I write this with trepidation that whatever I might say, even with regard to his life as an economist, will inevitably fall short of what is needed to do him justice. Above all, I fear what he might have said of it. And Paul was much more than an economist, he was a sportsman, equestrian sports were number one for him, polymath, father, husband, and friend. He was a friend, not just in the everyday sense that most of us understand the meaning of the word. To Paul, friendship was a passion.
In that spirit, I offer the following as a contribution to the canon on Paul Tansey and his contribution to Irish economics.
Paul was first and foremost an economist. Secondarily he was a journalist. Journalism to him was a means, certainly not an end. It was the means through which he communicated his training in economics, and, my, how much he believed that Ireland needed what he had learned.
That was not surprising, because Paul had the privilege, in 1972, the year that he graduated as an economist, to be a member of that still small band of academically trained economists in Ireland. By that time, the Irish universities between them had only graduated a few hundred economists in their entire history.
He had the privilege and responsibility of being a pioneer. He returned to the Irish Times in 2007, on the urging of his former fellow correspondent Geraldine Kennedy, after 20 years. I recall, when he first told me of his return, at the wedding reception of our mutual friend, Neil Holman, ‘do you want to hear my news’.
He was the first economics journalist in Ireland. Others, of course, had written on economics, for example Garret Fitzgerald, who, through his columns in the Irish Times, first set out the idea of regular economic commentary in the national newspapers. But Paul was the first full time journalist, employed on a full time basis to report and interpret the day-to-day events for the nation,
to put economics as a discipline on the daily agenda of the still-young Irish nation.
He created the position, which, since then has been emulated in the other national media. He had already pioneered journalism, as a means to an end in his student days in TCD, as a writer, and as the effective founder of one of the college papers, Liaison. I recall his next step, when over coffee in the Golden Spoon restaurant in Suffolk Street in Dublin, he pushed an advertisement in the Irish Times for the job of sub editor across the table. ‘I’ve decided to apply for it. What do you think ?’ I, as a fellow member of his class, wondered what he had in mind - it was not the usual route for a graduate economist in 1972. But he clearly knew what he had in mind. He got the job, he was assigned to the Business and Finance pages as a sub editor, and quickly, began to do what he really wanted to do - write, on business, and increasingly, as soon as he could, about economics.
By the mid 1970s, he had persuaded his editors, starting with Andrew Whittaker, that the position of economics correspondent should be created, and thus began a genre in Irish journalism that was repeated throughout the media, RTE, and the other national newspapers.
Following Paul in the Irish Times as economics correspondents were: the present author, Cliff Taylor, Jane Suiter, Mark Coleman, and, in the national media, Brendan Keenan, Patrick Kinsella, Jim Canning, Paddy Geary, Feargus O’Raghallaigh, and George Lee.
His first love was history. At TCD, he came in contact with Louden Ryan’s economics faculty, and through Ryan (the eminence grise behind the First and Second Programmes for Economic Expansion) himself, and others such as Martin O’Donoghue, Sean Barrett, Antoin Murphy, quickly acquired the idea that here was a corpus of science that could be applied to the real problems of Ireland.
Paul was at his most enthusiastic, ironically, in a recession. He was, after all, a practitioner of the ‘dismal science’.
One of the sadnesses of his passing was that he would have been enthused with the challenge of what is about to happen; he felt that it is, after all, in a recession that economists are needed most.
He certainly was enthusiastic in the early 1980s, when he was one of the founding fathers in the ‘Doheny and Nesbitt’ school of economics, a school that included many members and politicians, such as Michael McDowell, Colm McCarthy, Sean Barrett, to name but a few, and Paul used the leverage to deliver the right message to the Government, which, in those days, involved imparting the principle of fiscal probity.
Paul Tansey, and his colleagues were key, I believe, in turning Ireland around in the early 1980s. Last month the Daily Telegraph, reporting on the confirmation that the Celtic Tiger had finally succumbed to recession, still felt it necessary to say that despite the Irish economy’s problems of over dependence on construction and private sector credit (both of which Paul abhorred) it had turned itself around from being ‘a high tax backwater in the 1980s’, to a free market economy ‘in rude financial health’.
The following night the first foreign nation mentioned in the course of the McCain/Obama US Presidential debate, was Ireland, whose ‘11 per cent’ (sic) corporation tax rate was cited as the exemplar for the mighty United States to emulate. What an achievement in just 20 years for the country that was the ‘high tax backwater of the 1980s’.
The Celtic Tiger has been put temporarily to rest. Paul played a central role as one of its architects. One of the sadnesses of his passing is that he would have relished the difficult and uphill challenge facing the Irish economics profession in ensuring its second coming.
Paul was a market economist, but that did not mean he was right wing. He was amused by a joke once told by his old economics professor in TCD Martin O’Donoghue that if a young man is not a socialist he lacked heart, but, if in his 60s he was still a socialist, there was ‘something wrong with his head’.
Paul always had feelings for the underprivileged as an economist, and certainly he had nothing wrong with his head; and by the time he approached his 60th birthday he showed no signs of losing
Ken O’Brien is the founder and publisher of Finance. He was economics correspondent of the Irish Times from 1977, when he was recruited to the position by Douglas Gageby and Richard Keatinge to replace Paul on his departure to undertake a masters degree at the London School of Economics.