The Irish can teach us some lessons

The Irish can teach us some lessons

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This year I returned to my home in St. Louis after having served for nearly 2 1/2 fascinating years as U.S. ambassador to Ireland. The experience — both the being away and the coming back — has jostled my mental wheels into spin cycle.  

Ireland is in many ways like the St. Louis area.  Its population of 4.6 million people is only a little more than half again as big as ours.  Its culture is marked by deep roots and a strong family orientation.  Its people are friendly. 

For much of its history, as most of us know, Ireland nonetheless struggled.  Driven by political, cultural, and economic forces, famine included, millions of its citizens were forced to become refugees.  My grandparents were among them, immigrating to America in 1910.  A family called Kennedy was another. 

Over time, Ireland became better known for the people who left than those who stayed. One is reminded of what this newspaper’s Bill McClellan likes to say about the Gateway Arch: Only St. Louis would build a monument to the people who left.

Yet in the 1990s, Ireland began to change.  It became the fastest-growing economy in Europe. Astonishingly, it also became the youngest — a third of the population is less than 25 years of age.    

Returning home, I see a community that features elements of its own revival: the burgeoning Cortex Innovation Community in the city and the growing concentration of life sciences companies in Creve Coeur; the revival of south St. Louis neighborhoods by Bosnian, Vietnamese and Hispanic immigrants; the “River Ring” network of parks and trails that the Great Rivers Greenway District is threading through the region; the reinvestment in Forest Park and the CityArchRiver project; the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency facility coming to the north side.

Many of these steps forward, I know, have required collaboration among different parts of the community. Great Rivers Greenway, for example, is the result of a sales tax approved jointly by the voters in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis and St. Charles counties.  

Yet I can’t help but feel that this community could do better still if it would only drop more of the parochialism and factionalism that for so long also blocked the Irish, but which they have now most decisively abandoned.

I could cite many examples, but the two that rise to the top today are the squabbles over sales tax distributions within St. Louis County and the recent defeat of the proposal for a soccer stadium in the city. 

The Rube Goldberg scheme used to divvy up the sales tax pie among St. Louis County and its municipalities fosters completely unnecessary inequities among these municipalities. Florissant Mayor Thomas Schneider was right to have criticized in these pages a system that encourages intramural friction but does nothing to help us compete against the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, a Major League Soccer franchise in St. Louis would likely have been at the very least a boost to the area’s spirits, to its quality of life.  Soccer is beloved here and it’s increasingly popular among the young people our community is trying to attract.  Trading the Rams for soccer might have gone down in history like Brock for Broglio.

Yet the proposal to fund the stadium was deeply flawed.

Somehow it was decided here that a soccer franchise that would be patronized primarily by residents of St. Louis County and to some extent St. Charles County — whose combined population is nearly 1.4 million — should be subsidized by a use tax only on the business community of the city of St. Louis — population 311,000.  Somehow it was decided that the voters in these far-more-affluent counties would not even be asked whether they wanted their communities to contribute to the purchase of this regional asset.

Of course they might have voted no, just as, in the end, the voters in the city did. And given the whole sorry history of the Rams and the Dome and the questions around public subsidies for wealthy sports tycoons, they would have had at least two solid reasons. 

But according to the Post-Dispatch, backers of the project also feared that county voters “would ask how the county benefits financially if it’s located in the city.”

What a sad reflection that comment offers on the psychology of our region. And what a screamingly unjust proposal to which it led — for the sliver of the public that lives in the city to literally buy entertainment for the far larger and more affluent balance of the community beyond its boundaries.

In Ireland, they don’t operate that way anymore. They have one police department not just for Dublin and its suburbs — they have one department for the whole country. When they invite foreign investment, they don’t tolerate quarreling and competition between Dublin and Galway, let alone the suburbs of these communities — they invite investment in Ireland. 

I know the Irish renaissance is a complicated story, but I’m convinced the country’s coherent, united approach to its growth and governance has played an important part in its spectacular turnaround. As St. Louis pursues its own renewal, with agenda items that include MetroLink expansion, policing, and many others, I think we might want to recognize that Ireland represents a lot more than leprechauns and a tortured history.  It can teach us how to grow.     

Kevin F. O’Malley is a St. Louis lawyer who served from 2014 to 2017 as U.S. ambassador to Ireland.

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