Our muted, conformist nation fears change


Irish thinking is crippled by conservatism and inertia. A phobia of the new kills our chances of building a better land, writes ELAINE BYRNE

BAYERN MUNICH defeated themselves in the Champions League final at the weekend because they refused to change their tactics. Inter Milan’s defensive football blunted the grandmasters of Germany and forced them to make obvious mistakes.

This model of cautious football ultimately turns off fans because imagination and courage are dismissed for conformity.

Just like Irish public debate.

It is assumed that a young generation will rise up and, by definition, challenge conservative orthodoxy. But what happens when that generation is more conformist than those in power?

In the 1950s and 1980s, emigration was the safety valve that prevented any measure of economic, social and political transformation. As Alexis Fitzgerald noted in the 1953 Report of the Commission on Emigration, emigration was seen as positive because it “releases social tensions which would otherwise explode and makes possible a stability of manners and customs which would otherwise be the subject of radical change”.

God forbid.

Today, it is unemployment and indebtedness that have muted any prospect of a revolutionary edge. This generation has too much to lose. The incentive to take risks is outweighed by the struggle to financially survive.

The hope that things will get better if we keep our heads down and patiently work through our own individual difficulties has dulled us into compliancy. Cynicism has blunted possibility to the point of stagnation.

Two years after the economic crisis began, President Mary McAleese belatedly tries to sum up the public mood. She is right when she says that “people are mad as hell” but it does not actually mean that anybody is going to do anything about it.

An intellectual consensus has resigned itself to pessimism and disengaged from caring anymore. A generation of indignant Bayern Munichs is content to watch decision-makers prevaricate on their political and economic futures.

The character of Brian Cowen’s reshuffle in March was personified by the same colour of caution that has stopped him from calling the three byelections.

Gordon Brown’s campaign in the recent British elections was characterised by a fear of change.

The Labour Party’s call for a new constitution, to be written substantially by the people and ratified on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, has not excited the public imagination. Neither has Fine Gael’s “New Politics” policy which seeks to, among other things, create a citizens’ assembly to drive political reform.

It is curious then that, while politicians of various hues advocate big-bang-style reforms, many academics in the fields of politics and law have poured cold water over the very concept of a second republic. Debate on the Fine Gael and Labour proposals – on politicalreform.ie and humanrights.ie – is at times engaged in the scholarly straw-man fallacy.

Are academics as intellectually conservative as their students?

The Irish solution to an Irish problem is to vote No when we don’t know. This essentially translates as a phobia of any contemplation of actual change. The appetite for radical institutional reform is subdued by the natural inclination towards preserving the existing order. Would Barack Obama or Nick Clegg have ever been elected to political office if they stood in Ireland?

The outrage, if it ever had any, has been tamed by voluntary inertia.

The Bayern Munich generation tweet furiously when Bill Cullen recites his well-worn story of 4am starts as a recipe for life-long financial success. As he told a mildly unreceptive Late Late Show audience recently, all a young person has to do is “get out there and knock on doors” if they really, really, want a job.

That there are no doors to knock on because of the policy failures by a political party that has occupied government office for 20 of the last 23 years is inconsequential. That Cullen and his car dealership have donated over €30,000, in disclosed donations, to that same party over the last 10 years is neither here nor there.

What outrage is there that political parties last week disclosed the lowest-ever figure in political donations since the law was established in 1997?

Is it not absolutely contemptible to democracy that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour disclosed a zero return in disclosed donations for 2009, the year that all three parties ran substantial local, European and byelection campaigns? And a second Lisbon Treaty referendum?

The standards commission again repeated its request that “a strong case to be made for a new approach to the general funding of political parties, for increased transparency in such funding and for greater scrutiny of political party expenditure”. But who cares?

Michael McDowell does. The former minister for justice, who once had the power fundamentally to change the rules governing political donations, told a UCD conference on constitutional reform last Friday that media calls for every donation to be released into the public domain was an attempt by media interests to secure power.

“Do we want a society where every €100 or €200 contribution needs to be public?”

I’d rather that, Michael, than a system which asks the public not to trust it.

Playing defensive football is one thing, being hypocritical is another matter entirely.