It is supposed to be party time in Italy, but apart from the fact the country shares its 150 years of unification with St Patrick’s Day, that’s where the similarities seem to end.
That is because there appears little thirst among Italians to toast the nation’s special day with a pint of Guinness let alone pop open the champagne.
Leaving aside Italy’s long-standing economic and geographical divisions, the country remains dogged by political scandal and infighting.
Much of it is focused on Italy’s colourful prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. He finds himself facing trials over corruption and allegations of having paid for sex with an under-age prostitute - a crime in Italy.
The defiant 74-year-old billionaire, who has vowed to appear in court in person in the next few weeks to answer the charges, has ridiculed the accusations against him, claiming the cases are politically motivated.
In an interview with left leaning daily La Repubblica this week, Berlusconi said his alleged sexual appetite would be too much even for a man half his age, declaring: ‘‘I’m 75 years old. Even if I am a rascal, 33 girls in two months seems to me to be too many, even for a 30-year-old. It’s too many for anyone.’‘
What does all this have to do with celebrating Italy’s 150th anniversary? Well, the recent large-scale protests would appear to suggest many in Italy are fed up with Il Cavalieri’s supposed shenanigans – more popularly branded as ‘bunga bunga’ parties. Many accuse him of tarnishing Italy’s image abroad and making the country a global laughing stock.
But it is not just the prime minister who is dividing opinion. Even the government’s decision to declare March 17 a public holiday caused a bust up. Critics, notably the right-wing Northern League party, slammed the event for being a complete waste of money. It argued that the national day off would harm Italy’s already fragile economy.
Berlusconi’s own political survival and the Northern League’s own policy agenda also seem increasingly intertwined. The south-bashing party continues to prop up the Italian premier in parliament and without its support he would surely be finished. Likewise, despite now saying it is not seeking outright independence, the NL is still piling the pressure on Berlusconi to give the north greater autonomy from the south of the country.
Since its birth in 1861 – following the overthrow of the Kingdom of Naples by a nationalist movement led by the revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi – Italy has struggled to live with itself. Strong regional identities remain, particularly the marked divide between the richer north and poorer south. However, one has the impression that the on-going sleaze scandals surrounding the premier are fuelling Italy’s divisions rather than healing them. Critics say they are distractions from more serious problems: high unemployment, a lack of graduate opportunities and fears of mass immigration.
Reading the above one would think it is all doom and gloom. So a century and a half on, is there anything that unites this seemingly divided country?
Well yes! Its heritage, art and culture, architecture, food and, of course, Ferrari and football are enough to unite this most beautiful of divided nations. Perhaps, it is worth celebrating after all.
By Paul Hackett