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In 1958, a young Irish civil servant named Kenneth Whitaker surprised his political masters in Dublin with a 250-page document on which he and some of his colleagues in the department of finance had been covertly working for months. Its title, Economic Development, may have been deceptively bland, but its message was blindingly clear. The country was an economic mess and unless radical action was taken its very existence as a viable state was in doubt.

As the writer Fintan O’Toole put it in his memoir, 1950s Ireland was basically “a vast cattle ranch with a few cities and a lot of small provincial towns attached”. This ranch had two main exports: live cattle and beef products, most of them destined for the British market, and young people, emigrating in their thousands every year because there were no livelihoods, or any prospect of fulfilling lives, at home.

In July 1958, the Irish government accepted Whitaker’s analysis and instructed him to work out a programme for economic expansion, which he duly did. A key phrase in the resulting document was that “a readiness to welcome foreign capital is a necessary complement to secure foreign participation in industrial development”. In one of those occasional miracles that are the hinges of history, this radical idea escaped the notice of the country’s reactionaries and became government policy. And a government body called the Industrial Development Authority (IDA), staffed with zealous technocrats, set out to make it a reality.

And boy, did they succeed. Ireland may still export cattle and dairy products, but foreign multinationals now account for 10.2% of employment and 66% of the country’s exports. In the early days, the incomers were continental firms such as the crane-builder Liebherr, big pharma outfits such as Pfizer and computer manufacturers such as Apple and the now defunct DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation), but in due course the stampede to establish European HQs in Dublin included many of the Silicon Valley crowd. A quick search reveals 19 big companies, among them Google, Facebook, Airbnb, PayPal, Twitter, Microsoft, eBay, LinkedIn, Squarespace, IBM, Seagate, Adobe, Dell, Oracle… The list goes on and on.

Why are these outfits so keen to be on the banks of the Liffey? Although they often burble about Ireland’s young, educated, English-speaking workforce, there are three main reasons. Ireland is in the EU, its governmental agencies have bent over backwards to make life easy for them and the tax regime is, er, favourable. So favourable, in fact, that when in 2016 the European Commission ruled that Apple should pay the Irish government €13bn in underpaid tax because “Ireland had granted illegal tax benefits to Apple”, not only did Apple appeal against the ruling, but so did the government of Ireland! (The appeal was successful.)

Up to now, the realisation of Whitaker’s vision for his country’s development has looked like a win-win outcome. It explains why the republic’s government currently has money coming out of its ears, to the point where the finance minister, Paschal Donohoe, has had to warn that buoyant corporate tax receipts are creating an artificially positive picture of the public finances. Corporation tax generated €16.6bn for the 10 months to the end of October, which is 69% up on the same period last year. And Donohoe is hearing predictions that overall tax revenues for the year might come to €80bn. No other European government is in such good fiscal shape.

Trebles all round then? Not quite. This torrent of tax revenues is happening because big corporations – especially the tech companies – prospered mightily during the pandemic. But there’s a downturn coming for everyone (except perhaps energy companies). The bigger concern, though, is what this latest manifestation of the luck of the Irish reveals about the dependence of the state on the prosperity of those incomers that were given the traditional hundred thousand welcomes by the wizards of the IDA. For it turns out, says O’Toole, that “10% of all tax revenue in Ireland is now coming from just 10 American corporations”, identified by one of his Irish Times colleagues as probably being Apple, Microsoft, Google, Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Facebook, Intel, Medtronic and Coca-Cola. Five of these are tech giants.

Just to underscore that point, as Donohoe was getting around to counting his billions, news came that several of the aforementioned giants were downsizing. Twitter’s office in Dublin was abruptly closed last week, for example, and the IDA was briefing the government on the “risk to Irish tech sector jobs following Twitter move”. And there are indications that Meta is about to lay off around 350 people.

And the moral? If you’re lucky enough to receive golden eggs, don’t put them all in the same basket.

What I’ve been reading

Elon effect
Twitter Consequences; Not Just for Little People is a terrific blog post by Maria Farrell on the human consequences of Elon Musk’s irresponsibility.

A world of difference
Globalism Failed to Deliver the Economy We Need. A terrific essay by Rana Foroohar in the New York Times on the downsides of a neoliberal obsession.

Bellwether bird?
Twitter Is Our Future is a long and perceptive blog post about the meaning of the Twitter takeover for the future of the media by veteran US journalist James Fallows.