Sunday, 13 February 2011

What's the problem with being Irish?

In trying to understand what's happening in Ireland I've read a lot about economics and banking - more than I want to, frankly. David McWilliams has been a great source of information and an advocate for a course of action quite different from that undertaken by the Irish government. But while I'm a lot more knowledgeable about the current situation and the sequence of events that led to it, I'm not that much wiser about the root causes of the problem. Even at the height of the boom it always seemed to me that Irish society was quite dysfunctional; the lack of a vision for the country, other than "make money and spend it" was startling and quite a contrast with my experience of Sweden in the 80's and Canada in the 90's. In fact, not having a vision was pretty much government policy, judging from the behaviour and pronouncements of its leader Bertie Ahern.

As I write this we're in the middle of an election campaign, but still there's little being offered that could be described as a vision for the country. Most of the discussion is on modifications to the processes of the state; some of these changes have merit - but did we really get to this position because of a mechanical problem in the state vehicle or is the driver at fault?

I think we need to open up the discussion and consider root causes. The commentators below might be right or wrong, but I think they're adding something valuable to a debate that hasn't really started.

John Waters in the Irish Times:
Perhaps the economic system is really collapsing because human beings sought to find through it an answer for their longings that cannot be found in this way? The implication of almost all of the recriminatory discussion that has ensued since the beginning of the disintegration in mid-2008 has been the suggestion that we might have continued to pursue our desires as we had been doing – presumably to a successful conclusion – had a few bankers and politicians not torn the arse out of it.
Now, the discussion is dominated by those who tell us that, by effecting this or that ethical or mechanistic change, we can restore the system to balance, with human beings once again snug and well-adjusted at the heart of it. Thus, all discussion is predicated on the idea that, had we done things slightly differently, we could have preserved our illusions.

Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair ascribes many of our problems to a chronic lack of confidence. The following excerpt from Vanity Fair hurts because it's true:

The first thing you notice when you watch the Irish Parliament at work is that the politicians say everything twice, once in English and once in Gaelic. As there is no one in Ireland who does not speak English and a vast majority who do not speak Gaelic, this comes across as a forced gesture that wastes a great deal of time. I ask several Irish politicians if they speak Gaelic, and all offer the same uneasy look and hedgy reply: “Enough to get by.” The politicians in Ireland speak Gaelic the way the Real Housewives of Orange County speak French. To ask “Why bother to speak it at all?” is of course to miss the point. Everywhere you turn you see both emulation of the English and a desire, sometimes desperate, for distinction. The Irish insistence on their Irishness—their conceit that they’re more devoted to their homeland than the typical citizen of the world is—has an element of bluster about it, from top to bottom. At the top are the many very rich Irish people who emit noisy patriotic sounds but arrange officially to live elsewhere so they don’t have to pay tax in Ireland; at the bottom, the waves of emigration that define Irish history. The Irish people and their country are like lovers whose passion is heightened by their suspicion that they will probably wind up leaving each other. Their loud patriotism is a cargo ship for their doubt.

The irascible Kevin Myers has a thought-provoking opinion of course expressed in his inimitable style.
One of the central problems of 'Irishness' is the disorder created by the bipolarity of overweening conceit and pathological self-loathing. The result is not some happy medium, but violent mood swings of the emotional compass that make plotting a prudent national course virtually impossible.

None of the points above is the answer to "why" - but I feel each one is an important clue in an investigation in to root causes. While the economic debates continue, this more important discussion really needs to get going.

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