Fintan O’Toole: Ireland is being held back by fear
Underneath our bluster is an insecurity that prevents us from adapting to the changing world
Ajai Chopra of the IMF. The the dominant emotion about the 2010 troika bailout was Relief. Relief that someone else was taking charge. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
We don’t think all that much of ourselves, do we? It’s been interesting, over the last fortnight, to smell the fear in the air. The fear of making big decisions. The fear of the unfamiliar.
The fear that if we try to impose basic standards of decency on multinational corporations they will simply leave us to our own pitiful devices. We go in for a lot of bravado at times, but behind it we’re a very timid people. And what we’re most afraid of is ourselves. We don’t trust ourselves at all.
I vividly remember the weekend in November 2010, when it became clear that Ireland was about to be taken over by the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It was an extraordinary moment in the history of a country that had defined itself through its struggle for independence. That independence was to be surrendered without a shot in a technocratic coup.
And the dominant emotion that weekend? Relief. Relief that someone else was taking charge. Over time, as the consequences became clear, emotions would become much more ambivalent, but over those first days of the surrender of Irish sovereignty there was a widespread sense that we deserved this.
This goes against the other image of ourselves, the one we like to present to the world and the one our governments usually evoke when they’re in trouble. This other image is of an enormously inflated national pride. There’s a kind of official discourse, much favoured by Enda Kenny, for example, in which it is inconceivable that Ireland could be merely good – it has to be “the best little country” for whatever you’re having yourself. It is an image of the fighting Irish, full of brave self-assertion, not taking nothing from nobody.
Yet these two versions are not contradictory – they are entirely complementary. Our collective self-esteem is a pendulum that swings from “top of the world, Ma!” to “Jesus, what else would you expect in this kip of a country?”
There is no real equilibrium, no stable point at which we can be both proud of ourselves and conscious of our many collective failings.
In 2006 we were all swagger and bluster, convinced that we had discovered the secret to ever-expanding riches. By 2008 we were abject, convinced that we were always doomed because, at the end of the day, we always screw everything up.
This swing between extremes continues – think of Michael Noonan’s werewolf-like transformation from ever ‘umble Uriah Heep to Bold Robert Emmett. We cringe or we crow – nothing in between.
A healthy society has enough anger about itself to recognise the things that are wrong with it, and enough pride in itself to believe that it can change them.
Collective self-contempt, on the other hand, is a vicious circle. We accept low standards – barbaric conditions in emergency departments or a doubling of consistent child poverty – because, sure, that’s the way it is in this bloody place. And because we accept them, these things persist and prove we were right all along.
I suspect the roots of the problem lie more in our peculiar path to economic development and our extreme dependency on the goodwill of a handful of very powerful corporations. But whatever the reasons for it, we have to get over it because it is fatally inhibiting our capacity to adjust to a rapidly changing world.
The fear of the last fortnight is that if you take away our status as a tax haven for huge global corporations we won’t have much left. We’re so insecure that we worry that unless we allow these corporations to use our green and pleasant land as a conduit for untaxed billions, they’ll leave us for a more compliant lover.
What we’re really scared to say is that Ireland gives these corporations a great deal – terrific workers, high standards of education, a creative culture, democratic stability, access to EU markets. And, yes, a low corporation tax rate of 12. 5 per cent that gives them what they say they want – certainty. Or would do if we didn’t encourage them to play games with it.
This place is not a kip. It’s not so bereft of attractions that it can entice investment only by advertising itself as a moral no-man’s-land. We’re better than that – not the best little country in the world, not God’s chosen people, but not a glorified financial brothel either.
If we’re going to survive in these turbulent times it will be by making the most of the things we’re really good at and getting better at the things we’re not.