Fintan O’Toole’s Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger is a coruscating account of how the Irish boom turned into biter bust. The sharpness of the prose as O’Toole recounts a tale of property boom, tax evasion and dodgy banking practices both entertains and obscures.
Along the way we have a blizzard of names and details about tax dodging, back handers and absent regulation. We also have the bitter irony of the failed exposure of politicians. When politicians were exposed yet their political careers continued unimpeded, the message to other politicians was – look, it does you no harm, so join in too.
Like the best of political writers, O’Toole has phrases such as ‘snorkelling in the cesspit’ which elevate his anger above mere ranting. Yet the prose also obscures, because for much of the book his story is simply that just about everyone was daft, short-sighted, greedy, corrupt or all four. It is as if the only thing wrong with Ireland was the Irish and the only solution would have been to make O’Toole himself dictator for life, for he alone has the wisdom to see all the failings.
The epilogue rescues the book in that respect, pointing out how many of the failings were the result of a cultural problem: “there was a price to be paid for skipping modernity. It was a little too good to be true that Ireland could go from the pre-modern to the post-modern without ever fully creating the structures and habits of a modern democracy. Large chunks of classic democracy were missing – the shift from religious authority to public and civic morality; the idea that the state should operate objectively and impersonally rather than as a private network of mutual obligations; the notion of the law as a universal and neutral check on everyone’s behaviour, whatever their status; the belief in an independent parliament that exists to legislate rather than to service clients and to make government accountable rather than to keep it in place at all costs”.
In other words, O’Toole’s conclusions are much more about how a poor country can best develop than about the rights or wrongs of a free-market approach in other developed countries. But whether or not you are looking for lessons for other countries, this is a book that entertains and makes the reader angry in equal measure.