Starting fresh in economic wasteland

A few weeks ago, I attended an undergraduate graduation ceremony in Dublin. As the youngest of 5 siblings, I’ve been to my fair share of graduations, and I know what they’re usually like.

Somebody – sometimes someone famous – gets on a podium, lauds all of the youngsters for their efforts, and encourages them to “go forth” and triumph, as they have officially become equipped to “take on the world.” If there are other speakers, they pretty much all say the same thing: the world is your oyster, now get out your carving knives.

But at this year’s graduation in Dublin, the atmosphere was much different than anything I had seen before. Everything felt overwhelmingly dreary. Even the air felt heavy, and gravid with bad news, like the air in a funeral parlor during a wake.

The students filed in, adorned in black robes and multi-colored hoods, and very little time passed before they were given their degrees. Then it was time for the speeches.

One faculty member actually uttered the words, “I feel ashamed” handing out the degrees, because of the poor economic climate in which he was asking his former students to start their lives. He knew they’d be going from living at home with their parents and working long but rewarding hours towards earning their degrees, to living at home with their parents and spending Thursday afternoons collecting social welfare checks with their former classmates.

It’s a harsh truth, but nobody is hiring in Ireland these days, period.

Or, at least, very few people are hiring. And that’s a daunting environment for anyone to start a career in, nevermind hope to make a life for oneself.

One of my favorite graduation speeches wasn’t one I witnessed in person at all.
It was by JK Rowling, author of the world-renowned Harry Potter series, at Harvard’s 2008 Commencement ceremony. “On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success,” she started, “I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure.”

She discussed how it took complete and utter failure – seven years after her graduation, she was an unemployed single mother “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless” - to find the strength to succeed.

In her time of dire need, she said, she learned to focus all of her energies on using her talent for writing to bring her out of poverty. So she knuckled down, and, while rocking her daughter to sleep in a baby carriage in British cafes, she wrote what was to become the world-famous Harry Potter series.

She attributed her successes to her major failure. “[R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life,” she said, “because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential”.

Rowling’s story exemplifies the best possible outcome of total and utter financial ruin. Surely, a hopeful example for Ireland, which has undoubtedly hit its own rock bottom this week, as it accepted EU funds to help bring about its economic recovery.

Perhaps, with the bailout money from the EU, Ireland can work towards slowly but surely becoming a leaner, meaner, better version of itself, and let the Irish people’s talents, intelligence and hard work be that which brings the nation back to its full potential.

But that’s not necessarily the point.

It’s all well and good to talk about the way that entrepreneurs can flourish during an economic downturn such as this, or how this failure will teach Ireland how to keep from making the same mistakes; how it will make her stronger.

But somewhere, at some time, somebody has to be held accountable for how Ireland got here in the first place.

At the Dublin graduation, one speaker gave a speech that I cannot remember except for one line; it moved me so much that I spent the rest of the day mentally repeating it, to make sure that I had committed it to memory.

She was talking about the Irish financial regulators, bankers, developers and politicians, when she lamented that “the institutions that we thought were loyal, honest and trustworthy turned out to be fragile, and often corrupt.”

That’s when it hit me: the amount of anger and frustration that we see from protesters on the street and commentators on the television has nothing to do with people being reluctant to cut down on expenditures(they have no choice but to do so), or about people being too lazy to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps(they spend every day hunting for jobs that simply don’t exist).

This is about being betrayed. An entire nation has crumbled to its knees, and had to have its big brother, the EU, come along and rescue it, simply because the people in power didn’t do what they said they’d do. They didn’t protect their own people.

It hurts to be disappointed, or worse, lied to. There is nothing worse than the feeling of waking up one day and realizing that everything you believed to be true was absolute malarkey.

Back in 2006, when I was still in journalism school, my classmate and I came to Ireland during our Christmas vacation to shoot a documentary in which we explored American immigration reform issues and Ireland’s then-booming economy.

We talked to an economist from the Economic and Social Research Institute, as well as to the CEO of a small investment firm, and a researcher from the Central Statistics Office. All of them offered the same caveat about the Irish economy: things are good now, but the level of growth is not sustainable, so it is up to political leaders and financial regulators to tread carefully, so that Ireland will experience a gradual decline, rather than a sudden bottoming-out.

If two student-journalists were privy to this information, I am sure that the people in the highest eschelons of the government had this, and much more information at their disposal.

So what were they thinking? Or more importantly, what were they doing?

Why did they ignore these warnings? Because they were too busy enjoying the spoils of the good times? Or, did they know that, no matter what, they, and their financial assets, would always be preserved? Were they cooking up ways to protect their own financial assets, and those of their buddies, in case of an economic meltdown?

The government says that it’s the banks’ fault for Ireland’s financial crisis, while the banks say it’s the government’s fault for guaranteeing all of their faulty loans.

We have heard dozens of speeches about who is or isn’t to blame, but what good are these excuses to the mothers and fathers in Ireland who now have to feed their children on chicken from a can or chop moldy bits off the bread to make it last?

Excuses are meaningless when it comes down to it, because the damage has already been done.

I doubt that many Irish people will express remorse if there is another confidence vote and Prime Minister Cowen does not win by a hair this time.

He and his ministers had their chance, he did wrong by his people, and if you ask me, I’d say his future is a little like the Bob Dylan lyric: “it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

When mistakes of this magnitude are made, a total and utter cleansing needs to take place.

After George W. Bush, the citizens of the United States came together to elect a one-term Senator named Barack Obama as President. Perhaps we were desperate to elect someone who seemed like an honest man.

We hoped he’d bring back the dignity that we’d lost when we heard the truth about extraordinary rendition, torture in US military prisons, and Iraqi WMDs that didn’t actually exist.

Although he’s still struggling to bring about all of the changes he promised us, we can at least find comfort in our belief that he’s a clean politician, and a leader we can trust.

That’s exactly what Ireland needs now: an absolute fresh start.

I have little faith that the people who, at the very least, stood idly by, and watched as this crisis happened in the first place, will be competent enough to fix the problem.

It would be a sign of a new beginning if the Prime Minster and the banks that receive the EU funds openly consult experts within the banks as well as outsiders with relevant knowledge, to discern how best to use the money to bring about change for those who need it most: the Irish people. All anyone is hoping for is opportunity to grow once more in the Emerald Isle.

Photo by: Aoife Challis