Ireland’s social conservatism was first brought to international attention during the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum. LGBT activists the world over were worried about the success of their cause in a nation with such deep Catholic roots. But their fears proved unfounded. Same-sex marriage received an overwhelming vote of confidence from the Irish people, with nearly two-thirds voting in favour. Since then, the ruling Fine Gael party – itself socially conservative – has elected a gay man to serve as Taoiseach (Prime Minister). Indeed, it was Leo Varadkar who pushed for this referendum in the first place.
These events show a nation willing to move away from the small-town conservatism of the past and towards a more open, tolerant future. Ireland is one of the only nations to have declared confidence in the liberal world order, but why is this? 36% of Irish people live in rural areas; these same people who, in Britain or the United States, would have rejected liberalism, are now voting for abortion rights and same-sex marriage. This figure is also higher than comparable European nations. So what is Ireland’s deal?
Well, it could be that Ireland is merely catching up with the rest. Britain liberalised abortion in 1967, and the U.S. followed in 1973. By this metric, Ireland is over four decades late. This argument makes sense when we consider that even the Pope is liberalising the Church’s doctrine. Ireland is simply joining the rest in separating Church and Sate. But then again, Britain did not have the same religiosity as Ireland did – and still does – and the Roe v Wade decision was met with fury from the Religious Right. Ireland’s demography was and remains very different to comparable Western nations, and is not the only nation to be slow to liberalise social attitudes. One has only to look to the East to see religious nations unwilling to adopt progressive social legislation.
I’d like to suggest a different option.
As mentioned in my title, it’s become impossible to ignore Britain’s retreat into the past. Not only does it dominate our headlines, but it’s an ever-present issue in the Republic. May and Varadkar are locking horns over the border in Northern Ireland. It’s hard to discuss politics without discussing Brexit. Whilst Britain isolates itself, perhaps Ireland is – subconsciously – moving to replace it.
Now, that sounds more than a little like a conspiracy theory, but hear me out. Ireland’s infamously low corporate tax rates has led to significant investment and job-creation from Apple and other companies. If investors are looking for a low-tax route to European markets, Ireland wouldn’t be a bad shout. Moreover, Ireland is one of the most pro-European nations in the E.U., thanks to heavy investment during the Recession. If any nation is safely remaining in the Union, it’s Ireland.
It’s not that long ago that Ireland was a booming Western economy; between 1995 and 2000, the economy grew by 9.4% every year. Public debt fell from 90% to less than 40% of GDP during the ’90s. Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy looked very promising to investors, and could again. Of course, this fell apart somewhat due to the Recession, with unemployment skyrocketing, and Ireland became the first European country to enter recession in 2008. But if Ireland can modernise its society at the rapid pace we’ve seen, there’s no reason for the economy to be any different.
And that’s not taking into account Ireland’s cultural capital. 10.5% of Americans identify as “Irish American”, and Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are world famous. 22 of America’s 45 Presidents claimed Irish ancestry, alongside significant numbers of municipal politicians in cities across the nation. Eight signatures on the Declaration of Independence have Irish names. There is also a significant Irish presence in the U.K., with figures ranging from the Duke of Wellington to Oscar Wilde to yours truly. Irish immigrants make up the fourth-largest immigrant group in the U.K., and the second-largest white immigrant group.
So consider this to be food for thought. Perhaps Varadkar has a different plan for Ireland, but this is one possible future. Unlike the rest of Europe, Ireland is looking forwards, not back. And as Europe slips into greater chaos and uncertainty, investors may seek a safe harbour to weather the storm. If ever there was a time for the Celtic Tiger to roar once more, it is now.