Fintan O’Toole: ‘Is Ireland a developed country at all?’

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We’ve ended up with a place that is somehow on both the leading edge and lagging far behind

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a naive traveller from a normal western European country. You know nothing about Ireland except that it is a rich country with a booming economy. You arrive at the airport. You ask politely where the station is, as you can’t see the signs for the train to the city. Amid bitter laughter, you are told that there might be one along in 2034. You are pointed towards the long queue for an expensive taxi.

After you get into the city you catch the train to Galway. You wait for the trolley to come so you can buy a cup of coffee, a bottle of water, a sandwich. A kindly fellow passenger puts you out of your misery by informing you that there is no trolley and no cafe car, that in this strange country we can’t get our act together to serve food or drink on trains.

And these are just relatively trivial first impressions. If you really got to know the place you would find, for example, that it might be impossible to get a basic education for your son with special needs, or that there is no accessible public psychiatric service for your daughter with mental health problems.

No metro or underground system even in the capital city; raw sewage still being pumped into the sea at many places along the coast; an electricity grid that is struggling to keep up with ordinary demand

You might then ask: is this a developed country at all? And the best answer we natives could give you is a convoluted one: that Ireland has managed to become both overdeveloped and undeveloped without ever being quite developed.


Over the last three decades Ireland has received a staggering €1.1 trillion in investment from abroad, mostly from the US. This is great, and I’m not suggesting that we don’t want it. But it is “overdevelopment” relative to the nature of Ireland itself. It is a Ferrari on a boreen.

We’ve plonked a hyper-globalised economy on top of a starkly undeveloped society. We’ve ended up with a place that is both on the leading edge and lagging far behind.

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The underdevelopment is partly physical: no metro or underground system even in the capital city; raw sewage still being pumped into the sea at many places along the coast; an electricity grid that is struggling to keep up with ordinary demand, let alone a projected boom in data centres; a critical shortage of both public and private housing; a ranking for digital connectivity of 23rd out of 28 EU countries.

It’s also obvious in public services. Given that Ireland has so much catching up to do to reach European levels of development, we ought to be spending much more on public services than other countries in the EU. We actually spend a lot less.

Hence, we still have some primitive practices in basic social services. Ireland is, so far as I know, the only “developed” country where primary education is not, in practice, free. Likewise, Ireland is the only country in western Europe that does not offer universal free access to primary medical care. And Ireland is one of the most expensive countries in the world for childcare.

Or, if you think about the broader functioning of the State, it must be astonishing to most Europeans that we are a maritime nation that doesn’t even have a functioning navy. And a learned nation without a vaguely adequate national archives or national library.

Why is this? How can Ireland be at once so hyper-developed and so underdeveloped?

The answer, I think, lies in both social attitudes and political culture.

At the level of society, Ireland is underdeveloped because the State has always been careful to ensure that those who are prospering can buy their way out of many of the deficits. Bluntly, we have been very good at making underdevelopment tolerable for the middle classes.

We are so used to crisis management that we treat success as if it were an unexpected emergency. Which in essence is what it becomes

If you don’t depend on public transport, we have excellent motorways. If you are worried about the lack of access to public healthcare, we have a burgeoning system of private provision. If you can afford to send your kids to fee-paying schools, it doesn’t greatly matter to you that Ireland ranks 23rd of 36 members of the OECD for expenditure per pupil at both primary and secondary level.

These opt-outs have been highly effective in ensuring that the most vocal and best connected parts of society have not felt it necessary to demand universal services that would match Ireland’s level of economic progress. This, in turn, has sustained a political culture characterised by short-termism and smugness.

The great argument in favour of having, as Ireland has had for a century, a political system in which one or other of two near-identical centre-right parties is always in power is continuity. It should at least be easy to make plans for development over the long term when you know that the overall direction of policy is not going to change.

Yet things have not worked like this. The absence of large-scale ideological challenge created not continuity but complacency.

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And while we have not had wild swings of ideology in government, we have had wild swings in investment. For all the boosterism that has infused the rhetoric of Irish politics, there has actually been an underlying pessimism: why plan for good times when you know in your heart they won’t last?

The actual experience of the process of development since the revolution launched by T.K. Whitaker and Séan Lemass in 1958 is not like the steady climbing of a ladder from darkness into light. It has been a merry-go-round in which boom and gloom have come round in circles: the good 1960s and early 1970s followed by the awful 1980s; the Celtic Tiger followed by the great crash.

Government has thus tended to be manic-depressive. When the tide is flowing, money is squandered on pet projects and electoral bribes. When it is ebbing, the tap is abruptly shut off. Plans — like those reannounced yet again last week for the Dublin Metro — are made, shelved, remade, shelved again.

It is as if our rulers have never really had faith in their own boasts. They have been unable fully to believe that Ireland is on a trajectory of long-term growth in which the workforce has doubled in size and the population is finally recovering from the disasters of the 19th century.

This is what makes the place so strange. We have extraordinary technological, educational and demographic expansion but, weirdly, not the political confidence that should come with them.

We can’t plan for all this growth in advance — we have to wait for it to happen and then try, frantically, to manage it. We are so used to crisis management that we treat success as if it were an unexpected emergency. Which in essence is what it becomes.

Another word for developed might be maturity. The State still has the growing pains of an adolescent. At 100 years old it really ought to be mature enough to plan for its own future.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column