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?
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.
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.