A French geographer once described Ireland as ‘une isle derriere une isle’, ‘an island behind an island’, which neatly expresses this island’s insulation from wider European currents. That is not to say we have had an easy time, acting as a guinea pig for English colonial exploitation, but at least since independence in 1922 our remoteness has brought a stability which allowed us to get along by ourselves, spared the twin hydras of Nazism and Communism.
But what we have achieved since independence has been, on many levels, a deep disappointment. Development beyond the historic Pale of Settlement – the greater Dublin region – has had hardly occurred, and what we have built, almost everywhere, has been a poor reflection on the Irish architectural talent in that period. Our natural environment has also been unprotected; we have devoured our bogs through over-grazing and fossil-fuel exploitation; and subjected the landscape to agricultural monoculture of ruminant animals; what forestry we have is mostly non-native sitka spruce that acidifies the soil. Nature is on the run with up to a third of species facing extinction.
I cite ten reasons why I believe the Irish state is failing, badly.
Oligarchs: I believe that massive accumulations of wealth is the single biggest problem facing the polity. One of their number, Denis O’Brien controls a huge swathe of the Irish media. Irish oligarchs don’t need gangsters as our defective legal system – especially draconian defamation laws – provides them with all the cover they need.
Environmental malpractice: we are nowhere near to reaching targets for
greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and remain one of the highest-emitting nations in the EU. Agriculture is the leading-offender, yet many environmentalists shy away from criticism of this biggest beast of Irish politics. Individual use of fossil-fuel guzzling cars is a necessity when living in most parts of the country, and alternative sources of energy are insufficiently harnessed. Dublin has one of the worst public transport systems for a developed country’s capital that I can think of.
Unequal health provision: We have developed a two-tier health system where health insurance is unaffordable for half the population. There is also a social gradient to the obesity pandemic whereby income inequality is expressed in expanding waste lines. There is a complete absence of joined-up thinking across government agencies with advances in healthy-eating being driven by individuals.
Misguided educational policy: Our model of education is defective in many respects. Student-teacher ratios at primary level are far too high, and the public-private partnerships at all levels maintains class identities that are expressed in ‘old boys networks’, and other hidden obstacles to integration. The control by religious organisations of state education is inconsistent with a truly independent republic. The Leaving Certificate is not a worthwhile examination by many criteria, and universities are seriously under-resourced, with far too many students being encouraged to embark on PhDs at the end of which there is little prospect of employment.
Media stagnation: Apart from oligarch ownership, other aspects are also unsatisfactory. The state broadcaster is driven overwhelmingly by commercial considerations, and delivers little in the way of public service programming. There is a serious dearth of publications offering serious reflection on society. The leading liberal newspaper, the Irish Times, although run as a trust, having purchased myhome.ie is a stakeholder in the property market.
Political incoherence: Try explaining what divides the main Irish political parties to a foreigner. The divisions are Lilliputian, stemming from a civil war fought over swearing an oath. Proportional representation in its Irish guise offers too much scope for independents – who generally care little about national let alone international issues – to be elected in multi-seat constituencies. Government often becomes an extended effort in appeasing minority interests to the detriment of the vast majority.
Food insecurity: When, not if, Climate Change begins to disrupt the world’s food supplies Ireland will be in difficult straits. Contrary to the propaganda of Ireland being ‘the food island’, we actually import the vast majority of our staple foods. If compelled to survive on food produced in Ireland exclusively we would have to invert the food pyramid, and subsist on a diet akin to Atkins’. Our agriculture also has massive fossil fuel inputs, and the organic sector is the smallest in the EU apart from Malta.
Garda Corruption: The list keeps growing and the heads of commissioners keep on rolling. Untangling the intertwining webs of ineptitude and corruption has been beyond the past two administrations. This is a perilous situation and the inability to pursue white collar crime, especially that perpetrated by oligarchs is deeply worrying.
Housing Crisis: It is more than about tackling the awful homelessness that has long been evident on the streets of Dublin. If you are young and not in a high-paying job, or well-connected, forget about aspiring to live in central Dublin. Artists and musicians are particularly vulnerable, and often opt for the Joycean option of ‘silence, cunning, and exile’.
Regional imbalance: When he was Minister for Transport our current Taoiseach described trains as a ‘romantic’, but not a realistic, aspiration for transportation in the country. Instead our resources have been devoted to building roads with predicable consequences for individual car use. A lack of connectivity is the single biggest obstacle to a person moving to another part of Ireland. Meanwhile on the continent high speed trains and local lines continue to be upgraded. Many Irish rural towns are on the brink of collapse. The agricultural subsidy regime maintains a system of cattle agriculture that demands low labour input for profitability, rather than labour-intensive horticulture.
The reason Ireland is a failing and not a failed state, is that there is still a great spirit manifest in the people of this embattled country, but the young and the creative are departing in droves, as they have done since independence. Also, to our credit, we are generally a tolerant people, and outright racism rarely rears its ugly head. Let us hope that the infusion of new peoples who arrived during our fortuitous boom years, together with the native spirit, can help build a state to be proud of.