IS IRELAND the worst country in the world? Listening to much of the commentary on our present condition, we might be forgiven for thinking so. It’s not just that the Government is reduced to handing out free cheese to the needy as the State is braced for the first of four more harsh budgets and a weekend of flooding is blowing our way across the Atlantic from Haiti. We have, according to the fashionable discourse, a uniquely dysfunctional political system run by unusually venal public representatives who preside over levels of social inequality that would put our 19th century forebears to shame.
Our bestseller lists are filled with a whole new genre of “misery lit” telling us that we don’t really live in a parliamentary democracy, that our system of governance is irretrievably broken and that we have no claim to the name of a republic.
A few years ago, when the Tiger was in full-throated roar, we also told ourselves we were unique. Back then, we were uniquely gifted – a dynamic, creative and instinctively entrepreneurial people who had little to learn from the more advanced economies of continental Europe. For a while, as our property bubble grew and grew and public finances spun out of control, we persuaded ourselves that the fundamental laws of economics – or even of book-keeping – did not apply.
We had been special decades before too, when we defined ourselves as an island of unique virtue on the edge of a dark and godless world, a place where marriages did not fail, unmarried women did not become pregnant and no one was gay.
Our current difficulties are so severe and the economic hardship faced by many of our citizens is so acute that there is little danger of complacency. But a little perspective could be useful. The United Nations Human Development Report this week ranked Ireland fifth in the world in terms of quality of life, behind Norway, Australia, New Zealand and the US but ahead of Britain, France and Germany. The rankings are based on indicators such as life expectancy, per capita income and average schooling rather than on the health of the body politic. We don’t need to look far, however, to find democracies with problems almost as serious as ours, if different in nature.
Belgium has been run by a caretaker government since April, after two general elections failed to produce a viable coalition and tensions between the two language communities threaten to bring about the country’s break-up. In the Netherlands, which was without a government for three months this year, as well as in Austria, Sweden and Hungary, far-right parties are on the march. Despite levels of immigration over the past 15 years unparalleled in recent European history, no xenophobic party has yet emerged in Ireland.
If some Irish politicians appear too cosy for comfort with their friends in business, they have some way to go to compete with their counterparts elsewhere. In the United States, for example, the next Speaker of the House of Representatives is likely to be John Boehner, an Ohio congressman who once handed out cheques from tobacco lobbyists to his colleagues on the House floor. Italy is governed by Silvio Berlusconi.
A glance around the world tells us that, despite our record budget deficit, our massive levels of personal debt and our unpopular Government, we are not much better or worse than anywhere else. We are, instead, a conventional western democracy facing big problems mostly of our own making and a political system with much room for improvement. But perhaps that’s too painful a prospect for our exceptional Irish hearts.