Twenty years a-commenting: some things don’t change

Opinion: Belfast Agreement, joining the euro and the financial crisis among biggest changes

Vincent Browne (left), then-editor of Election ‘82 , with  Nora Owen and  Bertie Ahern. Photograph: The Irish Times

Vincent Browne (left), then-editor of Election ‘82 , with Nora Owen and Bertie Ahern. Photograph: The Irish Times

Wed, Apr 16, 2014, 00:01

In the 20 years I have been writing this column for The Irish Times , there have been changes but much has remained depressingly the same. The major changes have been the Belfast Agreement, joining the euro and the financial crisis. There has remained a virulent sectarianism in Northern Ireland, the prevalence of petty political corruption, the persistence of a corrupt society with its insidious inequalities, and a democratic deficit that still seems to bother nobody.

The Belfast Agreement was a remarkable outcome, for it involved the capitulation of nationalism and republicanism to the tenets of unionism – an acceptance of the unionist credo that only with the consent of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland could the constitutional status of Northern Ireland be changed. So skilled was the spin on this capitulation that not alone did nationalists buy it but so too did unionists, which has accounted in part for the persistence of virulent sectarianism.

Joining the euro, the single currency, was a momentous change, for it involved the surrender of a large chunk of what remained of our sovereignty. It opened the floodgates to cheap money, the property bubble and the financial crash. But, most crucially, it required the incorporation into our political culture and public policy of the ideology of neoliberalism – the supremacy of markets, light touch or no touch regulation, privatisation and all the attendant inequalities that such policies ordain.

Not that there were not pressures domestically to go with that infection. Mary Harney (more Boston that Berlin) was perhaps the foremost apostle of neoliberalism but she had ardent disciples in Bertie Ahern, Charlie McCreevy, Richard Bruton and some silent ones in the Labour Party.

Twenty years ago the Beef Tribunal report was published, which fudged the obvious conclusions from the mountain of facts it had uncovered – that the operation of the State-funded export credit insurance scheme had been operated in a manner that was, well, curious. Other reports, notably the Glackin report on the sale to Telecom Éireann of the Johnston, Mooney and O’Brien site in Ballsbridge (where the Herbert Park hotel is nowadays), had conveyed a prevalence of questionable practices. Since then we have been inundated with further tribunal revelations of widescale corruption. But the main corruption is of society itself.

The recurrent response to demands for wealth distribution had been we had to create wealth before we could distribute wealth. Over a decade, from around 1997 to 2007, we created massive wealth, sufficient to relieve poverty, to regenerate disadvantaged estates, to fund a universal health system, to cherish the children of the nation equally, to diminish radically the disparities in wealth, income, power, influence and welfare. Some disadvantaged areas were regenerated and some other minor gestures to fairness were made but, essentially, we did little or nothing. And then when the crash happened, we inflicted the brunt of the adjustments on those least able to bear them and celebrated the achievement.

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