Blueprint for a smarter society

Ireland performs brilliantly at a community level but functions poorly as a society. How can we apply our small-scale success to the whole country?


It is noon on a Friday, and the hall of St Joseph’s National School on the Muirhevnamor estate, outside Dundalk, is packed. There are 40 children, aged between eight and 11, either on stage or sitting quietly at the sides, waiting their turn.

All week they have been working hard at a literacy and numeracy camp. Now they’re showing off what they’ve learned, concentrating as their teachers hover and their parents watch, willing them to do well.

They do very well indeed. St Joseph’s is a disadvantaged school. Muirhevnamor, since it was built in the late 1970s, largely to house people who had fled the Troubles, has had to deal with the difficulties of Border life as well as economic disadvantage and the challenges of large-scale immigration.

But inside this hall you wouldn’t know much about how hard life is here. The kids are shining with health and energy. And they’re brilliant.

They stage a funny mock trial of the Big Bad Wolf. (He is acquitted on all charges.) They do scenes from Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet – big, difficult words that they’ve worked hard to master. They perform great orations: Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”. They are confident, disciplined, articulate.

If you dropped into that hall that afternoon, knowing nothing about Ireland, you would have to think that it is a great little country – and not in the ironic way we usually use that phrase.

You’d see public servants – the teachers, Gheni Ni Naraigh, Caroline Cummins and Rosalyn Brady; the principal, Marcella Ó Conluain; and the rest of the staff – who have been working evenings and weekends to organise the project.

You’d see parents who care about their kids. You’d see children who radiate dignity and possibility. You’d see Government spending that really makes a difference: the Exploring Pathways programme that funds these literacy camps in primary schools is a great example of effective public expenditure. You’d see a brilliant use of the arts and creativity – the things we boast about to the world – to enrich so-called ordinary lives.

Above all you’d see a community in action. If you look at the children on the stage you can’t avoid being struck by a crude but remarkable fact: an awful lot of them are of black African origin. And if you listen to the names called out as they get their end-of-camp certificates, you can guess that many of the white children are from families who migrated here from central or eastern Europe. Forty-four per cent of the children at St Joseph’s are from immigrant families.

Like many working-class communities, Muirhevnamor has had to cope with the challenge of being transformed in a few short years from monocultural sameness to microcosm of globalisation. It’s a tough process, and it generates tensions, resentments, and overt and covert racism.

But most of those communities have coped superbly, a fact that’s embodied in the school hall on this tropical afternoon. Even if you watch the children with a sceptical eye it’s impossible to see any awareness among them of racial or ethnic difference. They hold hands and whisper together, and when they speak so proudly and clearly on stage they all do so in the same glorious Dundalk drawl.

This is not a Benetton ad, but it is a new community creating itself day by day in tough circumstances and often with too little help.

In pretty much any community in Ireland you could probably get, on the right day, a similar rush of optimism. You could see public employees doing much more than their jobs, parents full of pride in their kids, children with imagination and discipline, good public programmes, villages, towns and housing estates that have met the challenges of extraordinary change with innate decency.

And then, if you were to pan out to the big picture, you might think that this hopeful close-up was just a trick of the eye.

You would see a State that has proved itself incapable of maintaining even its basic sovereignty, an economy that is unable to keep large parts of the workforce in employment, a political system that seems unwilling to reform itself even in the face of catastrophic failure, a legal system that struggles to enforce any kind of accountability for the most socially destructive crimes, a young generation voting with its feet by emigrating, stark economic inequality, a mountain of public and private debt, and a deep collective malaise.

You would find a culture that uses the phrase “a great little country” only with a bitter laugh or a roll of the eyes.

Deep disjunction
This sense of a deep disjunction between the way Ireland feels at a community level and the way it looks as a whole isn’t just anecdotal. A recent large-scale study of social cohesion in 34 OECD and EU countries by the Bertelsmann Foundation illuminates the problem. Overall Ireland ranked 12th – neither especially good nor bad. But within this conclusion there are stark discrepancies.

On some criteria – the strength of social networks, the sense of solidarity and helpfulness – Ireland is one of the best countries in the developed world. On others, such as the general perception of fairness in the society, it is mediocre. And on one it is very poor and getting worse.

It will surprise few Irish people that the one criterion by which Ireland ranks among the worst countries in the developed world is trust in institutions. What we see in this study is what we probably know instinctively: there’s a huge gap between the very strong sense of social connection in Ireland and the very weak sense of belonging to public institutional structures.

In our families and communities we have a very strong society; in our political lives as citizens we have a very weak one.

Within this contradiction there is both the good news and the bad news. Ireland is not doomed to failure. It has very significant social capital and a substantial reservoir of human decency. It has the youngest median age in the EU (35 compared with an EU average of 41).

As the kids at Saint Joseph’s grow up they will become part of the fastest-growing workforce in the EU – if they are not being bred for export. But this is also the bad news. With these advantages (along with a temperate climate, membership of the rich world and relative political stability) Ireland ought to be a great place to live.

The good things make it all the more shameful that it has instead lurched since the 1960s from runaway booms to depressing slumps without ever attaining a sense of sustainable prosperity.

Perhaps, therefore, we have been asking the wrong question. The question that has been asked, at least since the late 1950s, is how to get the economy right so that we can create a decent society.

The more urgent question may in fact put things the other way around: how do we unleash the potential of the society to create good institutions, make good decisions, articulate clear collective values and therefore generate sustained prosperity?

The real search may not be for the elusive smart economy. It may be for the smart society, if by a smart society we mean one that is able to make the most of what it has.

What complicates the question, and perhaps explains why we have failed to answer it, is that the good and bad things in Irish society often appear not as opposites but as the two sides of the same canvas. It is not a simple matter of scaling up the virtues we find at the level of the local.

As with most medicines, the things that are good for us in small doses can become toxic in large ones. Writ large, the intimacy that we value so highly is cronyism. The valuing of the personal is an impatience with ideas. The tolerance is indifference. The love of the local is also a clientelist political system in which the sense of a national polity almost disappears.

The adaptability that has allowed communities to absorb large-scale immigration also manifests itself as mass emigration when times are tough. The Irish success at social networking can lead to the idea that you can get around anything if you know the right people.

In such a culture the creation of a smart society is a delicate operation. How do you get rid of the bad habits without killing off the good ones of which they are the evil twins?

If it’s not as simple as just turning the local into the national; we perhaps need to think more in terms of creating virtuous circles, with a reinvigorated civic culture forcing public institutions to become better and more responsive, giving shape and direction to the organic energies of society.

Radical responses
If this sounds utopian, we should remember that contemporary Irish society is shaped in large measure by two quite radical responses to periods of despair about national politics.

As well as the State itself, much of our civic culture – the women’s movement, the GAA, the cultural revival, the Gaelic League, the agricultural co-ops, the labour movement – comes from the period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell and the split in the Irish Parliamentary Party led to disillusionment with mainstream politics.

And most of our belated global modernity comes from the late 1950s, when TK Whitaker and Seán Lemass engineered a bold shift in official thinking in response to the crushing despair of the mass emigration that was decimating the population.

It would be only a slight oversimplification to say that Irish society today is the product of those two periods of public despondency.

Again, this is both bad and good news. It is somewhat depressing to think that it takes almost absolute despair to rouse Irish culture to radical rethinking. But it is also heartening to know that the same culture, once roused, can change quite rapidly and find itself in places it could barely have imagined.

Even more heartening is to reflect that these previous changes have been achieved in far more difficult circumstances than those Ireland currently faces. In the first case new thinking had to be done under the weight of a mighty empire. In the second it had to be done under the weight of an all-powerful church. Institutions and ideologies may be more subtly oppressive today, but society has significant room to manoeuvre.

It is notable that of the two great periods of social reinvention, one, the civic movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was bottom-up, and one, the Whitaker strategy of 1958, was top-down. Arguably, Ireland now needs the impetus for change to come from both directions. But it looks very much as if civil society will have to move first.

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