Getting a Handle on the Crisis at MacGill
Deaglán de Bréadún
It would be wrong to finish up a week at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal without contributing to this blog. One has not yet mastered the art of the brief, almost Twitter-like “soundbite” which other bloggers use from time to time. Our posts on this Blog are more like mini-essays and hopefully therefore more profound.
As I write I am looking at a cover from Time magazine from July 12th (!) 1963. Seán Lemass, who was taoiseach at the time, is portrayed, along with a leprechaun. I remember as a boy reading that issue when it first came out (you can read it now by clicking here and you can even buy the cover itself.) Its theme was that Lemass was re-inventing his country, bringing Ireland out of the Celtic mists and into a new era of prosperity and modernisation. One of the illustrations inside showed the Wexford footballer Séamus Keevans, whom I knew well – he was a Garda in the same station as my father in Co Wexford and a great stalwart of the Gaelic Athletic Association but is now sadly no longer with us.
That magazine story has been mentioned twice in discussions during the Summer School deliberations this week. It is a reminder of the era when we took our first, hesitant steps away from protectionism and into the world economy. In a way, it was like a youngster having his/her first drink. Now, decades later, we resemble seasoned topers who have indulged, not wisely but too well.
However there was no option but to go into the big bad world. The alternative was to become North Korea with accordeon music. Capitalism is subject to cycles of boom and bust and essentially one has to take the rough with the smooth unless and until we can move to a higher stage of social and economic development. But it is clear that there was a serious deficiency on the monitoring and regulation side during the boom and, as a result, the bust is far worse here that it needs to be.
Someone pleaded from the floor in Glenties last night for the media to “give up the scaremongering”. What a laugh! I had a mental picture of a bearded chappie with a sandwich-board stating, “The End Is Nigh”. He is walking the deck of the Titanic as it approaches the iceberg and a member of the crew is berating him, “When are you going to stop the scaremongering?”
Indeed, the media’s real sin is that they did not carry enough critical coverage of the boom. I remember being on a programme on Newstalk Radio at the height of the madness where I told a story of a Guard and a Nurse I knew about who had been rejected for a mortgage and were blowing the deposit on a trip to Australia. I remarked that there was “something wrong with a society where a Guard and a Nurse – protectors of our security and health – could not afford a house”.
But other than that, I would not claim to have displayed the gift of prophecy. In any case, the main task of a reporter is traditionally to write about what has happened, not to predict the future, although that is a welcome bonus – when you get it right.
The MacGill School and its Director, Joe Mulholland, were right on the button in choosing the economy as its theme and inviting senior politicians and other prominent figures to take part in the debate (to read the starstudded programme, click here). There is a hunger among the public for a convincing analysis of what went wrong and an insight into what happens next.
Are things really as bad as the “experts” tell us? All the people who failed to predict the collapse are now forecasting that the current recession will be one of the worst ever. They were wrong before, why should they be right now? I’m only asking.
The high point of the week was without doubt the debate between Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore and Fine Gael’s new star, George Lee. The former RTE journalist is a big draw and the hall was packed to the gills – there wasn’t even standing-room. And of course he performed very well, as usual. But there was a general consensus afterwards that Lenihan gave as good as he got. He was seen to be quite shaky at times when he first took over the Finance portfolio, but on Tuesday night Lenihan was very much in command of his brief. One did not have to agree with an iota of Government policy to acknowledge his performance in this particular debate. His background is in the law and this was a classic example of the Senior Counsel who had familiarised himself totally with the facts of the case he had been chosen to pursue. Gilmore also gave a good account of himself, as always.
There is something delightfully eccentric about a society where, after the Parliament closes down, the centre of debate moves to a small town in a farflung part of the country. Glenties is a charming place which exudes civic pride – it’s no surprise to be told that it has featured among the winners of the Tidy Towns Competition. If I were a drinker, I would never have been able to cope with the workload but, even with a pint of Rock Shandy in hand, it is fun to mingle in the bar of the Highland Hotel after the lectures with local residents and national politicians, all meeting on an equal footing.
The programme was formidable and relentless. Virtually every session had a least one national figure taking part. Covering it was quite a challenge, especially since the main session of the day began at 8.30pm, which is decidedly awkward for a daily newspaper journalist on deadline.
The quality of many of the contributions was superb: this was a seminar worthy of Harvard, Yale or Oxbridge. I now feel I have a greater understanding of the crisis and its causes and maybe even the way it will develop. We are in for a rough time, no doubt about that, but the fact that so many people – I include those who were following the Summer School through the media – are so engaged in the discussion at least gives grounds for hope.
For news coverage of the School, click here.