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Fintan O'Toole: Crisis management is what the State does best

Immense task of reconstruction will demand much more than frantic improvisation

Many times, in writing about the failures of the State, I’ve used some version of this line: “we don’t have governments, just a perpetual crisis-management agency”. Or “the State is not really a stable system – it is just a permanent state of crisis management, a perpetual-motion fire engine always rushing from blaze to blaze.”

Well, we’re glad of the fire-engines now. We have reason to be very grateful that the Irish system of governance tends to come into its own when, as Captain Boyle puts it in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, “Th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’ chassis”.

Compared to the Anglophone countries to our west and east, Ireland is a beacon of competence. The State, mostly so sluggish during the lifetime of the outgoing Government, has reacted like the crew of a becalmed vessel, snoozing down below, to the order: all hands on deck! It has switched itself on with remarkable alacrity.

Perhaps crisis management is in the DNA of the State. Its first four decades were defined, respectively, by a civil war, the Great Depression, the second World War and mass emigration. Emergencies continued to erupt: the Troubles, the economic collapse of the 1980s, the great banking and property crash of 2008. Chassis is so familiar that when we didn’t have it (roughly between 1994 and that crash), we did not collectively know what to do with ourselves.


This crisis mentality does not, for the most part, lead to good habits. In the year 2000, Seán Cromien, former general secretary of the Department of Finance, wrote an official report on the functioning, or rather the dysfunctionality, of the Department of Education – but it could have been about almost any other department.

‘Strategic thinking’

He described a system “overwhelmed with detailed day-to-day work which has to be given priority over long-term strategic thinking. It is one in which, as a member of senior management expressed it, ‘the urgent drives out the important’.”

Policy, wrote Cromien, “evolves haphazardly . . . sections are too busy keeping up with the current workload to challenge whether what they are doing is being done properly or, indeed, whether it is worth doing at all.”

That’s a decent summary of the underlying reasons why the State has seemed powerless to develop and sustain rational long-term policies in healthcare, housing, and so on. But it’s also an accurate summary of the way government has to be done right now.

You don't argue about the ship's course when the bow has been breached – you plug the holes and stop the water coming through

The urgent drives out the important, indeed. And the system, as we see, is very impressive when it is galvanised by this sense of urgency. We saw some of this with Brexit: those parts of government that were dealing with it performed very well because they had a single, clear objective: no hard Border. We are seeing it again now.

In the ancient Greek saying, “the fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing”. The State is very bad at being a fox and very good at being a hedgehog – when it “knows one big thing” it operates well. At the moment, the one big thing is Covid-19. The many merely important things have fallen away. There is only this single overwhelming reality.

Grim twist

This is as it should be. John Maynard Keynes’s famous call for economists and governments to deal with the crises in front of them instead of debating long term-consequences – “In the long run we are all dead” – acquires a particularly grim twist when we trying to stay alive in the short run. You don’t argue about the ship’s course when the bow has been breached – you plug the holes and stop the water coming through.

Government by crisis management is having its finest hour. But we must let it go out on this high note

Yet hard as it may be, the State cannot afford to let the important be entirely driven out by the urgent. This crisis is not time-bound. Unfreezing an economy and a society is not like trying to reboot a computer by turning it off and then on again. We will not “get back to normal”. The normal is altered beyond recognition. We are all Corona-communists now.

Patrick Honohan, former governor of the Central Bank, writes in the Irish Times that "governments will likely take control of some large firms" and Fine Gael Ministers do not demur. Yesterday's madness is today's common sense.

Scarred by trauma

We will be left, after this acute phase, with a society that is both scarred by trauma and refocused on the public good. Even in the immediate aftermath, there will be profound choices. Are we going to turf the homeless out of the hotels where they have been sheltered? Are we going back to a housing system skewed away from human need and towards private profit? Are we really going to declare that the one-tier health system created by Covid-19, in which people are treated according to medical need and not their ability to pay, was just a temporary little arrangement?

Government by crisis management is having its finest hour. But we must let it go out on this high note. The immense task of remaking the world after this nightmare will demand much more than frantic improvisation. It will need a governmental system that can bring the same ferocious urgency to bear on the things that are merely important.