despite the begrudgers, Ireland in 2024 is a rather good country…

Maybe because St Patrick’s Day is coming up and we’re in the middle of Seachtain na Gaeilge, I’m feeling a bit patriotic – so am going to write about why I think the Republic of Ireland is a rather good country now, despite the many begrudgers.  Firstly, there are the well-known demographic and economic indicators: in the 50 years of EU membership, life expectancy has risen from 71 to 81.5 years; incomes per head have increased fourfold; the number of people at work has grown from just over one million to more than 2.5 million; since 1999 over 1.6 million immigrants have come to live and work here; and we are now in the top five countries in the world for scientific research in numerous areas ranging from agricultural sciences to immunology, pharmacology to neuroscience. These are the signs of a successful country.

According to the UN’s Human Development Index (which combines life expectancy, education levels and GDP per capita), Ireland was the 20th best country in the world in 2001, and the eighth best in 2021. Tom Arnold, the distinguished Irish public servant and former CEO of the aid organisation Concern, says that the world’s poorest countries where Concern worked had “many disadvantages, ranging from the legacy of colonialism, conflict, poor health and education standards of their peoples, and, increasingly, the impact of climate change. But the single most important factor which explains their poverty and its persistence is the quality and honesty of governance and the capacity to implement consistent policy to improve living standards.”1 That is what the Republic of Ireland, despite the vagaries of globalised capitalism’s boom and slump cycles and some continuing major policy shortcomings, has achieved spectacularly in recent decades.

We have a fully working democracy here. The electorate telling the government decisively in a referendum last weekend that it would not accept the wording of its constitutional amendments on the role of women, “durable relationships” and care in the family was a powerful sign of that (although it was also a sign of voter disgruntlement with the Dublin-centred governing class). There has been no sign here of any significant electoral surge to the hard right, as has been happening in so many other European countries.

We have been fortunate in our politicians. In more than a hundred years of independence – through the dangerously fascist 1930s, the economic crashes of the early 1970s and the post-2008 crisis, and the anti-immigration 2020s – there has been no sign of any significant dictatorial or authoritarian political figure moving to capitalise on popular discontent. We have lively, heated and occasionally acrimonious political debate on our media. Our Taoiseach and Tánaiste live in modest, middle-class houses in city suburbs with few security precautions.

Compare that with our closest neighbours, where the Prime Minister is a super-rich plutocrat and two MPs have been murdered in the past eight years. Rishi Sunak said last month that Britain was descending into “mob rule”, appearing to blame largely peaceful protests (including pickets on MPs’ houses) against Israel’s war in Gaza. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss shared a platform with Donald Trump’s wicked former adviser, Steve Bannon, the organiser of international far-right networks, who called English fascist agitator Tommy Robinson a “hero”. Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman said Islamists, extremists and anti-Semites are now in charge of Britain. The deputy chair of the Conservative Party said Islamists have “got control of London” and its Lord Mayor, Sadiq Khan. And the economic background is the government budget watchdog’s warning that Brexit is still dragging down the economy (0.8% growth forecast this year) and the impact is set to get worse due to new trade barriers.

When I grew up in London in the 1950s and 1960s, it was Britain that was a rather good country, with a fast-growing postwar economy, the Welfare State and the National Health Service, the huge expansion of free secondary and third level education, and the coming of a reformist Labour government in 1964. Now they have post-Brexit stasis and uncertainty, deep economic divides between north and south, and moves to the hard right represented by English nationalism and nostalgia for the exploitation and violence of the British empire.

Of course we have in Ireland our continuing problems. The lack of housing is a running sore. Because of our governing parties’ addiction to the private sector, a sclerotic Department of Housing and planning system and big capacity challenges (including shortages of skilled labour) in housebuilding firms, we had the third lowest investment in housing in the EU in 2022 (after Greece and Poland). Astonishingly, at the end of last year there were nearly 29,000 houses stuck in An Bord Pleanala or awaiting High Court judicial review decisions, not far off the 32,000 completions.2 Our government’s inability to reduce hospital waiting lists and complete major hospital building projects on time and without exploding budgets is legendary. Our public transport system is creaking and unintegrated. In common with other European countries, the government has been caught almost completely unprepared by the sharp increase in the number of asylum-seekers from a low base, and the now frequent arson attacks on buildings meant to become temporary shelters for such refugees are a national disgrace (and why can’t the gardai catch and charge these criminals?).

Like the great majority of Western countries, we have the scandal of growing inequality (although a progressive tax system takes some of the sting out of this). Ireland has the fifth largest number of billionaires per capita in the world, according to Oxfam. I suppose this is part of our country’s success story in today’s multinational capitalist world, but I agree with the left-wing US senator Bernie Sanders that the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few extremely rich people while so many people are in poverty, in Ireland as in the world, is an obscenity. Recently I have been reading Who really owns Ireland? by the journalist Matt Cooper, about the eye-popping wealth of multi-billionaires like the retail empire owner Galen Weston, the financier Dermot Desmond, the gambler J.P. McManus, the horse breeder John Magnier, the telecoms entrepreneur Denis O’Brien, the developer Johnny Ronan, the hotelier Paddy McKillen, and the ‘beef baron’ Larry Goodman, among others. Some of these men were wiped out in the 2008-2010 crash, but now, a decade and a half later, have become richer than ever by employing financial instruments that are an utter mystery to the ordinary Irish citizen. This is the ‘Wild West’ side of the Irish success story.

But to return to my main thesis. I tend to agree with the former Irish Times political editor, Stephen Collins, writing in the aftermath of last November’s anti-immigration riot, that “the contempt for civilised values displayed by the rioters in Dublin echoes in extreme form the pervasive narrative that has taken a grip on public discourse over the past few years, portraying this country as a failed state.” He said it was the “default setting of Opposition politicians [he singled out Sinn Fein for special mention] and much of the media that everything about this country is wrong.”

“The relatively comfortable circumstances in which the vast majority of us live are due to the way politicians and public servants over a number of decades created the conditions for the prosperous modern Irish State to emerge. Of course, lots of people feel they should be doing better in one way or another, but international comparisons show that this country is one of the best places on Earth to live….The fact that so many immigrants have flocked to our shores over the past two decades to work at all levels of society from top to bottom is in itself enough to debunk the narrative of endless misery that so many native-born citizens are prone to accept.”3

Dublin in particular is an extraordinarily vibrant and multicultural city these days (although also extraordinarily expensive). This was summed up for me in an incident on O’Connell Street a fortnight ago. I was part of a small group called ‘Grandfathers against Racism’, who stand with a banner outside the GPO every Tuesday lunchtime. A man came up to see what we were doing and introduced himself as a tennis coach from Kazakhstan (of Korean origin), who lived in Blanchardstown with his Belarussian wife, his elder daughter who had recently become a solicitor and his younger daughter who had just graduated with a degree in chemistry from UCD. He said that in 25 years in Blanchardstown he had never experienced racism or any kind of hostility.

I hope for two things in the future. In the South that voters in the next election will remember that our prosperity and stability owe much to decisions made over the years by the ‘establishment’ parties – Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens (although the last two would reject that description) – and nothing to Sinn Fein. In the North that my fellow Protestants will start to look honestly at this remarkable ‘new Ireland’ and decide that, despite the toxic legacy of four centuries of internecine strife between the religious ‘tribes’ on this island, they too can play a role in it. The first thing they need to do is to rid themselves of the antiquated, 1950s-era image so many of them have in their heads about the Republic as some kind of narrow, Catholic Church-dominated, impoverished and inward-looking society. Nothing could be further from the truth these days.

PS As a non-political coda, I asked my wife Doireann, a Dubliner and native Irish speaker, what she liked most about present day Ireland. These are the things she listed:

  • “Free travel for over those over 66. An enormous gift which I am grateful for every day.
  • The visibility of the Irish language and the increasing (it seems to me, compared with my childhood) enthusiasm of people of all ages for learning it.
  • The informality with which we connect with others. Of course there are hidden class divides (not so hidden when it comes to poverty), but in general anyone will chat with anyone else with ease on the street, in the shops, on public transport.  We smile at each other and greet each other in a way that is not so common in other developed countries.
  • The fact that our traditional music is so vibrant, and is played by so many young people with comfort and ease. It’s wonderful to see it being passed on from generation to generation.
  • We value artistic expression: whether it’s writers, film and theatre makers, visual artists or musicians; we sense that their work adds value to the way we live, and we respect their choice to be artists. Of course we must support them better in practical ways; if they can’t make a decent living or afford a place to live, that undermines any value we may claim to put on their role.”

She added one characteristic which has nothing to do with modernity, but with the extraordinary beauty and nearness of nature in this island (and with which I enthusiastically agree). “The ease with which we can travel to beautiful, wild places. It doesn’t take more than a few hours from anywhere in Ireland to reach the mountains and the sea.  We don’t realise what a huge privilege that is.”

1 Introduction to TASC – Reflections on Equality, December 2022

Cliff Taylor, ‘Can State deliver 50,000 new homes a year? Irish Times, 24 February

3 ‘Too many people have swallowed the ‘failed state’ narrative’, Irish Times, 1 December 2023

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