After papal rebuke, Ireland takes stunned stock of battered church, economy, and nation

Many in Ireland are stunned that the once high-flying 'Celtic Tiger' is now just another battered economy – and by fresh revelations of coverups of sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic church as Pope Benedict XVI apologized directly to Irish abuse victims.

Peter Morrison/AP
Cardinal Sean Brady, the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, reads out a letter from the pope to at St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh, Northern Ireland. Pope Benedict XVI rebuked Irish bishops Saturday for "grave errors of judgment" in handling clerical sex abuse and ordered a Vatican investigation into the Irish church to wipe out the scourge.

Having enjoyed the celebrations of St. Patrick's Day, many Irish people at home and abroad are now staring with disbelief at the state of their nation.

"I can't think of anything that makes me sit up and pay attention," says Gerard Casey, professor of philosophy at University College Dublin. "In terms of our political leaders, bankers, or even our self-knowledge, there's nothing good to say. I see no sign of what people like to call 'green shoots.' "

How different things were just three short years ago. The country was riding high: business was booming and Ireland was one of the richest countries in the EU. The peace process in Northern Ireland was, while far from perfect, at least pointing toward a settled future.

Then economic crisis hit in 2007, just after the Irish general election brought a government to power promising a long boom. Instead, the country got a long bust and since then things have only been getting worse.

Unemployment has hit 12.6 percent, with 436,956 jobless, while the country's $30 billion deficit represents 12.5 percent of gross domestic product – trailed only by Greece among the 16 countries in the eurozone.

As the world indulged in a kitschy global celebration of all things Irish this past week, many Irish lawmakers were among them in the hope of raising investment in the country. Irish officials, from Prime Minister Brian Cowen and cabinet ministers right down to county councilors, spread across the globe promoting the "Irish brand" – but the public is unhappy, seeing the foreign trips as mere junkets.

The Roman Catholic Church, long the lodestone of Irish life, is virtually discredited after judicial reports into sexual abuse of children by clerics. One government-sponsored report in particular criticized state bodies, including the police, for failing to protect children from abusers.

Last week, the church faced fresh allegations of coverups when it was revealed that Cardinal Sean Brady, now the leader of the Irish church, concealed abuse by the Rev. Brendan Smyth, who was later convicted of assaulting children for decades, and died in prison. Father Smyth abused children in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the United States, and his activities were known to church authorities as early as the 1940s.

Smyth's return to the front pages so long after his death is an unwelcome reminder of Ireland's difficult past and murky connections between church and state. Smyth's arrest in 1994, three years before his death, caused the collapse of the then Irish government when it transpired that the office of the attorney general had failed to handle an extradition request appropriately.

In a pastoral letter from Pope Benedict XVI to Irish Catholics, made public on March 20, the pope apologized to the victims of clerical child sexual abuse, saying that he was "deeply disturbed by the information that has come to light," and that he could only "share in the dismay and sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced in learning about these sinful and criminal acts and the way the Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them."

He said he could meet with victims and "acknowledge their suffering" and pray with them. but many people are questioning whether the church can regain its moral authority in the wake of the revelations. The pope also told abusers that they must answer for their offenses "before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals."

But many people are skeptical about the church's ability to regain its moral authority.

Damaged peace process, politicians' diaspora

The Northern Ireland peace process, meanwhile, has been damaged both by ongoing attacks by small dissident groups opposed to the settlement and political bickering between the local political parties.

The temporary diaspora of Irish politicians on St. Patrick's Day has many citizens here infuriated. Mary Harney, who runs the country's healthcare system, has been attacked for taking a 15-day trip to New Zealand and refusing to return despite a scandal erupting at a Dublin hospital.

Maureen O'Sullivan, an independent lawmaker who represents a tough inner-city district of Dublin, encapsulated the sense of public disbelief about the ministers' trips, saying her constituents are suffering and the government is doing nothing to help.

"There's a lot of anger among those who have jobs. It's the lower paid who are feeling the crunch.... For many people in my constituency, the 'Celtic Tiger' was nonexistent so they're neither better nor worse off. But they have a total lack of faith in politicians."

Stephen Kinsella, an economist at the University of Limerick, says the government's policies are unpopular but there is no alternative for a country without its own sovereign monetary policy.

"The big story of 2009 and 2010 is fiscal consolidation – to what extent did the finance minister stop the wheels coming off the bus? Well, we have a yawning budget deficit that is being plugged by borrowing.... The problem is we cannot devalue our currency or pursue quantitative easing policies like the UK has done, so all of the adjustments come through the wage channel. This means more people have to lose their jobs, more people have to endure pay cuts and see living standards fall."

"A prominent German economist said to me at a conference, 'would you stop pretending you are a country' – and he's right," says Mr. Kinsella.

Workers' diaspora

For many, Ireland's mass unemployment is a simply a return to form. Opposition politicians from the center-right Fine Gael to center-left Sinn Féin have lamented that many young people are effectively forced to leave the country to seek work, slamming the government for creating a "lost generation."

But concerns about mass migration resuming are not borne out by the statistics. Government figures show that from May 2008 to April 2009 65,100 people left Ireland – but most were non-Irish nationals. Only 18,400 were Irish citizens. Some 18,400 Irish citizens returned to Ireland over the same period.

Still, many Irish people do live abroad, and their view of the old country isn't as positive as it was during the boom years. Web developer Cormac Flynn lives and works in Paris and says he is unhappy with the passivity of Irish politics.

"Traits that I would excuse away in the past as symptoms of our national character – our 'ah sure it'll do' attitude, our laziness, our conformism, the 'cute hoor' [appreciation of tricks] aspect [of our character] – don't seem good enough anymore," he says.

"It's so frustrating to live abroad and see all that's happening at home – from the clerical abuse scandals to the state of the economy – and to know not only that I'm powerless to do anything, but that even if I lived at home, that fact would not change. We seem, as a people, inert in the face of all this, content to complain without actually changing our behavior, voting in something better or taking to the streets. We can't be bothered."

"I'm still happy to be Irish – I'll never take French citizenship. But this is all clouded for me with frustration and disappointment at what we've done to ourselves."

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