A better place in which to live


The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Ireland in recent decades is certainly proof of the accuracy of the first part of the famous opening line of L.P. Hartley's novel of nostalgia, The Go-Between, whatever about the second part.

That this country has changed out of all recognition is a truism of daily discourse; whether it has changed for the better is a question whose answer usually depends on personal circumstances, preferences and beliefs.

It is a constant of human nature to view the past through a nostalgic haze, even, or perhaps especially, a past we have not experienced ourselves. As well as being a sunnier place, it is frequently seen as a simpler, more contented and even more caring place, partly thanks to the broad brush strokes of historical narratives which make past developments appear much clearer than the endless uncertainties and conflicting arguments of history in the making in the present.

Overall, though, we need to remind ourselves occasionally that Ireland is now a much better place than the other country it used to be. For every fond memoir of a rural idyll like Alice Taylor's To School Through the Fields, there are a dozen short stories, novels or plays by people from John McGahern to John B. Keane to remind us of the other reality of that country, a reality that was defined by small-mindedness, pettiness, greed, authoritarianism, hypocrisy, begrudgery and vindictiveness. The stifling suffocation of small communities, where keeping up appearances and not stepping out of line were cultural requirements, is a 20th century Irish literary cliché. Yet there are plenty of people who look back on that past with nostalgia, contrasting it with the uncaring anonymity of present-day urban life. The past, of course, is a country in which we do not have to actually live anymore, just visit occasionally in our imaginations.

The three major developments of recent years which have made Ireland the place it is today are the ending of the IRA military campaign and the emergence of the Northern peace process; the collapse of the Catholic Church's authority and the new dominance of what used to be known as the liberal agenda; and the huge economic growth and accompanying opportunities of the Celtic Tiger.

All are positive developments, making present-day Ireland a better place in which to live. There are many people, on all sides of the conflict, who would prefer to have had a military victory in the North rather than an imperfect peace. That kind of victory proved to be a chimera; instead, it has been left to the political process to try and to create a workable and acceptable accommodation. In spite of the tedium of seemingly endless arguments, advances and setbacks, the peace process this year saw the IRA decommission arms, an event that was beyond everyone's imagination 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. Politics may not engage the imagination like militarism can, but it is a better alternative - a fact that should be remembered by those who glibly dismiss it as boring and only practised by people who are out for themselves.

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As the Troubles recede into the past, it is salutary to remind ourselves of the mistakes of earlier generations in similar circumstances. While Sinn Féin extols the memories and exploits of IRA volunteers, particularly those who died, we should remember those who did not volunteer for anyone's army but who died because they were born into the wrong religion, were standing on the wrong corner, walking on the wrong street, sitting in the wrong café or the wrong pub at the wrong time.

Thirty years ago, the North was mired in one of the nastiest and most vicious periods of the Troubles as republican and loyalist gunmen shot up and bombed pubs frequented by Protestants and Catholics respectively. It was as far from heroic as one can imagine, rooted in the dark viciousness of hatred, sectarianism and the pathology of violence.

The collapse of the Catholic Church's authority is sometimes seen as having left a vacuum that has been filled partly by the liberal values of personal freedoms which this newspaper has espoused over several decades. What it has certainly left is an absence of dogmatism that some people seem eager to see return or to re-create. Tolerance is a virtue we do not seem to manifest well in Ireland. The previous orthodoxies, the Protestant ascendancy, the Catholic hegemony, were both notable for their lack of tolerance.

For the current liberal orthodoxy to be intolerant is an apparent contradiction in terms. Yet there is a strong tendency in this country not just to win an argument but to force everyone to conform to our views. The positive aspects of political correctness should not be used to berate people who choose the freedoms we believe they should have to do things of which we do not approve.

Along with tolerance, we also need to keep a sense of perspective and of reality. Much of the economic growth over the past decade has been simply a catching-up process after decades of economic failures caused by the stranglehold of vested interests on public policy and by bad political decisions. Greed and envy were not listed among the seven deadly sins today or yesterday. They were as much a part of the foreign country of the past as they are of today; they were not admirable then and neither are they now. However, people have been bemoaning the materialism of modern life for as long as they have been outraged by the behaviour of today's youth. The main effect of the Celtic Tiger has been to make Ireland a country in which many more people, whether born in Ireland or not, can choose to live. Unlike the country for the old that it was for most of the 20th century, it is now a country for the young. That is certainly something worthy of celebration.