Suddenly, we are talking about ‘reform’. We hear it discussed on the radio, we read about it in the newspapers. Commentators want reform, but reform of what? There is interest in reforming our political system, our legislature, our public service, even in reforming the governance of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The current ways of doing things are questioned and criticised, but there are very few practical suggestions as to how we bring about change.
We are unhappy with the status quo, but are not at all sure where we want to go and seem to have no idea as to how we should get there. We spend hours discussing, and condemning, the past. That gets us nowhere. It is time for us to stop agonising over the past and make a calm analysis of the present, with the aim of defining our national goals and setting a course for the future.
Given the ossification of our legislature and the sclerotic nature of our politics, is there any Irish political party offering a programme that might lift us out of our current self-laceration, revive our self-confidence, assure us that our country is fundamentally sound and offer us a vision of the future? Our current crisis is the result of greed and bad management. Economic growth had become an article of faith, the basic reason for the existence of the Irish State. The electorate was not well informed, but was assured that prosperity was now permanent. Politicians, obsessed with re-election, closed their eyes to the possibility of recession. The tradition of secrecy, in government and administration, greatly helped in our self-deception. It is obvious that some of our government leaders still prefer this secrecy and regard questioners as insolent interrogators.
Given such wilful disregard of reality by politicians, was there any other influential group in Irish life that could have offered an alternative interpretation of what was happening? Trade unions were once great critics of social injustice, but ‘social partnership’ gave their leaders a say in the running of the country and grafted them onto the Irish version of the Establishment, making them an unelected branch of the government, as were their British equivalents in the 1970s.
Catholic bishops have been too absorbed in coping with scandals to offer a commentary that has any chance of being heard. In the past, the Irish electorate wanted pious politicians, deferential to the hierarchy. All trace of that attitude had disappeared by the early 1990s, but many Church leaders continued to act as if nothing had changed, with disastrous effects. Irish Catholicism used to offer status and security to many ordinary people, but now it can offer neither. In the current crisis, however, it may recover its prophetic role, having been forced to accept the dark side of its past and to realise that the ‘good old days’ will never return. It is a long time since the institutional Church in Ireland listened to the laity as much as it is doing today.
Ageism increased in the Celtic Tiger era, when the swift, the young and the strong became our real national symbols. Older Irish citizens are more likely to be religious and they are more likely to vote. The more voters have to lose, the more vociferous they become as opponents of change. The Church could help older Irish people to articulate their demands and refine their thinking, not least because the mainstream media usually ignores them. The Church could give us a lead in recovering our sense of community, by opposing the idea, so widespread in Western society, that the old, or the chronically ill, are a burden and a nuisance.
Constitutional and other reform will come only when our sense of justice becomes more explicit, when we rediscover values beyond economics. Our Christian tradition is very sound, but those who feel most strongly about it have often been silenced or ignored in our current debates. Public discussion tends to be between the same few dozen people, who are almost a commentariat. Our society will recover its health only when all shades of Irish opinion are given a voice and are heard.