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Those in Ireland who depart from consensus are often isolated and ignored

Whether on efficacy of vaccines or economic management, dissent can show its worth

A predilection for too much consensus or groupthink has often caused us harm in out country. Like buffalo, a significant number of Irish people prefer to run with the herd. That is absolutely fine and it is often the correct thing to do, as long the herd knows where it is going.

Yet those in Ireland who depart from the safety of consensus often find themselves isolated and ignored in matters of public debate. And that’s a pity.

Straying from the herd is not, in itself, a virtuous or higher ethical act. Contrarians are probably wrong more often than they are correct and there is no virtue at all in being difficult just for the sake of attention. But on issues of national economic or social importance where there is a dangerous surfeit of consensus, those who challenge it with logical, reasoned, honest arguments ought to be listened to, at least once, if for no other reason than to help identify the flaws in the prevailing consensus narrative.

There have been several examples of such people, from both the economic and medical “sides” of the debate on how to handle the pandemic, being ignored or even scorned by herds of varying hues over the last nine months.


As the focus turns to new vaccines coming on stream and how effective they may be in reopening economy and society, it is important that those who stray from the pack are now listened to.

Once they have been heard, they can then be heeded or not as appropriate. But this is no time for venerating blind consensus. Just as it was correct for people in retail and hospitality to question lockdown policy and continually seek the justification of measures, it is also right that scientists advise caution now as consensus builds that the vaccines are all we need to reset our lives. Let’s make sure.

Dangers of consensus

You would think most of us would have learned our lesson on the dangers of consensus from the mistakes made during the periods of stifling groupthink prior to, and throughout the early stages of, the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and the financial crash that followed in 2008.

Irish media, as a monolithic group, were as guilty as anyone of succumbing to the tunnel vision mentality that told us that house prices would always be fine and there was no problem in the market.

People such as the former Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins warned repeatedly about the dangers of rampant property "speculation" and of allowing young people "to be in hock with 40-year mortgages". He was written off by many journalists as an entertaining and articulate but utterly one-eyed crank.

He may have been wrong on many things in his Dáil career but, in hindsight, Higgins wasn’t too far off the mark with his warnings of the perils for wider society that were being stored up in the property market.

Similarly, on the night that the bank guarantee that subsequently bankrupted the State was voted on by the Dáil, the Labour Party stood alone in voting against it. It was later claimed by the party's critics that it only objected to the guarantee on technical grounds, but that is not entirely fair. Eamon Gilmore, Labour's then leader, asked at the time: "How much are we being asked to guarantee? . . . What exactly are we being asked to guarantee? . . . What will be paid for it . . . ? These are simple questions."

If more of that kind of anti-consensus scrutiny had been applied to the guarantee, the State might not have entered a bailout two years later.

Twelve years on, and many other people who voiced concerns counter to the consensus at the outset of the pandemic, before its full ramifications were realised by the Government, were repeatedly ignored.

For example, on February 26th, as public health officials appeared paralysed by inertia over how to respond to the unfolding crisis in Italy, businessman Declan Ganley spoke forcefully about the need for people returning from skiing trips there to self-isolate.

He spent most of the following fortnight tweeting incessantly about the need to cancel flights arriving from the north Italy region, but he was slapped down by one prominent medic for “undermining” the public health consensus. Ganley was right, and two weeks after he appeared to be almost alone in calling for it, such a flight ban was implemented

Web Summit owner Paddy Cosgrave got several of his public pronouncements horribly wrong early in the pandemic. But, in hindsight, his call on March 12th for a full lockdown to prevent the seeding of the virus was not one of them. He was criticised heavily at the time for spreading panic.

People laughed

Later in the crisis, Central Bank governor Gabriel Makhloufgently suggested to the Government that it needed to be careful with bailout cash that could be wasted on businesses that would end up insolvent anyway. He was ignored, just as the Fiscal Advisory Council was on spending this week. And that might come back to haunt the exchequer in future.

Vintners were also widely scorned when they warned during the virus’s summer lull that the continued closure of pubs at that time was leading to widespread house parties that would worsen the spread. People laughed and saw only publicans saying what suited pubs. But who would argue now that they were completely incorrect in their predictions?

And this week, Prof Sam McConkey, an infectious disease specialist at the Royal College of Surgeons, was criticised in many quarters for his perceived negativity when, on Monday night, he went on Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ television to urge caution on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

He quite reasonably pointed out that the wider scientific community has not yet seen the data for the jabs and that, while they might well be fantastic weapons, it has yet to be shown empirically that they are, so let’s ease off the jubilation a bit. As the economy climbs unsteadily back on its feet, a little caution seems prudent.

There has been plenty of talking from all sides of the debate over the course of this pandemic. The odd bit of listening does no harm, either.