'Returning to the spirit of Tiger Ireland is pointless. Only a completely new political movement can tackle the challenges'
DECLAN KIBERD: The UCD professor of English outlines what he believes needs to be done to fix Ireland
NOBODY KNOWS what will happen next – not even our leaders. We walk as a community in darkness down a strangely unfamiliar road, into a new landscape for which there are no maps. Except, possibly, newspapers.
Their sales may be in decline, but you can bet your life that more people are reading a newspaper, and in greater detail, every day. If you call into an office still lucky enough to be in business, you are likely to find people reading the morning paper. Four or five years ago, these readers would have been rushed off their feet with work to do and would have managed to glance at headlines only at the end of a fantastic day.
The unwelcome increase in “free time” is but one reason for this heightened interest in current affairs. Another is the fact that citizens, who for more than 15 years allowed politicians to get on with things, are now scrutinising their lords and masters more critically. And many don’t like what they see.
Just a few weeks ago, politicians awarded themselves an allowance of up to €15,000 a year in unvouched expenses. Before that, hundreds of the most senior civil servants had their incomes proofed against any pay cuts. While the newspapers were being drip-fed stories of Fás junkets, the nomenklatura was securing its financial future, if not that of the country.
Fifty years ago, there were senior civil servants who tore up a postage stamp in order to reimburse the State whenever they made a call on the office phone to a member of their family. The public services are still run by honourable and honest people but those days of efficient patriotism are gone. The period when the health system could be run by five senior administrators is now hardly a memory.
Ireland is at present immobilised by what Francis Wheen has called “process morons with Blackberries and iPhones”. They assumed critical mass in the years of the Tiger, frustrating many people both inside and outside the public services. It is arguable that even in those times of relative affluence we could not afford them. It is certain that we cannot afford them now.
Much of the divisive and unpleasant commentary on public servants over the past winter derived not just from envy of their position rights but also from a resentment at bureaucratic intrusions.
Everywhere, one hears stories of how the new mandarins invoke bizarre laws which make the cost of doing business simply prohibitive. Administrators are accused of blocking necessary medical operations in the public health system which doctors want to perform. Managers are telling educators with decades of experience exactly how to teach their classes. Yet these managerial elites, while talking constantly of “innovation”, have a truly impoverished notion of how knowledge is shared: they tend to prefer e-mails rather than complex first-hand encounters.
The country, as President Mary McAleese recently remarked, is full of talented, creative persons; but many with a wisdom based on years of experience feel frustrated. Those with good ideas cannot get their hands on the money to give shape to them, while those who continue to reward themselves with big money operate systems designed to block off unconventional, fast-track ideas. Sean Dunne put it pithily: “the people with money have no balls and the people with balls have no money.” An over-statement, perhaps, but only just.
Other nations with decades and centuries of experience do bureaucracy far better than Ireland – the French medical system, for example. But our large home-grown administrative elites are only a recent formation. They haven’t been streamlined to take full account of the accumulated lore of the various professionals and business people with whom they deal.
Every time a restaurant with a complex menu or a greengrocer with a beautiful range of produce falls victim to closure, this isn’t just a bad, single moment in the lives of the proprietors and customers. With each closure is lost a marvellous, possibly irreplaceable store of knowledge.
Every time a surgeon is told that an operation cannot be performed, the wisdom of a team of experts, arduously assembled over years of considered effort, is set at naught. Architectural practices have gone from 27 to seven practitioners in less than three years – the loss of such lore is heart-rending.
Ireland is filled with naysayers – often on fat mileage allowances – telling people why they can’t do this or that. The banks – which, a few years ago, were throwing money indiscriminately at all comers – now refuse to support well-costed and sensible projects. They may well be bust, but if so, why are they still allowed to trade?
Despite all the special advisers and spinners, the political system is remarkably unresponsive to actual human needs. Last November, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) presented a 10-point plan to combat unemployment, including a job-sharing model. The model was rejected, although it has worked well in Germany. “I think most of the hostility came from the Department of Finance,” said David Begg, general secretary of Ictu.
The salary-proofed group of senior public servants must include many who facilitated or propounded some of the weirder policies of the Tiger years: a reliance on taxes generated by a short-term property bubble to fund basic structural and social spending, and a serious undercapitalisation of education from primary schools to universities. The looting of the public purse by Fás executives has been well exposed, but has anyone explained why, in a time of full employment, Fás was deemed necessary at all?
These were the years in which gobbledegook about a “stakeholder economy” and a “stakeholder society” was cut and pasted into every second press release. The new mantras were all about “centres of excellence”, “innovation” and “smart economy”. PR smoothies, who wouldn’t be found near a church on Sundays, ransacked the language of religion for “mission statements” and “ethical testing”.
A vulgar, heedless populism led to an assertion that unrestrained market forces were somehow compatible with excellence and ethics, and to a widespread distrust of those with real professional expertise. As gesture took the place of structure, the very people who now call for regulation were just a few years ago the ones baying loudest for deregulation of everything from transport to health services.
The feel-good gobbledegook was the sort at which Irish people of all backgrounds would have hooted in derisive laughter just one generation earlier, but now it was taken up by managers who called for “sound business models”.
Trainee primary teachers, on their practice in schools, were expected to draw up detailed printed plans for eight lessons in a single day, while also providing self-assessment reports on each of the eight lessons given already on the same day. Applicants for academic fellowships were instructed to declare what the precise “outcomes” of their projected research would be, even before their work had actually begun. Waiters in tea shops were trained to punch into a retrieval system the number of customers sitting at a certain table before they could dare to say “good morning”.
People were seized by the crazy idea that information is knowledge and that everything worth knowing could be measured. They became so busy using the new technology to document life that many of them lost the art of living it or of thinking straight. Too many of us rolled over and let these things happen.
Before the Tiger years, Irish people understood that the real quality of life lies in those things which cannot be quantified. The notion that market forces are vital is plain common sense, but the idea that money should determine everything is a rather recent and barbarous development.
So is the proposition that people can express individuality through designer labels. For most of their history, Irish people have felt connected to traditions of compassion for the young and old, for the poor and infirm, and money has been subordinate. Our grandparents understood Einstein’s maxim that “what counts can’t always be counted and what can be counted doesn’t always count”.
THE MONEY GENERATED in the boom years was not often invested wisely, either in long-term businesses or infrastructure, either in social amenities or educational development.
A report by Davy said as much a few weeks ago. There is no point therefore in seeking to return to the spirit of Tiger Ireland. The country needs to make not just a single step forward but a series of quantum leaps. These will be based on new ideas, propounded mainly by those who work outside our sclerotic political system.
And that system is sclerotic. It is forever fixated on small details rather than big pictures. The most interesting feature of the bust-up between Willie O’Dea and Maurice Quinlivan goes back to a press release issued in March of last year, in which Quinlivan complained of a bill of between €165,000 and €225,000 for six civil servants employed to deal with the then defence minister’s constituency affairs.
O’Dea was a local vote-catcher in the Ahernite style of almost all other successful politicians.
A country whose population is not much larger than that of Greater Birmingham can hardly afford more than 160 high-maintenance ward-heelers who open their main shop for business on just 96 days a year. Better by far to reduce the number of TDs to about 75; to bring in new kinds of leaders with experience in various walks of professional life; and to pay such people a competitive salary (but with no frills or extras) for running a country rather than a local clinic.
It seems unlikely that a political class which allowed so many problems to germinate in the days of plenty could offer many real answers in a time of austerity. Only a completely new political movement, perhaps in tandem with youth sections of the current parties, could tackle the challenges.
It may be that medics, scientists, architects, engineers and educators will, through sheer frustration, provide the nucleus of such a movement. In a coalition also composed of stymied business people and the shamefully treated young, they could constitute a formidable force. Their calibre would in all probability be superior to that of our current politicians, many of whom cannot think for themselves without the assistance of special advisers.
One thing is for sure: those who set themselves to face these challenges must have a lot more staying power than George Lee.
If that movement is to succeed, it will have to curb those who have been allowed to create an aura of busyness around infantile questionnaires, box-ticking and form-filling (much of it itself a substitute for personal initiative and critical thought).
The young will have to be brought into politics, but many people now over 50, who have memories of past setbacks and how they survived them, would like to share their knowledge with the community before passing on. There must be thousands of people in businesses, schoolrooms and social services who want something better, not just for their children but for themselves – and right away. One can live with austerity for a few years but only in the certainty that the leadership has a plan – like the democracies of western Europe after the second World War.
There are good people all across the public services who are frustrated by current blockages and who would have creative ideas about how to save Ireland from the fate of Greece. But we need political leaders who can locate and unleash such people.
An Smaoineamh Mór (the Your Country, Your Call initiative) is a start and will create good ideas. But the necessary reform of the political system, which may be a condition for the implementation of some of those ideas, is not likely to happen from within. Most of its beneficiaries are too well embedded to challenge the codes that have produced them. Those with the courage to do so should certainly be a crucial element in any reformed national government.
The initiative will have to come from outside. There is not a lot of time, but Ireland has often recovered from worse crises when it seemed on the point of disappearance.
Declan Kiberd’s most recent book is Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living(Faber and Faber). He is professor of Anglo-Irish literature at UCD
RENEWING THE REPUBLIC
IRELAND SEEMS broken. The loss of trust in diverse figures of authority, in the Church, business and banking, in politics and politicians, is palpable. How can we fix it? What is to be done to make our politics, our political system, the way in which we govern ourselves, work in an efficient, transparent and accountable way, addressing the problems facing the country now and setting us on a course for sustainable good government?
Today in The Irish Times, we begin a series of articles edited by Peter Murtagh. The series will examine what has gone wrong and what might be done to set things right. We have asked a number of figures not directly involved in politics to write about the problems and suggest some actions. Later, we will publish articles by some of our leading political scientists and former politicians. And we invite readers to join the debate, starting today, by giving their reactions via our website, irishtimes.com, and make their own observations.
A selection of these comments will be re-published next week in the newspaper, starting on Monday. The challenge of dealing with our problems is reflected in the title of the series: Renewing The Republic.
Declan Kiberd, the writer, literary theorist and professor of English at University College Dublin, has opened the series today.
He will be followed next week by Fiach MacConghail, director of the Abbey Theatre, Nuala O’Connor, the Emmy award-winning documentary film maker; Theo Dorgan, the poet; and others.