppression many Irish feel from the economic boom.

As for Bertie Ahern, these problems are his for months or years longer. Properly so. He has done his best to make them.

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