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When the US and Russia finally negotiate, Ireland should play host

A keen language student back in 1990, I arrived in the village of Stari Ruza, 50 odd miles west of Moscow. Near Borodino, where Napoleon’s republican advance was halted by Russian forces, the last westerners seen in the village were Hitler’s retreating army in 1942.

The local babushkas, intrigued by the arrival of this red-haired foreigner, referred to me as Gitler. Yes, that’s me, Hitler, pronounced with the Russian inverting “g” for “h”. The grannies hadn’t seen foreigners since 1942 and apparently the last Nazis in Stari Ruza, teenagers from the Rhineland, had red hair. Who doesn’t put two and two together?

Russians have a complicated view of the West. They will rightly say it is Russia that has been invaded twice by the West, first by Napoleon and then by Hitler. The aggressor was western and not the other way around as depicted in the cold war narrative. They will also maintain that their occupation of the former Warsaw Pact countries was entirely due to their historic need to create buffer states between defensive Mother Russia and aggressive western Europe.

This fear, along with earned pride about never having been defeated militarily by the forces of the West, is combined with a desperate need to be accepted as an equal, which means that Joe Biden’s sanctions on Russia will hurt psychologically as much as economically.

President Biden is taking us back to a world that many recognise and find reassuring. Although not admitted, the proximate reason for sanctions now is the build-up of two Russian armies on the border with Ukraine. Are the sanctions and the build-up of Russian forces being employed as bargaining chips for when both sides eventually sit down for a summit, which Biden has called for “in the coming months”, allowing each side to come away with a win?

When the fog has lifted, the real chess begins in the Middle East, where the projection of Russia’s diplomatic and military power, off the back of a rickety, kleptocratic economy, has been a remarkable testament to Moscow’s statecraft. With an economy no bigger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined, Russia has managed to run the Americans out of the Middle East despite the US economy being at least 12 times bigger.

In Europe, Russian gas keeps the lights on –  a fact not lost on the Germans in particular. To some pan-Slavic dreamers, the real American fear is not forfeiting Ukraine or even eastern EU; in fact, their angst is about Germany and Russia becoming closer.

Alliances are usually based on mutual interests. As Germany is a country with no natural resources and brilliant energy-sapping industry and Russia is a country with abundant energy and little top-class industry, the fit is a good one, bordering on snug.

A Russo-German detente in the centre of Europe is Washington’s nightmare, which is why (although they’d be loathe to admit it) a jittery Ukraine – and Poland for that matter – has value for the Americans.

For the Russians, the West has always been beguiling; it is at odds with Pushkin’s core concept of Mother Russia as the home of the Slavs who must avoid the lurid temptations of Europe. But the lure of the West is seductive for Moscow and it has been for years. Russians come to the West to learn.

In 1697, Peter the Great, disguised as a ship’s mate and looking to learn the ropes of Dutch shipbuilding, arrived in the richest city in the world. Here, built on marshy swamps, rose a free city of elegant houses, banks, finance, a thriving stock market. It was welcoming to dissenters, religious refugees and merchants of all hues, and home to the largest merchant navy in the world, ruler of the waves.

Amsterdam was the beating heart of a commercial empire that stretched from Holland to Cape Town, from Zanzibar to Malacca. Its harbour, with hundreds of masts piercing the grey lowland sky, was its citadel, the source of its power. Peter landed a four-month internship at the famed Dutch shipyards and from there he watched, noted, learned and absorbed everything that Amsterdam had to offer.

The personal owner of one-sixth of the world’s land lived in a tiny wooden artisan’s house, made his own bed, donned the garb of a Dutch carpenter and lived like a local. His stay in Amsterdam would change the history of Russia. When Peter the Great built St Petersburg, he modelled it on Amsterdam. He even took the Dutch name Sainkt Pieter Burkh rather than a Russian equivalent. The greatest city in Russia was modelled on what was the greatest city in Europe at the time, Amsterdam.

In a sense, Russia has always been imitating the West but trying to deceive it at the same time.

Peter’s successor, the German princess Catherine the Great, understood – as does Vladimir Putin – the need to keep the West guessing. Almost a century after Peter returned from Holland, a much larger Russia played host to western ambassadors.

Fresh from his annexation of Crimea, Catherine’s general and lover, Gregory Potemkin, set up the city of Sevastopol – the August city – allegedly in a nod to their intense affair consummated in August. He needed to convince the West that Russia was an enlightened rather than despotic power. Given the assorted despots from Europe who turned up, he needn’t have been too worried. The 18th century bar wasn’t too high.

He took the dignitaries down the Dneiper river in Ukraine and organised for sycophantic mobile villages to be erected at each river turn, so that every time the royal barge approached the banks, westerners would see these enthusiastic peasants cheering Catherine the Great, the liberator. When the barge docked for dinner, Potemkin arranged for the villages to be upended and overnight transported downstream. Next morning, the gullible ambassadors would see yet more cheering peasants, Potemkin’s imagined villages.

Dutifully impressed, the ambassadors wrote back to the capitals of Europe, marvelling at how loved the Russian empress was. In reality, she was terrifying. However, the West was blindsided.

The “Potemkin Village” story has been discredited, but it may contain a wider cultural truth. For years, Moscow has been deploying these tactics; denying, interfering, obfuscating, side-tracking and ultimately changing the angle of attack. We are now moving into a new phase of the relationship with Russia, that fascinating and most beguiling country.

Here’s an idea. The US and Russia will be looking for a host country in which to convene their upcoming summit. That country will need to be neutral, militarily unaligned and have a strong history of UN activism and a commitment to the multilateral world. In the past, Iceland and Finland have hosted summits. Neutrality can be passive or active.

Passive neutrality allows a country to sit back and haughtily judge others that are making hard decisions. Active neutrality means getting involved as a diplomatic safehouse. Why not use our neutrality actively by deploying our soft power and using the fact that we have a seat on the UN security council? We could offer to host the most important summit of the 21st century. Why not?

When the US and Russia finally negotiate, Ireland should play host

A keen language student back in 1990, I arrived in the village of Stari Ruza, 50 odd miles west of Moscow. Near Borodino, where Napoleon’s republican advance was halted by Russian forces, the last westerners seen in the village were Hitler’s retreating army in 1942.

The local babushkas, intrigued by the arrival of this red-haired foreigner, referred to me as Gitler. Yes, that’s me, Hitler, pronounced with the Russian inverting “g” for “h”. The grannies hadn’t seen foreigners since 1942 and apparently the last Nazis in Stari Ruza, teenagers from the Rhineland, had red hair. Who doesn’t put two and two together?

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Are Ireland’s relatively low Covid deaths due to emigration?

The majority of older Irish people who died of Covid-19 probably died in England. When it comes to fewer deaths from Covid-19, our reasonably good outcomes may have less to do with lockdown and more to do with the echo of emigration.

The huge proportion of older Irish people living in England is a function of the massive emigration to England in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1950s, half a million people left for England and in the 1960s another 300,000 followed them. There is scarcely a family in Ireland without an old uncle or aunt in Coventry, Manchester or London.

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Stay away from the Irish property market. It holds no value

The Irish housing market has hit peak dysfunction. Stay away. The fourth quarter of 2020 saw the lowest level of supply of homes for purchase since 2006. In Dublin, supply was down 21 per cent last December relative to the same time the previous year, with just 3,400 homes listed and prices up 7.2 per cent over the same period.

In the Connacht-Ulster market these trends are more severe, with supply down 30 per cent over the year to December and prices up 8.8 per cent. In December there were just 15,390 properties listed for sale on Daft.ie – down about one third from an already low level a year earlier and well below the average 40,000 properties listed annually over the past 13 years.

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No one seems to have noticed there’s a monetary revolution under way

There is a monetary revolution happening right under our noses. It is of such seismic proportions that the insurrection will force the EU to make a choice: either it accepts that in the future the ECB will continue to finance everything as it is doing right now, or it will try to go back to the past, reasserting Maastricht Treaty ideology on austerity and government deficits.

The latter option would mean the ECB will blow its own currency apart in a violent, self-inflicted crisis, which would see billions of euro leaving Italy, Spain and Greece in the biggest synchronised current account crisis the world has seen.

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Ireland has too many stockbrokers and lawyers, not enough engineers

The Davy debacle has many angles, most of them unsavoury. One, not being adequately investigated, is the effect on an economy that attracts bright people into sectors that exist to extract fees rather than sectors that produce things.

The fee-extracting economy, known as the rentier economy, is one that rewards people who don’t produce anything but extract fees from property (physical or intellectual) while operating under licences. In contrast, the productive sector is the part of the economy where people make things, innovate, add value and sell new products in the market.

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This St Patrick’s Day, Ireland should do a vaccine deal with the US

This St Patrick’s Day, the Taoiseach should ask US president Joe Biden for help. What about asking him for four million vaccines? In a sign of solidarity with its oldest ally and the homeland of more than 30 million Irish-Americans, the US could exercise its ample soft-power and help a friend in need.

Vaccines save lives, and saving citizens’ lives is the primary responsibility of any state. We can’t get our hands on enough vaccines via the EU’s centralised scheme, but we have the option to look elsewhere.

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Why Ireland will recover faster than others

It may be difficult to imagine but there are significant grounds to believe that the economy will recover quickly from this trauma, and there are strong reasons to be optimistic that the eye-watering budget deficit, a cause of concern to many, will narrow, on its own, with no need for austerity.

Structural trends in our society as we adapt to new ways of working will enhance productivity, because of the end of the enforced commute. From a productivity point of view, commuting is dead time and dead time is dead money. This, too, will change.

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Ireland builds houses at the wrong time, in the wrong place, at the wrong price

Planning for housing based on national population dynamics is one of the most basic functions of economic policy in any country. More people means more homes delivered at stable prices, built by a healthy, innovative construction industry, using the most up-to-date techniques to meet whatever communal and societal standards are expected without requiring long commutes.

This is what proper countries do. On this score, Ireland is the dunce of Europe. We build in the wrong places, at the wrong price, at the wrong time, driven by the interests of landowners and banks, leading to booms and slumps, bankruptcies, ghost estates and now hundreds of thousands of citizens priced out of a pathetically dysfunctional market. This has to stop.

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