Posted tagged ‘cynicism’

Ireland: country with a bad attitude?

January 7, 2009

I sometimes find it instructive to study the letters to the editor of our newspapers. They reflect something important. Not necessarily the public mood, but what the writers think (or hope) is the public mood. Typically a letter-writer on these pages is looking for applause from somewhere, so they address issues in a way that, they believe, will please the gallery. And all of this is interesting because, of course, you and I are in the gallery.

Right now, I am particularly interested in how the letter writers are addressing the causes and consequences of Ireland’s current economic and budgetary situation. It would I think be fair to say that the overwhelming mood is one of cynicism.  This is targeted at politicians and businesspeople in particular – there is an undercurrent of anger at the perceived weakness of politicians and the duplicity or greed of the business community: yesterday’s Irish Independent had a letter calling for a ‘peasant’s revolt’ against the banking industry. But what I find even more revealing is what the writers have to say about the good years of the Celtic Tiger, in hindsight. And this, too, in almost wholly cynical. Last year a letter writer to the Irish Times suggested that, after a decade or so of the Celtic Tiger, what we had to show for it was the Luas (Dublin light rail), and that was pretty much it.

This latter theme also got an outing in the New York Times in October 2008, when the writer John Banville did an opinion piece titled ‘Erin go bust‘. In this he told the readers that, at a dinner party during the Celtic Tiger period, the guests had suggested that the figure most representative of what Ireland had become was a ‘a non-tax-paying businessman’s trophy wife’. As Banville himself points out in his piece, there is an undercurrent in all this of an affection for the pre-Tiger years, with a hint of nostalgia for a period that may not have been so bad after all.

It seems to me that all of this is dangerous nonsense. Can anyone really look back on the 1970s and early 1980s with any kind of nostalgia? Does anyone really believe – I mean, really believe – that we would be better off going back to the days of hyper inflation, hidden abuse, sexism, poverty, public squalor – not to mention the high levels of hypocrisy in public discourse. I was there, that’s what it was.

Recession is not a dinner party game at which we can gain points and personal pleasure by identifying miscreants from the recent past. It’s something that has to be fought because while it’s there it destroys jobs, quality of life and progress. Of course we need to learn from what we did wrong, and of course the behaviour of some was inexcusable, but that wasn’t the whole story. Since the mid-1990s (or to be fairer, since 1987 when the Programme for National Recovery started the process) we have gained immensely as a country. We have become (or rather, we became) more self-confident, more innovative, more tolerant, more secure. Our infrastructure (while still being below par) improved dramatically. Our population became more cosmopolitan and diverse.

At the moment, what we appear to be doing is standing on the sidelines shouting abuse. That doesn’t help anyone very much, least of all ourselves. We need to discover a sense of purpose and optimism, together with a clear strategic vision. We need our government to do the same. And we need to let go of all that cynicism. Otherwise we’ll re-discover soon enough what the bad old days were really like.