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The Irish advantage

IT'S NOON on game day in Pearse's Pub in Dublin, and the Guinness is already flowing. Besides the usual politics and rough camaraderie, today the patrons of Pearse's have something else to digest - a foursome of Slovak football fans looking for a cheap pint.

IT'S NOON on game day in Pearse's Pub in Dublin, and the Guinness is already flowing. Besides the usual politics and rough camaraderie, today the patrons of Pearse's have something else to digest - a foursome of Slovak football fans looking for a cheap pint.

Although Croke Park's 82,000 seats are sold out for the Ireland-Slovakia match, there's no hostility or even rivalry on display as the Slovaks squeeze around a free table. "Good luck to your guys, hope they win," says the bartender. "Ours are shite." Another man, who is missing his left hand, says he has bet on Slovakia to beat Ireland 3-1. "We've got a shite manager and a shite team," he says. "Youse deserves to win."

The afternoon advances, and the foreigners are absorbed into the pub's humid rituals. Pearse's bills itself as a "Republican" pub, and IRA paraphernalia are everywhere. A bald man in his 50s starts shouting about football, claiming his friends know "fook ahll about it" and batting away their restraining hands as if they were lazy flies. A wrinkled newcomer on crutches peers suspiciously around the door, and then makes his way labouriously towards the WC; someone kicks a chair in his way, and he directs a stream of curses at it, his eyes popping in fury. On the way out the ritual is repeated, to the amusement of the patrons.

Slovakia is often said to resemble Ireland, and it does. Their size, Catholicism, history of oppression, fondness for drink, and the pervasive sense that a reformed economy has outpaced a conservative society - all of these will seem familiar to people who have lived in both countries. But there is also a difference - the Irish seem to know what their current prosperity is based on, while the Slovaks are unsure.

This week, before Wednesday's football match, Economy Minister Ľubomír Jahnátek visited Ireland and admitted what his cabinet colleagues have always denied - that the Dzurinda government's reforms are responsible for Slovakia's current prosperity. "Slovakia recently set out on the path of deep economic reforms," he said. "The result is that within the EU it has one of the highest rates of economic growth."

He was right factually, of course, but not politically, given that his Smer party won power by concealing such inconvenient truths from the public. And so his own colleague, MP Miroslav Číž, was forced to call him a liar: "That kind of rhetoric may be appropriate at presentations to investors, but I am convinced he didn't really mean it."

What is this strange reluctance to give credit where it's due? If the economy had not taken off in 2006, one might understand the Fico government's claim that reforms were not all they were cracked up to be. But with growth nearing 10 percent, surprising everyone, surely it is now safe to admit the truth? No one, not even market analysts, foresaw the conjunction of forces (foreign investment, rising labour productivity, and economic reform) that combined to produce last year's record growth, so the socialists don't have to act as if they were caught napping - all they have to do is ensure that the benefits are divided equally.

In repeated surveys, Slovak citizens have said they would prefer to see reforms adjusted rather than cancelled. There is thus major political capital to be gained from admitting that reforms were economically effective, but socially unbearable. In refusing to do the former, the Fico government is clearly preparing the groundwork to allow it to cancel reforms in future. After all, voters will not defend reforms if they can be convinced they have nothing to do with prosperity.

Slovakia's 1-0 loss to Ireland showed that even though these two teams are well matched, the Irish still have a slight advantage: A government that is not trying to deceive its people.

By Tom Nicholson

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