Finger wagging from the Áras


PRESENT TENSE:PRESIDENT MARY McAleese's most overworked body part must increasingly be her index finger. All that wagging would wear anyone out.

Not for the first time, she has suggested that the Irish have lost the run of themselves a little, telling reporters in Arizona that we will now hopefully recover from having been "consumed" by consumerism. Then she had to move on, because she had some selling to do.

On Monday, she spoke at a business lunch in Los Angeles, organised by Tourism Ireland. Was it good? Let's put it this way, if it had been delivered on the Shopping Channel, viewers would have been crying down the phonelines.

"For horse-racing or watersports enthusiasts, Ireland is as good as it gets," she told the gathering, "and, for those who want history and culture, music, dance, theatre, castles and historic gardens, or the buzz of easy-going cities, there is no place to equal it." The President has a dream. It is of Americans and Irish sharing hot tubs. "There is good value to be had for the tourist whether he or she fancies a stay in a luxury five-star spa or prefers to rent a thatched cottage or any of the many permutations in between." She ended it, one might imagine, by yelling, "But wait, there's more!" and then throwing in a set of steak knives to the first 50 buyers.

Look through the speeches section of the President's website and you'll find plenty of reminders of how much the job involves being a globe-trotting slice 'em, dice 'em merchant. Which is only one of the reasons why her remarks on consumerism ring hollow.

It was the same in 2005 when, at the Céifin Conference, she worried that we might be heading for the "cul-de-sac of complacent consumerism". This week in Arizona she expressed her hope that, having hit the brick wall of economic crisis, we've had enough of a shock that we'll find the reverse gear and back our way out of it.

Talking of instant gratification, she said: "We had to have it now and in this moment, and I think that we have paid a very, very big price for that very radical shift. And now the balance presumably is going to swing back the other way and it will be no harm."

In effect, what she is saying is that although people will lose money and jobs in this recession, they will at least be sacrificing their prosperity so that the nation can cop itself on.

She continued: "We clearly have come from quite unbalanced times and they have not been able to secure for us the kind of peace of mind, peace of heart, contentment that we would have wished for. Now we're trying to find our way back to a more rooted and possibly more modest time." How many times does it need to be said that the Irish, on the whole, were happy during the boom? Not deluded enough to believe it was perfect, but they were happy; research confirmed it time and time and time again. And in creating a more caring and tolerant society during prosperous years, it was arguably a more balanced society than the poor and cruel one it replaced.

Besides, if we are making our way back to a "more modest time", let's not pretend we're "trying" to do it by choice.

At a Small Firms Association lunch last month, the President's tone was different. "The tap of consumer spending has been turned down," she said.

"This is absolutely not how we would like things to be nor is it how we thought things would be only a short time ago when we were accustomed to steady growth and confident economic dynamism." So, when required, the President will act as a cheerleader for, and motivational speaker to, Irish business, but will also suggest that we keep that "tap of consumer spending" turned down if it means catching on to ourselves.

It is not that discussions about the direction of our society or the positive and negative affects of materialism aren't always worthwhile or timely. But no matter how her remarks about consumerism are intended, they come across as mean-spirited, because she is effectively telling a population that works bloody hard for its money - and generations that suffered the recessions before this one - that they shouldn't enjoy their rewards in whatever way they see fit.

I doubt she's in it for the money, but the President does speak from a privileged position of someone who earns a salary in excess of a quarter of a million euro a year, and has her clothes, food and fantastic address subsidised by the very taxpayers who have apparently lost the run of themselves.

Which means three more years of her preaching about consumerism while wearing a sandwich board.