THE IRISH soccer team returned from Iran last week a step nearer the World Cup. The traditionalist Gaelic Athletics Association scrapped its notorious Rule 21, which prevented Northern Ireland police playing hurling or Gaelic football. And Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, still wins plaudits for pushing IRA decommissioning. Yet beneath this modernising facade, the Celtic Tiger is losing its roar.
The economy got the jitters after 11 September. Predictably, Aer Lingus is fighting for its life and has to shed 2,000 staff. Unemployment is rising and may double over two years. Hundreds of jobs go each week, many in the media and hi-tech industries that gave the Tiger its teeth. House prices are falling. Economic growth, averaging 8 per cent since 1995, could fall below 2 per cent next year. The government is abandoning promised tax reforms and borrowing for the first time since 1997, and cutting back on many of its spending plans to pay for school and hospital commitments.
But Ahern is taking refuge in Catholic nationalism. He plans another abortion referendum (to tighten the ban up a bit) ahead of next year's general election. And he recently presided over the reburial of 10 IRA martyrs from the early 1920s in a mawkish ceremony reminiscent of an earlier age. Coincidentally, the Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Desmond Connell, had to apologise recently for insulting his Protestant counterpart by suggesting that Archbishop Walton Empey was not one of his church's "high- flyers" and that he "wouldn't have much theological competence". These events had uncomfortable echoes of the time when one of Connell's predecessors, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, was Archbishop of Dublin and Eamon De Valera was running Ireland.
As archbishop from 1940 to 1972, McQuaid banned Catholics from "Protestant" Trinity College and vetoed everything from censorship to health legislation. His career coincided with that of his friend, De Valera, founder of Ahern's Fianna Fail party, Taoiseach from 1932 until 1959 (barring short interruptions by two coalition governments) and president from then until 1973. De Valera saw his people on St Patrick's Day 1943 during the country's wartime neutrality as "satisfied with frugal comfort [who] devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit" enjoying "the laughter of comely maidens". This set the tone for decades, where the Church ruled on social and moral issues and the Irish economy did little to stir itself. Narrow nationalism was the prevailing political orthodoxy. Yet the country had little cause for smugness: more than 400,000 Irish young people emigrated in the 1950s, mostly to Britain.
Only in the 1960s did Ireland open up economically. But it took three more decades before divorce was legalised and contraception made freely available. The election of Mary Robinson, a liberal human rights lawyer, as president, in 1990, suggested Ireland had come of age.
Remarkable economic growth saw emigration giving way to immigration for the first time. The Good Friday Agreement buried irredentist nationalism, as the republic's territorial claim on the North was dropped. Even the Catholic Church's power was reduced after a series of scandals.
Now the Church is reasserting itself. Catholicism may have lost many adherents, yet 64 per cent still attend weekly mass nationally, three times the European average. Huge crowds emerged to witness the 78-day tour of a casket containing the bones of the …