International

In Ireland, The Death Of 'The Celtic Tiger' Leads To Anger, Populist Uproar

The Anglo Irish Bank logo is pictured on

The Anglo Irish Bank logo is pictured on a computer screen in London. Ireland warned on Thursday that the state rescue of Anglo Irish Bank could cost 34.3 billion euros, pushing the public deficit up to 32 percent of economic output this year. The potential rescue bill, equivalent to 46.6 billion dollars, is roughly the same as Ireland's annual taxation revenues.  Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

No one on earth uses the English language more persuasively or passionately than the Irish.

Yet even this most eloquent of nations is struggling to articulate its horror after discovering the true dimensions of the financial disaster brought about by its reckless bankers.

The Irish are spitting with rage after discovering that the final cost of bailing out their errant banks is potentially €50 billion ($69 billion).

They are acutely aware that the era of living in a low-tax economy is over, and that they are heading for some painful years of higher taxes and major public spending cuts.

If you stop people in the streets, and solicit their views about the crisis, they often preface their reply with a polite apology for the expletives they are about to use — strong language they feel they cannot avoid when addressing this topic.

Then they launch into a vivid, furious onslaught against the financiers, property speculators and politicians who have crippled their nation's once booming economy, and torn up its reputation as Europe's great success story, the so-called "Celtic Tiger."

Similar language has spilled over into the media. The Irish Daily Star this week filled its front page with the words "Ireland RIP," followed by the subheading: "Our Future Killed by Wanker Bankers and Stupid Politicians." The Daily Mirror was only slightly less abusive: "Greedy, Rotten, Liars," said its headline.

Discourse in Ireland over this issue has become so acrimonious and heated that one of the more weighty newspapers, The Irish Independent, today took the unusual step of publishing a front-page editorial appealing for national unity, and for an end to the "shambolic and hysterical debate."

It wrote: "Such is the depth of the country's problems that action is what is required, not anger. As the Finance Minister (Brian Lenihan) has observed, anger is not a policy."

However, Ireland's anger is unlikely to die away any time soon.

The population is only 4.5 million. The Irish are struggling to imagine how this small number can possibly bear the burden of such a colossal bail-out. Unemployment is already pushing 14 per cent. Once again, young Irish people are leaving the country to work abroad.

The government is going to draft a four-year austerity plan, in an attempt to stick to its target of cutting the deficit — now a staggering 32 percent of GDP — to three per cent by 2014.

But it is a coalition government, with a tiny majority, and with several by-elections looming; many here appear not expect it to survive beyond the next few months, let alone four years.

In the end, Ireland may need to turn elsewhere for support. "I am not at all denying, and I don't think anyone in Ireland denies, that this is our screw-up," Fintan O'Toole, a columnist for The Irish Times, told NPR.

But this happened within the context of a European Union, the Euro-zone, and of German banks that were only too happy to lend vast amounts of money to junk banks like Anglo Irish, who in turn were lending it out to feed a property bubble.

"So there is a European responsibility here. And it is not in Europe's longterm interest for a pretty long established member of the European Union to go under, and Ireland is still in danger of going under.

"I think there's going to have to be a process … of realistic negotiation conducted in a spirit of responsibility and solidarity. I can't see any other way out of Ireland's dilemma."

Surprisingly — for all their fury — the Irish have not yet taken to the streets in significant numbers to protest the disaster that has befallen them.

However, one man, Joe McNamara, 41, has made his feelings felt in striking terms.

He emblazoned his cement-mixing truck with signs — among them, a huge red slogan attacking the most toxic of banks, Anglo-Irish, and "All politicians should be sacked." He replaced the license plate with a placard saying "bankrupt."

Then, on Wednesday, he drove the truck into the gates of parliament in the capital, Dublin. He has since been charged with causing criminal damage.

Ask people in the street about what they think of him — "Trucker Joe," as some call him — and they almost all give the same reply. "Fair play to the man. You can't blame him, can you?"

The Irish edition of The Sun newspaper was more forthright. Predictably — in this time of rage — it anointed McNamara as a "hero.”

(NPR's Philip Reeves is now covering the news in Europe from his base in London. His report for All Things Considered on the reaction of many Irish to the banking crisis is posted here.)

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