Prof Mary Daly, President of the Royal Irish Academy, Emeritus professor of History, UCD


This is an era with new challenges – globally, and for Ireland, but the past was full of unexpected challenges and even more serious crises. So it is important to retain some sense of proportion. Contrary to what we might believe, the world is a less violent place than in past centuries; life expectancy has improved dramatically in Ireland and elsewhere, and inequality between developed nations and the Third World is narrowing, though inequality within states is rising. Ireland is no longer cited as an economic disaster zone. The population of Ireland is growing, almost everywhere, which was not the case when Patrick MacGill was alive – (though Donegal is the major exception) – and the most rapid increase is in small towns. Despite having a higher proportion of immigrants in our population than Britain, we have largely avoided major racist or ethnic hostilities.

So it is important not to exaggerate the current challenges or crises, because such exaggeration in itself can threaten the institutions of the state and foster the rise of demagogues. The answers to current difficulties may not lie in finding one powerful leader, or dramatic changes in the legislature or public services, but in more low-key, organic change. We also need to examine the Irish experience, because Ireland may be different. For example, we don’t have a large rust belt population, where families once lived in comfort on the wages of men in heavy industry – because we never had an industrial revolution. And Ireland is at the top of the international league in terms of the quality of jobs created over recent decades, when compared with the quality of jobs lost – in terms of income, and skills.

But despite these positive signs, the economic recession of a decade ago continues to cast a long shadow nationally, and on individual households. There is a sense that this is a period of major change: – the end of the American century, when the USA was the dominant world power, which inevitably brings instability. There are fears that the long period of economic growth since World War II, when western countries came to expect regular increases in living standards may be coming to an end, and many people may find that their standard of living is no better than, and perhaps worse, than their parents – a prospect that is inherently destabilising. We are also experiencing the impact of the digital revolution: modern digital media, the emergence of global corporations with both the wealth and mobility that transcends any nation state. The potential impact of robotics on employment, especially autonomous vehicles, is only beginning to emerge. In 1931 the New York Times carried an interview with W.T. Cosgrave where he claimed that Ireland had been largely unaffected by the Wall Street Crash and international recession – partly true but a measure of Ireland’s economic backwardness. During the 1930s, Ireland tried to isolate itself from international forces, both economic and cultural – though not very successfully. But those fantasies are long dead; we cannot, nor do we wish to return to such a world. So there are major challenges – and the key instruments for addressing them are in government/politics/public service.

There is an inherent tension between the legislature and the executive that is not new. In the 1930s, de Valera once said that he would like to give the Dáil a six month’s holiday so that the government could get things done. The tension between legislature and executive has traditionally been overcome by a strong Whip system, and by TDs devoting most of their attention to constituency matters and letting the government get on with its business, though even with a highly-disciplined party system it has often proved difficult to enact legislation of major national benefit, if it damaged local interests. This has been particularly so with regard to health services and regional economic policy.   The current political landscape has brought more active Oireachtas committees and a flow of private members’ bills – but very little by way of major government legislation. So political fragmentation is reflected in fragmented legislation and/or a dearth of legislation. We could be positive and suggest that this current model still carries L or N plates: there is certainly room for improvement, but the Irish political culture is so deeply embedded that we would be naïve to expect an easy adjustment to models of coalition government that work elsewhere. Protest votes, protest parties, reflect the discontents of the recent recession, plus the impact of an evolving media. It was disconcerting in the last election to learn that many people did not see electing a government as a key determinant of how they voted.

Even a government with a secure majority would face major pressures. There are real tensions between what governments can deliver and voters’ expectations, and real tensions between the electoral cycle and effective government – where longer- term decisions are needed. For at least the past twenty years, Irish economic policies have been pro-cyclical – ‘ When I have it I spend it’, and with long shopping lists from various interest groups it is very difficult to deny that. The seeds of the current housing crisis were sown during the depression – that is when the houses that we now need should have been planned – but with media preoccupied with ‘ghost estates’ (some survive, but they were built in the wrong place) – and with massive reductions on current spending, investment in housing would have been derided – though unemployed architects and planners were readily available – even if the money could somehow have been found. But we have been there before. In the late 1950s, with emigration at record levels, and people allegedly handing back the keys to Dublin Corporation houses, housing investment plummeted – and within 5 years or so we had a housing crisis, tenements collapsing in the city, people living in caravans along the Naas Road, or housed in squalor in the Richmond Barracks (this is my commercial message – history matters). Furthermore, the experience of the 1950s and 1960s shows that government grants to people wanting to buy a new house invariably brings higher prices and greater profits to the builder.

During the long and tortuous years when efforts were made to resolve the Northern Ireland problem, commentators often spoke of the ‘politics of the last atrocity’. We now appear to live in the politics of the last scandal, the latest crisis in health care, justice or social services, a world where media and the public demand instantaneous answers. Yet real change in any field of government takes time; there is rarely one magic bullet, more a question of multiple actions – and ensuring that what was recommended or enacted in legislation is actually being carried out (and if it isn’t working, then change it). In the era of booming finances, we threw money at every problem: today we set up an inquiry – both are knee jerk solutions. Yet what may be needed is less reactive behaviour – more reflection as to the structural issues that underlie the current crisis, but that will not provide an immediate solution, nor will it generate headlines.

So – how to conclude? Historians are free from the obligation to provide solutions – but nevertheless, a few suggestions. Communication is key – how can democratic government come to terms with new digital media – in the 1960s television proved problematic in the message. But more important than the media, there is the message – the ‘vision thing’.   Some kind of vision is needed – a message that articulates hope rather than fear, but without raising undue expectations – so the restatement of a 21st century national purpose, appropriate as we are coming up to the centenary of an independent Ireland. For the first 40-50 years after independence the message was an uncomplicated nationalism – undoing the Treaty, unrealistic rhetoric about partition. In the 1960s Lemass kept the nationalist bit, but linked it with economic growth, and he was extremely successful at giving people hope, and talking up the economy – and also divvying out whatever gains there were. Since the 1960s, most political visions have related to the economy – or spending programmes, predicated on economic growth. From 2011-16 the government vision was ‘regaining sovereignty’ – whatever sovereignty means for a small state with an open economy in the 21st century. This was a very effective message and a very clearly understood goal. What is evident is the loss of purpose once that was secured.

EEC membership was the key political objective during the 1960s, and that goal weathered whatever political and economic storms came our way. Brexit must be seen as the number one challenge over the coming years – and it is one that reaches every aspect of Irish life. It won’t be addressed by one dramatic gesture; it demands patience and time – so it must surmount short-term distractions, and it will involve difficult issues. But given that 85% of those polled recently are clear that Ireland’s future lies within the EU, this should be the kind of goal that can command a sense of purpose, and it is important to create an awareness that negotiating Brexit will impinge on the future of Ireland and its citizens: future resources for housing, welfare, education, etc. etc. In 1973, a lot of the enthusiasm for membership was generated by an understanding that EEC membership would release money that could, and was used, to improve health and welfare. Some kind of similar message – albeit more nuanced – is needed, and it is a message that must be communicated through multiple channels, and with clear outcomes .

In the 1860s, the British politician William Ewart Gladstone, who was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer believed that it might be possible to abolish income tax in the near future, because government were running out of things to do. One paradox of the current critiques of politics and government is that people are more dependent than ever on a functioning democracy and public sector.






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