Fintan O’Toole: Other countries yearn for the good old days. Not Ireland

The Ipsos Global Trends survey suggests Irish people don’t think like the rest of the world

Nostalgia is the sweetest of emotions. It is a gentle reverie, a daydream of an imagined past. But when it is injected into politics, it can turn sour and even curdle into toxicity.

Much of the reactionary mood across the world over the past decade floats on this acrid stream. From Brexit in England to Trumpism in the United States, from the right-wing nationalisms of Poland and Hungary to the Hindu supremacist ideology that has become dominant in India, supposed strongmen promise to revive a past that never was and to protect a pure identity that never really existed.

But not in Ireland. One of the most interesting questions about contemporary Ireland is why the far right is so weak. And one of the most striking answers provided by today's Ipsos Global Trends 2021 study is the relative absence of nostalgia.

The old image of the Irish as a people stuck in the past was probably never quite true. But it is emphatically wrong now

Of the countries featured in the survey, Ireland has the second lowest score for agreement with the statement, “I would like my country to be the way it used to be”. The only country with a lower rank is China, and given China’s extremely rapid ascent from mass poverty, that is hardly surprising.


This finding tells us something very important. The old image of the Irish as a people stuck in the past was probably never quite true. But it is emphatically wrong now.

Another, closely related question helps us to understand why this should be the case. Asked whether they agree that “Given the choice, I would prefer to have grown up at the time when my parents were children”, 58 per cent of Irish people disagree.

These are not quite the same questions – the first is about the country’s past, the second much more specifically evokes ideas of one’s own family history. But it’s a fair assumption that in Ireland’s case at least, there is no warm glow surrounding the childhood years of most people’s parents.

The average Irish person is 38 years old. There’s a strong chance that his or her parents remember mass unemployment, mass emigration, a repressive Catholic state with bans on homosexuality, contraception, divorce and abortion and the daily horrors of the Troubles. You have to smoke a lot of opium to turn that into a sweet reverie.

In this respect, Ireland is quite different from many other western countries. If you were white, working class (and especially male), there is a lot to be nostalgic about. Wages were high, income gaps were narrowing, housing and healthcare were generally available, opportunities were growing.

Conversely, the loss of many of those things is experienced by many people in the old industrialised world as a diminution in their status and dignity. That sense of loss has fed into the appeal of a reactionary populism that promises to restore the past.

There is little doubt either that Irish people’s perception of the “way it used to be” is very heavily influenced by all the traumas surrounding the implosion of institutional Irish Catholicism.

For all of this century so far, a steady stream of dark revelations have emerged from the huge archipelago of coercive confinement: industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes. When the bodies are literally coming up from the unmarked graves, few people feel like singing The Way We Were.

What complicates this sober realism about how Ireland has been, though, is a very strong sense of national pride. There is a fascinating complexity: Irish people have relatively few illusions about their country, but they love it anyway.

Forty years ago, in 1981, the Irish branch of the European Values Survey asked people whether they were “very proud to be Irish”. Fully two-thirds (66 per cent) said they were.

This was, at the time, extremely high. The comparable figure for Britain was 55 per cent cent and for European countries as a whole just 38 per cent.

Back then, it might have been easy enough to explain this exceptional level of attachment to the nation. Nationalism was still the dominant ideology.

The afterglow of the visit to Ireland of Pope John Paul II, who hailed the country as a beacon of Christian values in a darkening world, still warmed the heart. The great scandals of corruption and abuse were yet to emerge.

Remarkably, though, this sense of national pride has not diminished as we have become wiser to our own collective failings. It has grown.

The proportion of British people who say they are very proud of their country (58 per cent) in this survey is virtually the same as it was in the 1981 study. But the Irish figure has leapt up from 66 per cent to a remarkable 82 per cent.

However – and this is crucial – this patriotism has been successfully disentangled from chauvinism. Across much of the world, progressives have ceded patriotic feeling to the right, who have distorted it into ethnic and/or religious antagonism.

The good news is that there is little sign of this happening in Ireland. Nobody should be complacent about this conclusion, but it is well worth at least two cheers.

If we go back to that European Values Survey 40 years ago, it found relatively low levels of admitted racism and hostility to immigrants in Ireland. Asked who they would not want for a neighbour, just 7 per cent of Irish people said “people of a different race” and 6 per cent said “immigrants/foreign workers”. The comparable figures for Europe were 9 and 10 per cent.

But in 1981 a cynic could reasonably have pointed out that this was easy for the Irish to say. There were very few people of a different race or immigrant workers to be hostile towards.

Equally, back then, the Irish experience of migration was overwhelmingly outbound. It was not easy to despise “foreign workers” when so many of our siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles fell precisely into that category.

Forty years on, and the situation has been transformed. In 1991, foreign-born residents amounted to 7 per cent of the Irish population. By 2016 the proportion had risen to 17 per cent.

This is a huge change – socially, culturally, psychologically. There has been no shortage of opportunistic efforts to frame it as an existential threat to Ireland’s identity as a nation.

The problem for the racists and nativists, though, is that, as the Global Trends study shows so definitively, the reality is the complete opposite: the sense of Irish nationality has become stronger as immigrants have been embraced within it.

Most Irish people are not defensive about their sense of nationhood. Only 37 per cent (as compared with, say, 65 per cent in Denmark) agree that “It is important that people from my country remain very different from all other nationalities”.

This relative lack of concern with defining an Us that is Not Them is reflected in a generally positive attitude to immigration. Fewer people in Ireland than in any of the other 12 countries agree with the statement that "There are too many immigrants in my country". The level of agreement is not much more than half of that in Denmark.

It is striking, indeed, that Irish attitudes to immigrants are even less hostile than those in the most proudly multicultural society on Earth, Canada. A statement that gets at the same underlying attitudes – “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country” – produces a very similar result.

So does the proposition that “People across the world have more things in common than things that make them different”. More than three-quarters of us agree, suggesting again that Irish pride is not deeply rooted in Irish exceptionalism.

Nor is this positivity merely naive. A relatively high proportion of Irish people (44 per cent) do not believe that “People from different backgrounds and ethnic minorities in my country are treated fairly”. An awareness of discrimination coexists with a relative ease with the way the Irish population has changed in recent decades.

Part of the reason for this comfort may be that while Ireland has become an immigrant society, it has never really ceased to be an emigrant one. Ireland is a fluid place: in the past decade, 380,000 Irish people emigrated and 250,000 returned.

This wanderlust has not abated. In the Global Trends survey, a very high 69 per cent of Irish people agree that “I would like to experience living in different parts of the world”. For most of us, the sense of home is always shadowed by that other place in which we feel we belong, Elsewhere.

Wrapped up in all of this is our attitude to globalisation. Many of the reactionary nationalist movements around the world have wrapped themselves in a rather threadbare notion of “anti-globalism”. But a high 60 per cent of Irish people agree that “Globalisation is good for my country”.

This is hardly surprising. Ireland has gone from being an economic backwater in the 1980s to having, according to the 2020 KOF Globalisation Index, the fourth most globalised economy in the world.

What would it mean in Ireland to be "anti-globalist"? To expel the migrants that are essential to the workforce? To throw out Pfizer and Intel and Boston Scientific? To leave the European Union? To ban backpacking to Australia?

This does not mean that we are relaxed about the inequalities that have been embedded in the process of globalisation. More than three-quarters of Irish people believe that large differences of income and wealth are bad for society, much higher than in a supposedly more egalitarian country such as Denmark.

Irish people in general understand that globalisation is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that includes, along with gross inequalities of outcome, all of these things. They also understand that if globalisation has winners and losers, their own country is firmly in the first category.

Again, this is not naive. The study shows a very high degree of awareness among Irish people of the urgency of the climate crisis that global capitalism has generated.

The vast majority of us (84 per cent) agree that “We are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly”. And we do not trust capitalism on its own to avoid that disaster.

Nor are Irish people innocent about the harms inherent in another form of globalisation: social media technologies. We have the second highest level of agreement that “Social media companies have too much power”.

And yet Ireland has the highest degree of fatalism among the countries about the inevitability of further assaults on privacy, while more than 80 per cent of us agree that “I cannot imagine life without the internet”. We don’t like what’s going on but we seem to feel powerless to control it.

In this, there is a certain underlying continuity in Irish attitudes, a long-term commitment to living in the moment because we do not know what tomorrow will bring.

In 1981, 67 per cent of people in Ireland (as compared with 49 per cent in Europe as a whole) agreed that “the future is uncertain – we must live from day to day”. In 2021, exactly the same percentage agrees that “The important thing is to enjoy life today, tomorrow will take care of itself”. Thinking about the future is still not our strong suit.

But perhaps that too is bad news for the reactionary right. A relative ease with the uncertainty of the future makes Irish people less susceptible to alarmist warnings that the country we know and love is on the brink of extinction. It is hard to scare Irish people into the kind of white ethnic panic that has spread over so much of the western world.

The broad feeling about Ireland from the study, then, is one of sober optimism. Irish people on the whole do not look back to a lost golden age or forward to an apocalyptic decline.

They do not see themselves as defenders of the faith or as being under siege from the radical changes that openness has brought.

They love their country enough to recognise its dark sides. They also love it enough to be happy to share it with those who hope it can give them a better life.

The Ipsos/Irish Times data presents Ireland among its European counterparts and larger nations. The full survey includes 25 countries.