His Excellency Mr. Pádraig MURPHY
Mr. President, Member of the Kumamoto Japan-Ireland Society
As you all know, Lafcadio Hearn arrived in Kumamoto at the end of 1891 to teach Latin and English at the large Government College here, the predecessor of Kumamoto University. It would be unfaithful to the record to deny that he did not immediately fell in love with the place; on the contrary, he was immediately depressed with what he called this “straggling, dull, unsightly”, half-Europeanised garrison town with its soldiers and the antiseptic red brick of the Government College. What he had been hit with was the disappearance of enchantment, the knowledge that he would now have to grow old and suffer the “sorrows of the nineteenth century”, as he put it. “I wish I could fly out of Meiji forever”, he said, “back against the stream of time into Tempo, or into the age of the Mikado Yuryaku – fourteen hundred years ago. The life of the old fans, the old screens, the tiny villages, that is the real Japan I love. Somehow or other, Kumamoto doesn’t seem to me Japan at all. I hate it.”
Hearn was upset at the way modernisation was changing Japan. He yearned to turn back the clock. In a more extended diatribe, he put it thus:
“So Japan paid to learn how to see shadows in Nature, in life, and in thought. And the West taught her that the sole business of the divine sun was the making of the chaper kind of shadows. And the West taught her that the higher-priced shadows were the sole product of Western civilisation, and bade her admire and adopt. Then Japan wondered at the shadows of machinery and chimneys and telegraph poles; and at the shadows of mines and of factories, and the shadows in the hearts of those who worked there; and at the shadows of houses twenty storeys high, and of hunger begging under them; and shadows of enormous charities that multiplied poverty; and shadows of social reforms that multiplied vice; and the shadows of shams and hypocrisies and swallow-tail coats; and the shadow of a foreign God, said to have created mankind for the purpose of an auto-da-fé. Whereat Japan became rather serious, and refused to study any more silhouettes. Fortunately for the world, she returned to her first matchless art; and, fortunately for herself, returned to her own beautiful faith. But some of the shadows still cling to her life; and she cannot possibly get rid of them. Never again can the world seem to her quite so beautiful as it did before.”
This is a point of view which I well understand and with which we can all, I suppose, sympathise.
If I understand the point of view very well, it is because Ireland too can be seen as having lost its enchantment during my lifetime. Sixty years ago, one of the most famous Prime Ministers of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, set out his vision of an ideal Ireland on St.Patrick’s Day.
“That Ireland which we dreamed of,” he said, “would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit; a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age.”
It was not to be, at least not as far as the value placed on material wealth, or the satisfaction with frugal comfort, or the devotion to things of the spirit are concerned.
Ireland came to advanced economic development much later than Japan. After a spectacular burst of economic growth that began some 10 years ago, with growth rates for a number of years of over 10%, the highest in the OECD, Ireland today enjoys a GDP per person which puts it in fourth place, after Sweden, Luxembourg and Denmark, in the EU. The transformation from being the poor man of Europe only 20 years ago has been intoxicating, as all such transformations are. For identities are stubborn things. I have noted, for instance, that though Japan has for many years been the second economic power in the world, the Japanese self-image is still that of a small nation, even, to some extent, a victim perhaps – essentially an image which results from a defeat in a war of now over 50 years ago. Similarly, for centuries the Irish too saw themselves as essentially one of the great losers in the historical lottery and, of course, unlike Japan, we are really small. Just as Lafcadio Hearn did in regard to Japan at the end of the nineteenth century, Ireland until recently fed on the illusion that the country could have a uniquely idylic vocation. So we certainly have not come to terms with our new-found prosperity.
The disjuncture between image and reality does, of course, in the case of Ireland at least, give rise to some problems. In the Irish case they result from the inadequacy of some of the structures left over from an overtaken era – their incompatibility with the demands of advanced development. On the level of physical infrastructure too, Ireland finds itself struggling to update its sometimes 19th-century facilities to meet the requirements of its 21st-century economy and the strain is obvious in the area of ground transport, for instance. In some ways, Ireland is like a teenager who has recently grown too fast for his clothes.
Then there is the question of identity. The age of strong nationalistic feelings is gone in Ireland, including the sense of a special calling for Ireland. A strong sense of nationalism meant a strong sense of separate identity. The disappearance of strong nationalism is very welcome, but the accompanying loss of an assurance about identity is more problematic.
The question was posed in an interesting way over the past year or so. Ireland has enjoyed high levels of foreign investment, in particular from the U.S., which has been a very important factor in the high growth rates of the 90s. There has been growing along with this a sentiment that globalisation was the most important contributory factor to this development, and that what some have recently been calling “the old Europe” might have been overtaken by this wave of the future. Sentiments of this kind led the Irish Deputy Prime Minister to say during 2001 that she thought Ireland was nearer Boston than Berlin. This might in some circumstances be taken as a relatively harmless exercise in alliterative speech-making.
However, it so happened that in June 2001 a referendum was scheduled in Ireland on ratification of the Nice Treaty, a very complicated adjustment of the basic EU Treaties in order to permit enlargement of the European Union. Given the very happy experience that Ireland has had as a member of the EU, along with the fact that no less than four such referenda had previously, since we joined the EU in 1973, passed comfortably, the universal expectation was that the passing of this referendum too would be unproblematic. This expectation resulted in complacency on the part of the main political parties, all of which were in favour, but which did not campaign actively.
At the same time, those who opposed the proposal had a relatively easy time giving a simplistic negative reading of the complex legal document which was submitted for ratification. The result was a very low poll, in which a small majority said no. This was a severe embarrassment for the Government, for, without ratification of the Nice Treaty, the politically important enlargement of the EU could not proceed. The Irish people were obliged to consider very carefully whether in fact we were closer to Boston than to Berlin: the question needed imperatively to be put again to the people as, without Irish ratification, the Nice Treaty could not enter into force and enlargement of the EU could not take race.
And so a campaign for ratification by referendum was re-opened one year later with, this time, full commitment by all the established political parties and, as a result, full realisation by the electorate of what was at stake. The result showed that, for the people of Ireland, Berlin was at least as important as Boston: in a large turnout, voted in favour of ratification by a margin of almost to 1.
That having been decided, however, it is true to say that Ireland’s view of its membership of the EU is no longer what it was even five years ago. We have already progressed to being one of the richer member States of the present 15, not to speak of the 25 which will be members as of 1 May next. Because of that, we are already moving from being net beneficiaries from the operation of the Community budget to being net contributors. With enlargement and foreseeable changes in the agricultural policy because of WTO negotiations, this trend can only accentuate.
In sum, Ireland today is a country which has made very important progress in economic development in the past 15 years, bringing it to the first tier of developed economies in the world – in GDP per head, No.10 in the world. In the course of that same accelerated development, questions have arisen about its identity – it being certain that the old nationalistically accented identity has faded. But when well-considered, a commitment to the European integration enterprise as manifested in the EU seems to be an essential part of a modern Irish identity. At the same time, this does not yet completely cover Ireland’s stance in international affairs. Here, a long-standing Irish attachment to the central role of the United Nations in the promotion and maintenance of world peace comes to the fore, together with a question as to the future viability of this option.
Ireland is not a country without problems. I have indicated some of them: the speed of our recent economic development has left some of our infrastructure, especially in transport, with some way still to go in order to catch up. The very open economy, itself a very important factor in the rather spectacular development, also leaves one exposed to the possibility of downturn in the case of an evident slump in the world economy, such as that we are now going through. Here, too, the future is looking considerably murkier than it did only a relatively short time ago. Will the world economy, will the US economy, revive? Will the bodies that oversaw the economic development at universal level since the Second World War – the IMF, the World Bank, WTO, the successor of GATT – be still able to function in the future as they have for 50 years now? These are questions too which are as vital for Japan as they are for Ireland, dependent as we in Ireland are, even more than Japan, on the health of the world economies and, in particular, on that of the US economy. Overall, however, it would have to be said that, in any reasonable historical perspective, Ireland today is experiencing one of the happiest periods of her history, able for the first time ever, perhaps, to offer a premium standard of living to all its population, no longer suffering the hemorrhaging of emigration, and a secure member of one of the most advanced societies of states in the world.
And so we find ourselves at the beginning of a new century, with prosperity that our grandparents could not believe in, but also with problems of a complexity which they could not imagine. And as for the future, I return again to Lafcadio Hearn. What I see in Japan today is a highly sophisticated modern economy which still manages to preserve a distinctly Japanese identity, the product of a culture of some two thousand years. The virtues noticed by Lafcadio Hearn more than one hundred years ago I still see flourishing. So if, in the case of Japan, Lafcadio Hearn’s pessimism of the 1890s is seen not to be justified in 2003, I derive some hope for my own country. Perhaps, after all, the dream that was dreamt by Éamon de Valera in 1943 need not have been dreamed in vain?
I thank you for your attention.