Fintan O'Toole on why the Irish should shed their fear—but hang on to their shameby Fintan O'Toole / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Down and out on Dublin’s O’Connell bridge: but sober reflection is just what Ireland needs
The Irish Rugby Football Union recently had to admit something that would have been unthinkable even a year ago. In Ireland, rugby has some working-class fans, but on the whole it is rooted in the business, professional and well-off classes, and still associated with fee-paying schools. So the IRFU’s admission that it was struggling to sell tickets for the first international match at its new stadium—Ireland were playing the world champions South Africa—was startling. The reason? Tickets, averaging €85 (£74), were too expensive.
In truth, most fans could probably dig up €85. They are not, on the whole, among the half a million Irish now on the dole (15 per cent of the workforce). Many may be stuck in negative equity thanks to the 50 per cent fall in house prices since 2007. But those who are in work can still pay their mortgages. There’s €100bn (£87bn) of savings in Irish banks—not bad for a country of 4.5m people. Those fee-paying schools still have long waiting lists.
So this was about things less tangible than money: shame and fear. For now, these feelings are keeping the economy in recession and morale low. But they also offer a glimpse of how Ireland could rebuild itself.
The shame comes from knowing that, two years ago, an Irish rugby fan would have thought nothing of paying €85—even though this is over 50 per cent higher than the price of an equivalent ticket in Scotland. Spending was a badge of honour: it proved you were a hero of the boomtime economy. You belonged in one of the world’s most enthusiastic (and, in retrospect, gullible) consumer cultures. It was an attitude that combined some of the worst and best of Irish culture. It was fed by an older wildness, generosity, and contempt for the mean and the tight-fisted. But that admirable spirit became distorted into an often demented consumerism. People paid through the nose for everything—and now, with the painful realisation that long-term prosperity was an illusion, comes a buyer’s remorse. It is not just that people feel like fools for spending so much, but embarrassed for spending it so easily. Hence the reluctance to pay €85 for rugby, or, for that matter, €3 for a coffee.
There’s also fear. As Ireland has discovered (and Britain will soon), when governments start cutting everything that moves, people stop spending. The theory is that private expenditure will take up the slack is disproved not only by the Irish experience, but also by the Japanese crash in the 1990s. People become too scared to spend.
Consumption doesn’t just stop, of course. Walk down Dublin’s Grafton Street and even now, people are buying iPads. Shoppers’ baskets in Marks & Spencer’s food hall are still full of breathtakingly expensive convenience foods. But away from the veneer of normality on the high street, it is the cheap out-of-town supermarkets, Lidl and Aldi, that are booming.
Economists and politicians talk blithely of “getting people spending again” and of “consumer confidence”—as if any kind of spending is good, and as if consumer confidence were not hard to distinguish from consumerist mania. But is it so bad that people are now reluctant to spend money foolishly? Doesn’t this suggest the notion that the era of excess should not be revisited, even if such a return were possible?
If the Irish people could hang onto some of their shame, while shedding their fear, something that neither economists nor politicians are talking about might start to happen: sustainable consumption. Ireland, awash as it is with public and private debt, badly needs economic growth. But if that growth is conceived of in the old terms of mindless spending, it will be another mirage, doomed to the same fate. That’s why there’s a need for a modest and chastened optimism, for a set of goals that are sensible and achievable. An austerity, in other words, bigger than the very narrow conception of those intent on endless cuts. Austerity can be an ethical concept—what the late Tony Judt called the notion of a “moral seriousness in public life.”
In real terms, this means rediscovering an idea that haunts Irish political and public discourse: the republic. The Irish state first emerged from a period of ferment in which ideals of civic virtue, equality and of providing a basic level of decency for all citizens came to the fore. These ideals, expressed in the “Democratic Programme” of the first Irish parliament in 1919, were not abstract; they focused on protecting children and the elderly, and on giving every citizen an “adequate share of the produce of the nation’s labour.” They were, of course, betrayed by the subsequent reality of the Irish state. Now, however, in another period of uncertainty, there is a resonance to that simple word: “adequate.” If the state were adequate to the task, if it were prepared to undertake meaningful reform in the interests of its people, it could provide all of its citizens with the necessities for a decent life. Then, the excesses of the Celtic tiger might give way—not to despair, but to the sober, optimistic goal of giving everyone enough.