May 21, 2006
Immigrants' dynamism and wildcat strikes tell a tale of two economiesPosted in Celtic Tiger ·
ï¿½But no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation.
ï¿½No man has a right to say to his country: ï¿½Thus far shalt thou go, and no further.ï¿½ï¿½
Strolling down Parnell Street last week, in the shadow of the Parnell monument, itï¿½s hard not to reflect on the great manï¿½s epithet. Such sentiments have rarely rung so true as now -130 years after this famous speech in Cork was made. Ireland is certainly marching, but to where and led by whom? Who is trying to fix a boundary?
With those questions in my head, I popped into the bustling Chinese and Polish shops, bars, restaurants and internet cafes that now dominate Parnell Street.
The dynamism here is palpable. Parnell might be surprised, but he would be proud.
Our immigrants are on the march. They are pushing out the boundaries, spurred by the carrot of optimism and the stick of recent bad memories. They realise that they are onto a winner here, and they have no intention of letting this chance go. Here, the future is bright; this is the pulse of the new Ireland.
The notice boards of the internet cafes serve as the traditional Golden Pages for the immigrants and give a great insight into whatï¿½s going on: ï¿½ï¿½Wanna earn ï¿½500 a day?ï¿½; ï¿½ï¿½Need a flatmate?ï¿½; ï¿½ï¿½Have you translation problems?ï¿½; ï¿½ï¿½Fancy a secondhand car or computer?ï¿½; ï¿½ï¿½Waiters needed urgentlyï¿½ï¿½. All these ads carry 085 prepaid mobile phone numbers, which is the network of choice for new arrivals.
But where are all these hungry, excited people coming from? Donï¿½t wait for the official figures to tell us: the best indicator of the ebb and flow of foreigners into Ireland are the tariffs on the cheap, low-call phone shops that have mushroomed around the city. You can tell where the last planeload of immigrants has come from by the price of the call.
These shops operate in probably the most competitive market in the city. Because many of the immigrants are initially skint when they arrive – and even when they are settled they are extremely price-conscious – they will walk across the city to get a cheaper call home. So no shop can overcharge for long.
Thus, the way to make money here is on volume. This is the Ryanair model of telecoms.
The pricing system is extremely sensitive to volume. If there is a run on calls to Bulgaria, the price of Bulgarian calls will fall, not rise.
Prices change every day and are thrown up on a huge chalkboard, like bookiesï¿½ odds at a racetrack. The cheaper the destination, the more immigrants there are from that country. So, by checking out these phone prices, we can gauge who is coming into the country and at what speed. This week, a rake of Ukrainians arrived, believe me.
Another great indicator of vibrancy is the planning notices. Every second rickety building on the street has a notice telling you that the basement is about to be converted, the top floor is to be turned into an internet cafe, the backyard will be a restaurant and the grotty off-licence will soon be a bar, with seating for 90 punters.
The bars that already exist are an exotic combination of rundown old Ireland and hi-spec new Hong Kongï¿½s Long Kwai Fung, completed presumably with feng shui considerations. At one bar are trendy, effete Chinese kids, a couple of locals and a few Albanian lads in full eastern European bad-boy mufti – the pristine white Nike tracksuit, chunky bracelets, crew cuts, gold teeth – necking a bottle of Amstel.
The plasma screen blares out gangsta rap as a tiny Mongolian waitress works the room. On the wall behind the Chinese barman, there is a faded, peeling photo of Dublinï¿½s 1995 All-Ireland winning side.
The place is rocking.
This is the New Ireland. It is an optimistic, get-up-and-go world, where anything goes. Psychologically, the place is liberated: if you want it, be not afraid, seize the day, there are no limits. Who will fix the boundary of the march of this nation?
Who will say to this new country, thus far shall you go and no further?
There is another Ireland – a petrified, limited place, where every change is a threat and every innovation is a risk, where jobs are defined by technical agreements, where we are poisoned by our own lack of confidence, where industrial relations are an adolescent exercise in point-scoring and where a few train drivers stopped the nation. What was that all about? Why were thousands of us left stranded?
Were they, with their well-paid jobs, miffed at having to work a bit more flexibly?
Given that both sides are spinning like mad, it is difficult to get a handle on the exact details of the dispute. But one thing is certain: the row was over something small.
This is the atavistic Ireland that will fix the boundary of the march of the nation.
Unlike in Parnellï¿½s time, the Brits are no longer the enemy.
In many ways, with such a conspicuous target, the battle was easier. We are now faced with the enemy within.
This is the enemy that will say: ï¿½ï¿½Thus far and no furtherï¿½ï¿½. Unlike the narrow gauge Margaret Thatcher, who used this term to describe the miners, I am not talking about the train drivers, the trade unionists or any bunch of workers. I am talking about the enemy within our own heads – all of us.
It is the enemy that is against change and sees conspiracies in every challenge.
This enemy within thrives on pessimism, paranoia and fear. It is resentful and disillusioned and it imprisons large sections of the Irish economy. It rears its head in these stupid disputes, and it belittles us all.
One part of Ireland is marching forward and another part is fixing boundaries. One part (in no way exclusive to immigrants, but they serve to capture some of the dynamism) is saying: ï¿½ï¿½Letï¿½s go for it, the future is bright and, if we roll up our sleeves, there are no frontiers, no limits to what we can achieve.ï¿½ The other part is saying: ï¿½ï¿½No further, we have what we hold, weï¿½re not budging.ï¿½
This is the battle for modern Ireland and, when we strip back all the cant, this is what next yearï¿½s election is all about.
There is a war raging inside our own heads. If we allow the fear and suspicion to dominate the hope and optimism that surges out of the tatty shops on Parnell Street, we will all pay a huge price. The new train is leaving, and the rest of the world wonï¿½t wait for us.