No time for whingers


WHAT A difference a year can make. None but the most pessimistic jeremiahs could have foreseen the speed and depth of the financial crisis which has engulfed the world. The excesses of free markets, lax regulation and a smattering of fraud are blamed but it may take a lot longer to say definitively what has happened: after all, the precise causes of the Great Depression are still a matter for academic debate some 80 years later.

Meanwhile, we have to live with the consequences. We have gone from the Celtic Tiger to an era of financial fear with the suddenness of a Titanic-style shipwreck, thrown from comfort, even luxury, into a cold sea of uncertainty. Many people have already lost jobs and all or part of their incomes and it appears that many more will do so over the coming year. Many others have also seen their wealth, however large or small, held directly or through pension funds, decimated by share-price collapses and the property crash. While the past always seems to have been a simpler place, not least because we know how things turned out, the present always seems to be more complex because the future is uncertain. And the future now is not just uncertain but has suddenly become a threatening place.

The world has changed - is changing - again. The era of liberal economic policies which began in the early 1980s in the US and Britain is at an end. It took a decade or so to reach Ireland and, allied to our decision to embrace the euro, led to another decade of unprecedented economic growth. The Celtic Tiger was of considerable benefit to the vast majority of people, increasing their wealth and their options and choices. It brought the country the enormous social, cultural, and economic benefits of a growing population. It put an end to the debilitating and depressing effects of the steady loss to emigration in previous decades of a large section of practically every new generation of young people.

It did not, of course, solve all our ills and it certainly had its excesses and sillinesses. But it did not cause us to lose our "soul" nor introduce greed to us: greed has been endemic in Irish life for a very long time, sometimes wrapped in the cloak of politics, whether it was the land hunger of past generations in the green flag of nationalism or, occasionally, the selfishness of workers in powerful positions in the red flag of syndicalism. The common epithet that "we blew the boom" is largely meaningless other than as an indication that the speaker disapproved of the way things developed.

The boom has left us with many advantages, including a level of wealth which, in spite of the recent depredations of the markets, is still greater than at any previous time in our history. The truly important thing now is not to sink into the fatalism - and even satisfaction - that lies behind much of the public, including media, reactions that ricochet from recession chic to apocalyptic doom. The end of the world is not nigh: neither, to the disappointment of some, is the end of capitalism. The main danger is that we slip into the ways and mistakes of the past which left Ireland a country of old people and of economic failure for most of the 20th century.

The Government's first responses, particularly in its sly budget targeting of the sick and the old and the sleight-of-hand tax increases by much more than the nominal rate of the income levy, showed a knee-jerk return to the failed policies of old. Some of the reactions to it were also of a similar ilk. The protests of teachers and their recruitment of students in their campaign, for instance, were redolent of the successful public sector campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s to protect themselves from any changes in conditions or status, campaigns which contributed to high levels of emigration and the near shutdown of the economy by the end of those decades.

Those policies may be unfamiliar to anyone under 35 these days, who may be tempted back to the past by talk of an era where there was allegedly less greed, more caring, and more "soul". But they should remember that was the era when most of the tax evasions, planning corruption and clerical paedophilia - revealed in recent years by tribunals and prosecutions - took place, not to mention the sordid sectarianism and violence of the Northern troubles. It was an era, like most of the 20th century in Ireland, when vested interests from the professions to the public sector dominated political decisions, creating monopolies, suppressing competition, and reaching too readily for protectionism. Capitalist monopolies are at least transparent in their self-interest: the self-interest of other monopolies, whether of labour or professions, is no less real and no less inimical to the public interest.

The choices we make now may well dictate the fate of the country for a generation. More than ever, we need all our political parties to keep their eyes firmly on the big picture, not just on party advantage and the next election. Failure to do so in the recent past was exemplified by the defeat of the Lisbon referendum; failure to do so again now may have even more disastrous consequences.

What we all need now, electorate as well as politicians, is to maintain a sense of balance, to avoid witch-hunting and selecting scapegoats, and to refrain from sinking into the comforts of victimhood and blaming others - to which our history has left us so prone. It is an apposite time to look again, openly and honestly, at some of the old attitudes, shibboleths and detritus of history which are no longer either useful or applicable. As we head towards a century of independence, it is a good time to take a fresh look at our goals and beliefs, at our assumptions and presumptions, at out-dated mindsets ranging from attitudes to partition to old socialism. It is a time to be tolerant and inclusive, not small-minded and self-interested; to look forward to the future, not hark back to a largely fanciful past; to be open-minded and confident, not fearful and reaching for part solutions.