25 years on, how different are we?


In 1987, the Economist magazine carried a bleak feature on Ireland. We were “easily the poorest country in rich, north-west Europe”, mainly because we had been trying to ape the lifestyle of our most recent (British) overlords but without their resources and were drowning in “extravagance, frustration and debt” as a result. If that was too subtle, the illustration was a picture of a young woman and child, begging on the streets.

Unemployment was at 18 per cent; ordinary tax rates had soared to 60 per cent; the national debt was 125 per cent while economic growth had averaged 0.2 per cent over the previous five years. Corruption, tax evasion and child abuse were rampant.

In the North, an SAS ambush had left eight IRA men and one civilian dead, so the IRA blew up 11 innocents in Enniskillen on Remembrance Day. In the Republic, we voted Fianna Fáil and Charles Haughey into a minority government.

Not much to be nostalgic about there. Yet, 25 years on, the received wisdom is that while we may have been dirt poor, we were a kinder, more thrifty, respectful people, happy to pass an evening debating radical ideas over a simple bowl of pasta, grateful for any boring or menial job. Credit had yet to be “liberated”, the internet was unknown and there were no “foreigners” coming in.

This is what makes the Ipsos MRBI 50th anniversary poll on attitudes and values so compelling. It allows us to compare ourselves then and now. And sometimes it throws up surprising results.

Were we actually more thrifty 25 years ago? Sure that no one in 1987 dared to spend money without thinking? In fact, more than one in five of us did; about as many as do it now, particularly if they happen to be students and/or living in Dublin.

Were we more conscious of debt 25 years ago? Nine out of 10 of us didn’t like the idea of it then and don’t like it now, and that applies right across age, gender and socioeconomic classes.

We watch our spending more carefully now and a lot more of us (nearly seven in 10) think we’re “very good” at managing money. That suggests that seven in 10 think it’s all under control. Can that be right? Is it credible that this behaviour by the vast majority is being generated in the same country where, allegedly, “we all partied”?

Or was there always this unheralded, unsexy, solid core throughout the boom? Given the relentless backbeat of uncertainty and economic doom, the fact that seven in 10 of us claim to be “perfectly happy” with our standard of living now, compared with only six in 10 in 1987, is downright startling. More remarkable still is a 3 per cent difference in attitude between those at work, and those out of work, who say they are happy.

So did a core of 70 per cent in fact keep its head? Or are we simply the most adaptable population on the planet?

When the question of euthanasia was raised, only a quarter of the 55+ group thought it should be legalised; but more than 40 per cent of the 35- to 54 year-olds were in favour. Still, at least a lot of the older group don’t have to worry about the jobs market any more.

Some attitudes in that area have hardly changed. We like to think of ourselves as more hardworking and honest – maybe lessons have finally been learned from those expensive tribunals – and we’re anxious that our families think we’re doing well.

But at a time when people are hanging on to jobs at any cost, it’s not surprising that six in 10 of us would still prefer a boring job to no job. The interesting ones here are the net 20 per cent who would prefer no job at all; they’re fairly evenly spread across age and gender, and only slightly biased towards those already in work.

And at a time when some people are doing the work of three, living our lives online and exercising like mad, it’s probably not surprising that 40 per cent of us would trade a pay increase for an extra half-day off a week. That’s up from a third in 1987.

But are we a bit conflicted? Nearly half of us would be prepared to share our jobs in a limited jobs market, but that’s quite a tumble from 62 per cent in 1987. Well over half think we’re less caring now, which is up from 48 per cent in 1987.

And when the pollsters compared Irish and UK surveys on immigration attitudes in the past year, the results were sadly similar. More than 60 per cent in both jurisdictions believe there are too many immigrants. More than 65 per cent think we should accept fewer asylum seekers. Only 40 per cent of Irish respondents agree that immigration is good for the Irish economy, compared with 36 per cent in the UK. Nearly half of the Irish agreed that immigration is generally good for the country, compared with just 38 per cent in the UK.

We’ve forged ahead in other ways. In 1987 less than a third considered women were treated equally with men; now 45 per cent believe that. But a continuing chasm between the genders is evident within the “disagree” camp, where there are nearly twice as many women as men.

But the one certain finding in this or any poll is that all the old pillars have been toppled. Nowhere is this more evident than in the question about groups who are most trusted to tell the truth.

Priests don’t even appear on the list. Intriguingly, doctors come out on top for nine out of 10, remaining impervious to perpetual spats over contracts, the outrageous two-tier health system and various scandals.

Most bizarre, however, is the slide into second place for truth-telling of the “ordinary man/woman in the street”, favoured by more than eight in 10. Who is this legend? Might he also be the ranting taxi driver, the pub bore, the Twitter troll, the late-night shock jock’s little helper?

Still, you can be fairly sure he will be better dressed than 25 years ago. The good news is that neither Mick Wallace nor dress-down Fridays have taken their toll on the nation’s dress sense. In fact, those who consider it important to look well dressed have risen to more than seven in 10. So that’s good. Isn’t it?