Discovery of oil off the southwest cost of Ireland has prompted talk of it being great news for the Irish economy. It could certainly do with some. But the announcement that known oil reserves are commercially recoverable is unlikely to offer any great boon to the economy as a whole. There may be a bonanza, but it will be only for a small coterie of Irish banking, property and oil tycoons who continue to benefit from the state's largesse while most of the population struggles in the fifth consecutive year of economic slump.
There is a long history of pillage of Ireland's natural resources, beginning with England's deforestation of the country for its navy. More recently, domestic politicians have continued that trend. The disgraced former energy minister Ray Burke was in office when Fianna Fáil granted extraordinarily favourable oil exploration licences to oil companies. The former head of Enterprise Energy Ireland, Brian O'Cathain, is reported to have said that some oil developers, such as Shell, will pay no royalties at all for the lucrative Corrib field, worth up to €10bn, and elected representatives have called on the current Fine Gael/Labour party coalition government to reverse the deal, so far without success.
The troika of EU, IMF and European Central Bank have insisted that Irish taxpayers bail out bondholders in failed Irish banks even while the domestic economy continues to contract. The domestic troika, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour, continue to insist there is no alternative.
Providence Resources, which made the recent announcement about the oil reserves, also benefits from exceptionally low tax rates and the facility to write any exploration costs against tax. It is like being reimbursed for buying lottery tickets until one or more is a winner. Except that finding oil in Ireland's offshore has long been a certainty, and the elevated price of oil now makes exploration highly profitable.
The chief executive of Providence, Tony O'Reilly Jr, explicitly hopes to emulate the British experience. This seems unlikely for two reasons. The tax rates for North Sea oil at the time of commercial exploitation ranged from 50% to 75%, and the major oil companies in Britain, such as BP, also owned "downstream" businesses of refining and selling oil commercially, which protected them against fluctuations in the oil price. In contrast, without the necessary investment in refineries, the virtually untaxed developers in Irish waters may not even bring the oil onshore to Ireland.
But the North Sea oil boom under Thatcher is hardly a model of sustainable growth. Then, government oil revenues allowed an earlier version of austerity (then labelled "monetarism") to be followed by tax cuts and the profligacy of the "Lawson boom". Now that Britain is once more an oil importer, latter-day Thatcherites who imagine the Tory triumphs of the 1980s can be repeated are living in a fantasy. There is no positive legacy for Britain of the North Sea oil boom.
This week's events show another model is possible. Hugo Chávez's victory marks him as one of the few leaders anywhere to be re-elected since the global economic crisis began. Venezuela has had very large oil revenues for decades, but only since his government took control of the industry, away from foreign multinationals and local oligarchs, has the wealth it creates been distributed among the population. Unlike Ireland, and all the countries implementing "austerity", poverty in Venezuela is declining, healthcare and education improving and the economy is growing. If Ireland is to benefit from an oil boom it needs to look to Chávez, not to Thatcher.