Let me begin by recalling the most memorable, at least to me, editorial changes ever made to one of the many columns I wrote in the Irish Press in the early 1990s.
I don’t recall the subject matter but at one point I used those three rather famous words that come from the preamble to the constitution of the United States of America. We the people.
The following day, as I scanned the printed version of my column, I came to where those three words had been intended to appear. Yet instead of We the People, the copy editor, for whom the Irish Press style guide trumped every other living document in the English language, had instead inserted, Us the People.
That incident may well have cued my interest in who we, us, as a people actually are. Six years ago, in a speech I gave at the Ceifin Conference in County Clare, I wondered about the real us. Were we the monstrously pious Catholic zealots of the middle part of the 20th century or were we, as we clearly were purporting to be in 2004 when I made that speech, a people for whom shopping had supplanted religious devotion and the accumulation of wealth was now the hallmark of good citizenship?
I reflected on it again this week and last, as, to quote Enda Kenny, quoting George Bernard Shaw, we hung out our brightest colours to show to the Queen of England and to the President of the United States. In the event, none of us could quite match the resplendent, bejewelled brightness of her Majesty and of her fabulous travelling wardrobe, but country and people scrubbed up well and, with a final magnificent piece of one-upmanship from the people of Cork, we emerged immoderately pleased with ourselves.
Yet leaving aside the casting of the visit as a much longed for punctuation point in the peace process, it clearly had, as a secondary intent, the unveiling of the latest narrative we have woven around ourselves for public consumption. Shamed and mocked for our excesses during the boom, we had lost competitive edge in the global popularity market in which we had traded so long and so well. The Queen’s visit was to rectify all of that.
And so, as of last Friday afternoon, as the Queen’s plane cleared Irish airspace we are apparently, a proud people once again, an equal people, a tolerant people, a forward looking people, a forgiving people, an inclusive people. We are also; it would appear, from the absence centre stage of any significant Catholic Church presence throughout the event, an increasingly secular people
Almost 80 years ago, as an infant State, we hung out our brightest colours for another event, for another showcase, for the seeking of the approval for a quite different narrative around ourselves. The occasion was the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, the primary intent of which was to celebrate the Catholic Eucharist, but which instead became a major, game-changing statement of intent by the Government of the day.
That Congress would define our new State as an extravagantly Catholic nation. Our separateness from our former coloniser would be marked by the effective fusion of Catholic Church and Catholic State. This would be a narrative that would take decades to unravel and re-cast.
Accounts of that event indicate that last week’s State visit by the Queen of England was a pallid affair by comparison. The Public Address system was the largest in the world at that time, the state broadcasting system had its genesis in the power station created in Athlone for the purposes of the Congress, every major public building in Dublin was illuminated, every major street bedecked with bunting and fresh cut flowers, entire tenements were decorated in the papal colours of yellow and white. Cutting edge technology brought sky writers to the banks of the Liffey. A massive garden party in the grounds of Blackrock College had a guest list of 20,000 people. Just two thousand attended the `Convention Centre garden party last week.
And the populace lapped it up, tens of thousands of citizens slipped obligingly into their designated roles in this exciting new storyline. They prayed at newly erected shrines throughout the country, they marched hundreds deep in procession, one million listened to the Pope broadcast his message of support from the Vatican via that largest PA system in the world.
The key personage around whom much of this effort was focused, was Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri, the Papal legate. As his boat docked in Dublin port, a squadron of Air Corps planes flew over it in the formation of a crucifix. As he rode into the city, 36,000 cheering schoolchildren flanked the nine-mile route.
An Irish Times report of the massive open air mass in Phoenix Park captured the moment, noted that the spell cast by the combined might of Rome and of Government Buildings had worked.
“… It was at that moment of the Elevation of the Host, the supreme point in Catholic ritual, that one fully realised the common mind that swallowed up individuality in the immense throng. Flung together in their hundreds of thousands, like the sands on the seashore, these people were merely parts of a great organism, which was performing a great act of faith, with no more ego in them than the sands themselves.”
The fallout from the Congress is familiar to all of you here. From that point on, the State did indeed march precisely in step with the Catholic Church, or perhaps more like Prince Philip, several deferential steps behind.
The effect on the Protestant people in Northern Ireland was profound. As one commentator put it, nothing could have been more repugnant to northern Protestant identity. The events of the Congress illustrated with a vengeance the great gap of understanding that existed between the two parts of Ireland. A study of the Congress can go some way to explaining why Ireland was partitioned in the first place.
In his 1973 book, Towards a New Ireland, the late Dr Garret Fitzgerald wrote, “The Irish problem is quite simply the fruit of Northern Protestant reluctance to become part of what they regard as an authoritarian Southern Catholic State.”
Yet the power of that narrative – the fusion of Catholic Church and State - held for many many decades. To stray from it was to invite domestic exile.
Its ultimate destruction perhaps did take place last week, when a woman as old as the narrative itself decreed that we were all now fit to treat each other as equals, religious and other grandstanding consigned to the dustbin of history. A Uachtarain agus a chairde.
Reflecting again on the Queen’s visit and what she and the rest of us were served up during it, it struck me that what was on offer was an entire library of narratives, one in a sense trumping the other, narrative heaped on narrative, finding their resting place now in immaculately tended, inoffensive public spaces, the Garden of Remembrance, the National war Memorial.
The Queen deferred, head briefly bowed, to our national story, the men and women who died for Irish freedom. In turn our President acknowledged the only recently exhumed story of the deaths of other Irishmen and women, on the battle fields of France and Belgium, the timing of their heroism mortally out of synch with the new story then being written on the streets of Dublin, back home, where two years after the start of a battle for the small nations of Europe, the only small nation worth fighting for was now officially Ireland.
At one point last week, a broadcaster, filling in the silent space between the arrival of the Queen at Baldonnel and her arrival at Aras an Uachtarain, quoted lines from a poem by Tom Kettle, the Irish poet and politician who died at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, tormented by the deadly and competing new allegiances cued by the Easter Rebellion. It is worth reciting in full, that famous poem to his newly born daughter.
Called The Gift of Love, Kettle wrote,
In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime-
In that desired, delayed incredible time
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own
And the dear breast what was your baby’s throne,
To dice with death, and Oh, They’ll give you rhyme
And reason; one will call the thing sublime,
And one decries it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead
And tired men sigh, with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag. Not King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the Secret Scripture of the poor.
The bleak tragedy of that space in which Irish men found themselves, trapped between two differently cast tellings of the War in Europe and of the Irish rebellion, found equally powerful expression in Sebastian Barry’s work A Long Long Way which tells the story of a young Irish solider, Willie Dunne, at the Battle of the Somme. In one passage, where wounded men talk together in a field hospital and Willie Dunne is encouraged to sing the Ave Maria or as his English comrades call it, the Half of Mary, Willie gazes at the faces of the Irishmen before him as Barry describes how “he sang for these ruined men, these doomed listeners, these wretched fools of men come out to fight a war without a country to their names, the slaves of England and the Kings of nothing.”
Last week’s ceremonies were the official tidying up of those competing narratives, a twinning of wreaths and bows and solemn words and solemn music. The Queen herself gave the official signal to move on when she spoke of bowing to our shared history but not being bound to it. Easy enough to do perhaps with the dimming of memory of those events, the silence, through death and old age of the voices that might still recall the pain and the fear and the horror and the treachery, all reduced now to the sleek and sanitised grandeur of official memory.
And so, to return to my earlier question, who are we now as a society. What is the real us? What is our story? Certain of our characteristics would appear to be immutable, we are generally good-natured, garrulous, friendly, charming – but others are very mutable indeed. We no longer hate the British, we’re happy to cheer the Queen on our own soil, we’re not actually quite as religious as we may have led the world to believe over many decades, and as for our behaviour during the Celtic Tiger years, those years of thoughtless, feckless, carousing, well, we blush at the memory.
In any event, the Tiger years are over. We are left with a broken economy, a disgraced banking system, a pubic service that will struggle to do just that, a populace seething with resentment at those who got us here, and a political system significantly under the cosh of the gentlemen of the IMF and the ECB. Yes we can, sort of, with permission.
There is amid all this chatter, talk of the people, and what the people want. There is the development of a so-called Citizen’s Assembly as opposed to, one presumes, the Assembly that was actually elected by the people a scant two months ago. And who are those people in that Citizen’s Assembly? Are we to assume that everyone wants the same thing, that we now share a mindset that promotes only the higher virtues that has utterly turned its back on the vices of rampant materialism that so many so enthusiastically embraced for the guts of a decade?
A founder of the fledgling Citizen’s assembly said last week that the difference between the members of the Citizen’s Assembly and the members of the Oireachtas was that the former would have no political agenda. I find that perplexing; I can understand the absence of a political party agenda, but I doubt that there’s a person alive on this day on this planet who does not have a political agenda whether it be around the siting of a water well on a parched piece of African village soil, the timing of bingo night in a nursing home, or the choice of goalie in an under 10''s five a side. If politics is the process of collective decision making, then someone’s agenda must ultimately triumph and whether the Citizen’s Assembly choose to call it so or not that is political and that is, an agenda. What might such an Assembly have to say about the Shell to Sea protest for example? Which writ would run there? It is a highly commendable initiative and is intended to support and not supplant the work of Parliament, but it perhaps assumes an immutable consensus around the public good.
Last week, Prime Time Investigates followed the new lives of some of the biggest high rollers during the Celtic Tiger era, former Anglo Irish Chief Executive David Drumm and property developer Sean Dunne and his wife Gayle Killilea. Both families have relocated to the US, both have managed to reconstitute some form of the blinging lifestyle that they both clearly crave. As I watched them, bedding down in their beautiful new homes in Boston and Connecticut respectively, it struck me that a return to frugal living, allotment keeping, modest wages and income redistribution was unlikely to be part of the Dunne/ Drumm mindset. But they are Irish too. They too are the people.
Certainly there was a shared collective will to punish the last Government. Certainly the political class is alive to public anger about political cronyism and jobs for the boys and girls and the favouring of the public service at the expense of the private. The reduction in State cars, in salaries, the sight of Ministers hoofing it into work on buses and trains is testament to that. The Taoiseach’s Senate nominees marked a shift from the elevation of party loyalists to that threatened institution.
But one could also argue that those innovations, as yet, are cosmetic. The sight of Leo Varadkar on the Lucan Bus into Merrion Street is may not impress Ollie Rehn as much as we would like to think..
Yet, while some might privately crave it, few believe anymore in the trickle down effect of rampant, unregulated free market capitalism. Counter-intuitively, more equal societies in terms of income distribution have better social outcomes in education, health, crime etc, than do the richest but most unequal societies such as the USA.
We have also noted, despite the ongoing, demoralising, demonising of the public service and all who work in it, that it is to that public service that all of those crippled or damaged by the crash have come for help.
And in the years ahead, we will witness even more demands on the service as the private sector that took up an amount of that service provision – for profit - in the good times, retreats from the fray. The public private partnerships that were supposed to, among other things, replace Mountjoy Jail and regenerate large parts of Dublin’s impoverished inner city, have crumbled. Much of our nursing home provision had been privatised over the last ten years and if the State runs out of the money for the so-called Fair Deal scheme, despite its belief that legally, you’re on your own, it too will be called on to provide that care.
Equally, we rely on the Government to protect us from the worst excesses of the IMF and the ECB. Whenever I see Michael Noonan going over to do battle once again against those who wish to water down our Corporation Tax rate I have an image of a Mother Ireland type figure clad in a large shawl with all of us huddling inside it for protection and praying that Mammy will protect us from most, if not all, anxiety.
Again, this is a changed narrative. The one that held sway just a few short years ago was one that derided both State and Public Service, that believed that only the buccaneering entrepreneurial class (and for that read the pyramid sellers of the property boom) knew what was good for us.
In a speech in 2007, the then Anglo Irish chairman Sean Fitzpatrick captured that particular mood, “The Irish economy,“ he said, “began to benefit from the innate business sense and entrepeneurship of its people. All the politicians did was stand aside and let it happen. After years of meddling they finally stood aside and let the people get on with it. Taxes were cut and the economy was allowed to open up and the effect was like putting a flower out in the sun. The economy blossomed.”
The light regulation in operation at that time was too much for Mr Fitzpatrick who went on to say, “”Are we starting to shackle instead of encourage the entrepreneurs who in turn generate more wealth not just for themselves but for the country as a whole? It is time to shout stop. The tide of regulation has gone far enough. We should be proud of our success, not suspicious of it. Our wealth creators should be rewarded and admired not subjected to levels of scrutiny which convicted criminals would find intrusive.”
This speech was later described in one national newspaper as “challenging and thoughtful”, Mr Fitzpatrick praised for his leadership.
Fast forward four years and one economic crash. Regulation is now king, the developers, the property buccaneers are shunned as enthusiastically by We the people as they were lionised in 2007. The recent sighting of several large Brown Thomas bags being bundled into the back of a car by a former developer and his wife, - as caught on camera by Prime Time – was met with the sort of hissing boos usually reserved for the Christmas Panto. Yet in 2007, such indulgences were hailed as the mark of proud, unashamed prosperity
Yet, who knows? Perhaps in time we’ll revise our revised opinion of the boom years. Perhaps when William and Kate come to call on us in thirty years time, we’ll all troop down to the skeletal remains of the Anglo Irish HQ on the docks, lay a wreath beside the Prada till in BTs, invite the Dunne Killilea grandchildren to come home and join the garden party. We can start a whole new round of forgiveness and reconciliation.
To return to Mr Kettle, he was also, incidentally a lecturer in economics in UCD, he foresaw much of this, perhaps not quite the 5000 euro a pop handbags, but certainly the latent tendency of the Irish to want to get rich quick.
“We may take it that the watchword of the second empire – Enrichissez –Vous will be the watchword of a self-governing Ireland.”
He said it with approval, reflecting the then cultural desire to rise to the economic level of our colonising masters, yet as barrister and historian Frank Callanan commented some years ago on Kettle’s economic philosophy, he was not an arid proponent of Laissez Faire economics having written,
“The State is the name by which we call the great human conspiracy against hunger and cold, against loneliness and ignorance; the State is the foster mother and warden of all the arts, of love and comradeship, of all that redeems from despair that strange adventure that we call human life.”
And, with the developer class displaced, we are in fact utterly dependent on the State to redeem us from despair. During the Tiger years we needed it to protect is from ourselves and our kindergarten economics. Now we need it to protect us from the outside world, from a global economic system that can choose to eat us up and spit us out, or not.
We would appear to have little room to manoeuvre within the four walls of this Republic yet for all that there is to be pessimistic about, I am also of the belief that the Government’s greatest gift to us would be a refusal to let this appearance of impotence take hold in the national mind. Our salvation will be our attitude to our problems, our belief that nothing, as I hope I have demonstrated, is immutable, that we still are rich in very many ways and that the Republic really will have failed if We the people cannot summon up the wit to get out from under this. A sense of boundless creative, yet pragmatic optimism was, after all, Garret Fitzgerald’s ultimate legacy to us and we must not squander it.
Consider our education system. I will leave it to others to define what is needed to boost employment rates in the short to medium term, to broaden the base of our entrepreneurship and boost our indigenous wealth, but those of us with a belief in the transformational effect of education in the economic affairs of our country have a duty to propound this as loudly and as often as we can.
We can never return that to the island of saints that we once declared ourselves to be but we can certainly be a nation of innovative, groundbreaking scholars once again.
Consider Finland, a country that has become the poster child of a first class educational system without the frills, the regulation, the competitiveness, the snobberies, and the anxieties that beset so many western education systems, including their own. The Finns are not as we are, obsessing on private versus public, on Church control, on the reform of state examinations, on league tables, rather they are, in simple classrooms, with children and teachers on first name terms, with free school meals for all, with free books for all, with no hierarchy of elite or any other kind of school, with light regulation, significant curriculum autonomy, and an officer class of highly educated, highly respected teachers - getting on with the simple business of learning stuff.
Two principles apply: equity and highly educated teachers. Every teacher must complete a five-year teaching programme and have a Masters degree. Less than ten per cent who apply for the Masters are accepted. The degree itself is called Kastavus, the same word the Finns use to describe the rearing of a child by its mother, nurturing. The OECD, which measures results that have seen Finland excel believes that it is the quality of the teachers that is driving the results. Teachers are also let get on with the job, in the belief that you don’t buy a dog and bark for it.
Equity is all. There is no streaming, the focus is on helping the weak children, the strong ones can help themselves and help others in turn.
“”People in Finland cannot be divided by how smart they are, “ said one Finnish educationalist, “Finland is a society based on equity. Japan and Korea are highly competitive societies – if you’re not better than your neighbour, your parents pay to send you to night school. In Finland, outperforming your neighbour isn’t very important. Everybody is average, but you want that average to be very high.”
And it works. No doubt it would also work here, but what we are talking about is not a tinkering at the edges of our system but a radical shift in culture. In middle class Ireland outperforming your neighbour has a near sacramental value attached to it. Inter school and inter college competitiveness creates the expensive crammer school industry that in turn further widens the divide between the academically advantaged and the rest to the detriment of all of us.
To achieve what the Finns have achieved would take monumental leadership and commitment from the Government and buy in from many sectors that have a major stake in retaining the status quo. Last year saw sharp declines in our OECD rankings in literacy and in maths. We cannot hope to compete at the level at which we need to compete to drag our economy up if we do not significantly improve on those rankings.
And how we manage and organise our education system is something that is most definitely within our control. When everything else is stripped from us, we can still produce a generation of children that can excel academically.
We have an ambitious new Minister but it falls to all of us to maintain a focus Perhaps we need to name what we are trying to achieve – instead of fuzzy outcome targets that fundamentally challenge no one - – why don’t we set the bar at achieving academic standards on a par with the best of the world and move heaven and earth and everything in between to achieve those goals? No family sustainably emerges from poverty without the significant intervention of an education system. Countries are no different and mediocrity has no place in our efforts to get out from the hole we’d dug for ourselves.
Equally we might put aside latent cultural distaste for the intellect and for intellectuals and with our public pedestals now rid of the developer and banker class, reinstate the thinkers and the dreamers and the inventors, those people who, by dint of their minds alone cue each leap forward for global civilisation.
Isaac Asimov once said, speaking of the US, although he might well have been speaking of certain pockets of Irish political life, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
When Garret FitzGerald died last week, many people commented on how the single biggest insult hurled at him when he was in politics was that he was “an intellectual”. Olivia O’Leary, in a radio column, once spoke of listening to former Finance Minister Brian Lenihan play Chopin at a private gathering, musing that he wouldn’t dare do so at a party gathering. How sad is all of that?
Yet I would submit that much of our recent troubles were caused by the sneering, dismissive sidelining of intellectual, enlightened, rational, engagement with the stuff of our times. There is a touch of the bolted horse around the debates we’re now engaging on civic society, the role of the state, equity. Remember too, that large swathes of working class boys opted out of full time education during that period in order to attend to the siren call of the construction industry, now effectively mute.
Earlier this month, Barack Obama, in a speech on immigration, noted how four of the most successful US based companies in the world, Google, Intel, Ebay and Yahoo had one thing in common, that all were founded by immigrants.
His political point was around the sensitive issue of immigration control in the US, yet far more telling was the fact that each and every one of those companies was founded by so called geeks, by nerds, by young men of high intellect who forged ahead not primarily to make money but because they compulsively followed the dictates and demands of their brains, to know more, to discover more, to create in effect a new universe that would fast-forward our own civilisation’s quest to develop and to know.
Consider Google’s mission statement, breathtaking as much in its simplicity as its ambition. To organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. To quote our own President from last week in a slightly different context, Wow.
Worth noting too that the family pool in which all those young men swam, was also consumed by things of the intellect. Sergie Brin, co-founder of Google, has a maths professor father and a Nasa research scientist mother. The mother of Pierre Omidyar, the founder of Ebay, is a linguistics Professor, his father a surgeon. Consider also, the beautiful simplicity of the Intel name, culled from the word Intelligence.
It was their own top class brains and the top class education they received, largely in the US that nurtured these young men to bestow on the globe the systems and processes they have developed.
In a new book by economist Matt Ridley called the Rational Optimist, the author points to technological transformation as the propeller of history and of progress. For him, as one reviewer put it, history is characterised by technological transformation, with better communications and more trade, leading to ever higher living standards and longer and more fulfilling lives for an ever-expanding global population. He says, and this is something we must clutch to our own, desperate, Irish hearts at this time, “Even in the worst recession, somebody, somewhere, is still tweaking a piece of software, testing a new material, or transferring a gene that will make your and my life easier in the future.”
As an aside, I should say that this optimistic worldview can be rather overstated by some of its proponents. Bill Gates, a major technological optimist, was speaking in this vein about the 20th century on one occasion and was interrupted by an audience member who said, “What about the Second World War.”
“Sure there were some blips, “ answered Gates.
But the overall point must stand. Our brains cannot be downsized, controlled by the IMF, mortgaged by the ECB, levied by the Government, or put on a cattle boat and sent packing. We need to organise ourselves and our education system and our cultural acceptance of the elevation of the intellect and everything that flows from it to make sure this it will be us who are tweaking the software, testing the new material and transferring the genes.
And perhaps that should be our latest and best narrative; the wars have been set aside, the Queen has come, she has smiled upon us; we have smiled upon her. From other places, we are now being called to account for our financially ruinous behaviour of the last decade. We will deal with that and strive to regain the global respect that we have lost.
But let us now, like grown up, intelligent men and women move to set the rest of our house in order and start to learn again what matters in this world. For ourselves, for our children, and for the future prosperity of all of those countries infinitely poorer than ourselves that need us properly to husband the great gifts we have been given, and still have, as a country and as a nation.