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Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger

In the early years of the new century, the Celtic Tiger caught its second wind and, in the immortal words of the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the boom got "even boomier". This book tells the sorry tale of how Ireland had a crash that was even crashier than those of all the other European economies.

About a year ago, the joke went that the difference between Iceland and Ireland was one consonant and six months. That joke isn't funny any more, as Ireland has surpassed the worst expectations of its grandest begrudgers. Begrudgery, for those unfamiliar with terms such as "the hurler on the ditch", has long acted as the Irish brake on irrational exuberance. It is the local voice at the back of the choir which warns that this party will have consequences and all the bright things will turn to dust.

Roman emperors used to hire a slave to whisper similar soundings in their ears as they basked in the adoration of the mob; it is a pity Ahern failed to employ such sirens. There were few critics of the Tiger as it prowled the Viagra factories and consumer shrines, and the vast tracts of housing that created a Los Angeles on the Liffey. Dublin, Cork, Galway and Dundalk embraced the new reality of endless growth and boundless treats, and bought the deal that no questions need be asked. The promise made by Séan Lemass 40 years earlier, of "a rising tide of prosperity that would lift all boats", had apparently been met. With so many citizens feeling materially better off, the conspicuous lifestyles of a new gentry of developers and bankers was not only accepted, but almost universally welcomed.

It proved that, after more than 70 years of mismanagement and failure, Ireland had finally clicked, and had developed a native aristocracy to match the success of "Europe's Shining Light", as the Economist trilled in 1997. The Irish became the poster boys and girls for the accession states of eastern and central Europe, and even a huge influx of migrant workers - almost 10 per cent of the population in less than a decade - was welcomed as proof of Ireland's success.

A land whose primary export for longer than a century was the hands and brains of its people had confounded its own begrudgers. Thankfully, there remained a few pockets of cynicism and party-pooping. Fintan O'Toole was one such, and has been sneered at by what another Celtic dissident, Gene Kerrigan, now calls the Serious People, the capitals dripping with sarcasm. Now, with all their might, the Serious People are fighting back. In order to save the country, they plead, it must first be destroyed. The hack journalists and hack economists employed by banks, building societies, employers' groups or university departments underwritten by the cream of Irish capital used to shush the begrudgers for spoiling the hooley. They now accuse them of near-treason.

The Serious People insist that the banks be saved at all costs. The property market must be restored to its pristine shape. The free-market model that fed the Tiger must not be questioned. Cuts in public services and welfare and capital programmes are inevitable, unavoidable, desirable even. "Economy needs the proper dose with no anaesthetic", went one eye-watering headline late last year in Ireland's largest-selling newspaper, the Sunday Independent, whose parent company owes €745m to its unforgiving banks. Tax rises are ruled out.

O'Toole's great service in Ship of Fools is to have corralled a torrent of financial scandals and placed them in a series of connected narratives, the primary connections being a small group of lads: builders, developers, bankers and senior Fianna Fáil operators. They profited most from the boom and became insane with hubris as things went boomier, and they are the people who are being bailed out first. The rising tide of misery will never swamp their yachts.

They will never be perp-walked in front of the cameras. The taxpayer is in the process of bailing them out to the tune of more than €60bn, or about three years' total tax take. Not that such people ever pay tax. International investors are amazed that most of these tarnished gentry are at liberty to write op-eds for the Serious People to read and agree that the problem is the size of the public sector.

This is a serious book, with a strong moral core. It argues, for example, that financial power should be regulated, that crooks should be punished, that corruption should be exposed and not rewarded at the ballot box. It argues further that a cash nexus has been forged, with Fianna Fáil facilitating the developers who hog the land and sell it to the builders for vastly overpriced houses, financed by bankers who operate with minimal oversight, and then collude to hide the "political donations" made to Fianna Fáil by the developers and builders. The latest addition to the nexus is the taxpayer, who is picking up the tab for someone else's binge.

Ship of Fools can be read as the latest instalment in an alternative history of Ireland, after Breandán Ó hEithir's The Begrudger's Guide to Irish Politics (1986) and Kerrigan's A-Z of pelf and hubris, This Great Little Nation (1999). These are not ideological tracts, but the work of journalists just doing their job, and whispering into the ear of the reader what the emperor does not want him to know. Alternatively, O'Toole's book could be read as a warning from current affairs for any country (especially one facing a general election this year) that is in hock to vested commercial interests, to banks that are "too big to fail", and which sees slashing at the poor as an acceptable alternative to making the powerful accountable.If we are not careful, the UK is six months away from becoming Ireland.


Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger
Fintan O'Toole
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £12.99


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This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously