‘Pessimism is just shorthand for defeatism’

On Friday night, former US President Bill Clinton addressed the annual dinner of the Worldwide Ireland Fund at Ballymaloe House in Cork. In the audience were Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney and 250 delegates from around the world. The following is an abbreviation of his 30-minute unscripted address

I FIRST want to say a word of appreciation to the Taoiseach for the leadership he has shown in this very difficult time.

First building a coalition government, then taking the hard decisions on the budget and the financial system, and I’m very grateful that I had a chance to plug Ireland at the economic conference in New York and at the conference we had here a few months ago.

And I am very grateful to the voters of the Republic for ratifying the course you have taken and supporting the efforts that are being made to save the eurozone.

When the eurozone was created I was president. I got one of the first euro coins, because the then chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, and the president of France, Jacques Chirac, appreciated the fact that I not only didn’t feel threatened by the rise of an economic and potentially political union that would be bigger than the United States, but that I actually aggressively supported it.

But we talked at the time about the problem of financial unity without fiscal unity and some political co-ordination. No one wants to give up their sovereignty, even voluntarily, but we do all the time if we have an international criminal court, an international convention on child labour, or any other kind of agreement.

And these last very tough couple of years have shown how difficult it is in bad times — though it is easier in good times — to have currency union without fiscal union or political co-ordination.

But when things go bad, the weaker states are always at greater risk, because they essentially were able to get loans at lower interest rates than would otherwise be available to them — as in Greece, with bad structural problems like an ineffective tax system. And if they had the problem that Ireland and the United States and the UK had, which is too much risk with too little capital supporting it, you pay a disproportionate price if you want part of a larger union. It makes you richer quicker, but the burdens are there.

I personally think the political leadership the Taoiseach’s unity (coalition) has shown, and the political maturity of the voters, sends a signal to the whole world about what kind of place this is and what kind of future it has.

And I am very grateful to those of you who are Irish here tonight and are Irish citizens for what you have done. I am also very grateful to all who have supported this amazing fundraising effort (the Global Ireland Fund) and the CGI (the international charity, the Clinton Global Initiative).

I spend a lifetime now — except in the immediate heat of elections — staying away from politics. I receive support in America from Republicans and Democrats. Most times I have no idea what political party they belong to. Because I believe the future belongs to people who co-operate and who make the most of their differences, because their goal is to reach a common objective, and to reach agreement — like the Irish.

That’s why I like your unity government, Mr Taoiseach. I bet you don’t agree with everything at cabinet meetings. I bet at private meetings you have some hellish arguments. But don’t you see that that’s okay? As long as your goal is to reach agreement.

I mean, can you believe that Martin McGuinness is going to meet the Queen! I am thrilled by this, as you might imagine. It sends a clear signal to the remaining sceptics in Northern Ireland and in the UK, that Sinn Féin and the vast majority of the IRA, have given up a strategy of conflict in favour of a long-term plan for co-operation.

And meeting with the Queen, supporting this is profoundly important. Because everybody knows that even though she is strictly not an independent political actor, having been on the throne for 60 years, she wouldn’t be doing this if she didn’t want to do it and she didn’t believe it was the right thing to do, and if she wasn’t sending a signal to the British about what they have to get over too. After all, the Royal family lost Lord Mountbatten in this long and painful conflict. This is a very, very good thing.

And so, usually when I come here now I just like to talk business, but I’m only going to say one thing political here this evening. Kieran (McLoughlin, CEO of the Woldwide Ireland Fund) has already told us about how much American companies have invested here, and I know you’ve had a record of new foreign investment in 2010, and last year 13,000 new jobs coming out of it.

I think now that Ireland has done all that can be done in terms of complying with the terms of the EU and done your part to save the eurozone, it’s important that all of us now try to do two things. Number one, try to aid the internal growth of Ireland as much as possible, and support politically the Taoiseach and his government as they try to resolve the remaining impediments to the still unresolved mortgage issue that, I believe, your legislation will go a long way to putting behind us.

There is no perfect solution. But I can tell you this: the quicker this thing is resolved, the quicker all the bank books are cleaned up from this, the sooner we will have a psychological impact in Ireland and in the United States, where finally we have simplified our processes.

Look back over 500 years — as far as I know there are records only going back 500 years — for what happens banks and countries when they suffer financial crises. The records show that in every case of financial crisis it takes between five and 10 years to restore full employment. In cases where a financial crisis has been precipitated by a property bubble, as in Japan in the 1990s, it always takes at least 10 years, and sometimes even longer, to get back to full employment.

The Taoiseach and his government’s job is not to walk on water, it’s to do everything possible that can be done to use the assets of Ireland to beat the clock. And our job is to make sure that a) we beat the clock and b) that we don’t let the Irish give up on themselves in the meantime. Which is why your (Ireland Fund) support for these targets to help people and give them something to look forward to is so important. To know that they are supported is so important above and beyond what the individual programmes do.

The last time I was here I said that pessimism is just a shorthand for defeatism. It’s an excuse not to make the effort in the first place. If you decide to fail you can just be pessimistic, and you can save yourself a lot of time.

But it’s a big mistake. It’s very important for all of us to help the Irish people believe that even if the era of the Celtic Tiger is over, something new is being born and it will be bigger and better if it is done right.

And the Government’s job is to target the private sector and organisations like the American Ireland Fund to beat the historical clock. And that’s what they’re trying to do.

Ireland has one of the best education systems in the world, one of the best information technology systems, a good business climate, stable export tax rate, an ability to make high-end products. And the most important thing is you’ve the youngest workforce in Europe. Which is why it would be a good thing if you could get as many of your young people as possible to hang around here. Ireland is the only country in the EU to have a younger workforce than the United States.

I tell my fellow Americans all the time who ask me if our best days are behind us, I tell them no it’s not. I tell them demography is the large part of destiny. And having lost it I can tell you that youth is important! And not just for the reasons all of you might think!

EVERY country has slightly different strengths and weaknesses. Every country in the doldrums today has a slightly different soundness, even within the EU. Spain had a real estate bubble that burst and they had a budget surplus before that. The government wasn’t profligate with its budget, it was lax with its oversight.

But in every successful society I know, certain rules apply, and to the extent which Ireland can accelerate the implementation of them in the mind of the Irish people, it will speed your recovery.

First of all, there is too much inequality in the world. Too many people feel left out and left behind. The only thing that works is shared prosperity, and shared responsibility. Nobody can shirk the burden when times are tough and nobody should be shut out of a chance to share prosperity when times are good. There has to be a sense of community that encompasses all this interesting diversity. We have to share the future.

Secondly, we have to adopt an economics of values. Your work must encourage risk but discourage recklessness, and you have to involve people who are strong enough to know the difference. You work to encourage stability without the country becoming static. If nobody ever took a chance, and nothing moved, then everything would shut down.

Yes, the new Ireland must remember the failures of the global capitalist system, but it must not forget the successes. Most importantly, the politics that works best in the world today is the politics of creative co-operation. The reasons our differences are important is that they can be useful in helping us find the right way forward, if our goal is to make an agreement.

Economics is a dismal science, politics is far more pedestrian than poetry, but economics, politics and poetry have one thing in common: there is no final destination. There will never be a poem so perfect that it captures every internal variant, every kaleidoscopic emotion, every brilliant idea.

There will never be a politics without risk of breakdown from obsession with the present and the past, at the expense of the future. It is always a work in progress. As Seamus Heaney wrote in his poem The Cure At Troy — the farther shore is reachable when hope and history rhyme.

It’s true. Reachable. Who’s going to take you there? You are. To get to the farther shore we have to row. And we have to row together.

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