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A Moocow Coming Down Along the Road

Maurice Earls
Economic Development 50 Years On 1958-2008, Michael Mulreany (ed), Institute of Public Administration. 410 pp, €28, ISBN: 978-1904541813 Stephen Dedalus, like many young men before and since, had a less than entirely respectful attitude towards his father. In answer to his friend Cranly’s polite probing of the Dedalus family circumstances, he described Simon as:A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.Joyce’s father was the model for Stephen’s father, the man who led his family from the comfort of Blackrock through an assortment of lodgings until they finally came to rest in Drumcondra, drinking their tea from jamjars. If Simon Dedalus lacked rigour and focus, his son, who was based on the author, would show ‑ from a distance ‑ what those qualities could deliver. Abroad, he would forge the conscience of his nation and discover the “loveliness which had not yet come into the world”. The “from a distance” is crucial. There were social, cultural and economic factors which tended to undermine practitioners of the direct style in Ireland, and which equally favoured the superficially easy-going, indirect style. Joyce senior excelled at the superficial bits. Alas in Ireland that was not enough and the family repeatedly fell through the safety nets of the middle classes. Notwithstanding, Joyce loved his father and drew deeply from his repertoire in his writing.Parnell, whom all four admired, was seen as an example of excellence and directness undermined. All four desired an Ireland in the image and likeness of Parnell, but none expected this to happen soon. Stephen believed that Parnell and everyone else who tried to help the Irish were betrayed by them. For Joyce, as for Stephen, the conclusion was to move beyond the reach of the duplicitous old sow that was Ireland. It proved a good decision. Joyce’s achievements in distant Trieste constitute the most telling account of the Irish and Ireland ever undertaken and are well worth considering now when, as TK Whitaker put it in 1958, “the real shortage is of ideas”.Generally speaking, people who drank their tea from jamjars were ripe for emigration, which by Edwardian times was established as a defining Irish characteristic. The “reordering” of the Irish industrial and agricultural economies after the Famine meant there was a lot less work available on the land and in industry. People had to leave, and not just the “surplus” hangover from an earlier “overcrowded” era but a significant percentage of those born every year after the Famine. As a result the population contracted all the way to the 1960s, when it was perhaps 35 per cent of its size around 1840 ‑ possibly less.The phenomenon of mass emigration, which lasted around a hundred and fifty years, was ‑ after a long period of looking the other way ‑ discussed in detail in recent decades, but this discussion focused chiefly on those who left rather than on the consequences for those who remained. The position, I believe, is that continuous mass emigration increasingly shaped and restricted the Irish at home. Indeed it is hard to see how it could have been otherwise, and if this is so, it follows that since population decline ceased there have been new possibilities, and presumably these possibilities still exist. Despite everything, it may be a good time ‑ or at least an interesting time ‑ to be Irish, which is by no means to say that we will not make a mess of things. Unfortunately, since the 1960s we have underachieved in a number of key areas. But that may change. The popular attitudes which emerged in force from the 1960s and which prevailed over the recent decades of prosperity could be said to have revolved around a rejection of previously agreed values rather than around a new understanding of national purpose. Emotional energy in the public sphere was increasingly consumed in this culture of rejection, a phenomenon so pervasive that it is possible to speak of it as a social revolution. Among the elements which were rejected – not all at the same pace ‑ were protectionism, Gaelicisation, nationalism, anti-partitionism, the Catholic Church and agriculture. There are others which could be added and the process still has a bit to run. All to the good would be the standard response and, in many cases, it is one with which I would have sympathy. However, there is a crucial caveat. We replaced the rejected elements with a loose ensemble of attitudes lacking in political and historical coherence and consequently inadequate to the long term requirements of a people or state, any people or state. We were like the bitter youth, leaving a small town without a backward glance, yearning for the bright lights and convinced that anything the world has to offer must be better.Inevitably, this led to vulnerabilities, long submerged but now very much coming into view. Arguably these weaknesses didn’t matter so much during the post-Lemass era which is ending with the current crisis. The period now closing was the era of the EU honeymoon and the Pax Americana, which meant we could get away with not taking on the serious responsibilities of statehood and no one burst our bubble of innocent globalism. As Angela Merkel put it in relation to the EU: “We haven’t discussed certain problems in Europe because we tried not to see them in order to be nice to one another.” In Ireland we had the additional problem of an excessive free market enthusiasm, which led to such self-indulgences as our national debate on the relative merits of Boston and Berlin. The era of the nursery, however, is now over and the pressing task for Ireland is to avoid the danger of returning to permanent decline or dependence. The most important immediate questions concern the EU, which is at the beginning of a period of major change. Basically it has been a half-baked business and our successful niche depended on it being half-baked. Due to this factor and a naive globalism, we frequently allied ourselves with the British, who wished not so much to keep the EU half-baked as to reverse existing levels of integration. This did not particularly impress those countries which are ‑ for now ‑ effectively guaranteeing our national debt. The unfinished condition of the EU meant it was vulnerable and challenging weaknesses have been exposed. However, it is very unlikely that political Europe will walk away from the EU: instead there will be radical changes and intensified integration. Anyone who tries to use a veto to prevent this will be excluded, and should a debt-distressed state try it on it will be excluded with enthusiasm. This creates a situation for Ireland where political innocence can no longer be afforded.The Irish national interest clearly lies in becoming heavily involved in the process of moving the EU forward. This means working to ensure that Germany is helped to take on a serious European leadership role, one which will require it to leave behind the legacy of postwar frugality and other impulses inimical to European development to which the Germans are deeply and anachronistically attached. The object for Ireland is to avoid a new politics of peripherality, to avoid becoming a Franco-German dependency and to assist in forging a new politics of geographically balanced development within the EU. It is certainly not a time to close embassies, as one leading economist has recently recommended to government. For all the rigour of their discipline, economists frequently disappoint in terms of wide angle vision. Clearly, in order to secure our interests and contribute to the new European politics, we need to engage actively with all twenty seven EU member states.Economic Development 50 Years On is a collection of essays and discussion, mostly by leading economists, on Irish fortunes since TK Whitaker’s original Economic Development was published in 1958. A central purpose is to illuminate the path forward through elucidation of the past. It contains many instructive and interesting articles ‑ a fascinating account of debate on economic development in the newspaper press by Tom Garvin and a description of differing development outlooks within the administration by Frank Barry, to name but two of the many impressive essays. Overall, however it disappoints, particularly in the area of general commentary, where, for the most part, the tone is one of Celtic Tiger orthodoxy. There is a wearying tendency to explain everything, either explicitly or implicitly, in terms of the wonders of the free market and globalisation. This is an example of a peculiarity which characterises much economic commentary in Ireland over recent decades. The original Economic Development, which has iconic status amongst economists, was a Keynesian type of intervention, whereas recent economic orthodoxy in Ireland has been anti-Keynes. Trying to square this circle leads to a fog of interpretive shortcomings. Frances Ruane is the only contributor to discuss Keynes. Some others tend to represent Economic Development as an Irish Big Bang introducing the enlightenment of free trade in one glorious bound.Despite the fact that it was published in May 2009 and was based on a conference held in September 2008 ‑ the month of the bank guarantee‑ when it was clear our economic gulfstream had flipped, there is a distinct tendency, in the manner of Simon Dedalus, to praise our own past and assume that everything is still in essence OK, despite the looming threat of jamjars all round. This, of course, leads inexorably to the conclusion that no policy changes are required. “We must also continue to embrace the global economy,” says the secretary general of the Department of Finance in the book’s foreword, written in May 2009.Brian Lenihan, Minister for Finance, is another contributor who takes a similar view while, somewhat casually, acknowledging “the more challenging economic environment”. Essentially, it seems, fiscal consolidation will do it; as he sees it, the present problems are a result of drifting off course. We must restore our competitiveness and face the “tough decisions” that have to be taken in order to continue to enjoy the fruits of the Celtic Tiger. But the only tough decisions he has in mind are cuts in public spending. Tough thinking is not included. We must stick with the programme and promote exports in the “knowledge intensive sector”, where the minister believes “our comparative advantage lies”. After all we are “one of the most open economies in the world”. Could it really be that simple? Is “Aye, aye straight ahead sir” really all that is required to refloat our green submarine? The minister does not criticise or even mention the banks or the developers, nor does he use the word “regulation” or consider the question of building an indigenous exporting sector to balance the IDA sector. He does not offer any thoughts on the security or prospects of the foreign direct investment sector, nor does he express concern that employment in that sector is stuck at 1998 levels. Instead, we are congratulated on leading the field in “attracting foreign investment” and treated to his quasi-religious faith on the potential of the smart economy. It is an understanding which is unlikely to help in addressing what, it is becoming increasingly clear, is a flawed economic model.Throughout 50 Years On praise is heaped on TK Whitaker, but significantly approval is confined to those parts of the original Economic Development which are, in hindsight, now lauded, that is to say advocacy of free trade and not to the document as a whole. Actually the greater bulk of Whitaker’s document was about modernising agriculture and making farmers more prosperous in the hope that the extra capital realised would be invested in productive development. This was a long-established idea for the simple reason that farmers were the most significant source of wealth generation and it was thought that if anything was going to happen it was going to flow from agriculture. For the most part, contributors to 50 Years On do not seem to think that the removal of agriculture from the centre of economic planning is something that requires explanation. In so far as it is noted, the question is seen ‑ in a classic backwards reading of history ‑ as something Whitaker got wrong. The same is more or less true of the commentary on the indigenous exporting industries Whitaker hoped would develop.The reader is left with the inaccurate impression that Economic Development was chiefly concerned with the advocacy of free trade, always presented as a transcendent good. Of course, there was not, nor is there, international free trade. Growing free trade within the EU was certainly important for Ireland but free trade alone won’t do it. As Whitaker’s Economic Development pointed out in 1958, we had to learn to manufacture goods which could be sold competitively in export markets, which is somewhat different from simply removing tariffs.Whitaker, hoping for a modest two per cent growth, advocated a limited planning programme chiefly involving targeted state aid. As manufacturing culture was quite backward, serious growth of the indigenous sector, including the food sector, would have required deeper planning and intervention, which was not applied or recommended due, it seems, to political timidity, ideological inflexibility and a reluctance to upset vested interests. Interestingly, over time serious planning was applied to the foreign direct investment sector and it was foreign-owned companies from this area that fulfilled Whitaker’s prescription and fuelled Irish export growth. This, it has to be emphasised, happened as a result of successful, if low key, state planning ‑ not as the result of an Irish engagement with the Washington consensus. It seems to me, contributors to 50 Years On fail to acknowledge adequately the role of the state in building the export economy. In consequence, they do not extrapolate to consider potential roles for the state in future economic development and in dealing with the present crisis. In recent years, economic commentary in Ireland appears to have been dominated by a liberal anti-Keynes consensus, a consensus which now appears to be collapsing internationally. It is odd that anti-Keynesian thinking holds and held such sway in a country whose success was the result of a Keynesian-style state nurturing of the foreign direct investment sector. Whitaker did not foresee the eventual success that the IDA would become. The type of industrial development he envisaged was based on indigenous strengths and included food, forestry and tourism. Judging from The First Programme for Economic Expansion and its successor, which was to take economic development up to 1970, there was no appetite to engage in the depth of planning required to turn these areas into transformative economic forces. A direct result was the persistently underperforming and underdeveloped indigenous exporting sector noted in numerous reports and papers on the Irish economy over the past forty years. The crucial exporting sector has suffered from a radical imbalance between indigenous and foreign-owned; the foreign-owned sector, for example, was responsible for over 90 per cent of the very substantial export growth which occurred from 2000-2007. This is surely an unhealthy situation.It seems that the government’s current position regarding indigenous exporting enterprise is similar to that which failed over the past forty years: provide a positive environment and growth will occur. The evidence of failure suggests it is necessary to go a lot further. Moreover, there is reason for caution in relation to the sectors that are currently seen as likely areas of indigenous growth. Progress in financial services will continue, particularly for IDA companies, but growth of local enterprises is likely to be affected by increased regulation and EU harmonisation. International regulation will also cool down this area. Growth in knowledge-based enterprises – the smart economy ‑ is likely. However, apart from the IDA sector, it will be slow, uneven and of limited size. It is foolish, moreover, to imagine that we have unique qualities in this area: it is a game that others can play just as well as us. One wonders whether Brian Lenihan could be unaware of the extraordinary transformation under way in Asia and of its implications. Some of these implications may be positive. There is a world food shortage projected; Asians must eat and the more prosperous they become the better they will wish to eat. Perhaps there are areas of industrial development in addition to the smart economy that could be considered.As there is no prospect of people being able to download their dinner, the food industry would appear to offer some potential. Although the sector is seriously underdeveloped, a number of world class food companies have emerged in Ireland, from state intervention and the co-op movement, indicating the potential that exists. We are part of a market of 500 million people; we have competitive advantages in significant areas of agricultural production; we have land which is among the least polluted in Europe and we have a large number of micro to small food companies, a percentage of which could be suitable for expansion as part of a coordinated long term plan. In addition we possess an abundance of marketing skills and have An Bord Bia, which seems to be an excellent organisation which could be expanded. If it is suspected that agribusiness was not developed in the decade following Economic Development because the IDA’s foreign direct investment pot of gold had been discovered, obviating the necessity for hard graft, this was not the case. The IDA’s achievements in the 1960s were modest by later standards. Indeed it seems the 1960s were only good relative to the disastrous earlier period. Internationally, we continued to decline. In 50 Years On, Nicholas Crafts comments: “By 1973 Ireland had sunk to the bottom of the west European league in terms of the level of real GDP per person, below even Greece and Portugal.”The exporting economy which did eventually emerge was the creation of the IDA, a state agency that planned and plotted each element and phase of export growth. Yet the agency is not much spoken of or praised, and significantly attracts little attention in this book. The reasons, apart from those mentioned, are to do with our gnarled history. While Ireland’s exporting economy arose as a result of planning, Ireland from the 1960s did not much care for planning as an idea or as a practice, an attitude reflected in 50 Years On. The ruthless pragmatism required to achieve progress from the low base of the 1960s was inhibited by this prejudice. If the hostility to planning is now to be overcome, its origins ‑ which have little to do with fear of communism and a lot to do with wider cultural patterns ‑ should be highlighted.A key cultural characteristic of post-Lemass Ireland, one which may also explain the current willingness of the public and government to place their faith exclusively in the narrow perspectives of specialists and technocrats, is a horror of the intellectual, which is largely explained, I suspect, by an earlier attachment to large ideas which failed. The large ideas of the pre-Lemass era, such as that Ireland should become substantially Gaelic in culture, that partition should be ended, that rural was good and that our markets should be protected eventually proved untenable. Huge public energies, both emotional and organisational, had been invested in planning for or celebrating these ideals. When they were slowly – even sneakily ‑ disowned, a confused public was left with an unwillingness to engage with any substitutes. It was a case of once bitten twice shy.Conor Cruise O’Brien, who railed against the national pieties of the earlier period, has often been understood as a man at odds with the wider community but really he was quite representative, just a bit ahead of the curve and with an intellectual’s tendency – irritating to the man and woman on the street – to articulate everything very fully. It is interesting to read his “The Embers of Easter 1916-1966”, published in 1966, in the light of the abandonment of Irish national ambitions. O’Brien comes across very much as a young Stephen Dedalus, angry and upset at having been sold a pup. Speaking of his generation’s perception of national aims he talks of... vague but persistent feelings of perplexity and dissatisfaction. For a time these feelings were allayed by our elders’ intimations that the division of the country ‑ or of the nation as we thought and said ‑ was just a temporary hitch; the march of the nation had been interrupted for a while, but would shortly be resumed. I doubt whether we fully believed this, but we found it a more comfortable concept than the alternative: the thought that Irish history, in the sense in which we had understood it, had come to an ignominious end.This uncertainty did not last. Hibernia’s exquisite national robes fashioned from Ireland’s ancient lace and woollen industries were declared invisible: “Our paradoxical discovery, at the very moment of entering the United Nations, that Ireland was not going to be united had at least the merit of ending a period of pretence.” He added: “Small wonder that Pearse’s vision of an Ireland ‘not free merely but Gaelic as well’ did not convince us.” For O’Brien the discovery was traumatic: “My generation grew into the chilling knowledge that we had failed, that our history had turned into rubbish, our past to ‘a trouble of fools’.” This last phrase is from Yeats who, like so many Irish intellectuals, dreamed of an Irish future that could sidestep or transcend the modern. In Joyce we can see the outlines of an alternative: the fiercely pragmatic nationalism of Parnell, a language which is English but carries the weight of Irish historical experience and an economy characterised by the hard work, sober habits and inventive enterprising spirit of a Leopold Bloom, and finally a society characterised by the inclusive humanity of the same man. (Joyce, of course, combining as he did great fecklessness with outstanding focus, does not in himself offer as valuable a national model as does, in most respects, his creation Leopold Bloom.)When the local is rejected or found to be unviable, it is common to take refuge in the universal. The Jewish experience in central Europe is a classic example. Elite catholic experience in the later eighteenth century is another. And this is precisely what Conor Cruise O’Brien did. In “The Embers of Easter”, which was published in New Left Review, he toys with the possibilities of left universalism; his essay is headed with a tortuous quotation from VI Lenin. After a respectable period, O’Brien was to find a more congenial home in the new western universalism, characterised by a US-dominated free market ideology and presented by its advocates as value-free. This is what the world experienced as globalisation over recent decades and what the wider Irish public, including economists, progressively embraced following the collapse of local ideals. In his traumatic rejection of local ideology and his turning to an internationalist ideology, O’Brien was an Irish everyman. As a fiercely independent thinker O’Brien, of course, was not uncritical of the US and equally his universalism did not entail a sloughing off of interest in Ireland which he passionately desired to see leave its old preoccupations behind. In rejecting the objective of a reGaelicised Ireland, he also rejected the underlying rationale of revivalism, which was that a nation without its own language and culture at its centre was not a nation. This was standard off-the-shelf dogma from the heartland of European romanticism, and entirely unsuited to twentieth century Irish conditions but, nevertheless, a type of thinking strongly present in O’Brien’s inherited intellectual values and part of the intellectual bedrock throughout the twentieth century. There are shades of the young Stephen in O’Brien’s turning away from this world. But O’Brien was ultimately quite different from Joyce; he chose universalism, whereas Joyce chose Ireland and modernism. In a letter to his brother Stanislaus, Joyce remarked: “If the Irish programme did not insist on the Irish language I suppose I could call myself a nationalist.”The rejection of the programme to reGaelicise the Irish from the 1960s was slower and more complex than the rejection of protectionism, owing chiefly to a natural and ineradicable sense of loss felt on the subject of the language. This gave the engineers of romanticism a psychological advantage when it came to browbeating the citizenry. Patrick Kavanagh objected to being patronised and categorised as an Anglo-Irish writer because he wrote in English, commenting that “language is not particularly a badge of nationhood” and adding: “However much we have loved the creature when it was alive we must be realists and accept it is dead when it is dead.” In “Station Island” Joyce is the shadowy presence whom Seamus Heaney ‑ another farmer’s son who took to poetry ‑ has declare: “The English language belongs to us.”While language bullies ‑ such as Joyce’s Miss Ivors, whom Conor Cruise O’Brien believed was modelled on his mother’s sister ‑ insisting that the language must bear an impossible historical destiny are now quite rare, the question has lingered on in a sort of half-life. It has led to a widespread semi-conscious feeling, similar to that articulated by O’Brien in 1966, that the Irish have failed as a nation. This enormous psychological disadvantage, bequeathed to the public by the Irish intelligentsia, contributed significantly to the rise of the culture of rejection, which I spoke of, and to the political innocence which has rendered the use of the adjective “national” seem old-fashioned and irrelevant. Interestingly, two contributors to 50 Years On whose observations clearly embody a deep-seated national perspective, Garret FitzGerald and TK Whitaker, had their formative intellectual experiences in the pre-Lemass period. In the light of the difficulties ahead, it would be no harm if our intelligentsia were to address this psychologically corrosive element in our culture. It seems to me this would involve transcending the culture of rejection and facing the choice between the rival legacies of Joyce and O’Brien through a vigorous re-engagement with our history.History, of course – like economics ‑ is not a science, but it does matter. Its purpose is not to promote either self-loathing or self- praise but to assist in achieving self-understanding. Ireland, like other countries, enjoys many possible futures, some quite grim. In order to follow the optimum direction it is useful to know, as exactly as possible, where you are and how you got there. To do this it is necessary to move beyond the phenomena usually measured by economists. That is the function of history and perhaps a function of the humanities in a wider sense. Irish history, as it happens, is one of the most unusual in Europe. In many key areas of development it is more difficult and unclear than, for example, the histories of Britain, France or Poland. Professor Ronan Fanning is the only professional historian to contribute to 50 Years On. In it he offers a convincing demonstration of the core historical principle that all things are not possible at all times.Certainly the culture of rejection has little time for nuanced historical interpretation, preferring always a lazy moral drone. In some quarters the first four decades of independence are seen as the equivalent of the dark ages. Voices on numerous radio stations know that a madman called De Valera wanted us to live in hovels and fashion our clothing from bog rushes. More sophisticated talk show contributors know that we were saved by TK Whitaker who pressed the free trade button (if only it had been done sooner!) after which everything was grand. In a few clear paragraphs Fanning makes quick work of this radical misreading of the past. Following a concise account of the international climate from the 1920s to the late 1940s ‑ the Great Crash, protectionism and war ‑ he comments: “In sum, then, the international political climate until 1948 militated against any prospect of economic development.” It is also made clear that Whitaker’s landmark Economic Development was the culmination of a decade-long emerging awareness amongst the political and administrative elites that a radical change in economic policy was necessary rather than the result of a Sir Gawain arriving on a white steed. This is also made clear in Frances Ruane’s contribution.While Fanning’s core point is unassailable, it does prompt certain “what if” questions. In Cormac Ó Grada’s detailed consideration of the causes for industrial decline in Ireland, A New Economic Hstory,1780-1939, he does not find an explanation in capital shortage. And in 50 Year On, Finola Kennedy points out that in the 1920s Ireland was a creditor nation and that the banks were investing Irish savings in British government bonds. This, it seems to me, links to Whitaker’s assertion in the original Economic Development that the greatest shortage was of ideas, which, perhaps, is another way of saying we had no bourgeoisie. And if there is no proper bourgeoisie ‑ as opposed to a culture of trading ‑ and you do not have the leisure to await a long gestation period, the state must get involved. Whitaker’s idea of leaving bait in the form of state aids lying about the place in the hope that an enterprising bourgeoisie, capable of manufacturing for export, would emerge from its burrows will not work if they are not in there in the first place.It might be objected that whatever the validity of these points in relation to the 1960s, they are irrelevant now because we have a vibrant foreign direct investment sector, that we are leaders in this area, that no one really has a chance to catch up and that the IDA can go on introducing foreign-owned companies indefinitely. The IDA’s Horizon 2020 strategy is impressive and will, it seems likely, work reasonably well. Indeed, we must hope so because in terms of exports, there is nothing much apart from the IDA in the cupboard. Nevertheless, complacency would surely be insane. Apart from considerations relating to eggs and baskets, there is a growing body of opinion suggesting there may be an expiry date on this form of economic development. Robert Shapiro, a senior adviser to Barack Obama, was recently quoted as saying: “ FDI is a transition strategy, not an end-game strategy. The key to Ireland’s next stage is to make the entire economy a modern economy ‑ and not one that depends on the success of foreign companies.”On the other hand a recent detailed and informative report from Frank Barry and Adele Bergin is fairly sanguine on the FDI sector’s prospects. Our areas of FDI specialisation, such as pharmaceuticals, are mentioned as particularly strong and contributing to the stabilisation of the economy. It is, however, pointed out that the expiration of many patents is close. Lipitor, for example, which accounts for 25 per cent of Pfizer’s sales, comes off patent in 2011. Some consolation is taken from our ability to meet the rigorous standards of the US Food and Drugs Administration. It is suggested that less stable economies might tend to cut corners and fail to get FDA approval. The Asians of course are well capable of meeting FDA standards. Last month a Chinese company in the sector enjoying FDA approval was sold for a price which transformed its founders into multi billionaires. Relocation is clearly a serious danger. Costs can be reduced by 40 to 50 per cent, which, as Gerry Collins of Janssen Pharmaceutical observed recently, “is hard to walk away from”. The indications that a more balanced exporting economy is an urgent strategy requirement are stark. At the Global Irish Economic Forum held in September 2009, Craig Barrett, former chairman of Intel, said that of all the reasons Intel came to Leixlip the only one that still remained attractive was the 12.5% tax rate. I think it is fair to say that the dogs in the street know this tax rate is not particularly secure, and certainly not in the long term. The IDA has done the state some service and long may it continue, but clearly it is time to train in some fresh knights.As a start, it would be prudent to re-examine the possibilities of the indigenous sector, particularly food, which arguably has definite long-term potential. There is, however, a cultural hesitancy in this area, additional to the disinclination to plan, and related to the slow rejection of the rural and agriculture under way in our culture since the 1960s. Agriculture was another large phenomenon which “let us down” historically. Irish farmers radically modernised after the Famine, at considerable cultural cost ‑ this was one of the major factors in the final switch to English. They and their urban allies later united to campaign for the dispossession of feudal-style land owners in the late nineteenth century. With independence, farmers remained at the heart of the country’s economic strategy. Yet all this prioritising of agriculture failed to halt the dynamic of decline that had set in with the Famine. Agriculture did not become an engine of Irish economic revival. It therefore joined the list of things the Irish were willing to downgrade. The downgrade was definite but quite slow for a number of reasons, not least the farmers’ electoral importance. With consolidation of farms and a radical decline in the agricultural population, the electoral importance of farmers has declined and the marginalisation of the activity has gathered pace. We are now quite ambiguous about agriculture and would much prefer to prosper through something new and shiny like the “smart economy” than through anything connected, however indirectly, with boots and muck.The main reason the farmers were unable to perform the historic role given them was that they received very low prices for their products. Britain was the only market open to them and it operated a cheap food policy in support of industrial exports. Farming could be grim. Patrick Kavanagh spoke of it as a prison. “The Great Hunger”, which opens with the line “Clay is the word and clay is the flesh”, is the epic of that prison. In some ways De Valera’s paean to frugal rural living ‑ a touchstone of obscenity for contemporary rejectionists ‑ was an attempt to make a virtue of necessity. (DeValera’s considerable achievements in promoting small scale industrialisation ‑ now largely forgotten ‑ had failed to transform economic fundamentals.) Kavanagh himself on occasion joined in the celebration of frugality. In his favourite poem, “Shancoduff”, he wrote affectionately ofMy black hills that have never seen the sun rising
Eternally they look north towards Armagh.But you can’t out-DeValera Dev for ever. Kavanagh was not immune to the attractions of reasonable comfort and in the final line below there is discomfort and uncertainty as well as irony.The sleety winds fondle the rushy beards of Shancoduff
while the cattle-drovers sheltering in the Featherna Bush
Look up and say: ‘who owns them hungry hills
That the water hen and snipe must have forsaken
A poet? Then by heavens he must be poor’
I hear and is my heart not badly shaken?Kavanagh, who left school at thirteen, learned he could walk the seventy miles to Dublin and stay in the Iveagh Hostel for a few pence; this he did and, like so many other poverty-stricken small farmers, finally settled in the city.Some fifty miles north and fifteen years later another farmer’s son, Seamus Heaney, enjoyed reasonable comfort. He made the first journey to his boarding school, St Columb’s, by car – a Triumph Mayflower owned by an associate of his father’s in the cattle business – and later went to university at Queen’s. During the holidays he helped at home: “I helped with the usual jobs. Moving cattle, for example. There was a good bit of droving to be done.” Part of the popular appeal of Heaney in Ireland may be connected to the secure and untroubled experience of farm life he conveys. For some readers with ambivalent feelings towards farming, including those of nostalgia, the simple life and comforts of the Heaney farm must have come across as the way it should have been, as a realised form of the De Valera vision.Things were financially a little easier for the Heaneys and other farmers in the North because of the aid the British government gave to farmers to ensure food supply and low prices; the low prices in turn crucified southern farmers, whose state could not afford comparable supports. There were, however, negative feelings attached to dealing with the British state. In “A Constable Calls” Heaney wrote of his instinctive unease as a child at the visit of the policeman whose job it was to collect agricultural statistics which presumably were connected to the supports system. He had unstrappedThe heavy ledger, and my father
Was making tillage returns
In acres, roods, and perches.Arithmetic and fear.
I sat staring at the polished holster
With its buttoned flap, the braid cord
Looped into the revolver butt.Most Northern Catholic farmers were not politically assimilated by these grants: they continued to vote for politicians who advocated unification with the South. Heaney himself was quite clear on the subject of his nationality.Be advised
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen.A politically comparable process occurred in the South, where farmers did not develop a unionist politics in order to win the economic advantages enjoyed by their peers in the north. There have been many other examples of people not pursuing their immediate economic interests in Irish history, all of which indicate a core characteristic of our politics over the centuries, and one which has affected all peoples who have settled here, and this is a willingness to make sacrifices to win or secure political autonomy. It is this persistent and, to date, ineradicable impulse which is the actual basis of Irish nationality and which seems the only possible source for the energy and commitment necessary in the struggle not only to overcome the effects of the present crisis but to shape the next stage of Irish national development. However this energy may be wasted if the deep-seated social inequality which characterises Irish society is not effectively challenged. Already people are scornful on the subject of “putting on the green jersey”. No one wishes to make sacrifices for a bogus cause whose real purpose is to secure the status quo of inequality and social marginalisation. We are now in a situation where we must engage with the pain of reducing our primary deficit. There is no choice on this matter and the equally difficult questions of personal and corporate debt are following behind.In order for this necessity to be politically feasible the culture of inequality cannot continue. It is impossible to envisage a successful wave of national energy ‑ comparable to those periodic waves of public energy which characterised Irish history over recent centuries ‑ that is not based on a social unity and solidarity issuing from a culture of inclusion and fairness. To date the government has abjectly failed to nurture solidarity. One reason is because this course of action is not easy in a culture which has persistently favoured the privileged. An understanding of the particular character and evolution of our main currents of social inequality may be useful in addressing this dynamic.To indicate the historically structured nature of Irish inequality, it is useful to return briefly to the world of post-Famine Ireland. Those who did not emigrate were those who had access to the limited resources that existed in the country, land or commercial assets ‑ and, of course, those who worked for such people. In the commercial area, a culture of nepotism, cronyism and corruption increasingly prevailed. John Stanislaus Joyce belonged to the small and largely undynamic privileged commercial class. He started out with around £1,000 in capital and numerous family connections but, owing to impaired survival skills, fell through the net of middle class privilege, bringing his family with him. Joyce senior must in many ways have been a representative figure. As the population declined and society was hollowed out, it was inevitable that the resources available to the middle classes would contract. The competition for available space must have been fierce. Survivors, like the back-slapping Blazes Boylans and Buck Mulligans of the time, took no prisoners. In a world where the powerful could not be secure in their status or in their ability to pass on their wealth and privilege to their children, upward social mobility was regarded as an obscenity. The poor were expected to emigrate or stay in their place marrying their own kind. While no system is completely closed, “counter-jumpers” and their ilk were fiercely resisted and this dynamic repeated itself through many social layers. As resources did not particularly expand in the new state these structures of inequality did not evaporate. They did alter somewhat owing to a commitment to the ideal of equality which characterised areas of the Irish revolution and as a result of the efforts to stimulate growth in the difficult circumstances of the thirties and forties. Old money was still privileged but so too was the limited new money which inevitably appeared. However, relative stagnation and continuing emigration (400,000 in the 1950s) meant there was not much scope for the celebration of personal wealth. Circumstances suggested that discretion and prudence were the wisest course. In the post-Lemass years the process of wealth accumulation accelerated. Individuals who made money ‑ usually far removed from the exporting economy ‑ were prioritised by the state in deference to the old idea that anyone who was doing anything must be a hero. By the 1980s, when the economy and public finances were in deep trouble, the prioritising of the wealthy was trumpeted on every shopping street in the country, where financial institutions carried large posters advertising “full confidentiality”. Full confidentiality meant these institutions would collaborate in hiding money from the tax authorities. Meanwhile ordinary citizens were paying very high taxes. Small wonder the neo-Stalinist Workers Party found an electoral niche.During the Celtic Tiger era the tradition of social solidarity partially re-emerged; taxes on the non-prosperous were reduced and social welfare payments increased. However, the historically established pattern of prioritising the wealthy continued and indeed grew into a celebration of wealth acquisition and the wealthy, most of whom were once again far removed from the exporting economy. The press engaged in a relentless valorisation of successful business people, many of whom, it now transpires, were playing a significant part in bringing the country to its current low position. The rich were routinely held up as examples and treated as heroes. This was a cultural process which necessarily eroded social solidarity and tended towards the Thatcher idyll of society-free living to a degree that Britain at its most politically depraved could never manage. What is truly remarkable is that despite the near collapse of the economy and its uncertain future, this cultural pattern remains very much intact. Those not engaged in running businesses continue to be seen as living off the business community. The fact that it is frequently vice versa is studiously ignored. In mainstream thinking the bulk of citizens are seen in effect as second class, as mere consumers of public spending. When the crisis hit it was these ordinary citizens, society itself, which became the target. An editorial in the Sunday Business Post this month (May 16th) indicates how little Whitaker’s explanation of what is necessary to survive as a separate state has penetrated and how the shortage of ideas is still acute:The economic recovery this country desperately needs ... will be achieved by the energy and creativity of the private sector. We don’t need to reinvent our economy, but we do need to reassert those strengths which favoured us in the past. Then we can argue about equality strategy.If such complacent thinking, with its underlay of self-praise, also prevails at the level of government strategy, as Brian Lenihan’s contribution to 50 Years On suggests, the Business Post might wish to suggest to the investment community that the smart money should flow into jamjar futures.18th May 2010

 

 

Maurice Earls is a bookseller and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.

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