Breda O’Brien: The good ship Enda sails merrily on
‘The degree to which this Taoiseach has been given free passes is quite extraordinary’
Taoiseach Enda Kenny ...”Our Taoiseach has given us a vision for this State – the best small country in the world in which to do business.” Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Last week in The Irish Times Cliff Taylor asked an interesting question of President Michael D Higgins: “Surely it is positive that the economy is recovering, and that this growth is providing jobs and starting to rebuild living standards?”
His point was that the President seems to find it hard to see anything positive about economic recovery, due to him being “a long-time critic of the market-based economic model”.
A few days later, The Irish Times published an article by three academics, Tom Boland, Ray Griffin and Kieran Keohane, who are involved in the Centre for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Economy and Society, which is inspired by an initiative on ethics of the President. Further worthwhile questions were raised by them, including whether, 100 years after the Easter Rising, the State’s raison d’être was still unclear.
You could ask whether the raison d’être of any modern state is entirely clear. Our neighbours across the water have regular soul-searching sessions about what it now means to be British, and what exactly British values are. The answers are seldom clear-cut, but under prime minister David Cameron, tend to lean towards bog-standard political liberalism, which has the unfortunate side effect of alienating significant sectors of British society.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has given us a vision for the State – the best small country in the world in which to do business. The first question that demands to be answered is: why? Why do we want to be the best small country in the world in which to do business? Is it to maximise profits for shareholders? To enable emigrants to return home? To ensure a more equitable sharing of wealth? To provide a decent home for every citizen?
The next question is: what is left if you don’t even manage to achieve being the best small country in the world in which to do business?
Even still, Taylor’s point about celebrating the recovery is reasonable. It is hard to achieve any kind of social change when starting from a shattered economy, and, as he says, “growth of 5 per cent- plus opens up the argument of where we should spend money rather than where we should cut”.
Loss of vision
Mind you, understandably enough in a short article, they do not offer any alternative vision but simply say the current Irish think tanks are tinkering at the edges, rather than offering radical solutions. Leadership is a crucial factor, though obviously it is not the only element in any shared vision that moves people to action.
In his article, Taylor says it does not really matter whether or not soldiers were standing by to guard ATMs, because what really counts is that they were scary and painful times for individuals and families. But perhaps it matters whether the Taoiseach can report accurately what might have happened at that time.
However, the degree to which the Taoiseach has been given free passes is quite extraordinary.
Who really believes he did not intend former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan to step down? He has reneged on many promises, everything from keeping a hospital open in Roscommon to meaningful Dáil reform and ending the scandal of people spending days on hospital trolleys.
And yet the good ship Enda sails merrily on, without any major effort by the media to hold him to account.
Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek has written that the trouble with economists is they always assume people are trying to maximise their own benefit. The problem is, he argues, we can’t always precisely define what the optimal benefit is for us. We need “comparisons, examples and suggestions”.
So the role of leaders is vital, and it is less than helpful when you cannot be sure that what the Taoiseach is telling you is entirely accurate.
To quote Sedlacek again: “Ethics forms the core of economics . . . A market economy without morality is a zombie system: the robots function perfectly but in the end they leave behind a trail of devastation. We have to return to our origins and talk about the soul of the economy.”
My answer to the question Taylor posed to the President is that, yes, it is good news if the economy is recovering, if it is not just a first step on the way to repeating a disastrous cycle, and if instead it is a step towards a fairer, kinder and more compassionate society.
Confidence cannot be high that this will be the case, no more than confidence can be high that soldiers were on standby in 2010 and 2011.