A society that does not learn from its mistakes may be condemned to repeat them. Ireland was a poor country, generated a once-in-a-century boom during our lifetimes and allowed itself to be hijacked by corrupt and cute right-wing solipsists. The self-obsessed – the financiers, the bankers, the politicians, the economists, the estate agents and the builders, betrayed us. They were egged on by a compliant media.They had their moment, showed their definitive incompetence and now they should lie low. The characteristic immorality and incompetence of these sectors should deny them a hearing on policy for a generation. But that is not how we do it: those who so completely botched their vision and their predictions remain at the reins, feted, and payrolled. It is as if we have no sense of discredit.
Our political classes offered no attractive vision of society and did not see the downturn coming. Fianna Fáil ruled the boom on dodginess, short-termism and neo-liberalism dressed up as ‘socialism’.
Driven by their own bloated lifestyles , they behaved as if money was all that mattered and there would never be a tomorrow. Opposition parties did not do their job of sceptically assessing our tax base, our banks and our property sector. Too many of them were gormlessly revelling in their Ryanair weekends (or investments) in Bulgaria to focus on policy or the national interest. And if there was any sort of a clear alternative policy vision offered by the opposition, it has escaped Village.
Gorged on the boom and their own free lunches, our political parties evolved into interchangeability, increased the inequality gaps in Irish society and lost any sense of ideology so that even the Labour Party supported income-tax cuts at the last election, and even the Green Party now manifests the preference for rhetoric over action that has always characterised their unlikely political brethren in Fianna Fáil.
All of this would be enough to damn our elected representatives to return to their origins as quirkily clubbable teachers and solicitors, but the cross-party expenses scandal should expedite their collective demise. In Britain, it is estimated that half of MPs will not stand at the next election. The body politic here would profit from a similar purgation.
But the public is ultimately to blame. You get the political classes you deserve. A recent debate on Pat Kenny’s Frontline programme saw the public and private sectors at each other’s throats. The public have turned in disgust from Fianna Fáil to Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael, though there is nothing on the face of the earth as similar to Fianna Fáil as Fine Gael. And we continue to celebrate the biggest charlatans in our society. For example …
Bertie Ahern was cheered to the rafters after castigating the “boring” Mahon Tribunal on a recent Late Late Show. Ben Dunne featured on a recent Prime Time for his views on Lisbon and advertises his own gyms on the radio – even though he paid Charlie Haughey to get him to intervene corruptly over his tax affairs, and even though his evidence that his failure to recall crucial evidence had a psychiatric explanation was not believed by the Moriarty Tribunal. Michael Lowry topped the poll in his Tipperary constituency in the 1997, 2002 and 2007 general elections, even though he was “kept” by Ben Dunne, his Company Garuda had to settle for €1.2m following a Revenue audit, and he is under investigation for rigging the ESAT phone licence to Denis O’Brien. Last year, councillor Michael ‘Stroke’ Fahy returned to a hero’s welcome when he attended his first meeting of Galway County Council less than a week after being released from jail for defrauding that Council. John O’Donoghue will be a strong contender when he stands again in Kerry at the next general election, though he has, for example, albeit legally, abused the public purse for years including incurring expenses for car-hire services during four visits to Britain in 2006 and 2007, which largely coincided with race meetings there and which cost a total of €21,289.57. The media, as ever, is complicit. In 2008 Magill Magazine, one of our more thoughtful publications, gave its Politician of the Year award to Brian Cowen, for winning the general election and “for his work within the Department of Finance” and its Lifetime Achievement Award to PJ Mara, former Press Secretary to Charlie Haughey.
Most of our overpaid RTÉ household-name journalists did very little to signal concern over the excesses of the tiger. Our prime-time journalists still fawn over the O’Learys and the boomtown economists, and subscribe to the gospel of private good, public bad – often to the extent of taking their tax-efficient stipends through private corporations rather than direct from the state broadcaster. Our television screens have pulsated for years with fast-moving documentaries from apparently incisive Zeitgeist champions like David McWilliams which questioned not so much the neo-liberal vision of the last decade as its execution. The same David McWilliams paraded our business élite at a patronising government-funded “think-tank” event at Farmleigh in September, a sort of Davos in Dublin or “toffs’ Self-Aid”. One of the most exceptionable examples of deference to businessmen was the pitting on the Prime Time programme of Declan Ganley against Michael O’Leary in a debate on the Lisbon Treaty: a mysterious but hubristic businessman with no mandate whatsoever, whose credibility is bankrupt; and a leering boor whose only mantra to the nation and the world has been to cut costs to the detriment of all other values and to fly the planet to destruction – neither of whom has any documented notion of society such that his opinion on a complex political treatise like the Lisbon Treaty would be illuminating.
Village is not convinced that the answer to our problems could possibly be found within the collective wisdom of our well-known business leaders. Our indigenous industrial sector does not compare well with our foreign direct investment sector. Irish Stock Market companies are scarcely exemplars of good governance: AIB, CRH, Fyffes, INM, Waterford Wedgwood? And many of our indigenous Titans from Tony O’Reilly to Denis O’Brien to Michael Smurfit to JP McManus, John Magnier, Hugh Mackeown and Dermot Desmond are tax exiles whose greedily-withheld taxes would be more welcome than their advice.
Our economists too let us down. None of them challenged the inflated growth forecasts that all the political parties subscribed to at the last election, for example. Only economists could have drawn up the “highway robbery” that is NAMA. Though some economists have demurred, very few argue against the need to feed the markets roaring back into action. Few have learnt that neo-liberalism – and not just neo-conservatism – was a mistake.
We’re going to have to stop looking for solutions from party politicians, business people and economists. They don’t have them.
We are looking in the wrong places for solutions to our crisis. In many cases, we are trawling for people in the last places we should be looking. In a republic you should not look to vested interests for solutions.
For this edition of Village, we asked a fairly representative group of opinion-formers to contribute a list of the people they think are (not should be) most influential in Irish Society. We print the aggregated lists at pp.28-30. There were few surprises and there wasn’t much scope for surprises. The list, particularly at the very top, embodies the party politicians, broadcasters and businessmen who caused and cheered the problem in the first place.
More interesting still, perhaps, is whence might come replacements for these time-servers. Village favours the community, equality, academic and environmental sectors. We believe listening to them will promote the long-term, quality of life, the environment and equality. Certainly decisions, even momentous decisions such as on NAMA and An Bord Snip, taken without factoring in the considered views of these sectors will be deficient.
If we want new answers, we must stop asking questions – least of all the same questions – of the same people.