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Celtic Tiger in Collapse: Explaining the Weaknesses of the Irish Model by Peadar Kirby, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pb. 237pp, €23.55, ISBN:9780230237444

Well into the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was still in high demand on the international lecture circuit. For instance, as late as February 2009 he was the guest speaker at the Honduran National Business Council where he gave a lecture entitled ‘The Celtic Tiger: The Irish Development Model’. In an advertisement promoting the lecture La Tribuna newspaper hinted what Bertie’s speech might be about:

‘Nothing about the dramatic situation in the Republic of Ireland at the start of the 20th century – with their recently acquired independence, hurt by tragic levels of inflation, massive emigration and alarming levels of unemployment – could have foretold their sudden transformation from ‘the Cinderella of Europe’ to what we now know as “the Celtic Tiger”.’

What the advert in La Tribuna didn’t tell readers about, was the virtual collapse of the Irish economy in a mire of broken banks, rising unemployment, ghost estates, renewed emigration, and crisis ridden social services. Nor presumably would they have heard much of this in Bertie’s lecture. At a price of $150 per head it hasn’t been reported whether the audience felt they got value for money or if anyone had the temerity to ask about the realities of life back in Ireland. For a more up robust analysis (and presumably for a lot less than the €10,000 Mr Ahern charged) the Hondurans might have been better off inviting Peadar Kirby to address them or reading one of his two books about recent social and economic developments in Ireland, The Celtic Tiger in Distress (2002) or his latest publication The Celtic Tiger in Collapse (2010). As a former journalist who reported extensively on Central and Latin American affairs in the 1980s and 1990s he could also have highlighted the risks and pitfalls inherent in the extolled Irish model for a small regional economy, though whether this is the message businesspeople would have wanted to hear is another matter.

In The Celtic Tiger in Collapse Kirby takes the reader on an explanatory journey through the recent experiences of the much vaunted ‘Irish model’. Along the way he assesses the various claims made about the causes, extent, and impact of the boom times and systematically dismantles what he terms the ‘ultra positive and self congratulatory myopic readings’ (p.107) of the Celtic Tiger to reveal some stark realities. In essence the critique can be divided into three broad strands. Firstly the impact of the boom is explored in terms of enduring poverty, persistent inequalities in income and wealth distribution, and various indicators of inequality in health, housing, taxation, regional disparities, gender and quality of life. Kirby deduces that while the boom times were the ‘best of times’ for some, for many the benefits were of a highly fleeting nature and for others the only outcome was their further marginalisation from Irish society.

The second strand undertakes a critique of different interpretations of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon, from the mainstream based on neo-classical economics which have been the most influential in terms of public policy to critical readings drawn from Marxism, development theory and political economy. From this point onwards the discussion adopts a distinctly more theoretical tone, though it is a mark of the author’s skill that the narrative loses none of its fluency or accessibility for the reader. It is clear from this part of the discussion that theory matters fundamentally to effective social science analysis, however, this must be a theory which is up to the task and not self limiting (as much theoretical offerings on the Irish case have been to date). Thus, according to Kirby, to be deemed ‘adequate’ a theoretical framework ‘needs to be able not just to examine the nature and extent of economic change in Ireland but to link this in a robust way with social outcomes identifying in a detailed and rigorous way how the former is shaping the latter’ (p.111). Such an analysis clearly throws up a challenge to the social sciences to evolve towards multi disciplinarity drawing on insights from across the spectrum of disciplines ranging from sociology, economics, political science, social policy and geography to name but a few.

The third strand of the analysis explores the state/market/society triad. Readers of Kirby’s earlier book will be familiar with this framework especially the assessment of interlinkages between the state and the market. Of particular relevance here is how the Irish state has become a central actor in the development of the market and as a result has a particular responsibility for the ‘lop sided’ outcomes of the economic boom.

At this stage Kirby introduces a concept which in this reviewer’s opinion marks the defining contribution of this book. This is the phenomenon of vulnerability and it is destined to reverberate throughout Irish society to various levels and degrees well into the future unless radical steps are taken to prevent it. Vulnerability is defined by the UN as a state of high exposure to certain risks and uncertainties, in combination with a reduced ability to protect or defend oneself against those risks and uncertainties and cope with their negative consequences. Drawing on Polyani’s analysis of self-regulating market liberalism in the nineteenth century as a frame of reference, Kirby argues that contemporary Ireland is highly prone to social vulnerabilities and due to the structural weaknesses of the Irish model central to which is our ‘anorexic’ welfare state, Irish society possesses little by way of protection or resilience to counter their effects. Additionally those elements within Irish society most likely to critique the model which generated such vulnerabilities (the community and voluntary sector and the trade unions) have been either incorporated or intimidated into acquiescence. The final chapter explores possibilities for the future. Quite rightly in reflecting the enormity of the challenges which face Irish society, the author does not offer simplistic prescriptions on how to get out of the current predicament. Where we are is the consequence of a long term accumulation of layers of ideology, policy failure and political choices. Undoing their impacts and rebuilding a society based on solidarity and fairness, where social outcomes matter above economic models will require a decisive break with the past. According to Peadar Kirby, now is the time for that break, and in writing this book he has provided a forceful analysis from which an alternative vision of the future of Irish society can take root.

Cathal O’Connell

School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork