One of the most perplexing features of Irish life is that so many people believe in a false narrative which depicts this country as little better than a failed state when the reality is that it is one of the richest and fairest societies on the globe.
Despite the evidence of Ireland’s transformation over recent decades into a wealthy and tolerant society, it seems that a lot of people would prefer to wallow in the self-pitying notion that we remain “the most distressful country that ever yet was seen”.
The fact that so many of its citizens are reluctant to accept the real achievements this State has made since its foundation a century ago might make for an amusing study in mass psychology if the potential disaster from such a warped view of reality was not so serious.
By any objective analysis Ireland has done remarkably well since it emerged as an independent state. Despite its birth being accompanied by a vicious civil war, the country remained a democracy through its early decades when most of Europe succumbed to fascism or communism.
Over the past half century our politicians, public servants and State agencies have built on that stability to create the conditions for an astonishing level of economic growth and social progress. The population has risen by over two million since the early 1960s, we live far longer, have never been healthier or better educated and more of us are at work than ever before.
A timely effort to detail the reality of the way we live now has arrived in the shape of a beautifully produced book called In Fact: An Optimist's Guide to Ireland at 100 by Mark Henry, in which the author lays out clearly and succinctly just how far we have come since independence.
His detailed analysis is backed up by facts and figures about which there is no argument. For instance, a recent United Nations human development index, which measures countries in terms of wealth, health, education, women’s rights, safety and tolerance, rated Ireland second in the world after Norway.
Torrent of abuse
The response to this finding was quite remarkable. It was virtually ignored by the media, but when Leo Varadkar put out a tweet welcoming the UN finding he was deluged with a torrent of abuse by social media and some mainstream media commentators as well.
It seems that there is deep hostility to acknowledging the fact that as a society we have actually done pretty well in recent decades.
A critically important factor in the country’s progress has been political stability. “Relatively consistent centrist governments, with few swings to the hard left or hard right, ensured a continuity of policy and investment programmes over a sufficiently long time to ensure their success,” writes Henry.
What is worrying is that such political stability is now under serious strain. There is a distinct possibility that at the next general election a significant segment of the electorate will opt for the extremist political forces promising to tear up the policies that have brought us the quality of life most of us enjoy today.
Of course not everything in the garden is rosy. We have a problem with housing supply which has left many young people struggling to afford to buy or even rent a property. And some of our public services, particularly health, have not responded adequately to the demands of an increasingly wealthy and more demanding public.
That said, there is something strange about the fact that as a society we fixate almost exclusively on problems which happen to be a feature of every prosperous economy while ignoring the enormous benefits almost all of us enjoy compared to every previous generation who lived in this country.
Henry tries to analyse why we refuse to believe the evidence of our everyday experience. He suggests that the media is one important reason for the malaise.
“Rarely does a radio programme or TV documentary dwell on the progress we have made. Despite our incredible achievements it is the progress we have not made, or the road bumps on the way, that get airtime. The fact that no mother has died giving birth this month is not news. The fact that no one has died doing their job this week is not news.”
One example of the way things have changed for the better in recent decades has been a dramatic reduction in the number of road deaths to less than 150 a year. As recently as the early 1970s, when there was a tiny fraction of the current number of cars on the road, the annual death toll peaked at 640. Yet 66 per cent of people in a recent survey thought that driving behaviour on our roads was deteriorating.
It seems that if people are constantly told that things are getting worse they will believe it even if their own experience tells them the opposite. Opposition politicians and media commentators who tag the word “crisis” on to every problem, great and small, have managed to persuade far too many people to accept a warped version of reality. This narrative of failure has become so all pervasive that it represents a real threat to Ireland’s future.