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Kathy Sheridan: The ‘Ireland is full’ brigade should reflect on how globalisation has transformed our fortunes

The population has soared, we are close to full employment and life expectancy is the highest in Europe

For the “Ireland is full” merchants, for those who glibly dismiss this country as a failed state or the children of the 1950s or 1960s as “boomers”, some things bear repeating.

Nearly half a million Irish people emigrated in the 1950s, most to the land of the sworn enemy by way of boats shared with live cattle. By 1960 fewer than three million remained. I remember my father, an Independent politician, deploying us to leave groceries on the doorsteps of deserted mothers, whose husbands had run off to England, leaving 10 or 12 children behind.

The economic and emotional self-sabotage of successive governments fantasising about self-sufficiency is well-documented for those who want to enlighten themselves. They could begin with Fintan O’Toole’s book We Don’t Know Ourselves.

Trade between Ireland and Britain was so low that a few racehorses travelling back and forth could shift the balance.


The State was finally salvaged by TK Whitaker, the Irish civil servant who in his spare time wrote the pamphlet arguing the case for producing goods for export markets and the need to face up to free trade. His Grey Book, which became government policy in 1958, forced Ireland to focus on something beyond impotent, insular victimhood. The State had to globalise or die.

Just 64 years on, the population has soared from three million to almost five million, exports are booming, corporate tax yields keep surprising us, we are close to full employment and life expectancy is the highest in Europe. We must be doing something right somewhere, as Mervyn Taylor wrote here yesterday. Key State services may be struggling badly to keep up but our problems would hardly be more cheering if the population was in decline.

Globalisation worked for us. More surprisingly it also worked for the world, according to Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth College. That may be difficult to fathom in a week when the global elites are staging their annual show of high-mindedness in snowy Davos while Oxfam’s brilliantly timed annual Survival of the Richest study reveals that Ireland’s wealthiest 1 per cent have out-earned the bottom half by more than 70 times in just 10 years, a figure hugely boosted by the young Stripe billionaires, the Collison brothers, probably worth €17.5 billion. Oxfam Ireland’s more interesting detail is the number of people here with individual wealth of more than $50 million (€46.6 million), which more than doubled to 1,435. In a deeply uneven world riven by plague, floods, droughts, wildfires, megastorms and threats of a third world war, those levels of wealth accrued in a time of desperate uncertainty for many seem obscene.

It’s too easy – really too easy – to snipe at this week’s Davos gathering as a disastrously out-of-touch bunch of carbon-belching elites but the World Economic Forum’s slogan at least is somewhat relatable

Irwin acknowledges that studies based on average income can mask income distribution within countries, and that increasing inequality within many poses a big challenge for policymakers. He concedes that globalisation may have contributed “in some degree” to that inequality but that having a larger economy makes it easier to finance redistributive policies and public investments. He also suggests that many forces besides globalisation are at work in generating income inequality.

Far from triggering a race to the bottom as predicted, globalisation has shifted up the entire distribution of world income and gone a long way towards abolishing absolute poverty, he argues. The share of the world’s population in extreme poverty fell from 42 per cent in 1981 to 8.6 per cent in 2018, according to the World Bank. The past 40 years have also seen reduced global inequality, as developing economies began to converge with richer countries.

The big challenge is that, 50 years on, in what’s now described as a “polycrisis”, we are dealing with nothing like the same set of problems.

It’s too easy – really too easy – to snipe at this week’s Davos gathering as a disastrously out-of-touch bunch of carbon-belching elites but the World Economic Forum’s slogan at least is somewhat relatable. “Co-operation in a fragmented world” reflects a general pessimism that decades of peace, broad prosperity and global economic integration might be skidding to a close. A PwC survey of global chief executives suggests that about four in 10 believe their current business models are unsustainable and won’t last a decade. Another suggests that two-thirds of chief economists expect a worldwide recession this year.

Who knows? Garlanded experts can make horrifically poor forecasters. Davos’s Global Risks report has come up with spectacularly wrong predictions over the years. It missed the 2008 crash, Trump, Brexit and managed just a brief mention for an already proliferating Covid-19 in January 2020. When the Canadian-American political scientist Philip Tetlock, was invited by the World Economic Forum to explain why Davos got things so wrong, he kindly said that wasn’t true. “It’s very, very difficult to do worse than chance. Whether the Davos Man is more accurate than the dart-throwing chimpanzee is another question.”

Yet somehow, we have dodged several great depressions, devised world-transforming vaccines and avoided nuclear war, as historian Adam Tooze has noted. Modern history appears as a tale of progress by way of improvisation, innovation, reform and crisis management. “Perhaps innovation will allow us to master the environmental crises looming ahead. Perhaps,” wrote Tooze last October.

Since then the holy grail of nuclear fusion has been sighted and dart-throwing chimpanzees are reviewing their bets. The rest of us are keeping an eye out for the next TK Whitaker.