It is something of a truism that Ireland badly needs a Plan B. In fact, we have Plan B and we're very good at it. What we need is Plan A. We have no problem with alternative strategies – we just can't manage the thing they're supposed to be an alternative to.
Plan A for Ireland is the same as for any state that emerged from the turmoil of the breakup of empires after the first World War. It is what those who participated in the nationalist revolt a century ago imagined they were creating: a stable democratic state with a reasonably prosperous economy and an independent place in the world. There is always an element of utopian idealism in such revolts but this was not an unreasonable expectation. Ireland had at least as good a chance of achieving it as any other new state that emerged between or after the wars – much better than many.
Plan B is fecking off. Sometimes it’s an active strategy: 200,000 people have left during the present crisis. But it goes much deeper than that. Even if you don’t actually leave, the possibility occupies a part of your brain. Consider the extraordinary figure that emerged last week from a survey of Irish workers by the recruitment firm Hays. It found that 67.4 per cent of those surveyed would consider leaving Ireland if their career prospects do not improve over the next three years. These surveys have to treated with some caution but this result is broadly consistent with similar research done by Hays in recent years.
The public and the personal Irelands
Plan A and Plan B have different narratives, different histories. They belong, indeed, to two starkly contrasting Irelands, the public and the personal. Plan A is a public story of liberation from the British empire. Ireland broke away, asserted its independence, formed a state and tried to create a collective identification with that state. This story is based on one overall assumption: that Irish citizens see their personal futures as being inextricably linked to the future of their State.
Plan B is in many respects an inversion of Plan A. It is a kind of alternative Irish history in which nothing much really happened between 1916 and 1923. In this other story, there is no break with anything – there is a continuity of mass emigration over centuries. There is no liberation from the British empire. Where are our emigrants still going? To places whose stamps still have Queen Elizabeth’s head on them.
The biggest long-term impact of the British empire on Ireland was that it opened up places for Irish people to emigrate: North America, Australia and, of course, Britain itself. That pattern still holds, even with the US playing, for moment, a declining role. In the year to April 2013, 22,000 Irish people emigrated to the UK, 15,400 to Australia and 5,300 to Canada.
And in Plan B there is, crucially, a failure of the basic assumption of the nation state: citizens do not in fact believe that their individual futures are inextricably bound to the future of the State. When two-thirds of your workers consider leaving, what they’re saying is not necessarily that they will actually go. What they’re saying is that they have an each-way bet on Ireland as a collective project. If the project is working, that’s fine – we’re very happy to be part of it. If it’s not, there is the eternal allure of Elsewhere.
Ethic of equal citizenship
The big problem for Ireland is that Plan B has worked better than Plan A. Plan A has been fitful and inconsistent. It has had some real success but too many failures. The State hasn't managed to create political, legal and regulatory institutions that work effectively, coherently and fairly. It hasn't managed to establish an ethic of equal citizenship. It hasn't managed to convince citizens that the State really does belong to them all. And it hasn't managed to create an independent economy with a sustainable prosperity. Hence, for all the emotional pull of patriotism and nationalism, actual attachment to the State is weak. Just look at the wild irresponsibility of the Irish ruling class, the broad contempt for public rules, the power of localist and clientelist politics, the willingness to elect crooks so long as they're our crooks.
But we're brilliant at Plan B. We do emigration better than we do anything else. We are the world champions at fecking off. We are ingenious and intrepid migrants, confident inhabitants of the shadow British empire in which we continue to live. We have good networks for those who leave and well-tried rituals of mourning for those whom they leave behind. What we're especially good at is maintaining a sense of Irishness that is largely independent of location. We know how to be, as Leopold Bloom put it, the same people in different places. What we've learned in the crisis is that those skills have become almost genetic. Plan B kicked in even among those who had grown up with immigration, not emigration.
As the State regroups after the troika years, this is what it has to think about. How can it convince its citizens that Plan A is viable?