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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.

Contents

  • Edtorial / Autumn 2009

    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.

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    Editorial by Fergus O’Donoghue, SJ

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  • Edtorial / Winter 2009

    How do we really value those amongst us who are coming to the end of life? It would be easier to write “the end of their  lives”, as if death were something that is not going to happen to me. About twenty years ago, an Irish newspaper article on longevity had to remind us that “mortality is, eventually, 100%”. Acceptance of personal mortality seems to come early in middle age. It is a shock, but it is also an awakening to reality. Some of us die in accidents or because illness takes us before we have completed what our society regards as our normal span, but we are living a lot longer than most of our forebears.

    Death itself cannot be discussed freely in contemporary Western society. Our ancestors were far more comfortable with the idea of death: both the event itself and its rituals. Nowadays, we have a lot of euphemisms to describe death: “passed on”, “passed away” or, simply, “passed”. All of these are ways of not saying the obvious: that a person has died. Modern longevity has increased the tendency to avoid talking about death. Youth has become such an unquestioned value that the wisdom of age is largely discounted. The greatest compliment is to be told that “you don’t look your age”, so it is hardly surprising that there is a vast industry devoted to helping us look younger than our biological age. It is not surprising that many of us are so uncomfortable with our mortality that we cannot make a will.

    Older people, therefore, are to be avoided, not least because their decline, which brings increasing dependence on others, is an unwelcome reminder of our own future. It is, therefore, impossible for our society to look steadily at death. This is an aspect of our broader disengagement from illness and from death: we do not have time and we do not wish to be disturbed. We prefer it when the chronically ill and the dying are kept out of sight. We have an unspoken assumption that all illness can be cured, and medical dramas on television give us nightly reassurance about the almost limitless powers of modern medicine.

    Dying and death should be part of our everyday lives, rather than isolated and privatised. All of us want a good death and most of us want to die at home. We do not want to die alone, in pain or in the midst of strangers. Our society has the resources, even in a recession, to offer that to us. It is, as always, a question of priorities. Standards of care and accommodation can be improved. We have to ensure that our health services exist for the patients and that formulated policies are not subverted by existing systems.

    “We only get one chance at death”, so let us get it right. In Ireland, unlike some other Western countries, we are very good at funerals. We have to rediscover our traditional acceptance of death itself.

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    Fergus O’Donoghue, SJ

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  • Edtorial / Spring 2010

    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.

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    Editorial by Fergus O’Donoghue, SJ

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