When a Nation's Thinking Gets Trapped by Institutions

Irish Times
December 23, 2008

Behind recent failures of Ireland's key establishments lurks one primary fear: that of autonomous thinking, writes Elaine Byrne

'THE LONGER I live, the more I think; and the more I think for myself." When Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote those words in his 1984 Irish Times column, he could have been referring to the intellectual development of the Irish nation. O'Brien turned accepted norms on their head and pioneered new ways of thinking. This made him intellectually dangerous to established consensuses on traditional nationalism and political ethics.

Ireland has allowed institutional authority to do the thinking. The character of authority has now since changed, changed utterly. Irish citizens have lost confidence in the integrity and capability of public life. In the last week alone, specific instances have contributed to a further undermining of trust in the pillars of banking, the church and politics.

On Thursday, Seán FitzPatrick, chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, resigned when it emerged he had transferred €87 million in loans in and out of the bank over an eight-year period to avoid public disclosure. To add insult to injury, FitzPatrick also moved personal funds from Anglo to Bank of Ireland in advance of the Government's decision to guarantee deposits and debts at Irish-owned banks. On Friday, the Bishop of Cloyne, Dr John Magee, apologised to victims of clerical abuse after an independent report found that his diocese had put children at risk of harm because of its inability to respond.

A Sunday newspaper detailed the €11 million in "largely unvouched, tax-free expenses" claimed by TDs in 2008. One in five members of the Oireachtas employs a close relative. Three extra junior ministerial posts and six new Oireachtas committees have been established by this Government. The notion of "jobs for the boys" at the expense of the taxpayer contributes to a perception of unorthodox compensation.

Ireland is insecure and apprehensive of the future. At a time when we desperately need to believe in something, anything, we revert to blame and short-term thinking. We are afraid to think for ourselves. Why?

In 1992, the expression, "to draw a line in the sand" entered Dáil political discourse for the first time. (A motion of confidence in then taoiseach Charles Haughey.)

That paralysing phrase has since been bandied about without the implications of its definition ever actually being appreciated. To draw a line in the sand means that a particular idea will not be supported or accepted and implies a definite limit beyond which we refuse to go. This inhibits reflection and assessment of why the line had to be drawn in the first place. How can a society learn from its mistakes when it does not acknowledge that mistakes have been made?

With adversity, there is opportunity. With opportunity, there is a responsibility to learn from adversity. The Great Depression of the 1930s paved the way for Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal economic programme, including the unprecedented social security system. By 1933, unemployment was at 25 per cent. To get people back to work, public works programmes, such as the Hoover Dam project on the Colorado river, were expanded. The dam provided irrigation and hydroelectric- power generation to the small railroad town of Las Vegas, in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Adversity provided the opportunity to transform an outpost into one of the most famous cities in the world.

The project of Irish independence was severely undermined by the late 1950s. The 1961 census recorded Ireland's lowest recorded population figures, fewer than three million. Over one million people had emigrated since independence, numbers not seen since the immediate aftermath of the Famine. In response, TK Whitaker's 1958 Programme for Economic Expansion officially abandoned the failed ideological policies of fiscal nationalism and protectionism which had profound consequences for the economic development of the Irish nation.

Circumstances forced politics to think differently about once-impenetrable assumptions. This cathartic era of transformation gifts us the possibility to reinvigorate society. Everything is on the table. The storm of moral bankruptcy has blown away all lines in the sand. This is when we build cities in the middle of deserts. This is when we vigorously challenge sacred economic orthodoxies.

New deals and new reforms do not just apply to economics. The Irish banking sector is in a process of consolidation. Should the political system follow suit? Should parties merge and redefine themselves?

Approximately €10 million in political donations are undisclosed because political parties do not make their audited accounts publicly available. Of those disclosed, developers and construction-related donors have contributed 40 per cent of all donations to Fianna Fáil in the last 10 years. Two-thirds of Labour Party donations are from the trade union movement. (Fine Gael has made a nil return to the standards commission for the last seven years.) Is there a conflict of interest when politicians launch policies regarding the property sector and the social partners?

Should we introduce a new electoral system? One which produces national parliamentarians instead of provincial ombudsmen? One where meaningful debate on policies such as immigration, taxation and defence are not relegated to the few weeks of an irrational referendum campaign?

Imagine what we can do if we think for ourselves.


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