FAITH IN THE FUTURE
Gerard O’Neill, Chairman, Amarach Research, author of ‘2016: A New Proclamation
for a New Generation’ (2010)
A Crisis of Faith
I work in the market research business, so I get the opportunity to talk to people all around Ireland about their lives, their hopes and their fears. As I see it, in August 2013, the Irish people have lost their faith. To be clear, I am not referring to religious faith – though I’ll come back to that – but rather to the loss of a more secular faith, that of faith in the future.
However, I don’t think we are unique in that regard. Across most of Europe, the European project has ground to a halt. The post-war faith that inspired the formation of open, democratic societies and economies has dissipated in the face of economic stagnation, the loss of a generation to youth unemployment, and the seemingly insurmountable problems of debt and deficits.
But it isn’t just about economics. It never is. Our secular crisis of faith goes much deeper; to issues of identity, values and purpose. The crisis will not be resolved by mere political and administrative fiat – it’s too big for that.
As I see it, restoring the Irish people’s faith in the future requires us to see the challenges ahead in terms of what I call the ‘3 Rs’, namely: resilience, recovery and renewal. We have to get through the crisis – hence the need for resilience that draws on the insights from psychology that Maureen Gaffney has explored. But we also need a sense of where we are going, hence the need to map out a path to recovery. Finally, we must recognise that a crisis is an opportunity not to be wasted, and that now is the time to renew our economy, society, culture and politics in order to create the Republic that our forefathers dreamed of.
Trapped in the Present
We are asked this year to look to 2016 as we answer the question ‘how stands the Republic?’. It is a call to draw on our past as inspiration about our future. That isn’t just a noble ambition, it is a necessary one. For, one reason for our loss of faith in the future is that we are no longer connected to the past.
In Europe, as in Ireland, one unforeseen consequence of the project of secular, liberal modernity – with its emphasis on freedom, equality and reason above all other values (and there are other values) – is that we are ‘trapped in the present’. Our culture increasingly disdains our ancestors (they were very politically incorrect you know) and religious belief has become a matter of personal taste rather than shared experience.
Unfortunately, this means that we are losing the ability to draw meaningful inspiration from the past just at a time when we need it most. A people without a shared sense of what connects their past to their present and to their future is no longer a people but merely a collection of consumers, employees and voters at the whim of whatever the current elite in government, business and the media considers to be important.
In marked contrast, those who signed the 1916 Proclamation were not trapped in the present. They did not disdain their ancestors nor was religion merely a private affair:
“In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.”
Like I said, our ancestors were a terribly un-PC lot!
Yet, if we are to find effective solutions to the challenges we now face, we will need once again to forge that same sense of purpose, drawing on the same breadth of values, in order to succeed. I believe we can if we strike the right balance between resilience, recovery and renewal.
What do I mean by resilience? Resilience is generally defined as the ability to bounce back from disturbance and to cope with adversity. Another important facet of resilience is that it doesn’t let the demands of the present starve the needs of the future.
On most measures we Irish are a resilient lot. My company has been surveying a 1,000 different people every month since April 2009, asking them whether they experienced any of a range of emotions or feelings ‘the previous day’. Remarkably, despite all we’ve been through these past four years and more, the top two emotions or feelings experience by the majority of people right up to the present day have been happiness and enjoyment! More negative emotions are there too of course such as stress and worry, but usually for a minority of people on any given day. While the emotions experienced least by people have been fear and anger.
I think this signals a number of things, not just psychological resilience but also a curious combination of what I call ‘public anguish and private contentment’. In the same surveys, the vast majority of people tell us how very worried they are about the economy and its prospects. But at the level of their families, friends and colleagues they’re getting by.
Of course, getting by is a temporary arrangement. To some extent we are not so much trapped in the present as ‘hiding in the present’. Thinking about the past fills us with regret, while thinking about the future fills us with despair.
The problem is: our current situation can’t continue and our capacity for resilience – for bouncing back – will soon diminish unless we find a path to recovery, one that will let us bounce forward with hope and purpose.
I am a director of a small business, with between 40 and 80 employees on our payroll in any given month depending on how busy we are. But don’t worry, I’m not here to whine about rates, taxes, and banks – I have plenty of opportunities to do that elsewhere! Still, sometimes a business perspective can be useful. After all, Thomas J. Clarke (a fellow Dungannon man like myself) ran his own business. Though I don’t for a moment consider myself to be in the same league as Clarke, a man who could teach us all about the true meaning of resilience.
Nevertheless, I get to talk to lots of other business people throughout Ireland, either as clients or as customers of my clients. I can tell you that right now there is no recovery underway in Ireland’s domestic economy. If anything, things are getting worse.
I won’t go into why there is no recovery – they have been well examined this week already. The more important question is what kind of recovery is feasible in the years ahead?
Here again, an historic perspective is essential (something most economists lack as they are more trapped in the present than most other professions unfortunately). Nor do I mean the historic perspective of business cycles – they are too narrow in scope. Instead, I prefer the historic perspective that extends over generations and even centuries, as explored by writers like Neil Howe in The Fourth Turning, or Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West. Both writers (and others like them) identify patterns and processes in history that drive economic, social and political change right up to the present day.
There isn’t time to go into their perspectives here, but suffice it to say that Ireland’s recovery won’t entail a return to the good old days of the Celtic Tiger any time soon. I suspect you knew that already. Nor will recovery take the form of Irish exports piggy-backing on a buoyant European resurgence mixed with a dash of Asian convergence. Again, I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear that.
The problems that we face in the developed world – financialisation of the global economy, the debt bubble, the coming collapse of the welfare state and a demographic winter to name but a few – simply cannot be resolved by a return to economic growth alone. More and more people are beginning to realise that too.
Recovery will only get under way when we start to believe in the future again. For behind every economic crisis is a crisis of belief. However, I am not talking about the confidence fairy. Sure, consumer and business confidence matters. I’ve seen how it correlates with all manner of markets and trends. Rather, I am talking about the core values that motivate us as individuals, in our families and communities, and as citizens of a true Republic.
For unless we reconnect with the values that our forefathers lived and breathed – and even died for – then we will continue to flounder in a stagnating economy and fragmented society, depleting further our already diminished capacity for resilience. In other words, we must seize this moment to unlock a process of renewal in full confidence that we will create a Republic we can all exult in.
If a group of people had gathered here 100 years ago in 1913 who could have foreseen a war that would result in the loss over 10 million lives (including over 30,000 Irish lives), the dissapearance of four empires that had existed for centuries, and the creation of the first communist state – not to mention the 1916 Rising and War of Independence – all before the decade was out?
A lot can happen in just seven years. A lot could happen over the next seven years – maybe even as dramatically as a century ago, though hopefully without the horror of war.
So, to answer the question posed by this session – ‘where are we going?’ – let me suggest just three ideas in the brief time available for your consideration as potential keys to unlock recovery and renew our faith in the future.
There are a number of practical things we can do that might sound odd but I believe will open up opportunities that are currently closed to us. The first thing we need to do is to make money. And I mean that literally. We need to encourage the creation of new currencies in parallel to the euro. We should even consider reintroducing a Punt Nua alongside the euro as a form of alternative currency that can be used for transactions solely within the domestic economy, even including in social welfare payments. The success of M-Pesa in Kenya points to the potential for mobile and other technologies to facilitate new payment systems that co-exist outside the monoculture of the euro. Think of it as an insurance policy in the event of the euro’s demise (a lot can happen in seven years remember).
Secondly, I believe we need to introduce a form of compulsory national service to be completed by all school leavers. Many countries – including the likes of Denmark – insist on young school leavers completing 1-2 years training in their defence forces. As I see it, such an initiative would have a number of social benefits, especially for our young men (who are being failed by our education system as they make up a declining minority of the third level student population). Apart from any defence benefits (and we really should take our national defence more seriously than we do), there would be a major social benefit as young men (and women) from all social backgrounds mix and work together – breaking down, to some extent, the appalling social class divisions in our society.
Finally, recovery and renewal aren’t just about money and the economy. The future is a mental construct (since it only exists in our heads) which means that the future is emotional. Restoring faith in the future means changing what we believe as well as what we do. The men and women of 1916 knew what they believed:
“We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms…”
The Proclamation gets quoted a lot in political debates – and here at the MacGill Summer School – but some bits get quoted more than others funny enough: ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’ and so on. But the obvious Christian ethos of the rebels gets left out and ignored. Even Connolly made his confession and received the last rites before his execution. It’s that un-PC ancestor problem again.
Yet, if we are to forge a shared sense of purpose, identity and hope then religion will have to play a part in renewal, just as it has for all previous generations throughout most of recorded history.
There’s another important anniversary coming up in the next seven years: the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg in October 1517. And remember – the Reformation was provoked by a European economic crisis caused by the transfer of excessive resources (in the form of papal indulgences) from industrious Germans to feckless Italians!
Europe – and Ireland – needs a second reformation (though hopefully without the War of the Peasants), one which reconnects its people – and especially its elite – with the Christian values that inspired our ancestors to face hardship and overcome adversity just as we do and will in the years ahead.
To conclude, we must use 2016 as a springboard to renewal in our economy and society, and in our nation. 2016 will come and go and then what? We are entering a period of extraordinary change and challenges in Ireland and in the developed world. Right now we are in the eye of the hurricane – so don’t take the temporary calm for granted. Through a focus on resilience, recovery and renewal we can restore our faith in the future:
“In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.