The return of the Irish economy is not an accident. The fact there were no riots when in collapsed in 2008 in a sea of imploded vested interests was no happenstance. The fact this country has divided power since its instigation between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael wasn’t just luck. The repetition of the failures of the national spatial strategy in the National Planning Framework was predestined. The failure of any party to take on the rights of property and make them subject to the common good isn’t a random thing, it’s determined.
This country isn’t Germany which went through industrialisation, Nazification and deNazification, and learnt that politics and the common good is a serious business. Nor are we like the US which takes itself so seriously that it can elect a politician on an America First platform, elect someone who’s utterly wrong about everything. Or the UK which tossed a reputation forged over a millennium for empirical pragmatism into the fires of Brexit because it had a serious gripe with Institutional Europe (and Johnny foreigner).
Ireland lost half of its people in the famine five generations ago. There is a strong folk memory of apocalypse which imbues a national fear that workaday issues aren’t important, that politics doesn’t really matter, that anything good is transient, that there’s no point planting a tree, a flower. We also suffer from the residual malaise of the colonised. For 700 years decisions were taken not in the common good but in the interest of an alien political entity. Service for the government and its establishment was not service for the common good. This country is sceptical about the motivations of its politicians, and its politicians do not see their roles as ethical or principled. This can generate corruption.
We also suffer from the overhang of over a millennium of pious religious adherence though arguably we are overcoming that fast, almost – though not quite – too fast.
Ireland is not a serious country like Germany. Yes we’re big on the GDP that every country wants. Certainly, we can do capitalism if you ask us too, but it’s only because that’s a doctrine that depends on an independent competitive detachment. You don’t have to buy in to anything particular to practise capitalism. We’re good at giving international commerce and its IT companies and vulture funds what they want: from planning permissions to an utterly unethical system of corporate taxation.
You never hear anyone in public life talk of morality or ethics, you rarely hear mention of the public interest or the common good. Or philosophy: we’re sort of middlebrow. It is taken for granted that the combined private interests of all somehow amounts to the public interest. It is assumed the needs of the present outweigh concerns for the future. We don’t have a language for ugliness even though we forge it everywhere. We don’t care about planning, we couldn’t give a fiddlers for the environment. We’re the worst climate-change offenders in Europe, one of the few EU countries to miss its 2020 emission reduction targets under the EU effort-sharing decision, the worst per person in Europe. We love to litter.
We’ve filled the countryside with unsustainable houses, allowed Dublin to leapfrog into much of Leinster. We’re going continue doing it. It would be draconian to tell anyone they can’t actually build somewhere.
Climate, the environment and planning are at the sharp edge of our psychological weaknesses. We understand when someone fleeces the public purse – sure we’d do it ourselves.
Even the parties of the left can’t bring themselves to support a property tax. For that would impinge on “the family home”. Does Richard Boyd Barrett not realise that that phrase betrays a millennium of weakness? Strangely we never hear that other assets shouldn’t be taxed – that stocks and shares shouldn’t be taxed because they’re “the family portfolio” but mention the family home in Ireland and a ‘Land League’ and a host of people who don’t realise they’re not leftists will come running to your aid, in your home or in the courts, even if you’re looking to remain in a gilded mansion, even if you have three homes.
Charlie Haughey, Bertie Ahern, Enda Kenny, have been replaced with shiny new faces – Leo, the Simons, Eoghan.
These tyros may have had radical, progressive or interesting ideas before they got into politics but it’s not an accident that they get beaten out of them by the time they stand for election, for the party. They’ll toe the party line, not the thinktank line on everything from housing to the drugs crisis to healthcare. They bought into Fine Gael (it might as well have been Fianna Fáil) atavistically.
Sit on a bus in England or the US and the quality of the conversation overheard (‘innit?’, ‘So I’m Like’) shocks and bores. Not here. You’ll never meet a complete moron in Ireland. The left may not yield a property-tax agenda but then again the right hasn’t managed to muster much of an anti-immigration or even privatisation agenda.
Most Irish people have lots of common sense, a fairly global outlook, a sense of humour and a cultural hinterland of some sort.
Ireland isn’t serious enough to keep its quality of life as high as that in countries where the common good is the transcendent driver. But then again it’s not serious enough to say no to gay marriage – sure everyone likes someone who’s gay. Or serious enough to elect a Fascist or a tub-thumper.
Ireland is a peculiar place. It’s not the worst place. But its history holds it back, and will for generations to come.