Tiger gives dragon pause for thought

20th August 2004 at 01:00
Virtually every summer we've gone on holiday to Majorca. You know the rituals: buying the rubbish paperback at Cardiff Wales Airport; drinking a litre of sangria upon arrival and falling into a deep, snoring sleep on the hotel bed; getting a tan that barely survives a week when you're back; and having an artery-hardening British breakfast at the Bulldog Beach Bar.

But this year we chose a trip to somewhere different - Ireland. The place itself is called Waterville, entirely appropriate since water is what any holiday in Ireland involves as the heavens open for their daily downpour.

The upside of the positively non-tropical weather is the time created for a range of things - dealing with that stubborn bit of nasal hair, watching those episodes of Dallas you missed 20 years ago, and looking out to sea missing the entirely predictable delights of Majorca.

But as we academics are always thinking, even when on holiday, the time gives the chance to speculate on a broader theme. I have not been to Ireland since 1994, and it was immediately apparent that in the past decade the economic conditions of the population have been transformed.

New houses sprout at every turn. The places that show people have spare cash - the bijou wine bars and gourmet restaurants - are in abundance.

There are even more locally-owned BMWs and Mercedes than in Cardiff Bay.

Yet in 1994, I remember, Ireland was a basket case of an economy and a byword for inefficiency and decline. What had made the difference, I wondered as it started to rain again, and what might be the lessons for our own economic basket case, that of Wales?

It is easy to see what has not made the difference. The transport system is hopeless, with major roads being worse than the C roads of the UK. The government, or the state, is widely distrusted, and indeed so cynical is the population that state help for the Gaelic language has led to its erosion, since the language of resistance to government became the language of conformity. The pace of life is so slow that one wonders how anything gets done.

But the positives to explain the miracle of the Celtic Tiger are many.

First, Ireland has a well-educated population based upon a broad curriculum from 16-18, with none of the specialisation which has been the British - and Welsh - curse. Virtually all schoolchildren have part-time jobs, partly because a high proportion of the population lives on family-owned farms, but partly because the tourist industry needs everything from deckchair attendants to check-out staff. In these jobs, as in the United States, children learn to work with others, that profit is not a sin and that there are ways to treat people that maximise what producers and consumers get.

But a major factor also is that Ireland still has a functioning society in ways that England has not and Wales now has only partially. Parents will correct other people's children if they misbehave in the street, for example, and would expect it for their own children. Most families are of three generations, parents, grandparents and children, transmitting respectable values. The communities provide support at times of crisis and "belonging" to their members, in ways very similar to our own Welsh valleys historically.

All this indicates that the human capital of Ireland is high, meaning that any financial capital will generate optimum returns. As societies such as Wales fall prey to the stresses of a 247, information overloaded age, the more sound work-life balance of Ireland gives it the capacity to avoid these stresses and to function optimally.

What does this mean for us in Wales? It means optimising our human capital by optimising the quality of our communities. It means relying on non-state solutions to problems. It means creating a population which has links to each other.

It'll be Majorca next year, of course. But at least one trip to our Celtic Tiger neighbour should be compulsory for our Assembly members and leaders.

Besides, once the rain stops and the sun comes out there's much more to Ireland than wet-weather musing about the reasons for its success.

David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Exeter and lives in South Wales

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