The ethical deal

The ethical deal

Requiem for the Titanic and Ireland’s “unsinkable” economy

The sinking of the Titanic 100 years ago is now being used as an economic metaphor for Ireland’s current misfortunes.

This weekend marks the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The White Star liner left Cobh, its final port of call, on 11th April 1912. Four days later the Titanic, the pride of Belfast engineering, sank in the North Atlantic.

The sinking spawned a legend. A cottage industry has sprung up to supply it. The products range from the kitsch to the profound.

Along with the commemorative tea towels and mugs and a 3-D version of the James Cameron blockbuster the fascinated can purchase a limited edition $25,000 art deco necklace designed by Lunn’s, the most exclusive jewelry store in Belfast. The city council has also overseen the construction of an interpretive exhibit in a spectacular signature building adjoining the ramp which launched the fateful ship.

The building is an ambitious attempt at urban renewal. The Titanic Quarter is designed to become the home of an increasingly significant (in terms of the local economy) financial services sector, anchored by Citigroup, the global investment bank.

Given the scale of the Global Financial Crisis it may appear at first glance more than a little ironic that Northern Ireland should seek to attract investment banking into a zone named after a calamitous shipwreck. On the other hand, massaging the power of the brand has certain advantages, if only the appropriate lessons are drawn. There are hopeful signals that this is beginning.

The Irish president, Michael D Higgins, used a speech in Cobh earlier this week to acknowledge the enduring power of the Titanic, not as an exercise in commercial nostalgia but as a powerful metaphor with contemporary relevance, which he said necessitated sustained reflection.

“The sense of crisis that occurs when something deemed unsinkable - in our case a speculative economy - is confounded not only by circumstance and error but by the hubris that accompanied belief in what proved to be an irrational version of the economic,” he said.

“In the humbling aftermath of the crisis there is not only an opportunity to learn but a requirement to reflect - to address the errors and assumptions that led to failure.”

Addressing those errors and assumptions is, however, proving exceptionally difficult to implement. Governments on both sides of the border are attempting to navigate a narrow channel between fiscal discipline and social disintegration.

For the Republic the task is even harder. The cover story in this week’s Irish Times property supplement noted a 66% fall in value of a restored castle, purchased at the height of what it termed dismissively as the “Septic Tiger”. Hundreds of thousands are caught in negative equity trap, half-finished developments scar major and small towns alike and the number of empty retail units speaks volumes of the failure of austerity to facilitate growth.

The conditionalities imposed by the bailout from the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, has further limited the government’s room to manoeuvre.

Easter marks the anniversary of the 1916 Rising, a failed attempt to create a Republic. This anniversary is rendered even more potent given the scale of the crisis facing both parts of the island.

Neither independence nor self-governance has provided economic security or sustainable innovation. The challenge facing both parts of the island is to leverage what remains: a proud history, a highly educated workforce and a new sense of humility.

Over the next week I will be filing posts on the social economic and political costs of Ireland’s failure and how they are being addressed.

This weekend, however, provides an opportunity to reflect on both the ingenuity associated with engineering, physical and financial. It is also an opportunity to recognise the limitations associated with unwarranted belief.

It is an appropriate requiem for the those who lost their lives on that fateful night in 1912 and for those who have seen their aspirations dashed by the calamity still rocking global markets. We remain far from land. It is indeed a night to remember.

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