Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Last 12 years has corrupted this country's coming of age

'The Curious Mind' is a collection of sound bites out of John Quinn's career as a broadcaster over 25 years. Lavishly praised in a foreword by Tom Collins, Professor of Education at Maynooth, the book is claimed by him as "a key contributor to the rethinking process which must now begin", with the added assertion that "it is entirely appropriate and timely that this book should emerge now".

Collins does not say how, or why, this rethink should happen, and my own judgment is that it will not happen, since the Irish people have no taste for what would be involved: Irish gullibility, stupidity, greed and selfishness will get in the way.

We are shy about rethinking ourselves and are moving in the opposite direction, sustaining much of what was wrong and ignoring, as far as possible, the changes that are necessary. Certainly the politicians who rule us are doing very little to indicate that they were mistaken or wrong.

The book has charming passages -- Mollie Keane on her childhood, Polly Devlin on Lough Neagh, Clare Boylan on her mother -- but it rarely satisfies true curiosity.

Then I came to the very end and discovered a truly remarkable exchange in January 1998, between Ken Whitaker and Paddy Lynch -- two founding figures of modern Ireland -- on what Whitaker described as Ireland's "coming of age".

This is a colloquial essay, a celebration by two men I greatly admire who were at the heart of the State's development and who were celebrating its growth. Yet, frankly, I winced at almost every sentence.

Whitaker's claim that Ireland "has come of age economically", while possibly true in 1998, has been turned on its head in 2010. What Lynch said then, that "there is an air of self-confidence among our people today" has become nonsense 12 years later.

Whitaker gave his life to rectifying a situation he perceived when he was identified for promotion, by Gerard Sweetman as finance minister in the second inter-party government. This was the view in 1956 that Ireland was not really viable.

He said, truthfully, in 1998: "We have come of age now because we are able to maintain an increased population at a reasonably high standard; there is no longer any net emigration; we are an open society economically -- quite competitive -- and therefore we have an independence that will serve us very well for the future."

If we came of age at all it was brief.

We cannot maintain an increased population. We will have difficulty even as it shrinks. The standard of living is falling. Employment is falling too. The economy has been largely debauched and corrupted. The chaotic banking system is a burden on the taxpayer and this burden will not diminish. And the openness of our society economically, which was linked by Whitaker to us being "quite" competitive, is now like a large hole in the side of a tanker, causing it to sink with all hands.

Lynch referred to a historical fact that "the first national loan for £10m was floated in 1923 and it was taken up by the Irish people when the Irish banks refused to contribute a penny".

Now the loan is no longer national, except that it consists of taxpayers' money being loaned, not to the State for its development, but to the banks who squandered their resources in property loans that have ruined homeowners, stifled the so-called 'competitive' industries, and placed the State in debt for the foreseeable future. If this is 'coming of age' then we would be better off without it.

Lynch referred in that colloquy to the Economic War between Ireland and Britain hitting us so badly in the 1930s

and he drew two lessons from it:

firstly, that "the steadfastness of the people in accepting hard-

ship and supporting the government is quite remarkable" -- it is certainly not so today; and, secondly, the extraordinary skill of Eamon de Valera and Sean Lemass, the former in his diplomatic skills, negotiating our way through that period, the latter in his handling of essential supplies for this island.

Not a thing of this remains. Our diplomacy with Europe over Lisbon was abysmal. As to supplies, we cannot manage grit, salt and water. Where does that leave us?

Whitaker makes a specific and valuable point in identifying the right politicians in the right place in 1985 to rescue us from the ill-judged prodigality and misfortunes of the stagnant period from 1970 until then.

Lynch takes a different timescale, up to 1987, crediting Ray McSharry and Charles Haughey with laying the foundations for "the economy we have today".

Unfortunately, we don't have it any more. It has been squandered. Terrible debts have been placed on the shoulders of young people, many of whom will leave Ireland and seek their fortunes, as their ancestors did, in Australia, Canada, the United States and elsewhere in Europe, including Britain.

Whitaker claims, in the exchange with Lynch, that "education has been the key to our success". It will continue to be so, but in another clime and under other stars than those that shone down upon our coming of age 12 years ago.

Whitaker, whose public service underlay a lifetime of dedication to this country, refers to precisely that work when he says: "My generation did feel we were privileged to be the first well- educated generation in the Irish public service and we felt an obligation to serve the State because of that."

That is no longer the case. The public service has stripped itself of that talent, and those who have it in the private sector sell it to the State at high premium prices and with golden handshakes at the end of all, whether they succeed or fail. Mostly, they fail.

In these and other ways our 'coming of age' has been debauched and corrupted. Twelve years have well and truly destroyed a lifetime's dream of Whitaker and Lynch. 'The Curious Mind' might have been better if its author had said as much.