We should have realised the true extent of our national crisis in October 2008, when the Minister for Finance invoked ‘patriotism’. For about thirty years, our country had been discussed as ‘an economy’; politicians spoke of what was ‘best for the economy,’ invoked ‘the needs of the economy’ and established Social Partnership between employers and trade unions ‘for the good of the economy.’
The economy and the country were synonymous. Most of us were lulled into the belief that there was money for all, and no foreseeable shortage of it.
Our government has shown itself to be inept and inadequate. Serious mismanagement of government finances has left the country deeply in debt and facing misery. There is a possibility of social unrest, as we move into a grim autumn and winter. It is not surprising, therefore, that some trade union figures see themselves as national figures, competent to decide on national policy, rather than representatives of their union membership and of nobody else.
British leaders often speak of their country’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States, which hides its real status as a client state. The Irish position is much the same – the Taoiseach makes a form of homage in Washington every St. Patrick’s Day. We are part of the regional American economy and have been somewhat slow to appreciate our European roots; a country less overcome with naivety and economic fundamentalism would have been able to take fuller advantage of our geographical position as a Western European and Atlantic country and our electorate would not have said ‘No’ to Lisbon One.
We are now rueing the years of housing madness, when we privileged markets over society. People and the houses they bought became commodities, not citizens buying homes. This commodification has yet to disappear: one justification for our new colon cancer screening programme was not simply that early diagnosis would save lives and avoid much suffering, but also that it would preserve a patient’s productivity in the workforce. That attitude is a relic of the days of crony capitalism, whose staleness still pervades the air.
The Ryan Report proved that we have a national ability to shut our eyes to what we do not want to see. Asylum seekers were given a better quality of life because the churches were alert to their needs and worked on their behalf. Their misery was described as ‘sponging’; a Tanaiste told an Oireachtas committee of their ‘cock and bull stories.’ There was no official effort to integrate them – undeclared racism being a possible factor. Immigrants from other EU countries were seen, in our time of economic boom, as economic units rather than people who would contribute to our national life. Economics was esteemed above culture. Solidarity was ignored.
Our current mindset forbids any explicit appeal to Christian values, but we might follow them implicitly, by appealing to social solidarity and the common good. We could help each other through the coming hard times by remembering that a higher Gross Domestic Product is not the only guarantee of the quality of our lives. An emphasis on solidarity might awaken many of our politicians from their torpidity, reconfigure our politics and revitalise our national life.
Fergus O’Donoghue, S.J.