- 02 Nov 10
There can no longer be any doubt – the country is in a terrible, terrible mess and we’re all going down together. Better to take the pain now than suffer death by a thousand cuts
#blackthursday. One tweet sums it up for me: @efdel listening to the radio this morning feels like having the earth disappear beneath your feet and being powerless to save yourself
Like everyone I know, things have been difficult for me financially over the past year or two. But that’s nothing new to me. In my life, I’ve been through periods of unemployment and crippling debt, especially in my late twenties and early thirties. But my problems then were self-inflicted, or, at least, I could accept that they were the direct or indirect result of choices I had made. I flunked my Leaving, I went into a flaky profession like acting, I avoided the stultifying confinement of a steady 9 to 5 job in favour of the freedom of a more bohemian arty lifestyle. As my chickens came home to roost, I knew I couldn’t blame anyone else for my troubles.
This time around, perhaps because I did eventually get the finger out and get a master’s degree as a mature student, I feel more hard-done-by that I am finding things so difficult now. God dammit, middle age isn’t supposed to be this tough. But at least I am not on my own. Instead being an earnest young man in my own little boat being buffeted by waves and taking on water in a storm, I’m in a tuxedo and the band is playing on the deck, and the horizon is
Politically, I manfully resisted, for the longest time, getting stuck into the blame game, and held out in the (not entirely unreasonable) belief that the steady diligence of Brian Lenihan might see us through the worst. As a Green, I trusted that the good working relationship in the coalition cabinet was based on an assessment that the Green ministers trusted Lenihan. Whatever about the lacerating and justified criticism of Fianna Fáil and their culpability in getting us into this mess, it appeared to me that the Green ministers must have known something I couldn’t have known – that in person, Lenihan impresses and convinces, with his knowledge and reasoning. Also, not unreasonably, the Greens have always held the crucial question in mind: would a Fine Gael/Labour coalition fare any better? Could they match Lenihan’s steady hand on the till, or would the ideological split be so intractable that it would result in further destabilization and chaos? Personalities matter. If Lenihan wasn’t there, I believe the Greens would have pulled the plug a long time ago; if Fine Gael were a credible alternative, with a dynamic and compelling leader and coherent policies offering a persuasive vision of how things could be different, I also think the Greens would have bowed to the inevitable. Whatever about the scorn that the Greens are enduring, it has to be acknowledged that the longer that they are in bed with Fianna Fáil, the more likely they will be annihilated at the polls – it doesn’t make sense to continue in an unpopular government if one’s sole priority is to keep one’s seats. It’s inevitable that most, if not all Greens will lose their seats at the next election, and this sacrifice only makes sense if it is based on a belief in Lenihan’s competence.
But something snapped in me when the dreaded double dip materialized a few weeks ago. The whole point of tightening one’s belt is that there should be a reward for the fear and the stress of unemployment and poverty, after a reasonable amount of time. For some reason, I had in mind that, around about now, we should be beginning to rise up again. But Lenihan’s strategy, no doubt influenced by the highly conservative mandarins in the Dept of Finance, has been to stretch the pain out to an excruciating degree, to put the property market in deep-freeze for decades, to spread severe budget cuts and tax rises over an eon, to postpone the pivotal moment of reaching “rock bottom” for as long as possible.
Psychologically speaking, rock bottom is an essential point to reach in any depression. That works for individuals as well as collectives. It’s the moment when the worst is experienced, and then – and only then – the resolve is found to start digging oneself out of the hole. That’s when the new cycle of growth begins, when it’s possible to be optimistic again. That’s when we figure out what brought us to that sorry state, try to understand the complexes and drives that underpinned them, and with luck and perhaps with professional help, we try to shape our behaviour in such a way that we learn to avoid the pitfalls and turn our lives around. The old ways have to die in order for lateral thinking and reinvention to occur, to begin a new life. The old unconscious patterns, the old comforting shibboleths and routines, have to be dumped.
We are stuck in a zombie state at the moment, and it’s going to get worse, instead of better, for the forseeable future. It’s time to get the wooden stake out and put the walking corpse out of its misery. Pay the bill. Now, not in four or ten years time. Raise taxes till our eyes water – which, of course, just means living like Scandinavians for a while. Is that so terrible? Protect the poor, and invest in a stimulus package to get everyone working again. Think outside the box and dump the cautious paralysis of the current regime, get rid of the entire echelon of civil servants that have been responsible for keeping the government in such appalling complacent ignorance for so long. And, of course, bottom line, get rid of the party that presided over this catastrophe and ensure it never sees power again. And, with the rise of Labour, it is possible to envisage that real change could occur in this country. (But I don’t forget that Labour was in favour of cutting taxes not so long ago.)
Laissez-faire economic policies were, I learned at school (history was the only subject I was passionate about), a major contributing factor in turning a series of natural disasters, the successive failures of the potato crop, into the famine in Ireland. Those theories salved Westminster’s conscience and were offered as justification in refusing to intervene to prevent the deaths of so many Irish people, and by the time the full horror of the carnage became apparent, it was too late. No doubt a strong anti-Irish sentiment was at play, but there must also have been a complacent conservative consensus in the British body politic that intervention on the scale required to save lives was too radical, too challenging to the status quo.
The parallels are striking. The bill has arrived. It is more than the $40bn of debt that Bono managed to persuade the G8 members into forgiving, in order to “solve” world hunger five years ago. And we, a tiny country, are entirely responsible for it. The laissez-faire attitude of “light-touch” banking regulation and a refusal to dampen down the property market has ruined us.
The only thing that gives me comfort is that people aren’t dying in Ireland as a result of these policies. Life still goes on when you’re on the dole. In the eighties, it was horrible then, too – but everyone I knew who was on the dole was also doing something on the side, something creative like workshopping plays or writing the novel or getting involved in co-ops. Looking back, it seemed then that we were unspoilt, and driven; we were a poor nation with no pretensions and we just got on with it. Something about the legacy of the Celtic Tiger is still pervasive, and it needs to be killed off too – money doesn’t have all the answers, property ownership doesn’t satisfy the soul, satisfying greed for its own sake sickens us, poisons us.
It’s time to throw up this current government. Yes, it feels horrible, but when we’ve vomited out all the old values and institutions and ideologies, and we find ourselves getting sober, bathed in a cold clammy sweat beside the pukey toilet bowl, perhaps we might, just might, begin to feel better.