North East of England and North East of County Dublin: Compare and contrast

North East of County Dublin
Photo by Judi Sutherland

Now I have swapped the North East of England for the North East of County Dublin, it’s not so obvious that I should be writing for North East Bylines, but maybe you’d like a foreign correspondent? Somebody who can see the UK from the outside, as an interested observer, perhaps. And the UK is still, after all, my country.

Imagine a scale of Irish political opinion, which ranges from 1 – 10, far left to far right. The average political disposition of the Irish population comes in at about 4.9; very slightly left of centre. There are two major parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which check in just right of centre, at five-point-something each, and Sinn Fein, which is much further to the left. At the recent election, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin got the largest number of seats, but a coalition was eventually agreed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael with a sprinkling of Green Party members, leaving Sinn Féin in opposition. I have not lived here long enough to comment on what that was about. All this is to say that Ireland currently has its traditional centrist government, in contrast to the UK where politics is now polarised with almost no common ground.

And here’s an additional thought; Ireland, although about one-thirteenth the size of the UK in terms of population and with a slightly different economic mix as having a traditionally more rural economy, is facing many of the same challenges. So it might be interesting to look at the different reactions and consequences of some recent events in Ireland, remembering the aftermath of similar events in the UK. 

For example, we all remember Dominic Cummings’ famous pilgrimage to the town of Barnard Castle, my former home town in County Durham. Well, Ireland has had its own version more recently, known as ‘Golfgate’.  (The day we stop appending ‘-gate’ to every political scandal can’t come too soon for me, but that’s what it is called.) It turns out that the Irish Parliament, or Oireachtas, has a Golf Society. A couple of weeks ago, just after a tightening of Covid restrictions, it held a dinner in a hotel in County Galway. There were eighty-one diners sitting at tables of ten. Social distancing seems to have been omitted. (N.B. Was one poor soul sitting on his own and observing social distancing after all?) Many of the attendees were members of parliament (Teachtaí Dála or TDs, from the Dáil, the lower house; and Senators from the Seanad, the upper house).  Phil Hogan, the Irish Trade Commissioner was an attendee, as was a senior judge. Needless to say, when the news broke there was a great deal of fury in the country.

We were initially assured that Commissioner Hogan had properly isolated himself in quarantine for fourteen days on arrival in Ireland from Brussels, as the Irish Covid-19 restrictions require, before heading off to the dinner. However, subsequently it was discovered that he had in fact been travelling around Ireland, even being stopped in County Kildare by the Gardaí for driving while using his phone – while Kildare was on a local lockdown and closed to people coming in and out.

This whole episode has set the country raging. Fintan O’Toole. writing in the Irish Times, reminded his readers of the privations they had endured during the pandemic, while:

‘…this hypocrisy of those who make rules yet flout them makes a mockery of other people’s sacrifices, other people’s desire to do the right thing. It suggests that being good makes you a sucker.’

Familiar, right? But here’s where the difference lies between the UK and Ireland. The party leaders acted swiftly. Within twenty-four hours, six TDs had lost their party whip. One was the newly-appointed Minster of Agriculture, another casualty was the Leas Cathaoirleach, or Deputy Chairman/Speaker of the Seanad, and both lost their posts. A week after the fateful dinner, Commissioner Hogan had fallen on his sword, probably encouraged by Commission President, Ursula Von Der Leyen. As for the senior judge: at the time of writing, the jury is still out. It seems that Irish politicians and other members of the Republic’s great and good can be just as arrogant and just as ‘entitled’ as their British counterparts, but unlike the famous visitor to Barnard Castle, the eighty-one attendees at that dinner are making apologies and accepting the consequences. Similarly, the Chairman of Fáilte Ireland, the Irish tourist board, had no option but to resign in mid-August after a holiday to Italy while the Irish population were being asked to holiday at home, and has now been followed out by another board member caught out in similar circumstances.

The other big story right now is education. Irish children are going back to school and there is the same concern about their safety, and that of their families and their teachers, as we have seen in Britain. Just like British students who have not been able to take A-level exams, Irish school leavers have been cheated of the chance to demonstrate their abilities, and are being given estimated grades for their Leaving Certificates based on teachers’ estimates and on the Junior Certificate grades they obtained at the age of fifteen or sixteen. I watched the education minister, Norma Foley, being put through her paces on the RTÉ news, and she admitted that about 17% of grades might be marked down as a result of standardisation. The appeals process is still unclear, and there has been talk of teachers being asked to destroy the coursework that the estimated grades are based on. They would be mad if they did!

But unlike the UK, there is to be no consideration given to the previous performance of any particular school. In fact, in Ireland, an allowance is made for schools ‘in communities at risk of disadvantage and social exclusion’. These are known as ‘DEIS’ schools, and their students are being treated less harshly by the standardisation process. The results are yet to appear, but one article in the Irish Times recently announced ‘Ireland still has an opportunity to learn from mistakes made by UK with results algorithm’. Yes, other countries are watching what Britain does – as an example of what not to do. That hurts.

One subject that of course is not very much in the news, is Brexit. Over 80% of Irish people are in favour of staying in the EU, and the Irish shake their heads at the ‘foolishness’ of the UK. I don’t think there is anything in the world of Irish newspapers that compares to the negative coverage the EU has received for the last twenty or thirty years in parts of the British media. Ireland is a ‘young’ country, both in its history as a state and in its population profile, and as such looks outward and embraces its European identity as it looks to the future. EU membership also provided common ground in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement to end armed conflict in Northern Ireland, of which the EU is a guarantor.

Although Ireland is nervous about damage to the economy from potentially losing free trade with its single biggest commercial partner due to Brexit, there is optimism that other EU countries will take up the slack. In addition, if it becomes harder for the UK to export to the EU for certain agricultural products such as meat, for example, that will represent an opportunity for Ireland’s agri-food sector. Other opportunities to provide an alternative English-speaking base for multi-nationals and financial services within the EU are already becoming a feature of the Irish economy.

And so life in the time of Covid-19 goes on. Yes, the pandemic here is affecting people badly. The pub trade in particular is in despair. But, at least so far, the Irish government appears to be more accountable than its UK counterpart, and the disruption and economic fallout of the pandemic will not be compounded by a total reorganisation of international trading relationships amid the mayhem.

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