Fortune

IN BREXIT, COULD IRELAND WEAR THE CROWN?

As Britain stumbles through a Brexit mess, corporations are turning to Ireland—cool, confident, coherent—as the crown jewel of their European operations. Is the grass really greener in Dublin? Richard Morgan travels across the Irish Sea to discover a nation coming to terms with a new international identity and its unexpected role as economic exploiter of goings-on in London. (Rather than the other way around.)

IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A GOOD YEAR FOR TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR. In January, for the first time since 2007, the Irish government—which was so savaged by the global financial crisis of 2008 that it was under the International Monetary Fund’s thumb until 2013—announced a budget surplus. Drastic survival tactics had paid off, including cutting public-sector salaries by as much as 20% and freezing all public-sector hiring and promotions. It had been uncomfortable. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger bubble—with its bankruptcies, layoffs, and foreclosures—was anything but a distant memory. But Ireland was back in the black. Imagine the indignity, then, for its top minister to step up to a lectern and tell the press four grim words: “Nobody will go hungry.” A panic over food shortages had gripped the country ahead of Varadkar’s budget announcement, sparked by the specter of a so-called “hard Brexit” by its top trade partner, the United Kingdom. (About half of Ireland’s food and live-animal imports come from the U.K.) The Irish government published a contingency action plan warning of “severe macroeconomic, trade, and sectoral impacts.” A flurry of tense news headlines followed.

Such is the paradox of Ireland in 2019. It has the fastest-growing economy in the European Union for the fourth-straight year with a gross domestic product that shot up from $226 billion in 2012 to $334 billion in 2017, a total that surpasses the GDP of Denmark and is roughly double the per capita count of France or Spain. Yet an uneasiness has permeated since 2015. That was the year the Irish GDP ballooned by 26%, inflated in part by a reclassification

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