Prof Gearoid O Tuathaigh, Emeritus Professor of  History, UCG


We are living in a time of crisis in Ireland.  For many citizens (and commentators) there is a feeling that we have been here before (high unemployment, high emigration, financial retrenchment – recognizable symptoms of earlier crises of the 1950s and of the 1980s).  The severity of the current crisis – and the drastic corrective actions which have been adopted to deal with it, notably the international financial protectorate programme, may, in time, lead to a fundamental reappraisal of aspects of the growth path, in terms of social cohesion as well as of economic development strategy, that we have followed since the 1960s.  It is unlikely, however, to lead to a demand that we withdraw or ‘delink’ from the globally-integrated, overwhelmingly free-trading economy within which the Irish Republic (from 1973 increasingly integrated within a European framework) has sought to achieve economic growth, prosperity and good living standards for its citizens.  Our choices and challenges for a better life for our people seem likely to be forged, for the foreseeable future, as a small ‘open’ state within the EU block, but operating within globalized systems of accelerating economic and communications integration.

We are also embarked upon a decade or more of centenary commemoration of historic events pivotal to the history of modern Ireland, in particular pivotal to the establishment of an independent Irish national state; with political leaders increasingly referring to the centenary of the 1916 rising as a date upon which we must expect an assessment of how the Irish state is currently performing.

Obviously, as an historian, I hope that the centenary commemorations of this decade will (through a variety of research, publications, public events and debate) achieve certain objectives vital to our informed sense of ourselves and of our history.

But, as an Irish citizen of the Republic, I cannot ignore that commemorations during this decade will be firmly rooted in our present-day concerns and will seek to meet the needs of the present day Irish. There will be stock-taking, the harvesting of historical capital for future progress (and, no doubt for political advantage); a search for inspiration and, inevitably and properly, a degree of contestation about the current ‘meaning’ of past events.

For my own part, as a citizen I am concerned with the current condition of ‘powerlessness’ which seems to be widely shared among the citizens: a feeling that we are somehow generally the passive element in the severe drama of austerity and social dislocation through which we are living, rather than having a drastic or coherent agency in creating a better future for ourselves and for our children. Things seem to be happening to us, rather than our feeling that we have the power to make things happen. This widespread feeling of resignation – ‘things are bad, but, what can we do about it’ – will be familiar to all.  The outrage at the evidence of, at least, criminal recklessness within the banking sector; the tsunami of scandals affecting the exercise of trust in health, welfare, care of children and of the elderly, involving church and state; the regulatory, supervisory and bureaucratic expertise that was found wanting; the contamination of political integrity revealed in tribunals and through investigative journalism; all of this has taken its toll on the public spirit. And the feeling is widespread that there has been no real accountability; that the elites most responsible for the debacle have regrouped and, landing the general public – and especially its most vulnerable sections – with the bill and the social immiseration involved in its discharge, are well-placed for business as usual as soon as the banking system gets ‘back to normal’

It is not necessary for me to rehearse at length here the evidence of the public anger, but more crucially the public sense of powerlessness in the face of the general social crisis detonated by the banking calamity (unemployment, emigration, personal debt burdens, negative equity, cut-backs in vital areas of public health, welfare and education etc.).  But, underlying the dark public mood is the depressing realization that there has been a fundamental breakdown of trust in authority – at every level and in every corner of Irish society: there is public fatigue with apologies, a pervasive cynicism at statements (following each disclosure of incompetence or worse) by those in authority that ‘lessons have been learned’ and ‘robust’ systems put in place to ensure that ‘this’ will not happen again. The most daunting challenge currently facing Irish society is the establishment of a new compact of trust in the key arteries our national life.

The establishment of a new compact of trust in a democratic Republic must begin with political leadership. In particular, we urgently need an adult conversation – with honest, plain speaking on complex issues – regarding what exactly might be the role (what are the creative possibilities) of a small, ‘open’ national state, navigating its way in the aggressively globalizing conditions of the early 21st century.

Representative democratic government and the issue of what modes of governance are capable of exercising effective political control of key arteries of the global economy is a dilemma challenging the legitimacy, competence and effectiveness of even the larger democratic states of the western world [as Marc Mazower has recently argued].  A small, open, national state like Ireland will clearly be highly sensitive to global waves of different kinds: in times of special volatility and turbulence it will need good shock absorbers – for maintaining social cohesion as well as for adjusting economic balance. We ought to have learned this lesson thoroughly by now.  Indeed, Ireland’s membership of the euro zone is an immediately intelligible example of our limited room for manoeuvre in a vital area of economic management, and the indications at present are that moves towards a version of fiscal convergence within the euro zone (and under the effective direction of the ‘reluctant hegemon’, Germany) may further reduce the direct competence of the national state in vital areas of taxation.

Of course, the Irish state has both the opportunity and the obligation to exert itself effectively – and in alliance with others – in all international institutions in which it has membership and whose decisions have a bearing (a decisive bearing in certain instances) on Ireland’s prosperity and prospects. But it would be foolish to pretend that size does not matter in this context: however smart or game our diplomats and negotiators may be, we cannot expect to evade the logic of large state/block interests in determining the outcome of economic negotiation. This also applies to global issues in environmental protection and climate issues, as much as it does to financial and trade issues. Again, we ought to have learned this lesson thoroughly by now.

But, precisely because of the international constraints to our room to manoeuvre (in effect, the limits to the older understanding of exercising ‘national sovereignty) we need to be clear and resolute in identifying those aspects of the lives of our citizens in which the national state has and will continue to have a decisive influence, and we need to spell out the social vision under which the state will strive to exercise its competences to good effect and in the interests of the common weal.

Irish citizens understand the context – global and national – within which any Irish government is now operating.  The issue of regulation of financial institutions, for example, is one in which an effective national culture of rigorous and tight enforcement of rules and regulations would clearly register in the public mind and encourage respect for the state and its protection of the public interest.  Likewise, in vital areas of health, welfare, education and justice: a culture of effective supervision and regulation (democratically sanctioned by the Oireachtas) and of real accountability, would have a major impact on the citizens’ perception of the ‘fairness’ of the Republic in which they are living.

The crucial requirement is that political leaders commit fully to a new compact of trust with the citizens.  Of course, the civic sphere must play its vital part in this national conversation that is now needed: community leaders at every level, public intellectuals, an open and challenging media (including public sector broadcasting that flexibly facilitates an open, participatory debate among the general citizenry); the universities; dedicated think-tanks (which must have transparency in their public advocacy); voices from all sections of society must be listened to and the multiple ‘realities’ of peoples’ lives must be taken into account by those elected to govern us.

There is a view that under the Irish political system, it is difficult to imagine or to expect a political leadership that is intent on tackling deep-seated and intractable issues on the basis of honestly declared corrective action or hard choices being given sufficient time to accomplish the task by a demanding and impatient electorate. The ‘Tallaght Strategy’ of the late 1980s may not constitute a definitive disproof of this hypothesis but, in any case, in the current crisis, the ‘short-term’ is not a time-frame within which any fundamental restructuring of institutions, strategies or political culture can be seriously promised.

In thinking about the urgent issues that lie largely within our own competence to determine, and on which we need to confer and to come up with new thinking, it is not difficult to identify some obvious candidates: the structures and range of competence of local government; spatial strategy (and, yes, in a state as highly centralized, bureaucratically as the Irish Republic, decentralization needs reappraisal and the concept needs to be rescued from the ridicule to which political opportunism in the recent past consigned it); the role of the state with regard to the health and welfare of the citizens – the choices between universalist entitlements and targeted benefits, prioritization: in what areas and under what configuration; income/wealth inequality and social cohesion;  the role of government in shaping a ‘fairer’ society.

These are but a few of the most obvious issues which one might expect to see emerge in a serious reappraisal of what an Irish national state can reasonably be expected to ‘deliver’, as it were, in the global context of today and the foreseeable future.

The political leaders must set the tone for this national reappraisal of possible futures for the citizens of the Irish Republic, and they need to take care with language.  We don’t want the Irish economy and the Irish financial sector (and Ireland’s reputation) simply ‘restored’ – to poorly regulated or unfettered markets, to the scarcely chastened gamblers who brought us to ruin in the first place, or to the fragile or careless political oversight that let them away with it.  What is needed is reconstruction rather than restoration.  And there must be some coherent version of society – social solidarity and cohesion – articulated by political leaders and intelligible to the general body of citizens, if the task of reconstruction is to have any fair prospect of widespread endorsement and of mobilizing idealistic as well as practical collective support.

What is at issue here (i.e. the quality and coherence of political language at leadership level) is not necessarily a demand for a detailed command of the technical complexities of international finance or the philosophical depths of abstract concepts – such as ‘justice’ – though it would be uplifting for all citizens if the level of analysis of political leaders did demonstrate a capacity for serious reflection on complexity.  But, what I have in mind, in the first instance, is something less daunting, more direct, more insistently declamatory.  A coherent version of social solidarity – fairness – in which declared policy objectives and actual measures and the resolve and instruments for their implementation are seen to fit together.

Thus, I have no difficulty with a Taoiseach proclaiming (as a national aspiration) that he would like to see Ireland recognized as the best little country in the world to do business in knowing that policy measures across government, e.g. regarding competitiveness, communications etc, will be aligned with that presiding intention. But it would signify a start to shaping the outline of a wholesome social vision if he were to be equally insistent and relentless in proclaiming (at home and abroad) that we also aspire to being the safest little country in the world in which to be a child, the most humane little country in the world in which to grow old, the most inhospitable little country in the world in which to be a crook (with, of course, government policies and actions clearly aligned to these objectives also).

The issue, then, of how we should begin to think about the approach of 2016 as an opportunity (and obligation) to seriously take stock of our predicament and our prospects is, as I hope will be clear from my earlier remarks, not an issue that should be approached with any sense of nostalgia, frozen ceremonial deference, sloganizing or corrosive cynicism and recrimination. What characterized the generation before 1914 (on all sides – republican, Redmondite, labour, socialist, cultural nationalists, unionists, women’s rights activists) was the explosion of ideas that they produced – and passionately advocated – on how best to use the resources (the total resources) of the country to create a better future for the people of Ireland.  This is essentially the same challenge that faces us in the very different circumstances of 2013. We must not look (in the mood of commemoration) to 1916 and its generation for a template or a particular set of answers to our contemporary predicament: but rather we should seek to match the creative impulses, the intellectual energy and the sheer ambition of the revolutionary generation.

Book your Tickets