Dr  Maureen Gaffney, Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Society, UCD.  Writer and broadcaster


You have to be very brave, or very foolish, to attempt to address this evening’s theme: What is happening to us? Where are we going? By definition, my answers will be partial and inadequate.

I will start with the fact that although we live in one state, we live in two psychological states of mind about Ireland. As individuals, we live in a private universe of optimism. As citizens, we inhabit a political universe of distrust.

By now, you are all drearily familiar with a succession of opinion polls that show our deep unease with how we are being governed.  The recent Sunday Independent Millward Browne poll reported that 75% of people are dissatisfied with Government.  Dissatisfaction with party leaders ranged from 47-69% and over a third of the electorate are unable to decide which party they would now vote for.

Last year, when an Irish Times Ipsos MRBI asked the question, who do we trust, Irish politicians came bottom of the pile (17%), considerably lower than European politicians (25%).  Government Ministers did little better (18%).  Trust in business leaders was double that, although still relatively low (38%) as was trust in journalists (42%).  Civil servants did better (60%), as did opinion poll companies (67%) and judges (71%).  So, in whom do we have high trust?   The ordinary man or woman in the street (82%), the Gardai (80%) and doctors (90%). (See Table 2).

Astonishingly, side by side with this dystopian view of the political realm is a private universe of high trust and seemingly unquenchable optimism. Cast your mind back to 2006. The Celtic Tiger is rampant. Ireland boasts the second highest per capita GDP in the world. Other countries are beating a path to our door to find the secret of our success.

During that year, the Gallup Organisation, as part of their regular global survey of wellbeing asked Irish people about their lives. Respondents were asked to imagine a ladder with ten steps, with the top rung of the ladder representing ‘The best possible life for you’ and the bottom rung ‘The worst possible life for you’. They are then asked ‘On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time? On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now? ‘

Hardly surprisingly in that golden time, 76% of Irish people were defined by Gallop as ‘Thriving’ – rating their current lives at 7 or above and the expectation of their future lives at 8 or above. Indeed, Ireland was barely behind the consistently top-ranked country, Denmark, where 79% of people fell into that ‘Thriving’ category.

Then, 2010 and Armageddon. The full scale of the banking and economic collapse has finally sunk in.   The government is floundering.  In December, the game is up and Ireland has to seek a national bail-out. The airways are alight with forecasts of national doom.  In that morning after optimism, the Gallup Organisation came back to ask the same questions.  Astonishingly, at this, our darkest hour, Ireland still emerged in the top group of 10 nations globally – with 54% of us still managing to thrive.  Contrast this with our fellow bailed-out, or pre-bailed out countries – in Spain, only 39% of people were ‘Thriving’, in Greece 16%.  More of us (43%) were now in the ‘Struggling’ category – with more daily stress and worry about money – yet still reporting moderately high wellbeing. And only 4% were defined as ‘Suffering’ – their wellbeing at high risk and their view of the future very negative.  A whopping 25% in Greece were ‘Suffering’.

But even more astonishingly, we were ahead of the UK, the US and even Germany – the economic engine of the EU where fewer people were ‘Thriving’ and more were ‘Struggling’ and ‘Suffering’ than in Ireland.

And after three years of recession what of us?  In the latest poll taken in 2012, most countries have taken a hit – even in Denmark the percentage of people Thriving has fallen eight percentage points. But here, we have dropped only three points to 51% and we have actually improved our world ranking.  Only 3% are Suffering (See Table 1).

This pattern of resilience and positivity is consistently borne out by other studies. In the Irish Times Ipsos poll taken in late 2012, 89% of us reported ourselves happy, 42% very happy.  A full 70% of us describe ourselves as ‘largely stress-free’ or ‘occasionally stressed but not a problem’; 24% say they have ‘a lot of stress but are still able to cope’; and only 5% are under so much stress that they find it hard to cope.

When they were asked about the future, a full 85% of us are optimistic about the future for ourselves and our families; 72% about the future for our own communities; 58% about the future of Ireland and 50% for the future of the EU. (See Table 3).

So how we can explain this disparity between the private universe of optimism and the political one of distrust?  Of course, let me say at this point that a certain amount of scepticism in politicians is probably to be expected and indeed wise. The price of liberty, as we know, is eternal vigilance.  But when healthy scepticism shades into distrust, we should be concerned. Trust really counts. It is not some touchy-feely psychological accessory.  It is the oil in the machine – not just in personal relationship but in the functioning of organisations and indeed whole societies. As the work by Robert Putman of Harvard shows, trust is at the heart of a well functioning democracy.  It underpins the social contract.  People pay their taxes, obey the law and consent to be governed on the basis that they trust that their investment will be used to build the common good that they in turn will benefit. Without trust, there is no true solidarity or reciprocity.

1. The crisis of trust in politics

So to go back to my question: how we can explain this disparity between the private universe of optimism and the political one of distrust?  Let’s start with what I think is the wrong answer. The deep dissatisfaction with politics is routinely dismissed by politicians as some class of mid-term blues or the newly discovered social disorder of ‘austerity fatigue’. While that may be factor it is far from the whole story. Rather, the answer is that this Government has squandered a large part of the most precious resource at its disposal: the trust that the electorate placed in them at the last election to be different, to commit to a new kind of politics.

So let me say a few words about the psychology of trust that may be useful to our politicians in understanding how they forfeited that trust.  Trust, whether in personal relationships, in institutions or in politics, is intimately bound up with feelings of vulnerability and risk. Investing our trust in someone, particularly when we hand over power of any kind to them, is taking a risk that they will not exploit it for their own self interest and that instead they will act in a way that will be good for us, or at least will not harm our interests.

When that trust in people is breached, it exponentially increases that sense of vulnerability. So the next act of trust we make is freighted with even higher risk.  In the wake of the egregious breach of trust that caused the economic meltdown in 2010, that was the situation the electorate faced.   Yet, we had to muster sufficient trust to elect another government.  In that high-risk, highly vulnerable state, people behave in very predictable ways.  They hope for the best.  They will register when good things happen, but won’t necessarily trust more. Not for a long time.  Rather they set even more stringent tests, adopting a kind of mental conservatism – an attitude of ‘prove it to me’ rather than accepting readily what they are told or promised.  They remain hyper-vigilant, on the look-out for any warning sign that they are going to be let down again.

In that highly unstable psychological environment, any act of perceived self-interest or cronyism, any show of arrogance, or being out of touch, is fatal – and the reaction is swift and damning.  That is why issues of politicians’ pay, expenses and their use of power and perks and the way they use patronage to reward party members are so salient. It is because they carry so much symbolic value.  It is their symbolic nature rather than their substantive effect that counts – a point that seems lost to many politicians.  The human brain is finely engineered to pay more attention and put more weight on the negative rather than the positive.  And any sign of betrayal of trust is assigned a very heavy weight indeed.

But here is the crucial point.  In a situation where the electorate have had such a recent experience of being betrayed on a large scale, it is not enough for the next government or politicians as a class to be ‘reasonable’. They are expected to do more than is required, or even on occasions, more than is reasonable.  We want to see if they are willing to make themselves vulnerable. That is the essence of re-building trust.  Nelson Mandela understood that and that was why he did the seemingly impossible in re-uniting a deeply divided and traumatised society.  Irish politicians have failed to learn that lesson.

2. The lack of political reform

The political system in Ireland is in many important ways robustly healthy. We used the last election with great effectiveness to severely punish the political parties then in power. We gave many opportunities to independents – but that particular experiment has had very mixed results.  So, it could be argued that the party system has its merits. But the health of the political system is being systematically weakened by two factors in my view.

First, successive governments seem chronically unable or unwilling to establish or enforce rigorous accountability – even if it has to be left to the Courts to make legal findings of guilt.  There is ample psychological evidence that people are prepared to suffer financial losses – as long as they feel other people are not simultaneously benefiting in an unfair way.

Second, successive governments seem unable or unwilling to reform themselves or the way they do business. The political system remains stubbornly stuck in rigid, highly centralised command-and-control hierarchies with a set of almost medieval protocols and privileges that lack transparency, accountability, or even logic. It is rivalled only by the Catholic Hierarchy and the Vatican.  No coincidence then that both institutions are suffering such a crisis of trust. And neither show any appetite for meaningful change, apart from a patchwork of minor reforms – largely in reaction to public outrage or media pressure.

But the reform of politics cannot just be about structures.  It is also, crucially, about psychological functioning. If it is shown, as it now is in fine research, that hard business outcomes – specifically productivity, profitability, high customer satisfaction and high satisfaction at work can be predicted by the quality of how the business team psychologically functions, then why on earth does politics not learn to function in an emotionally intelligent way?

And here I would note the apparent failure to tackle in any serious way the psychological and social factors which played such a huge part in the catastrophic failure of judgment in politics, in banking and regulation: the systematic cognitive biases that are part of human functioning, and particularly exacerbated by working in small, close-knit groups. We are once again relying solely on external control systems and not on training to understand and combat these biases. Which, I fear, will recur in our spanking new systems without appropriate education and training.

The lack of reform also counts because it discourages many competent and public-spirited people from entering politics. Those that do enter politics full of energy and ideals often give up.  Those that stay often become so institutionalised that they gradually begin to think that this is a normal way to run things.  Those who slog it out and eventually get the big prize – a place in Government – are often depressingly likely to use the existing structures and protocols to simply shore up and hold on to their power as long as possible.

That is not to say there are not good and competent people in politics.  There are many.  But they are trapped, willingly or otherwise, in this system. It may drive them as crazy as it does us, but as I like to remind people, myself included, that you can’t be driven crazy without your full cooperation.  Add to that the chronic lack of accountability in public life more generally and you have a fairly toxic mix.

3. Collective Learned helplessness

The result of all this for the electorate?   A state known as ‘learned helplessness’. This psychological state occurs when animals and people are conditioned to believe that they cannot change or escape a highly adverse and painful situation – even when they are presented with opportunities to do so.

The concept of learned helplessness was discovered by psychologists in the 1960s in a series of ingenious if cruel experiments in which some misfortunate dogs were each strapped into a harness and subjected to random electric shocks.  Some of the dogs could learn to avoid the shocks by pressing a panel with their noses. But others were given no means to escape the painful shocks. There was nothing they could do to stop or control the shocks. .

Subsequently the dogs were placed in special shuttle-boxes. They were again subjected to random electric shocks. But this time, they could all escape.  All they had to do was jump over a low partition in the box. The dogs that had had the experience of control over their situation readily jumped the barrier. But the dogs who had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect did not even try to escape.  Instead, they lay down passively and whined with misery. This is the condition of learned helplessness – the feeling that there is nothing you can do to change an adverse situation.  That is what is now afflicting many of us collectively – the feeling that nothing we do can change a politics that we find deeply unsatisfactory.

Learned helplessness in a political context is a dangerous state.  It induces a despondent and angry ‘plague on all their houses’ attitude to politics, leading in extremes to a reckless populism. We have witnessed the debacle in Italy where an anarchist comedian was elected, holds the balance of power and apparently issues political edicts via his blog. We are not immune ourselves. Remember we once sent Dustin the Turkey to Europe.

So, where should we be going?

1.   Start with the positive

Let us start by acknowledging the progress that we have made as a Republic. We have made a successful transition from the economic stagnation and dour traditionalism of the 1940s, 50s and 60s to a generally more open, more tolerant, more generous modern state.  We have managed to transform ourselves not so much by adherence to high principles of rights and justice but by a very different, more feeling process which, paradoxically, may be our richest legacy from the revelations of the past thirty years about our treatment of single mothers, forced adoptions, loveless marriages and most of all the cruel abuse of children – these revelations that threw up a hellish vision of Ireland.

As we engaged with these individual stories, we were appalled, moved to try to find a way to respond to the needs of other human beings, to change the systems that created such terrible suffering. Whatever about our private beliefs and principles about issues like divorce, or abortion, we became acutely sensitive to individual context, to the complex details of individual dilemmas. Hard cases make bad law we were told. But hard cases turned us, finally, into a compassionate society.

Step by step, we are reaching a better understanding and a negotiated compromise on complex issues in the moral-political sphere. We have a provisional consensus, even if we don’t have universal agreement.  By a process of sustained public debate we have cleared up many of the confusions.  But we have not done the same work of debate and consensus building in the civic and political domain. That leads to my next point.

2.      Seize the moment

If anything good has emerged from the economic collapse and crisis in trust, it is surely that this very instability could also be a turning point, a moment when things could change. By learning the right lessons from our past and recent failures as a society, we can grow in strength and wisdom.  We can build a new perception of ourselves, with a fuller recognition of our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of systems; an articulation of better values, a reconstruction of meaning, a renewal of faith in ourselves and a redefinition of what constitutes a true republic.

3.      We need to bridge the divide between private optimism and political engagement

When we reflect on the catastrophic mistakes of the last few years of politicians, banker and regulators, a quote from Seamus Heaney seems very apt.  He points to ‘(H)ow cowardice in the soul issues in corruption in the  state’. But we also need to recall the second part of that quote ‘(H)ow failure of nerve in the bystander is ultimately responsible for callousness in the culture’.  In a Republic, there can be no bystanders.

Despite our disappointment, disillusion, or even despair about politics, we must struggle against this emphasis on the fallen state and corrupted nature of political endeavour. We cannot allow our feelings of political learned helplessness to sunder us from our sense of citizenship and most particularly from the sense of our best self.

It is of course more tempting to stay safely in the private sphere, relying on our dispositional optimism to keep ourselves going.  Does it matter that we are maintaining our optimism not because of our politics but in spite of it? Well, it does.  The danger is that we will essentially privatise optimism and the energy and ideas that it generates, defending ourselves from further political disappointment by withdrawing our civic energies and hopes from that realm.

Optimism counts not just to motivate us to persist in pursuing our goals in our private lives, but in our economic recovery. In a large-scale study of what makes countries economically successful over the long term two factors have been identified: a country’s openness to new science and technology, and its optimism.  I know of no data to show that optimism is a factor in political revitalisation but the extensive research on optimism in all areas of human functioning – particularly its power to combat cynical pessimism is so well established that I have no hesitation in saying that if our optimism was harnessed to a movement for real political reform, it would be an unstoppable force.  And without political reform, there will be no true Republic.

Politics can be a brutal game and as Enoch Powell once famously remarked, always ends in failure.  Even if we find no total grandeur in the end, as in any other realm in life, it is the effort to make sense of set-backs and failures, the effort to retain a glimpse of the word as perfect, and to unite the two into a coherent whole that makes a true republic.  

4.  Let us become citizens

Much as we say we admire the kind of sturdy citizenship in the Nordic countries, so far, it seems to have eluded us here.  In fact, I would go further.  The very idea of citizenship remains alien, remote, irrelevant to our sense of identity.  Why? Perhaps our post-colonial hangover creates a subtle reservation about political and public life, unconsciously fuelling a resistance to official institutions.  Far from Tom Kettle’s concept of the state as benign foster-mother, we sometimes see the state as psychologically alien, feared and distrusted in equal measure. Yet we remain dependant on it to sustain us.  Trapped in that ambivalence, too often we have tolerated a style of politics fought out along the fault lines of tribalism and point scoring – as long as it caters to a self-interested dependency. While we love ‘Ireland’ and our own communities, we didn’t seem to care much about the state.  And in the long run, how we feel about the state and our responsibility to protect and build that state determines the quality of our citizenship.

While for the most part, we continue in our private lives to be decent, civilised and  concerned for each other, we have not extended the ethical standards of our private lives in a sustained and consistent way into the public sphere: into what we expect of politics or the major institutions of the state. This will require us to bring our personal morality to bear much more directly on our public life as citizens.  There is no doubt but that, during the height of the boom, many people privately expressed doubts and reservations about the way Irish public life was developing: the public excesses, the political evasions, the over-weaning vanity of the money-makers.  But we did not manage to extend that private ethical sensibility into a sustained and consistent public discourse and consensus about the standards and conduct of public life.  Until we develop that more grown-up kind of citizenship, until we can finally allow ourselves to love this State, there will be no true Republic.

But that is changing. We are now expressing strong disapproval of behaviour like lying under oath, financial fraud, serious tax evasion, and public figures making misleading statements. Personal and institutional corruption and weak accountability systems are high in the public consciousness and have moved centre stage as issues to be resolved. We now say we want honesty, integrity and transparency to be the primary guiding value in economic and political policy making. We want politicians to pay close attention to the impact of their actions on people’s wellbeing, and to respect the rights, dignity and views of the electorate.

But we have a long way to go. We need to keep reminding politicians of their duty to create and protect the powerful democratic institutions that have the power to shape human behaviour for the common good.  We need to forcibly remind them that we have invested our trust in them and expect the highest standard of integrity. And we need to descend like Valkyries when they breach that trust.  We need to show our strong disapproval of cynicism in politicians. That kind of cynicism sometimes comes disguised as a kind of world-weary political wisdom, but we should not be fooled –because it will eventually rot the whole political culture.

And there is another task. The virtues essential for creating the common good – the strong norm of reciprocity and trustworthiness; the readiness to be compassionate; the willingness to modulate self interest; the sense of fair play; the sense of duty – are prevalent in Irish life at an individual and informal level.  But what we now need is a mechanism, a connective tissue that will unite those individual virtues into an effective civic force for the broader common good.  We urgently need to find ways to institutionalise those civic virtues into a covenant of citizenship that can become our North Star to guide our behaviour as citizens at an individual and institutional level.

But here, too, we have a long way to go.  Finding the right structures to encourage meaningful citizen engagement in the governance of the country will not be achieved by setting up ad-hoc fora where citizens are invited to discuss worthy things – while, meanwhile, the big boys get on with the ‘real’ business. That is why the proposal to abolish the Senate is so wrong-headed – as well as of course presenting us with a Hobson’s choice: no Senate at all or a return to the present structure, which despite many excellent members, remains a rotten borough in terms of democratic governance.  And, without in any way reflecting on the no-doubt excellence of the latest Senate appointment, the fact that the Taoiseach did not replace an independent Senator with another independent seems to signal that this is the way it is intended to use the Senate in the event of a referendum defeat – in Michael McDowell’s famous description as a retirement home and crèche for defeated or aspiring Dail candidates.

5.  Build a sense of stewardship as the core of reform

Ideas for institutional and political reform have been discussed at great length for the last week here.  The problem is that the enterprise can seem too big, too daunting. A good way to start is to build the process of reform around a central, compelling idea.  I suggest Edmund Burke’s notion of civic stewardship is a good starting point, a way to sustain coherence in the reform of politics, of the public service, of the management of wealth, of institutional governance and individual action.

According to Burke, society is a contract or partnership between the generations, with each successive generation possessing their society’s laws and governance in the form of ‘an entailed estate’, given to them for a lifetime use, with the condition that it be passed on, at least not diminished and hopefully enhanced, to the succeeding generations. We are, he said “temporary possessors and life renters in it” and should not act as if we were ‘the entire masters’.

That conception of stewardship of a precious resource, of partnership between past, present and future generations, now seems achingly relevant.  Of all the bad moments of the past few years, the most desolate surely was the dawning realization that it is not just this generation, but our children and grandchildren who have been deprived of their legitimate legacy. Against that exacting standard of stewardship, those who held high office are now being harshly judged on how they squandered that estate.  And it is against the same standard that we will be judged by future generations.

                                                                             Table 1

Gallup Organisation Global Wellbeing Survey

2012  %Thriving  %Struggling  %Suffering 2006 %Thriving 2010%Thriving
1. Denmark 71 27 2 79
2 Sweden 69 30 1
3 Netherlands 62 36 2
4 Austria
5 Finland
6 Belgium
7 Ireland 51 46 3 76 54
8 UK 50 46 5
9 Luxembourg
10 Germany 43 51 6
12 Cyprus 33 58 9
14 Spain 31 61 8
24 Portugal 20 59 22
25 Greece 14 60 26
27 Bulgaria 10 51 39


                                                                                 Table 2

Irish Times IPSOS MRBI Poll 2012

Happy Very Happy Largely Stress Free Occasionally Stressed but not a problem Lot of stress but still able to cope So much stress hard to cope
89% 42% 21% 49% 24% 5%


Optimistic about future for selves & families Optimistic about future for own community Optimistic about future for Ireland Optimistic about future for EU
85% 72% 58% 50%


                                                                                 Table 3 

Irish Times IPSOS MRBI Poll 2012

Doctors 90%
Ordinary person on street 82%
Gardai 80%
Judges 71%
Opinion Poll companies 67%
Civil servants 60%
Journalists 42%
Business leaders 38%
European politicians 25%
Government Ministers 18%
Irish politicians 17%


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