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So much for Leo Varadkar’s ‘republic of opportunity’

Diarmaid Ferriter: We’re in for more of the same. The human cost will be devastating

Soundbitten: Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Donal Ryan’s brilliant and visceral novel The Spinning Heart was on stage at the Gaiety Theatre during the week, the monologues at its core performed in all their vivid intensity by a talented and mostly young cast. The book is now also on the Leaving Cert curriculum, cementing it further into the canon of great Irish literature. While the book is set in 2010 at the height of the economic meltdown, Ryan insists it “is not about the recession” but about “human connection and disconnection, about the fragility of self-image, about the gulf that can lie between what we are and what we appear to be”. All of these things, however, are connected, and, as was asserted in the Spectator in 2013, “this is firmly a novel of the Irish crash.”

Ryan’s evocative prose will be useful to historians trying to encapsulate the impact of the recession, not just on local communities but on the national project. The book is full of fears and resentments; many have been cheated, including the Siberian labourer Vasya: “I had just finished shoring the foundations of a large house that would never be built.” He then discovers, because of the corruption of his employer, that officially, for the purposes of state welfare, he is a nonentity: “Shawnee whispered loudly and slowly from behind me while the girl looked at her computer screen: Hey Chief, what she’s saying is you … don’t … exist!”

Soundbites, of course, do not require any reflection; nor do tweets

It is fitting that we are reminded of these scenarios at the present time. What Ryan described partly came about because of the attitude summed up by Mary Harney, leader of the Progressive Democrats in 2000. She suggested the perception of the “American way” was of the “rugged individualism of the original frontiersmen, an economic model heavily based on enterprise and incentive, on individual effort and with limited government intervention. Ireland, she said, had “sailed closer to the American shore”, rather than the seemingly derided “European way… with governments being prepared to intervene strongly”.

Republic of opportunity

Before too long, it is likely there will have to be another novelist to do justice in literature to another phase of failed promises and lack of political courage, as the Irish cycles of boom and bust endure. Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny was sombre in his insistence that “there must never be a return to the culture that pushed us over the edge”, but what evidence is there of any culture change? Or that meaning will be given to Leo Varadkar’s much-vaunted “republic of opportunity”? During one of his first interviews as Taoiseach, with Vincent Browne, Varadkar struggled to define what he understands by class, middle or otherwise. Soundbites, of course, do not require any reflection; nor do tweets, and the constant use of slogans (“no cap on aspirations”) can only generate cynicism.

Today the situation is rather like what it was in 2003-2004 … the economy is already close to capacity

When added up, various claims about where Fine Gael politicians position themselves amount to business as usual. In responding to the claims that he is right wing, Varadkar insists he is a compassionate conservative; before he left, Enda Kenny insisted the centre must hold and Paschal Donohoe celebrates Fine Gael as “European centrists … to be moderate is to be radical”. It is widely accepted that Fine Gael fared poorly in the general election last year because its spinners decided the election was all about the economy as opposed to society; there are now soundbites to suggest they have learned, but practices suggest otherwise.

Tax cuts return

The Fiscal Advisory Council, for example, put on a statutory footing in 2012, was appointed, in the words of its first chairman, John McHale, “to institutionalise the memory of the crisis”. While the Government embraces the council’s suggestion that Ireland’s corporate tax codes meet “the highest international standards of transparency” – which in itself is a problematic assertion – it ignores, as it did previously, the council’s recommendations to safeguard against future economic shock by not prioritising tax cuts.

In the meantime builders insist they cannot “make a viable profit” by building “affordable apartments” costing €240,000-€320,000. A report by Davy Research earlier this month suggested the State may need to build as many as 50,000 houses per year to meet demand but that “Government policy seems focused on boosting supply by helping construction sector profitability … This is likely to drive house prices higher, facilitated by an accommodative mortgage market.” Also ominously, economist John FitzGerald points out, “Today the situation is rather like what it was in 2003-2004 … the economy is already close to capacity. To make space for the necessary increase in homebuilding, other activity will have to be curtailed.”

In the run-up to the budget, extra money, as previously, will be found solely for political reasons. More of the same means, inevitably, the human costs of the extreme Irish cycles will be devastating. Once again, gifted writers will be left to encapsulate the impact of what one of Donal Ryan’s characters called “the sudden stop that everything is after coming to”.