The New Ireland Kicks Ass: The English Now Agonise about Their Identity, While the Irish, from Ryanair to the World Cup Team, Are Supremely Confident

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No one can afford to underestimate Ireland any longer, the World Cup commentators agreed: their 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia ensured that the Irish qualified for the second stage of the competition. You could say the same off the pitch: on 10 June, Ryanair proclaimed record pre-tax profits of [pounds sterling]111m for the year ending March. While other airline companies were busy blaming foot-and-mouth restrictions and 11 September for their wretched predicament, Michael O'Leary chief executive of Ryanair, simply cut his fares and watched his fortunes soar.

Indeed, for many it is O'Leary 41 and famous for his laid-back management style (and attire: invariably jeans and rugby shirt), who best embodies Ireland's newly found affluence and entrepreneurial spirit. Together with the media magnate Tony O'Reilly, whose newspaper empire includes the Irish and London Independent titles, O'Leary shows an Ireland that has transformed itself from impoverished victim to land of wealth and modernity -- the Celtic tiger.

And the tiger is roaring: in 1996, the Republic of Ireland's per capita gross domestic product outstripped the United Kingdom's; in 2000, the average annual GDP growth in Ireland was 11.5 per cent. Unemployment is at a historic low of 3.7 per cent. Such statistics make a joke out of all those old Irish jokes. Ireland today equals success. On this side of the Irish Sea, we have become so enamoured of the emerald isle that, according to an ICM Research poll of March 2001, one in four Britons claims to have Irish roots. The actual number, an academic at the University of Nottingham pointed out, is one in ten.

One of the greatest beneficiaries of this new-found national well-being is Bertie Ahern, who became prime minister five years ago and was re-elected last month with a resounding popular vote. Three ongoing inquiries, the Flood, Moriarty and DIRT tribunals, have exposed how government and big business conspired to orchestrate enormous tax fraud. Yet, despite this leitmotif of official corruption, Ahern and his Fianna Fail party continue to do well at the polls. As Tony Blair's own triumph showed last year, voters can happily live with sleaze so long as the economy remains in good shape. Like Blair, Ahern emerged unscathed because he successfully distanced himself from his mischievous underlings. The "Teflon Taoiseach" also enjoys great personal popularity: Bertie (it's always just "Bertie") is seen as a man of the people, a simple, self-effacing soul who enjoys a pint and watching a game of soccer. The Phoenix, the Irish equivalent of Private Eye, runs a cod-diary of Bertie, portraying him as a kind of simple, good-hearted Northside taxi driver. That he has a mistress merely compounds his Homer Simpson-esque appeal. The one time I met him, the only thing he wanted to discuss was Manchester United. Bernie is no dimwit, though: Charles Haughey described him as "most cunning of them all".

Although Fianna Fail's tax-slashing policies ensured its triumph, both Sinn Fein and the Greens fared well on a platform advocating heavier taxation and more public funding for housing, transport and the environment. These parties addressed the concerns of working-class urban communities for which the Celtic tiger is a distinctly elusive beast.

Sinn Fein also tapped into a growing Eurosceptic sentiment that made itself evident with the rejection of the Nice Treaty 12 months ago. Sinn Fein campaigned more vigorously than others to secure that result. Much discontentment with the treaty arises from the perception that it jeopardises Ireland's cherished neutral status, by involving Irish troops in the European Union s rapid reaction force.

Sinn Fein also addressed another matter that dominates much political discourse. With Ireland becoming a net importer of people, racism has become a big issue. Fifteen years ago, the only black faces one would see in Ireland were a few students at Trinity College. …