Irish think tanks don’t think any more

Our think tanks tend to lack a core thesis on what the Irish experience should be about.

One of the consequences of being a small country is that in many areas we have the same fixed running costs as a large one. Having a National Opera House or a National Football Stadium costs the same if you are Germany or Andorra.

In the aftermath of our great economic calamity, one of the targets we have yet to blame is our infrastructure of thinktanks. Thinktanks play a powerful, prominent and subtle role in political life. They often shape the long-term political conversation, generating the catchy slogan that makes sense of the political weather, and give purpose to the endeavour. By way of illustration, Tony Giddens's notion of "the third way" made some sense for a while under the shadow of the old-fashioned lefty, half rightwing policies of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

Scanning around Ireland it is hard to find much in the way of direction emerging from our thinktanks. Our thinktanks largely fit within the course set in the late 1950s, where they tend to lack a world view, a core thesis on what the Irish experience should be about. These research centres – ESRI, IIEA, Geary, Nevin, Tasc – tend to focus on optimising the existing management of the State, tinkering here and there. Often they bend easily towards the project work proposed by their funders and are captured by the strategic and sectional goals that surround them.

It’s easy to understand why this is the case. Since 1958 the State has withdrawn from an attempt to craft a distinctive vision for Irish society. When de Valera’s Republic ran aground in the 1950s amid rampant emigration, economic despair and the scourge of TB, the State narrowed its vision to becoming the best little country to do business in.


Visionary transformation

We all live under the long shadow of TK Whitaker, who put the economy and jobs at the heart of the Irish project. A visionary transformation for sure, but all that we have been able to do with it since is to make modest adjustment to the engine, especially lately, in the form of tax incentives to multinationals and developers. So even though the conditions that produced a jobs-at-all- costs society have abated, we have become an affluent, multicultural, pluralist State. We are still stuck with the anxiety of having to make a living at all costs by adjusting ourselves to markets, by becoming more “competitive” more “entrepreneurial” more “flexible”, by “stimulating” markets and “protecting our low corporate tax rate”.

These are the cliches of our time, every bit as sterile and frozen as were the watchwords of de Valera's Republic, satirised in Myles na gCopaleen's Catechism of Cliche. During good economic times, we worry that we have lost our soul as Irish people and that an ethic of greed and oppressive busyness pushes out care and kindness. We never feel able to deliver big social projects and big elements of infrastructure, doing bits in a piecemeal, patchy, mend-and-make-do kind of way. In bad economic times, we scramble and blame, desperately trying to get the good times rolling again.

Recession of imagination

So, perhaps the economic trauma of the past few years years hides a deeper, more fundamental recession – a recession of imagination; a loss of vision and courage to tackle our social, political, environmental and cultural crises.

Radical solutions have no currency in contemporary Irish politics; the pragmatics of conservative logic holds sway. We are also a people done with ideological efforts to make sense of where we are. This lack of direction is evidenced in the diligent work of our thinktanks. Our national ambition is little more than to be best in class in a range of international league tables like childhood literacy, university rankings and life expectancy. We borrow early childhood development from New Zealand, copy Dutch reforms of higher education and, mimic others' models purporting to represent best international practice. All these policies and measures hold laudable goals, but in and of themselves, fall short of an overall vision of a good society or national project.

The basic impulse is towards optimising individual citizen’s satisfaction, but they might as well be in Chicago or Cologne as in Clonmel. So the very institutions that are given the task of trying to form a distinctive vision for a better Ireland, tend to avoid the question of what is it all for. One hundred years after the foundation of the State, its raison d’être is still unclear.

The authors are founder members of The Centre for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Economy and Society, an initiative of UCC and WIT. The centre hopes to suggest, through a variety of projects, ways to reimagine the social and moral fabric that is necessary in order to live a healthy, meaningful and ethical life.