Ireland has its problems, but we need a sense of perspective

Is our politics getting better at serving society’s needs and leading the country? You decide

End of the year and time to look back with what pleases us to describe as a sense of perspective upon the events of the last 12 months. But let’s look at this through a wider lens than usual.

There is a broader context that is worth considering. It’s about our progress as a country and the state of our politics.

We have seen enough international comparisons at this stage to know that for all the very obvious problems our society faces – in housing, in healthcare, in child poverty and a range of other areas – Ireland is rich, comfortable and free by comparison with most of the rest of the world. There are enough surveys to bear this out.

Look at it another way. Imagine a version of John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” thought experiment, where you are asked to design a society when you don’t know what place in it you will occupy.

The 1981 review makes grim reading. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition was struggling to cope with severe economic conditions

In my version, imagine you are asked where you would like to be born – either in Ireland, or in some other part of the world (take your chances exactly where). You’d be mad not to pick Ireland.

Are things getting better? Objectively measured (by all those UN surveys), yes. Does it sometimes feel like that? Assuredly, no. Is our politics getting better at serving the needs of society and leading the country? You decide. But here’s some help.

Time and memory play tricks on us all. But there’s evidence to consider, if you want.

Reviews of the year are a journalistic staple. My predecessors in this space also crammed them into the week before Christmas; you can find them on the Irish Times digital archive. So I did. I looked at them at 10-year intervals to find what we were saying about the year just passed at the end of 2011, 2001, 1991 and 1981.

The 1981 review makes grim reading. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition was struggling to cope with severe economic conditions: record unemployment, 20 per cent inflation, an unsustainable deficit. Garret Fitzgerald was warning the middle classes they would have to put up with a reduction in living standards “for a few years”.

The saturnine figure of Charles Haughey loomed over politics like a spectre. He was the central question of Irish politics: for him or against him. Northern Ireland crackled like a lit fuse: 10 IRA prisoners had died in on hunger strike. More than 100 people died in that year of the Troubles. “It was a year of uncertainty,” wrote Dick Walsh, “of yawning doubt about the Republic’s economy and finances, and ominous confusion in the North”. In the face of it all, politics seems almost powerless, nearly useless.

By 1991, the economic situation had stabilised greatly, though unemployment remained a huge problem, especially for young people. Emigration seemed the only option for many. The spark of hope for resolution of the conflict in the North was not yet visible.

In the South, this was the Ireland of “The Commitments”. Explaining how they could identify with the soul music of black Americans, Roddy Doyle’s character Jimmy Rabbitte explained, “the Irish are the blacks of Europe”.

For many years, the left-wing analysis of Irish politics suggested that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael represented just two sides of the same conservative forces that controlled Irish society since independence

A “terrible year”, Dick Walsh thought. But there is less of sense of hopelessness about politics – and more a sense of impatience at the work to be done.

A decade later, in 2001, and the end of year reviews have lost the overarching pessimism. But there is disillusion that the politics of the time – mired in corruption allegations and tribunal investigations that stemmed from the baroque debasements of the Haughey era, but were hardly limited to them – is not up to the challenges of the new millennium.

The undeniable prosperity of the celtic tiger had given Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy options like never before; but Walsh, irrepressible just two years before his untimely death, was scathing about the choices they made, which would make the country more, not less, unequal, he said.

In 2011, Stephen Collins cast his eye back over the earthquake election of that year, which ended nine decades of domination of Irish politics by Fianna Fáil, and considered the shaky prospects for the Fine Gael-Labour coalition. He cut through the rhetoric of that government to note that there had been “huge upheaval but little change” – meaning that while Fine Gael and Labour had routed Fianna Fáil, the new coalition largely continued with the economic programme set out by its ill-fated predecessor before its collapse. The upheaval would not end there.

So what of December 2021? It has been a difficult year for the country, and for its Government. The pandemic overshadowed everything; at the end of the year, it still does. But when the pandemic passes, what will remain?

A politics so changed that Dick Walsh would have found it unrecognisable, but which has yet to demonstrate that it can deliver on pressing social needs.

A Government struggling to deal with acute social problems in housing, healthcare and childcare – the sort of problems that won’t be solved with money alone, but certainly won’t be solved without it. Faced with the challenges of climate change, a growing population, a restive Northern Ireland, an uncertain world.

For many years, the left-wing analysis of Irish politics suggested that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael represented just two sides of the same conservative forces that controlled Irish society since independence. If that was true, it was also true that this was what the Irish people repeatedly preferred to govern them. Now those forces are in a formal collaboration.

To some of them, it looks like a last-chance saloon. Because if they can’t deal with the job the electorate has given them, 2021 supplied lots of evidence that voters will look elsewhere for someone who can.