Direland or Inspireland: which Ireland do you live in?
Opinion: Constitutional Convention puts social change on the agenda
The people responded to the President’s speech with ‘Trailblaze, Banter, Leviathan, Mindfield, Noble Calls, summer schools, theatre festivals, writers and ideas festivals, spoken word events, and a never-ending stream of books on builders, bankers, boom, bust and bluster’. Above, Mindfield at Electric Picnic Festival, Co Laois. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Glen Hansard used to say his band The Frames specialised in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Ireland grabs stagnancy from the jaws of flux.
Let’s take stock: five and a half years after everything turned sour overnight, plus ça change . The lack of social and political change in Ireland is most peculiar. This acute period of flux we went through since economic armageddon, this chasm that was meant to create alternatives, this ‘first responders’ slot in the aftermath of disaster is fading. What have we changed? Every time opportunities for change are presented, we shirk.
The only faint beacon of political progress was the Constitutional Convention, a mechanism some cruelly refer to as “the garden shed”. You can talk down the convention all you want, but it has put real social change on the agenda: marriage equality, lowering the voting age, lowering the age of presidential candidates, addressing gender inequality in politics.
These might sound like faffy endeavours, but they have the potential to deliver long-term change of far more significance than shovelling taxpayers’ cash into a black hole of banking debt.
Power to the People?
All this time, the responsibility has been placed on “the People”. The People colluded in the economic downfall of the country through reckless personal financial decisions. The People were positioned to bear the responsibility of the crisis. The People needed to bail out Ireland. The People needed to be risen. The People need to make Ireland a better place. All of this ignores one crucial co-ordinator of change: leadership.
The 2011 election was the greatest opportunity for change since the foundation of the State. Here was the potential to reimagine. And the political upheaval that occurred was superficially huge. But it was a cosmetic change. Lipstick on a pig.
When I was speaking to a Bertie-years political adviser recently, he remarked that the 2011 election created the third largest turnover of parliamentarians in any western democracy since the Second World War, but the new leadership merely continued to implement the policies invented by a government the electorate had just trashed. It’s a political tribute act: the faces change, but the songs remain the same.
The rhetoric about what kind of Ireland we want to build, where we’re going and what lessons we should learn from the past to carve out a desirable future has stalled at just that: rhetoric. The leadership required to put into action such grand plans is non-existent as Government lurches from crisis to crisis and Labour voters look on dismayed. There are no big ideas. There is not even a pretence of having any big ideas.
Upon the election of Michael D Higgins, the new President delivered a speech so eloquent and aspirational it brought tears to eyes. What was more poignant though, was that we were willing to elect someone with ideas to an office that can’t act on them. The People did try to do something with that kind of rhetoric, and the proliferation of talking shops and independently started conversations is huge: Trailblaze, Banter, Leviathan, Mindfield, Noble Calls, summer schools, theatre festivals, writers and ideas festivals, spoken word events, and a neverending stream of books on builders, bankers, boom, bust and bluster.
People paid money to listen to economists and columnists speak in halls. Desperate for solutions, our national conversation – with politicians detached from such chatter by the practicalities of government – became group therapy for borderline emigrants. And now we sit in the waiting room after half a decade lying on the couch, the crumpled prescription of austerity-Prozac and Troika-Xanax still in our fists. How’s that for a stress test?
The oppressive misery that smothered us like an impenetrable fog has lifted somewhat, but people are still in negative equity. A huge number of us are still unemployed. People are still emigrating en masse. Nothing changes.
The giddiness with which the Dublin property micro-bubble is joyously being pumped by estate agents and their collaborators was topped off by the Taoiseach doing his ‘Better Call Saul’ routine in the United States, commenting that if you built 30,000 three-bedroom detached houses in Dublin you’d sell them in a week. Never mind that only 29,000 houses were sold in the whole of Ireland last year: the bubble is getting bubblier.
Can you believe the only new political “collective” that has sprung out of this supposed period of monumental change is the Reform Alliance? They are the Breakfast Club of Irish politics, united merely by the coincidence of being in detention. Even they are too embarrassed to call themselves a party. God help us.
Meanwhile, the Government is pursuing a strange form of esotericism in talking about our future. One feels there’s a dual narrative forming at the moment, a Sliding Doors dichotomy of Ireland as a monumental disaster and a resounding success. An Ireland that inspires and one that is dire. Which one do you live in?