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Gary Younge
Another Ireland

To the eye of even the occasional visitor the changes that have taken place in the Republic of Ireland over the past decade have been remarkable. From the oppressive bustle of Dublin's trendy Temple Bar to the British navvies looking for casual labour, it is almost unrecognisable compared to 10 years ago.

Even one of its oldest traditions has succumbed. St Patrick's Day is now St Patrick's Festival - the latest casualty in the global branding of Irishness. Not so much a national holiday as an international identity parade from Sydney, home to the world's largest fluorescent shamrock, to Chicago, where they dye the river green for the day.

But while the results of the political, demographic and, most of all, economic changes are clear, what is less obvious is the fundamental shift in what it means to be Irish that has accompanied it. Not so long ago it was a nation scarred by the Troubles in the North and wary of the British to the east - Europe's poor relation where the young were expected to leave to find work. Today the successful not only stay but are returning to find that, along with the euro, their compatriots have adopted a very European antagonism to non-white economic migrants. Once a net beneficiary of the EU, Ireland is set to become a net contributor; where there was once net emigration there is now net immigration. David Trimble's recent description of a "pathetic, sectarian, mono-ethnic, mono-cultural state" would have been crass and hypocritical at the best of times; but it is less true today than ever.

The peace process is playing a subtle role in reshaping this identity. Making partners of Dublin and London, it has neutralised a longstanding adversary and allowed space for self-interrogation. Irishness was defined, in part, by its opposition to Britishness. "Britain had the particularly important function in Irish identity of not being 'us'," says Irish Times columnist and theatre critic Fintan O'Toole. "Now we have to decide who we are." One in seven of the applicants from the most recent campaign to join the revamped Royal Ulster Constabulary in the North came from the republic.

Race is also an important factor. "The Irish are the niggers of Europe," Jimmy Rabbitte Jr tells his fledgling band in Roddy Doyle's The Commitments. "An' Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland. An' the northside Dubliners are the niggers o' Dublin." Now all Irish cities have sizeable black populations of their own and even the northsiders look down on them.

A report to be released later this week by a government advisory body will show that black pregnant women are the new targets of abuse in the street and hospitals because people think they are only having babies in Ireland so they can gain citizenship. Doyle has just written a play called Guess Who's Coming for the Dinner, about an Irish woman who takes a Nigerian boyfriend home to a frosty reception.

You will see them in Dublin, moving around town, rarely in groups of more than three - isolated, segregated and with more that divides them in terms of nationality, language and ethnicity than unites them in their experience in Ireland. A critical mass of individuals that has yet to become a community that might weave itself into the social fabric.

These changes both reflect and inform no less radical but far more nuanced changes in political culture. Irish politics, like Irish identity, is becoming far less predictable. Last June voters defied all the major parties and unexpectedly rejected the EU's Nice Treaty in a referendum. Two weeks ago the government suffered another setback when its attempt to further tighten the country's already strict abortion laws failed in another referendum.

Given the slender margin of the most recent ballot (0.5%) and the low turnout (43%) the result could be regarded as a victory for liberalism in one crucial regard - it dealt a severe blow to the established forces of conservatism. Both the ruling party, Fianna Fail, and the Catholic church - arguably the two most powerful machines in the country - had pushed hard for a Yes vote. This was the first time the unwieldy duopoly of Rome and the republic that has dominated Irish politics had put a moral issue before the electorate and lost.

Their defeat follows a decade of decline in public confidence in them. Persistent tales of child sexual abuse have undermined the authority of the church. Meanwhile revelations of ostentatious sleaze personified by the shameless antics of the former taoiseach, Charles Haughey, have drained Fianna Fail, which has ruled the country either alone or in coalition for 58 of the last 70 years, of its integrity. For these two pillars of Irish politics to be so discredited is analogous to a protracted and less dramatic version of tangentopoli - the Italian judiciary's assault on deeply embedded political corruption in the early 90s. But there is one central difference. Whereas in Italy the political class underwent a thorough overhaul, in Ireland it is in disgrace but still in tact.

Polls for the upcoming general election in May show Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fail way ahead. Nonetheless, there are tentative signs that the forces which are remoulding national identity are going to work on the political culture. Calls are growing to invest the spoils of the economic boom in social capital, particularly health and housing. The young, returning emigrants and city-dwellers are less traditional in their allegiances. The principal divide between Ireland's two main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, is not ideological but historical - engendered by the split over the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty. The peace process is forcing political affiliations to take account of the 80 years since partition.

For now, though, the only likely change come polling day will be a slightly larger presence for smaller parties like Sinn Fein. The south central Dublin constituency is one of their winnable seats. Only 10 minutes by bus from the vibrant down town, they do not hear the roar of the Celtic Tiger. Unemployment is high, housing is scarce and heroin addiction among the young is the highest in Europe. In the country that has traded on its knowledge-based economy, 17-year-old Graham Mooney is the first person not just in his family but in the history of his entire block of flats to pass his leaving certificate (the equivalent of A-levels). The biggest challenge, says the Sinn Fein candidate, will be getting the vote out. "The very people we consider the base of our support," says Sinn Fein candidate, Aengus O'Snodaigh, "are the ones least likely to turn up."

The immediate political future, says O'Toole, will bring further "disillusionment and fragmentation". Volatility in an ideological vacuum; identity racing ahead while organised politics struggles to catch up. Hardly promising. But as European as croissants and cappuccino. And as familiar to Trimble as a bowler hat and sash.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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