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Lessons from Galway's "Terrible, Terrible" Day






Mega Fix


TWA Flight 800






Note: The following was written in 1993


In Ireland, business affairs often meander like the roads. A case in point: the Irish government's sluggish reaction to the potential closing of Digital's 1100 employee plant in Galway, an otherwise cheerful town of about 50,000 people in the West of Ireland.

"Every stone in the road knew since October," said a Galwegian friend of the impending shutdown, but somehow the newly-formed government seemed not to. In fact, it was just over a week ago that the government ministers acknowledged the ticking of this employment time bomb and scurried into action. When they did, their comings and goings made headline news for a week across Ireland and scored a 7+ on the economic Richter scale in Galway. But neither the last minute phone calls from the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, nor the in-person imprecations of his Minister of Employment, Ruairi Quinn, could dissuade Digital's tough Texan CEO, Robert Palmer, from his hard-nosed decision: Digital's Scottish plant was to be spared the blow and the Irish plant would take it on the chin: 800 jobs lost. "Terrible, terrible crushing news," said Gay Byrne, Ireland's Johnny Carson, when he announced the closing live on his usually amiable chat show.

There is no other subject of debate in Galway this week. Yet except for the occasional pub socialist, almost no one blames the Americans. Here in the West one senses a nearly seamless cultural relationship between Ireland and America. The relationship is particularly strong with "the 27th county," greater Boston, the headquarters of Digital and the home of everyone's American uncle. Indeed, more than any people west of Kuwait, the Irish shy away from knee-jerk anti-Americanism. "There is absolutely nothing in it for us to deplore the behavior of the multi-nationals," stated an unusually definitive editorial of the Digital threat in the Irish Independent. A bit more poetic was the Archbishop of Tuam. "The multinationals giveth," said the prelate with just a hint of irony, "and the multinationals taketh away."

The government, for its part, has attempted to shift blame to Britian and John Major, easy targets still, 70 years after the last Black and Tan pulled out of Dublin. Through formal channels, Ireland's EC Ambassador Padraic MacKernan delivered a letter to Competition Commissioner Karl van Miert urging him to examine Britian's alleged "preferential inducements" to Digital to move its operation to Ayr in Scotland. On a rougher pitch, Irish authorities tossed about rumors of "dirty tricks."

But the Galway public isn't buying government alibis. They've known for months that the "catastrophe" was coming, and they can't believe the government did nothing to forestall it. Even the Galway Mayor is saying publicly that government ministers should have gone to Boston in December when there was still hope. A bold move for a local politico.

Just months after giving Labor its greatest vote in memory, many citizens nationwide have begun to rethink the government's socialist drift. On the talk shows this week, callers have publicly challenged shibboleths that are rarely ever voiced, let alone questioned: a "massive black economy" spurred on by a VAT as high as 21%; the six percent differential between Ireland and Britian on business "social contributions"; the correlation between a generous dole and 16% unemployment; the tax burden on workers; the dogged interference of Irish unions; the relatively higher cost of Irish wages; in sum, the "unattractiveness of employing anyone" as one Irish business man put it.

The Irish aren't inclined to dwell even on a catastrophe. In their cultural memory "hard times" doesn't mean the downsizing of a computer plant. It means dying by the roadside of hunger. Big difference. Even today, there is little whining here in Galway. People adapt. The will to work endures. An enviably well-educated workforce remains in place. The big question for the government is whether it will help its people work or--as history might predict--let its people go.

About the author: Jack Cashill. I have a Ph.D. from Purdue and work independently as a writer, producer, and international marketing consultant. I have spent about three of the last six months in Galway (1993).



Posted: 1993
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