Mere recovery cannot save us - what we need is transformation

Sat, Nov 20, 2010, 00:00

This crisis is in large part one of values – and only radical change in those can rescue Ireland

THE SHAME and fear swirling around our little country this last week has been painful to witness. We have tumbled from the dizzy heights of apparent economic success to being an embarrassing liability.

It is not made easier by the Schadenfreudein some of the international media coverage. Even the Guardianblog on the Irish crisis could not resist using several pictures of Ajai Chopra of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), all of which featured different beggars. (Almost immediately, an image was doctored and appeared on Twitpic, giving one of the beggars Brian Cowen’s face.) Enthralled with its own wit, the BBC’s Newsnightalso used a Celtic typeface for quotes from British chancellor George Osborne in 2006 about Ireland’s economic miracle.

Whatever about the impulse to indulge in a little paddy-bashing, our relentlessly polite visitors from the EU and IMF have made it very clear that sovereignty is not for the little people. It has exposed the huge flaws of the European Union. For those of us who have been saying for years that the EU suffers fatally from the fact that there is no common identity, it has been no joy to see that view vindicated.

We entered a monetary union predicated on the understanding that everyone would act responsibly. From the beginning, as the German magazine Der Spiegelpointed out last September, many countries did everything they could to get around the constraints imposed by a common currency, including Germany itself. Der Spiegeldescribes the euro as a currency based on a culture of lies and trickery.

Each country continued raising or cutting spending and taxes as if there were no need for reference to another 15 countries.

The chickens have now come home to roost. We have a monetary union that deprives the poorer and weaker states of mechanisms like exchange and interest rates to suit their circumstances. Yet the euro is wildly unpopular, even in Germany, arguably the country that has benefited most from it.

It is a recipe for disaster, and the alienation of ordinary people in the EU proceeds apace. The “bailout that dare not speak its name” may ultimately prove no more damaging than what our own Government would have had to impose on us anyway, but the shame and humiliation it entails will mean even more distrust of the EU.

Yet our German masters see this crisis as an opportunity for pushing for closer political and fiscal union, whatever the peoples of the union want.

As far back as 1991, Helmut Kohl pronounced that political unity was now inevitable. The German dream has always been for a single currency, a single foreign and military policy, and a single set of laws on everything from pensions to immigration. There is no popular support for such a union, and a union built on the desires of elites will be truly terrible in its fall.

Although low interest rates fuelled the borrowing binge that has proved so disastrous for us, the deepest part of our shame is that we cannot just blame the EU. The fact that our own Government failed so miserably to manage our period of wealth, and our financial institutions acted like gamblers, means there is little faith left in any institution.

The Catholic Church lost much of its credibility in even worse circumstances, so at the moment we are bereft of leadership. There are few voices to point out that our crisis is in large part a crisis of values, an embrace of a model of success that is extremely damaging.

Having been poor for centuries, we relished being rich. But we did not look at the growing inequalities, and how the heady embrace of a neoliberal economic view meant that many of our citizens were merely collateral damage in a race towards wealth.

We were quite willing to tolerate inhuman lifestyles for young couples who were forced to move further and further from networks of families and friends in order to afford a house at all. We ignored the fact that our boom was being built on the profits granted to developers and builders, leaving young families in particular stretched to the limit.

Those same young families are now the ones in negative equity and losing jobs. Whatever about lack of solidarity between member states of the EU, there was a shocking lack of solidarity in our own country, a kind of worship of material success that meant whoever could not keep up were just “losers”. We are all losers, now.

It is telling that this week, we experienced an unprecedented horror. Yet we are so taken up with our financial woes that we scarcely paused to mourn for four children, two women and a man dead, an event that should stop us in our tracks, and lead to immense soul-searching.

Certainly, their families and people in their localities have mourned and questioned, and no doubt there are children all around the country shivering at the horror of what took place . But we have spent far more time discussing our national humiliation than we have looking at what drives people to desperate acts of violence and self-harm. We have come dangerously close to normalising suicide as a response to life’s pains.

Is it all part of a skewed system of values, a lack of any deep-rooted respect for other people or ourselves, that leaves people dangerously bereft of resources when difficulties loom? Individuals continue to live by deeper values, but our collective culture has become debased.

We can, and most likely will, recover eventually from this economic crisis. All our focus is on recovery, but shouldn’t we be aiming to be somewhere altogether different from where we were five years ago? That’s not something that the IMF or the ECB can sort out for us. We are going to have to do that all by ourselves.

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