Independent Ireland in Comparative Perspective

I gave the economics lecture at the recent national conference at NUIG commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising. I had three main messages. First, the economic history of post-independence Ireland was not particularly unusual. Very often, things that were happening in Ireland were happening elsewhere as well. Second, for a long time we were hampered by an excessive dependence on a poorly performing UK economy. And third, EC membership in 1973, and the Single Market programme of the late 1980s and early 1990s, were absolutely crucial for us. Irish independence and EU membership have complemented each other, rather than being in conflict: each was required to give full effect to the other. Irish independence would not have worked as well for us as it did without the EU; and the EU would not have worked as well for us as it did without political independence.

There is a podcast available here. Since only audio is available, here is a link to my slides. I’m working on a paper version of the talk and will post a link to this as soon as possible.

33 replies on “Independent Ireland in Comparative Perspective”

If one had to identify two factors that explain Irish economic performance in a comparative perspective it’s FDI-led export growth and the EU. Absent FDI and European integration, it’s hard to imagine how Ireland could pay its way in the world.

And, as your slides implicitly suggest, these are intimately connected. Ireland is a platform for large US MNCs to export into the wider European single market (and more recently in terms of the internet-tech sector, to access the EU’s multi-lingual workforce).

The political economy question is how did Ireland turn itself into a hub of US FDI aimed at export-led growth? This is where the role of business-state elites (via the IDA) comes in. Corporate taxes are clearly part of how political elites sell the Irish model.

But if one accepts that it is computer and information services (born on the Internet firms) that have driven Irelands FDI-led recovery (the cluster effect of Google in Dublin) then I’d go as far as to say that European integration matters more than taxation.

I’ve a forthcoming paper titled “Celtic Phoenix or Leprechaun Economics: The Political Economy of an FDI led growth Model in Europe”, which demonstrates that the Internet-FDI sectors in Dublin are reliant on the wider EU labour force, to such an extent that almost 40% (conservative estimate) of workers in the tech-Dublin sector are from the wider EU.

All of this begs an important political question: how electorally sustainable is the Irish FDI growth model, which is dependent on EU labour, given that most of the business-finance professionals who work in the sector don’t even have a vote?

@ Aidan Regan

According to the CSO 27% of ICT staff are non-national and a separate estimate has put the admin staff in the sector at about 50% — the latter is important in terms of economic impact — innovation and patenting are at a low level.

There are various rankings of European tech hubs and there has been a big jump in recent times in headline VC funding in Ireland but some of the big deals are in respect of Irish holding co’s of foreign firms or tax inversions. The biggest investment in the second quarter was €53.4m in Circle, a US fintech firm with an Irish parent.

Innocoll, a German drugs firm that was founded in 1985, moved its tax domicile to Ireland in 2016 and €37m was raised in a share placing. The company is among about 20 fake Irish firms among 26 “Irish companies” on the US Nasdaq stock market.

Caution is also required on staff numbers. Google says it doubled the staff numbers of the main Irish company to 6,000 in 2015 by adding 3,000 contract staff — like Intel, it appears to be adding outside services such as security, canteen and cleaning staff as well as some tech staff. It’s strange that none of these jobs merited a ministerial announcement.

In June this year Enda Kenny opened a Google data centre which employs 30 full-time positions.

Google in 2014 had a 70% foreign staff ratio in Dublin and in 2015 it had 2,763 direct staff. In 2014 the average salaries in Ireland were at €94,590, or £72,783 compared with a £160,000 average salary paid to the 2,300 staff in the UK — Google UK employs 700+ techies.

According to the CSO, ICT staff numbers grew by only 3,500 between end 2012 and Sept 2016 — the authorities including IDA Ireland are sensitive about the ratio of foreign staff.

The overall startup rate in the UK is double the Irish rate and that has been a trend through boom, bust and recovery. Tech jobs growth in Dublin is not the genesis of a jobs engine. </b.

Ireland’s location between the UK and the US was for many years a curse. But now it is a positive . Hungary had a nightmare 20th century, for example.
If you go back 500 years Ireland and England had similar populations.
England scaled up. Ireland didn’t.
England has scale issues now.

Life is funny.

I can’t access the slides (am on a train to London with slow wifi), but I agree with all the points made by Kevin O’Rourke in his opening post. Excellent historical analysis.

Its good to have an economic historian who actually bothers to check the facts. Its time Kevin was given a series on RTE. For too long, we’ve been subject to the ‘revisionist’ account of post-independent Ireland’s economic history, propagated ad nauseum in the Dublin 4 media and by Dublin 4 academia. In this ‘revisionist’ account, pre-1922 Ireland was a land of milk and honey. This was then ruined by the dastardly De Valera, aided and abetted by the Catholic Church, who ruled as dictator from 1922 until his death in the late 70s, and under whose rule there was only economic stagnation and mass emigration. Following his death there was a brief flowering of economic growth for a few years in the 1990s, but this too was destroyed by wicked FF who left the country wrecked for a generation through an ill-advised property boom.

All nonsense, of course. The reality is as follows:

(1) Up to 1922 Ireland experienced economic stagnation and population decline unmatched in any other part of Europe. Between 1841 and 1922 the population of (what is now) the Republic of Ireland fell by 60%. The border counties of (what is now) Northern Ireland suffered a similar fall. Tyrone and Fermanagh’s population both fell by over 60% in that period. During the same period, the population of every other country in Europe more than doubled. In 1841 the population of (what is now) Northern Ireland was greater than that of Scotland. By 1922 it was less than one-third that of Scotland. Furthermore, this all-Ireland depopulation was not just a one-off immediate-post-famine event. The population continued to fall sharply in every decade up to 1922. It was this economic and social devastation that led to the totally-justified and heroic armed rebellion against the oppressor state at Easter 1916, which was the turning-point in Ireland’s economic history, and which paved the way to independence for most (but not all) of the country in 1922.

(2) Between 1922 and 1958 independent Ireland’s economic performance was mediocre, although not the disaster the ‘revisionists’ claim. Compared with pre-1922 it was an improvement. There was no post-1922 upsurge in emigration, which the ‘revisionists’ invariably claim. The fall in population between 1922 and 1961 and the level of net emigration was much less than in the decades immediately prior to 1922. Indeed, under DeValera, between 1932 and 1948 the population actually rose slightly, something that hadn’t happened for a century. Growth was mediocre when compared with post-1958, but how could it have been otherwise? The period 1922-1958 saw (a) the partition of the island with all the industrial parts hived off (b) the Great Depression (c) the UK’s declaration of economic war on independent Ireland in the 1930s (d) World War 2. Even so, during this period and starting from nothing, many of the seeds of future economic growth were planted.

(3) Post-1958, the economic take-off. Since 1958 Ireland has had by far the highest economic growth in Europe. Since 1961 Ireland has had by far the highest population growth in Europe. During that period real annual growth in GDP/GNP has averaged over 4% (versus 2% in the UK and most other European countries). During that period there has been cumulative net immigration of around 200k. The population of R. Ireland is 60% higher in 2016 than in 1961. In contrast, the population of Scotland (which had the misfortune to remain in the UK) is just 4% higher in 2016 than in 1961.
Incidentally, these contrasting rates of population growth help explain their recent contrasting performances on the rugby and soccer fields, but I digress.

(4) In the period 1958-2016, there have been two short periods when the economy stagnated or declined: 1983-1986 and 2008-2011. In both cases the global and European economies stagnated or declined at the same time. In both cases the ‘revisionists’ solemnly pronounced Ireland’s economic malaise to be terminal. The economy was destroyed for a generation (they claimed). Other countries might resume growth, but Ireland wouldn’t and, of course, emigration would continue and accelerate and the population would decline. The only solution (they said) was to apologise for 1916 and beg to be allowed back into the UK. In both cases, the ‘revisionists’ and doom-pornograpists have been proved totally wrong.

(5) Ireland pays a price for the perception of its economic performance and outlook being dominated by politically-motivated ‘revisionists’ and their never-ending attempts to portray that performance in as negative a light as possible, In particular, in both the immediate post-recession periods, 1987-1992 and 2011-2015, infrastructural development and, in particular, new house-building fell below what was needed because it was wrongly assumed that mass emigration and population decline would be the order of the day, whereas in both cases the speedy return to high growth led to a resumption of net immigration and rapid and accelerating population growth (as is the case now).

(6) As for future economic growth. If I could forecast that, I wouldn’t be posting here, but making myself rich by betting in the markets. All one can do is look at the past. Both Ireland’s previous booms, 1958-1982 and 1986-2008, lasted well over 20 years. This one has been going on for about 5 years. There is no sign whatever of it ending. None of the classic signs of overheating or falling competitiveness have emerged. Inflation is low (and lower than in competitor countries). The balance-of-payments is in surplus, The budget deficit has all but gone (in contrast to the UK, where its still around 4% of GDP and falling only very slowly). FDI and tourists are pouring in. There is always a possibility of a global recession but, in the absence of that, the chances of a repeat of the 2008-2011 recession in Ireland are remote. The 2008-2011 recession in Ireland was caused primarily by the global recession, but accentuated greatly by the fall in new house-building from 90k per annum to 8k per annum. This knocked 10% of GDP. In 2016 new house-building is back up to 15k per annum. So, even if new house-building stopped completely, the effect would be small compared with 2008-2011. In reality, of course, since this level of new house-building is lagging far behind population growth and there is a housing shortage, its far more likely that it will rise in coming years. So, we can dismiss the possibility of another fall-in-new-house-buildind-led crash in Ireland the next few years (which doesn’t, of course, stop the ‘revisionists’ and doom-pornographers predicting one daily).

John the Optimist: “aided and abetted by the Catholic Church”

Have a look at Rory O’Connor’s blog (irishsalem) for examples of anticlerical hysteria in recent years.

Brexit is scary. Sterling down 20% and Ireland is the most exposed of the EU 27 as % exports. Denmark is #2 and they have abandoned the UK. RTE are blaming Brexit for missed targets. The UK has a constitutional crisis in the form of a policy with no Government mandated to execute and no clue what it wants. There is only downside .
The UK will end up with something like the Nissan deal half in half out with costs it cannot afford. The Government cannot deliver on leave expectations.
And the deficit is like the Gingerbread man. Catch it if you can.

Where is Mr McAdoo to reassure the markets?


UK old Etonian chumps are clueless; Prufrockian doesn’t even come near it … UK will pay heavily both to stay out and to keep a leg in. This will accelerate the fragmentation and reconstitution of These Islands.

McAdoo was spotted at the memorial gathering in Merrion Square for El Commandante, a giant of 20th century geopolitics, a few minutes ago … he is, imho from the live stream, looking a fair bit shook … possibly after his punt on the well managed UK economy. Hard times!


~-100 Billion … [the Guv’nor Emeritus]!

FF appears to have no use for your quirky pragmatic republican conservatism these days …. regressing to the worst of its populist power grabbing tendencies while leaving us without a capable decision-making administration …


1916 was probably more motivated by cultural, linguistic & romantic nationalism than economics; prior to 1916 even the ‘idea of a republic’ was internally contested; Connolly was the thought leader within the revolutionary group on economics … his form of economic thought, however, was well sidelined post 1922. ! … and to date. The ‘poor Others’ have yet to rise up ….

Any thoughts on the parallels between the 1930s and the US President-elect’s emotional expressivist strategy of getting the working class and lower middle class vote on side by appealing to their fears, prejudices and existential insecurity [as distinct from facts] following the neoliberal hollowing out of various industrial sectors ?

EU nationals here do not have the vote; neither do Irish citizens abroad!

@Rory Best

Nice one!


In solidarity on your great loss.

I think you’ll find that the only people feeling a sense of loss are trendy left-wing elitists like the absurd Michael D Higgins. Actual Cubans are out celebrating.

Never been to Miami. Have been to Havana. Great for a tourist from the wicked capitalist West as everything was so cheap. Awful for the poor unfortunates living there. Consumer goods non-existent. The maid in my hotel was overjoyed when I gave her my soap when I left as there was none in the shops to buy. And whereas we have Tesco, and Superquinn, and Aldi, and Lidl, the Cubans have food rationing. Touch wood, now that the tyrant is gone, the system will all be swept away in a few years.


There has been a lot of analysis of Brexit but this is the best imo

Devastating . A policy without a Government to execute it.
The Sasanaigh are Protestant and rational until every so often they go off the deep end .
The collapse of Thatcherism is going to run and run.

a la recherche du temps et de l’argent perdu….

1. tullmcadoo Says:
June 10th, 2014 at 4:17 pm
Every where I look I see activity indicators improving in sensibly run economies like the US or UK. It is only in the strange world that is the EZ that things are flatlining.
Of course you are free to believe that this is not the case and wait for the stock market to crack. It will do one day but from a level & to a level far above your bearish level.
Wail away!!!!

Yes – devastating analysis from the self-described left-handed ‘intelligent rational conservative’.

Reminds me of a response from Blind Biddy recently, after a few, to a question on what she thought of Brexit : “Wreck it; ain’t in our interests. Let’s help out the poor dears … hic!”

As the local admin have neither a policy nor the ability to implement one due to the party of the men and women of no-property placing their will to control all the levers of power before the well being of the Citizenry, … she may well have a point. Strong rumours that she has been seeking ‘soundings’ from ‘Our Philip’ and young Carney …tbc. A short invasion of Liverpool, spearheaded by the elite rangers of the amazonian branch of the ICA, to protect the interests of the scouser hibernians, has, according to a usually unreliable source, been mooted …. which would tie up every EU treaty for at least a score of years and give us all some time to think and settle the constitutional question of These Islands. And if The English want Independence then – we simply let them have it.

As Martin McGuinness, who is far closer through direct experience to the reality than most, put it on hearing the result of the referendum: “This is … H.U.G.E”.

The Irish Free State began with one-third of the industrial output on the island and that legacy is still reflected in data which show that Ireland at about 4,000 has the second-lowest of manufacturing firms in the EU28. Denmark has 15,000.

Manufacturing remains the main driver of business R&D and it’s a big consumer of services.

The Great Depression and World War II greatly distorted development but we shouldn’t forget that the FDI project with the record for direct employment to today at 7,000 in 1930, was Henry Ford’s tractor and car operation in Cork – a Diaspora descendent of a West Cork Protestant settler family had a strong affinity with his father’s homeland. Four decades later, John A. Mulcahy, a native of Waterford and a Pfizer board member (his company had been acquired by the drugs firm in the 1960s) was instrumental in the decision to open a plant in Cork.

Angus Maddison, the late British economic historian, estimated that in 1922 the per capita Irish Free State GDP was 56% of the UK and it was at 47% in 1957.

The progress has been remarkable since then:

Only 13 countries moved from middle income status in the late 1950s to developed country status in the period to 2008, and Ireland, Japan, Spain and Portugal, were among the number.

Nevertheless limited linkages between the FDI and indigenous international trading sectors coupled with low innovation have ensured that Ireland hasn’t broken free from poorer countries such as Spain and Portugal.

The OECD says household net adjusted disposable income is the amount of money that a household earns, or gains, each year after taxes and welfare transfers. Values are adjusted for price differences. This is the current ranking for developed countries and Ireland is at the 20th rank and Spain is at 22 after Israel:

US, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Japan, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Austria, Netherlands, Germany, UK, France, New Zealand, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Ireland, Israel, Spain and Portugal.

In Ireland, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is $22,969 a year, less than the OECD average of $29,016 a year. The top 20% of the population earn almost five times as much as the bottom 20%.

In Spain, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is USD 22 007 a year, less than the OECD average of USD 29 016 a year. There is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest – the top 20% of the population earn close to seven times as much as the bottom 20%.

In the UK the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is $26,687 a year. The top 20% of the population earn nearly six times as much as the bottom 20%.

In Italy, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is $25,004. The top 20% of the population earn close to six times as much as the bottom 20%.

In Denmark, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is $26,945 a year. The top 20% of the population nearly four times as much as the bottom 20%.

In Sweden, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is $28,859 a year, less than the OECD average of $29,016 a year. The top 20% of the population earn four times as much as the bottom 20%.

In the United States, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is $41,071 a year, more than the OECD average of $29 016 a year, and the highest figure in the OECD. The top 20% of the population earn about eight times as much as the bottom 20%.


Another one liner of negativity!

I wasn’t running down the economy, but in telegraphic format just to respond to one thing, as you play the public sector victim card, I guess it would be reasonable for a such a rich country as Ireland to have more equity like Sweden in occupational pension provision rather than have people like you in clover and 60% of the Irish private sector with no occupational and I’m not even referring to defined benefit (coverage) in the 405 but to all.

Do you ever have anything useful to say on this site Brian? This dominant tendency of yours to toss your toys out of your perambulator and bawl at serious interlocutors was, is, and continues to be tiresome. Never fear young man – help is available on the TCD Holodeck from Counsellor Troy should you wish to avail of it.

Why not start with the last line of the Tractatus …. did wonders for Wittgenstein after a feed of pints in Stoneybatter! …. and you’re no Wittgenstein Brian.

It’s fascinating to see the trade picture spelled out so clearly but Dude, Where’s my Macro? Superimpose dates of breaking peg with Sterling and milestones in public debt levels on the charts and the modern era takes on a different complexion.

Looking through the slides, it reminds me of an argument from Bill kissanes book “explaining irish democracy”, where , after laying out all the factors (demographic, institutional, land ownership etc) that favoured democratic stability in Ireland, he noted that maybe the question should be rather than why ireland remained democratic in the inter war years, why didn’t it transition to social democracy.
My guess would be a mixture of (1)failure to properly industrialise and so build up a large industrial working class (2) the political power of the Catholic church (3) the political and cultural consequences of being (either accurately or perceived as) an ex colony.
Anyone have any ideas ?

I’d be interested in considering how we’ve done compared with the regions of the UK outside the South East, in particular Wales and Scotland.

I’ve no data but my gut (or possibly that I’m pulling in the green jersey) feels we’ve done better.

Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland have barely changed their relative (to the UK as a whole) GDP levels in the past half-century. In the same period R. Ireland has gone from 50% to over 100% of UK GDP (or GNI).

In terms of population, in 1961 R. Ireland had 2.8m, Scotland 5.1m. In 2016 its 4.8m and 5.3m. In 1961 Scotland had almost 1m more people than R. Ireland plus N. Ireland combined. In 2016 its almost 1.5m less. R. Ireland on its own should surpass Scotland in population within a decade. As I said above, this partly explains why Ireland has done better than Scotland in both rugby and soccer in recent years.

Enjoyed listening to the presentation on-line. There is a comparison of the volatility of Irish GDP growth to that of the aggregate OECD (slide 45). Is this the average of the volatility of the individual OECD GDP growth rates or the volatility of the aggregate OECD GDP growth rate? If the latter, it is not a relevant comparison due to convexifying effect which makes the volatility of the average typically much lower than the average of the volatility.

Point well taken Greg. In response, I would point not to the relative levels of the Irish and OECD volatility measures, but to the declining OECD trend since the 1970s, and the slight upward trend in the Irish series during the same period.

On the increased Italian emigration rate in the 1890s: the typical country’s emigration upswing during the late 19th century was due to some combination of more affordable travel, previous migrants helping potential migrants, rising fertility rates, and rural to urban migration which made people more mobile. Eventually these effects would be swamped by wage convergence on destination countries. In the Italian case World War I brought the process to a premature end.

Looking at Kevin’s original post I was reminded of Tom Garvin’s excellent 2004 book “Preventing the Future – why was Ireland so poor for so long”. Garvin offers a lot by way of political explanation for Ireland’s poor economic performance, especially in the post-World-War II years.

I thought that JtO was for once rather too kind in his assessment of Irish economic performance post-1922. Looking at Garvin’s table of GDP growth in RoI and NI (p 149), the relatively poor performance of the former in the 1950s stands out.

The influence of the old revolutionary generation of politicians became a bit or an embarrassment almost from the cessation of WW II hostilities, starting with deValera’s condolences at the death of Hitler (reminds me of Fidel – some of us have a soft spot for dictators). It took Lemass in the early 60s to break decisively with the lack of real engagement with Europe and the wider world during the 40s and 50s.

While many of the factors analysed by Garvin are no longer all that relevant, two still stand out: localism and rent-seeking.

I said: “Between 1922 and 1958 independent Ireland’s economic performance was mediocre”.

I think this is accurate when applied to the period as a whole.

Obviously some years were better than others during this period.

As you say, it was particularly bad in the mid-to-late 50s (up to 1958 – the surge to much higher growth began in 1959).

I think the main reason those were post-independent Ireland’s worst years has a lot to do with post-war reconstruction in Europe (including the UK). As the economists on here will testify, one of the best ways to stimulate economic growth, especially in the construction industry, is for the Luftwaffe or RAF to bomb every city, road, bridge and railway to smithereens. This is what happened in Europe 1939-1945. Post 1939-1945, the surge in construction in war-ravaged Europe was phenomenal. Ireland didn’t partake in this construction boom. The blame for this obviously lies with De Valera who shortsightedly ensured that Dublin, Cork and Limerick didn’t go the way of London, Hamburg, Dresden, Coventry et al, and so deprived 1950s Ireland of the economic stimulus a construction boom would have provided.

Regarding N. Ireland, one of the reasons it did well in the 1950s was that this was a golden age for shipbuilding. Partly for the same reason given in the previous paragraph, there was a huge shortage of ships after World War 2, so many of them having been sunk during the conflict. Belfast shipyard employed 35,000 in the 1950s and 2-3 times that in spin-off industries. However, by the late 1950s the golden age was fizzling out. And ever since N. Ireland has been in severe decline relative to R. Ireland, both in terms of economic output and population. No sign at all of this decline ending.

@JtO: I don’t accept your rather ironic take on the lack of a post-Luftwaffe construction boom accounting for Ireland bad performance in the 50s. While the industrial policies of DeValera in 1932 might well be excused given the times that were in it, the inward-looking protectionist mindset did not help as the 1950s wore on. The budgetary and balance of payments crises of 1956-7 were evidence of a profound lack of dynamism and confidence, which was eventually overcome when industrial policy became decisively outward looking thanks in no small measure to Lemass.

Given the current backlash against outward-looking policies I can see huge dangers from the likes of Trump/Farage/le Pen, who will no doubt get support from home-grown reactionaries.

John S.: Check out Mary Daly for another interpretation ,,,, don’t have ref to her recent book to hand at the mo …

JohntheBritishEmpiricist is usually not too far off in terms of empirics …

“Given the current backlash against outward-looking policies I can see huge dangers from the likes of Trump/Farage/le Pen, who will no doubt get support from home-grown reactionaries.”

Perhaps if the outward-looking policies had more of an inward-looking benefit they might sell better to the home-growns.

@Joseph Ryan: you say: “Perhaps if the outward-looking policies had more of an inward-looking benefit they might sell better to the home-growns.”

Are you seriously trying to argue that the export-led growth resulting from outward looking policies (as opposed to Dev-era inward-looking protectionism) has not had conspicuous benefits for Ireland? Are you seriously trying to deny the benefits stemming from the Lemass and EU era?

@ Kevin

Very interesting and enjoyable podcast. Many thanks.


‘Both Ireland’s previous booms, 1958-1982 and 1986-2008, lasted well over 20 years. This one has been going on for about 5 years. There is no sign whatever of it ending. None of the classic signs of overheating or falling competitiveness have emerged’

Without wishing to disagree with many of your points, I think you are making the very common error of focusing exclusively on the real economy and disregarding the financial sector. Since Keynes we know that the sun does not go round the earth.

The real economy has its dynamics, and it is true that CPI inflation is low, even tending towards deflation across the developed world. Sovereign bonds, on the other hand are one of a large class of financial assets, whose value has been greatly distorted by the inflationary policies of central banks. The patient on the ventilator looks terribly well, until you try to take him off.

Even if our younger generations could pay the rising rents, and insurance bills, and get the ever-more-distant mortgages, the reality is that the underlying financial foundations are highly unstable. Given the degree of our integration into global flows, and our dearth of energy resources, Ireland cannot hope to avoid a common fate.

Sovereign bonds, bank balance sheets, and property process are all deeply vulnerable and the next crash will not be like the last. Nothing in your analysis addresses that.

Comments are closed.