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'We lost the run of ourselves,' says former Irish prime minister

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“I’m afraid we lost the run of ourselves.” So says former Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Garrett Fitzgerald.

Isn’t it refreshing to hear someone in Ireland actually point out the bleeding obvious as Monty Python used to say.

Fitzgerald was speaking at an Irish networking event in New York this week and his analysis, like the governments he led in the 1980s, was both short and intelligent.

“We needed houses,” he said, referring to the housing boom which has buckled the country, “but we didn’t need that many.” During the property bubble Ireland was building about six times as many houses as Britain, and many of them now sit empty.

Fitzgerald compared the crisis facing Ireland as similar to that which faced the country in the 1970s when Ireland went heavily in debt, albeit for different reasons. He said Ireland should have reduced spending during the boom but instead everyone collectively lost the run of themselves.

He critcized the media and the opposition for failing to challenge the government on decisions made during the heady boom years. Actually, people were raising questions – particularly in the Irish Voice – about the dark side of the boom. But the problem, as Fitzgerald identified, was that few voices were being heard in Ireland where the noise from the construction boom was drowning out everything else.

Fitzgerald, at 83, has lived through some of the darkest periods in Irish history.  Economically, this is one of Ireland’s worst – the Irish banking crisis is the worst in Europe.

Fitzgerald said that Irish workers are overpaid and “overpriced.” But Fitzgerald says there  are grounds for optimism; “Cheer up!” he said. “Our capacity to recover is greater than people think, and special factors work in our favour,” he said. “But we do have serious problems.”

He singled out education as being crucial to Ireland’s success and criticized the education cuts as being ineffective and counter-productive. But he agreed that workers in the public and private were overpriced and would have to take pay cuts.

He also pointed to Ireland’s rejection of Europe in the Lisbon Treaty as being hugely damaging.  Ireland needs Europe to succeed, he said, but Ireland’s reputation took a tumble in Europe.  “Ireland had a very strong reputation in Europe. The damage that has been done” – by greed and the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, which would have strengthened EU institutions – is “huge.”

And, in a nod to the 1980s when tens of thousands of people fled Ireland, Irish people again want to emigrate, but because the global nature of the crisis means there is nowhere to go.

The talk, which took place at Glucksman Ireland House, was hosted by GIH, in association with the IBO, IN-NYC, and IABANY.

The talk was arranged at short notice but  the audience was large and enthusiastic.

Declan Prenty, head of Irish Network, New York (http://www.irishnetwork-nyc.com/), said he left Ireland during the 1980s when Fitzgerald was Taoiseach. “He’s still sharp as a tack,” Prenty said. Josephine Curley was visiting from Roscommon for her granddaughter’s graduation at NYU. Fitzgerald had been on her plane, and he came out of first class to say hello. “I remember him as Taoiseach,” Curley said. “He’s a very nice man. He’s very highly thought of in Ireland.”

Fitzgerald, who has a PhD  in economics, ended his talk by remarking, “We’ve every prospect of being up to the same level as the rest of Europe – assuming the crisis ends. If it doesn’t end, we’re all in the soup!”

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