For richer, for poorer, we should create a society for all
We need a sober optimism, not a self-deluding and cult-like adherence to compulsory success stories
If we’re going to think about life after the troika, we also have to think about life before the troika. As the camera pans out from the last three years, it frames instead the last 30 years. When we consider Ireland since 1983, the picture looks stark. For all but perhaps seven of those years, the State has been in deep trouble.
The 1980s and early 1990s were characterised by mass unemployment, fiscal crisis, mass emigration and deep anguish over both sexual morality and the Troubles. The period between 2001 and 2008 was a mad bubble. Between 2008 and the present, we have been living with the consequences of the crash. This leaves a remarkably short period – the years between 1994 and 2001 – when Ireland was moving reasonably steadily towards a sustainable prosperity and a more inclusive society.
This wide-angle shot is not pretty, but it need not be depressing. Looked at in this way, the troika years are not a horrific accident. Ireland was not suddenly wrenched out of a blissful normality and plunged into a dark abyss. The loss of sovereignty may have been dramatic, but it was the culmination of deep, long-term problems. The crash stripped away layers of collective self-delusion and revealed what the boom years had temporarily obscured: that the State is built on shaky foundations.
- Taoiseach credits people with bailout success
- The State we are and the State we can become
- A defining moment in Irish political history
- For richer, for poorer, we should create a society for all
- Bailout exit a ‘fine opportunity’ for Labour, says youth wing
- Voters back Government on bailout exit strategy
- ‘Most of the people who were involved in the background of the troika were very smart . . . but they weren’t very good at politics’
- Noonan signals possible income tax cut in Budget
One reason why this does not need to be an entirely depressing insight is that there are some signs that official thinking is beginning to acknowledge the truth. In its most recent report, the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) acknowledges that “Overall, the crisis has revealed that past progress was less comprehensive and less sustainable than believed: we did not adequately address non-participation and disadvantage in the boom; our relationship to the international system has been revealed as more one of vulnerability and dependence than we thought; and, our overall system of collective decision-making and public governance has been shown to be extremely weak.”
Tone of honesty
That’s not a cheery conclusion, but it does set a tone of honesty that gives much better grounds for optimism than all the cheerleading rhetoric can do.
Perhaps the place to start in thinking about what kind of society Ireland could be is to acknowledge that we do not have a positive collective vision but we do have two usefully chastening experiences. We may not agree on what’s good for us but we know two things that are bad for us. We have direct and recent experience of two contrasting kinds of failure. There was the failure of the long 1980s – a sluggish, static kind of underdevelopment. And there was the failure of the great boom – a manic, hyped-up kind of overdevelopment. From these two bad examples, it does not take much collective genius to figure out, at least in broad terms, what we do and do not need.