Can we remake Ireland's future?

Sat, Jan 3, 2009, 00:00

The year ended with the certainty that the global crisis is not a short-term glitch, and that Ireland is suffering more than most. Will 2009 bring the shift in Irish political culture needed to bring us back from the brink? asks FINTAN O'TOOLE

LATE LAST YEAR, when the rock band Tindersticks played in Dublin, they finished their set with The Not Knowing, a haunting ballad of love and denial. The words seemed especially apt and particularly poignant: "The not knowing is easy/ The suspecting, that's okay/ Just don't tell me for certain/ That our love has gone away."

Replace "love" with "boom" and the sad song would be a three-hankie job. This time last year, the not knowing still came easy and even the strong suspicion that the good times were definitively over could be drowned in denial, excess or the mellow lullabies of "soft landings". Now we know for certain, and if there is to be comfort in 2009, we have to find it in that certainty.

Those who are utterly addicted to denial might be tempted to clutch at the last straw - the knowledge that last year's relatively optimistic predictions proved to be very wide of the mark. If the yea-sayers got it so wrong, maybe the nay-sayers are equally wide of the mark, and all will be well. The truth, however, is that orthodox opinion, which has a stake in the status quo, is much more likely to err on the side of optimism than of pessimism. Not only, moreover, is the crisis a global one, but it is worse in Ireland than in most other countries. Because of the scale of our dependency on a property bubble, we are hit harder and because of the appalling mess that's been made of the public finances we have fewer options for stimulating the economy. So if we're looking for reasons to be cheerful, they're not likely to be found in any short-term prospect of a recovery.

Nor should we look for them in the wishful thinking that holds that we can return to the simpler, more virtuous society we had before the boom. For one thing, it didn't exist - Ireland in the 1980s was neither simple nor especially virtuous. It maintained much of its surface virtue by denial on a massive scale and by exporting those large sections of the population for whom it had no place.

In any case, there's something unseemly about telling those who've just lost their jobs that they're experiencing a welcome return to basics after the excesses of the boom years. Many people didn't have much excess to lose, and even for those who did, the cure is much worse than the disease. If you're finding it hard to get up in the morning, most people would prefer the cause to be exhaustion from too much partying rather than the prospect of another miserable day hopelessly looking for a job. So we might do well to spare ourselves the pieties (invariably uttered by those who've been cushioned from the worst effects of the depression) about the simple life. The consolations of poverty are invariably cold comfort.

If there is hope for Ireland, and for the world, in 2009, it lies rather in the fact that we've stopped kidding ourselves. At home, we've woken up to the reality that real wealth isn't measured by opening the auction results pages in The Irish Timesproperty supplement to see what new record price a house on your road has fetched. We've had to look around and see what we're left with after what may well be the most spectacular Irish boom of all time. It doesn't include a good health service, an end to child poverty, a world-class infrastructure or even an acceptable system of primary education. Nor does it include the much-touted "innovation society" or "knowledge economy" that is our only way out of the current mess.

In an odd way, there is some consolation here. What we've learned from the experience of the boom years is that there isn't in fact a direct relationship between the availability of huge amounts of cash on the one hand and a good society on the other. We've learned that without drive and vision, money in itself does not produce the social goods. And that suggests the possibility that with less money but more vision we might actually be able to make progress, even in the bad times.

This is not just wishful thinking. For most of the last decade, Irish public life has been a non-stop show in which there's something for everyone in the audience. The allocation of public resources has been done on a both/and basis rather than an either/or choice. We had two expensive health systems, a public one and a private not-for-profit one, neither of which worked very well. The answer? Create a third, for-profit one, subsidised by the taxpayer.

We had terrible planning with a huge expansion of Greater Dublin that created a desperate problem of how people were to get to and from work. The answer? Build motorways and pay for trains and buses and trams.

We had an increasingly diverse society in which a Catholic-dominated education system was increasingly problematic. The answer? Let's pay for a multitude of denominational and multi-denominational systems side by side.

Because we became so good at spending money in a way that caused greater inefficiencies and failed to solve problems, we actually have the opportunity in some areas to spend less and get better outcomes. The Government's tax breaks for childcare cost over €400 million but deliver a much worse service than the universal pre-school system proposed by the National Economic and Social Forum that would cost a third of that. Failure to invest in relatively cheap primary medical care drives people into very expensive hospital care. Failure to invest in early childhood education and services incurs huge costs in education, health and crime. A universal health insurance system would both end inequalities and be cheaper than the current public and private costs of health care. A rationally organised primary school system would use resources more efficiently and deliver a basic service as a right for all citizens.

The issue in all of this is choice. Left to its own devices in the good times, our political system has failed to deliver a coherent set of choices to the public. Perhaps as a result, the notion of having to choose between different ideological approaches leaves us dizzy with contradictions. The Irish Timespoll late last year found public attitudes on some very basic questions to be as tangled as Bob Marley's hair. Over half of us want to see spending cuts, but 62 per cent thought the Budget was too tough. Those most in favour of spending cuts rather than tax increases (the better-off) are themselves most prepared to pay more tax to protect public services. Just 32 per cent back tax increases but 43 per cent are willing to pay more tax. None of this computes, except as proof that we're having a very hard time getting our collective heads around the idea that we have to pick an option, and that the days of having both lower taxes and increased public spending are definitively over.

The degree to which we get used to the idea of making real choices will shape the big political set-pieces of 2009 - the local and European elections in May and the rerun of the Lisbon referendum. The elections may well bring to a head the contradiction that is already apparent in our political culture: we have never, in most of our lifetimes, depended more on our government and we have seldom trusted it less. The huge swing back towards the State in almost all developed societies means that governments need very strong mandates for action. In Ireland at least, there is every possibility that the Government's mandate will actually be weakened.

If Brian Cowen, who became Taoiseach without an election and has already lost the first Lisbon vote, goes on to lose heavily in May, he will be a badly weakened figure. What we don't know is whether Fine Gael, which has moved steadily to the right and now openly declares its closeness to the Tory party in Britain, and Labour, which has moved to the left, can provide any kind of coherent alternative.

The shift elsewhere in the developed world is back towards various forms of neo-Keynesian social democracy but there is no sign that the Irish public is ready to vote in large numbers for that kind of option. Knowing precisely what a government drubbing in the elections actually means will thus be very difficult.

IT MAY BE THAT THE LISBON DEBATE, which last year created a huge fragmentation of opinion, with people voting No for directly opposite reasons, provides a much sharper choice this time around. Last year's vote was decided on the Carlsberg principle - it's not just A or B, there's always C, the C option being a putative renegotiation of the treaty. This time, it's obvious that there is no C - for all their soft talk, our European neighbours have made it completely clear that renegotiation is not going to happen.

In effect, the choice second time around will be stark - accept Lisbon with a few mollifying assurances or move into some kind of semi-detached status on the fringes of the EU. The unknown factor here is whether the realism engendered by the depression will trump the resentment that derives from the same source. Either way, the choice will be genuinely historic - another No vote would leave us in unmapped territory, with a Government in freefall amidst a profound economic crisis and one of the big factors in the creation of Irish modernity suddenly altered.

This kind of paralysis is by no means inevitable, however. When Barack Obama takes office as US president this month, it will be a mark, not just of change in what is still the biggest economy in the world, but of the renewed possibilities of public engagement with politics. Obama is undoubtedly an exceptional man and probably the most skilled politician that any of us have seen in our lifetimes, but his election was about more than himself. A little-known black politician from Chicago didn't ascend to power simply because he's smart. Obama was created by a mass movement of people who were in despair about the state of their country and who turned that despair, not into apathy, but into sustained engagement.

Obama's election was no more imaginable two years ago than a serious shift in Irish political culture is imaginable in 2009. But the big shifts in history happen, not because we want them to, but because they have to. Both Ireland and the world are at a point now where things simply have to change.

THE COLLAPSE OF THE BANKING system is not just a short-term glitch. It is a symptom of the much larger set of epochal shifts that are now unfolding - the end of the American hyper-power and the rise of a new multi-polar world; peak oil and the beginning of the end of the energy economy that was created in the 19th century; global warming and the need for a fundamental and rapid shift in the nature of our economies; the collapse of free-market ideology and the realisation that the pursuit of short-term growth for its own sake creates more problems than it solves.

Precisely because they're so big, these forces demand much more than a pragmatic, crisis-management approach. Though our political leaders seem to have trouble grasping the concept, the challenge is not just about "getting back on track". The track we were on was the one that led us precisely to where we are now. We need to be thinking, not about 2009, but about 2019. We need to be putting sustainability at the heart of everything we do - not just environmental sustainability, but social and economic sustainability as well. That's an immense challenge, but it's also an exciting opportunity.

The truth of the current situation is that doing the right thing is no longer a matter of virtue. It's a matter of survival. The appeal to be good didn't get us very far in the boom times. In the bad times, the need to be rational might force us to be better.