Summer 2011 Editorial
Editor: Fergus O'Donoghue, SJ
“We all partied” is the most insulting remark made by any Irish politician offering an excuse for our present mess. It is equalled in idiocy by the promise made by a junior civil servant, to “bring this country to a standstill,” which is probably going to happen anyway.
Many of us never got a chance to party, because the boomtime money was not spent properly on education or health services. Our careerist political class, which is remarkably insulated from daily reality, did not worry about the shorter and sicker lives endured by our poorest, who are increasing in number, nor about our grossly unequal education system. The ultimate aim of our educational system is still the reinforcement of our middle classes. University teachers, in many disciplines, note the falling standards of new students, who have been trained to win high points and so enter the professions, but who have really not been educated.
The Celtic Tiger put selfishness in place of the social solidarity that used to be so characteristic of Irish life. Our leaders in State and Church were already infected with an underlying cynicism and a lack of idealism that led politicians to take the electorate for granted (offering promises rather than policies) and convinced religious leaders that their disregarded laity could not, under any circumstances, be told that their institution was less than perfect. Deference and obsequiousness are relics of another age, but their persistence in Ireland has been a major block to reform in the State and in the Church. There has been no strong challenge to the tradition of administrative secrecy in Ireland, even though it has left both our Civil Service and our majority Church woefully out of touch in an IT age. Civil and religious bureaucracies are always afraid to take risks.
Many politicians are not really interested in their fellow citizens, other than as voters at election time, but some politicians are gifted actors and persuade us that they never put party interest before our needs. So, we do not protest enough when we are told that banks are more important than jobs and that employment must be sacrificed in order to pay the vast, unrepayable bank debts. Corporations seem more important than people, hence our obsession with corporation tax. Money is what matters and it seems to be connected to our ‘international image’, even now, when our economic independence has been lost and we, who thought ourselves to be at the centre of things, half-way ‘between Boston and Berlin,’ have the to endure the humiliation of being one of the ‘peripheral economies’ (albeit in very good company).
Can Ireland be reformed? Yes, but only if we change our way of thinking. It has been very hard to abandon an inherited respect for the banks, so there were only muted protests when their colossal debts were passed on to households and small firms. Fine Gael, in government, may be reverting to its ‘strong farmer’ image as it inflicts pain on the lowest paid and on pensioners. The Labour Party seems to have been bewitched by power and reflects the secularising obsessions of its ageing leadership, rather than working actively for social cohesion and the redistribution of wealth, thereby forming a genuine Left for the first time in Irish history.
As a nation, we are hampered by a very weak sense of ourselves. Catholicism was once a very important part of the national self-image, but the Church is divided and discredited. Its leaders await guidance from Rome and are unable to challenge a society where admitted incompetence has received massive financial reward. Gospel values will not touch the retired bank director who resents the financial constraints that come from having a pension of only €500,000 a year. Those values may be more relevant to the many for whom the loss of €50 a week represents great hardship. Meanwhile, Catholic clergy worry about the new translation of the Roman Missal, rather than trying to ensure that there will be people in churches to use it.
We can dream about a different Ireland: where government backbenchers cease to be lobby fodder and join independents in demanding radical solutions; where civil servants seek new perspectives; where RTE decides to allow young, working-class and rural people onto discussion panels, abandoning its addiction to middle-aged, middle class Dubliners; where Catholic bishops call diocesan synods on their own authority; where people realise that expressing discontent on radio phone-ins changes nothing.
Change and reform in Ireland come only after much struggle. The collapse of Fianna Fail is proof that, eventually, you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, but there is, as yet, no evidence of any group that can articulate our growing misery and discontent. Our elite can rest securely in its well-feathered nests – for now.