David McWilliams: ‘Ireland is three decisions away from being a perfect country’

McWilliams and Dermot Bannon were the first guests at the Irish Times Summer Nights Festival

Ireland is just “three decisions away from becoming a perfect country – Scandinavia, but more fun”, economist and Irish Times columnist David McWilliams has told the opening night of the Irish Times Summer Nights online festival.

The three decisions we must take to unlock our society’s potential are: tackling Northern Ireland and especially beginning the process of dialogue with the Unionist community, the “most petrified” people on this island; second, changing our attitude to land, and specifically penalising its hoarding by landowners; and third, appreciating that multinationals are our friends, not our enemies.

The Irish Times Summer Nights Festival – supported by Peugeot – is a series of online talks taking place from Monday 13th to Thursday 16th of July.

Summer Nights

In the second session of its first evening, McWilliams told Irish Times London editor, Denis Staunton, that he had been reading Dante during lockdown. There was mass disease in the Middle Ages too; Dante wrote about the Black Plague; we have Covid-19. They both disrupted the economies of the day.

McWilliams, who coined the term “Breakfast Roll Man” among others, has invented another of his trademark expressions to capture the times we are now living in. The “Pandession” is a recession brought about not by economic circumstances, but as a result of public-health policies aimed at tackling a pandemic.

“What’s the value of these words?” Staunton asked.

“They are shortcuts to create mental pictures. Economics needs to be explained; not made simple, but simplified,” McWilliams explained. “I deploy these words to help people to comprehend things that might be a bit difficult.”

McWilliams also talks about “the Craic Economy”, on which so much of Ireland depends, as it relates to the tourism and entertainment businesses. With virtually no overseas tourists at present, our Craic Economy is in bad shape.

But McWilliams, who believes economics should be a mandatory school subject, sees several positives for our wider economy as we emerge from lockdown, and spells them out to Staunton.

Covid, he said, because if creates such unprecedented times “gives you permission to run the world differently.” He sees it as “the catalyst to monumental change.”

“What does the government need to do next?” Staunton asked.

“Build houses,” suggested McWilliams, pointing out that lack of housing has been one of the biggest social problems in recent years. “Change the relationship between land and income. We need to being down the prices of land, and bring hoarded land into use. Tax that hoarded land. The tax puts a cost on hoarding.

Numerous questions came in to the online session via Twitter, such as: “What are the silver linings from the crisis?”

“It’s not necessary to commute. This will be the end of expensive commercial real estate, therefore a reimagining of our cities is now possible. And if the car isn’t necessary, we can liberate the streets,” McWilliams said.

‘A big effing window’

Earlier, the first event of the Summer Nights festival was a pow-wow between Ireland’s most famous architect, Dermot Bannon, and a man partly responsible for that fame, Irish Times TV columnist Patrick Freyne.

For 13 years, Bannon has been presenting the hugely popular Room to Improve, a show where he designs extensions or redesigns an existing space.

“Why architecture?” Freyne asked.

“I played with Lego until I was way too old,” Bannon said, explaining he had wanted to be a pilot or an architect. The Lego won. He had already become enthralled with breaking down walls and building extensions and sticking in giant windows, now his signature design.

Bannon told those watching online that he is shy, although it’s an endearing shyness that manifests itself in talking roughly a million words to the minute.

Bannon’s favourite public buildings in Dublin? “Busáras. The old terminal building at the airport.”

“What is the black dot on the wall behind you?” one viewer asked via Twitter, perhaps expecting it to have some kind of magical powers. That person was obviously in lockdown for a long time.

“A thermostat,” a baffled Bannon said. Then he showed us his nifty gadget for closing the curtains, to make up for the disappointment of the boring old thermostat.

“What would you do with Newgrange?” Freyne asks, of the millenniums-old structure that is famous for receiving light for just a few minutes once a year, and only then if it’s actually sunny.

“I’d put in a big effing window,” Bannon jokes.

Put up a big wall at the Meath border, folks. Dermot Bannon is gunning to do a makeover on Newgrange.

Festival tickets

The Irish Times Summer Nights Festival runs until Thursday 16th of July. Upcoming guests include: author Anne Enright; former rugby player Paul O'Connell; cosmetics guru Nadine Reid; film-maker Lenny Abrahamson; former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power; former White House insider Melody Barnes; and musician Imelda May.

Tickets for the rest of the festival are on sale at a reduced price of €20, which gives access to all remaining events. Simply click here and apply the discount code "summer20" before purchase to avail of the €20 price. For digital subscribers the discount will be automatically applied – just make sure you are signed in to The Irish Times before you click here.

Ticket buyers receive a link by email on the day of the festival, allowing them to attend the events on all four evenings via their phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer.

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