It was the summer of 2000 and things were going swimmingly. Ireland was the fastest growing economy in the developed world and the unemployment rate had dropped from 10% to 5% in three years. Mary Harney, second in command, had been invited to address the annual meeting of the American Bar Association at Blackhall Place in Dublin.
Her short speech sparked a debate which has since become known as “Boston or Berlin.” Harney drew attention to Ireland’s unique position wedged between Europe and America and summarised the characteristics commonly associated with each continent. Europe stood for social inclusion and governmental regulation while America championed the freedom of the individual and minimal government involvement. She acknowledged that they were simplified descriptions but concluded that “spiritually we are probably a lot closer to Boston than Berlin.”
Twelve years later, Ireland’s unemployment rate is 14.9%, emigration is at its highest rate since the 1980s and the continents on both sides of our shores are in crisis.
Without the background roar of the Celtic Tiger and the allure of shiny cars and kitchen extensions, now might be the time to revisit the debate from a more sober perspective.
What did Harney mean when she said we were “spiritually” closer to Boston than Berlin? Was she referring to our economic model, which had been defined by tax cuts and incentives for foreign investors? Or was she talking about our common language, our history and culture; our national psyche?
Whether or not economic policy can be divorced from the ideology or “spirit” of a place is debatable but given that Ireland matched corporate incentives with a generous welfare system, our affiliation with either Boston or Berlin isn’t even clear in fiscal terms. Our identity crisis is totally understandable. We are a tiny, teddy-bear shaped island on the outskirts of Europe and on the passageway to America. We’ve only been independent since 1922. And we stayed out of the Second World War.
This second fact is absolutely central to any lack of affinity we have with Europe. The European Union we know today is the product of a collective abhorrence of the horrors suffered and inflicted during the war and a resolve – at all costs- to prevent evil from recurring. The focus has always been on unity. The foundation of the United States, on the other hand, arose from a very different impulse: a determination for independence and resistance to the coloniser.
We can relate more to the latter than to the former. We too rose up against what we conceived as an oppressor. And though we can read and learn about it, we cannot really fathom the horrors of World War II. Here in Berlin, they are etched into bronze plaques on buildings, in concrete slabs on train platforms and in the minds of thousands whose lives were brutally dismantled.
Ireland is in a lucky place: we are liked by our neighbours on both sides. Americans find us charming and endearing and mainland Europeans find us wholesome, mysterious and other-worldly.
And while we happily consume and model American culture, we are less familiar with that of our closer neighbours in Europe.
German, with over 90 million native speakers, is the most spoken language in Europe but only 18% of Irish school pupils learn the language. That compares with the 94% of German and 99% of French pupils learning English. Of course, English has become the biggest international language of trade and technology and we can easily “get away” with not knowing another foreign language, but we also lose out on the opportunities to work and travel elsewhere in the European Union, safe in the knowledge that our basic living needs will be met by our membership.
To live and work in Boston you must prove that no American would be fit to take your job whereas to live and work in Berlin, you just need to turn up and register yourself with the authorities.
America is a place where a large portion of people do not believe that it is the government’s responsibility to protect its most vulnerable citizens and where a channel with as big a following as Fox News can claim without irony that the Muppets movie promotes a Communist agenda. It might be united by a common language and culture but its artificial two-party system results in less understanding and consensus than the 23 languages of the European Union do.
Back in Blackhall Place in the summer of 2000, Mary Harney, referring to Ireland’s economic model said, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Now that it’s very much broken, we might do well to look at Berlin as well as Boston.