Contrary to populist claims, Ireland is a remarkable country and we’re lucky to live here

(Leinster House, Stock Image)

I have had a great, big think recently; and I have concluded that, some time ago, I fell victim to accepting a general sentiment derived from artificially created, politically motivated social, economic and political narratives which portray modern-day Ireland as a failed project characterised by corruption, incompetence, inequality and general desolation. Actions by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael politicians ranging from Lemass’ First Programme for Economic Expansion to Daniel Morrissey’s creation of the IDA and our decision to join the EEC in 1973, the claim goes, have culminated in Ireland turning out to be a bit of a kip. It has led me to focus a lot of my attention covering the difficulties we face as a nation, which is an upright activity to engage in, but should be accompanied with an utterly necessary degree of perspective and context, which this piece aims to offer. 

I have always been of the strongly held belief that we, as a people, have an unhelpful obsession with looking to our left and our American counterparts, and to our right and our British neighbours, and assuming, primarily due to our obvious similarities – western democracies with mixed economies – that their problems are our problems, almost identically so. It is why the Irish right is so insistent on debating issues of political correctness and identity politics having run amuck when the reality on the ground in campuses in Ireland is fundamentally different from the United States. Components of the Irish left, meanwhile, are staunchly convinced that the stances we ought to adopt on a multitude of economic issues should resemble those of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and their left-wing counterparts in the U.S or, similarly, those that were upheld as a blueprint by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the United Kingdom until recently; income inequality has been consistently exacerbating since the 1980s, almost to a point of no return, the middle-class is now virtually non-existent and the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a sinister few is what epitomises and dictates our politics and our society. 

The issue with this idea, however, is that it may feel good to accept it, and can often seem true when we look at the problems in modern Ireland, but the idea that Ireland is a greatly unequal and unjust country is not borne out by the data. The extensive OECD report Preventing Ageing Unequally which dealt with the issues of generationally worsening inequalities as well as population aging, highlighted the existence and dangers of these inequalities which were prevalent in a majority of OECD countries. One of the findings of the report was that poverty risks have shifted from the old to the young in almost all countries while real income growth was faster for older cohorts. Citizens in countries such as Belgium, the United States, the United Kingdom and Austria, for example, are countries where inequality was far less pervasive in the 1980s than it is today. Ireland, however, is described in the report as being “a counter-example with declining income inequality across cohorts.”

It is worth acknowledging, however, that a fundamental transformation has occurred in the case of the Irish economy since the late 1900s when the income data from the OECD report begins – it is easier to maintain being a relatively equal society when coming from a weaker economic position. But this does not obfuscate the lack of substance to the idea that Ireland is currently a greatly unequal society, certainly when compared to many of our western counterparts. Instead, the issue in modern Ireland appears to be of great inequities and inadequacies embedded in the interface of public services and citizens. A lack of incentives to provide affordable housing in the private sector, a lack of social housing, inaccessibility to quality, public healthcare, inaccessibility to childcare facilities, rising effective costs in the area of third-level education – none of these developments are necessarily linked to the idea of income inequality, since many should be provided regardless of income, but rather to the role of the state and its efficiency. 

Populist forces, both left-wing and right-wing, thrive when succeeding in convincing a nation’s people that their problems are more significant than they are in reality and that there are fewer reasons to be grateful for living in that country than there really are.

Furthermore, a 2018 Unicef study An Unfair Start — Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries looked at the opportunities available to young people – with special emphasis placed on educational opportunity. Out of the 41 wealthy countries analysed, Ireland ranked as the second-best of all. The United Kingdom is ranked 16th. While more work is to be done pertaining to the Irish preschool and primary school systems, our country’s secondary schooling system ranked second-best of all. The data also showed bullying to be less prevalent amongst Irish children with the third-best showing among all countries based on the percentage of grade-four children reporting such activities. Perhaps, when taking into account the comparative degree of equality of opportunity offered to young people in Ireland, as well as the ethos and moral compass instilled within communities, it is no coincidence that Ireland ranked joint-highest in the mean evaluation of overall life satisfaction in the 2018 rankings. Ireland also saw the second greatest increase in life satisfaction levels when compared to other EU countries since 2013.

There are undoubtedly issues which exist in Ireland, but they are a different variety of socio-economic woes than those that exist in the United States and the United Kingdom, and to merely parrot the narratives we hear from there of ‘unbelievable inequalities‘ where ‘billionaires are actively creating oligarchic structures‘, it does a great disservice to these issues. Even more worrying, however, is the growing tendency amongst Irish young people, which I see all too often on college campuses, to take these issues of health and homelessness and use them as justifications for working towards overthrowing the Irish political and economic systems. The truth is that if you were offered to pick any time in history to live it would be now, in a democratic nation, with a capitalist mixed-economy – and Ireland offers you each of these, and to a better standard than most others. The issues we face today are minor in an overall systemic sense and are tiny in comparison to the monumental progress we have made as a country over the last 50 years. To wish to undo all of this progress by advocating for the overhaul of the traditional, established political and economic structures rather than working incrementally, within the current system, to help rectify them does not make sense to me. 

One specific measure proposed by Prof. Cal Muckley which warrants further study and consideration from young people is the idea of a Social Progress Indicator or SPI. Muckley’s paper on an SPI suggests traditional economic measurement mechanisms to be incapable of fulfilling Ireland’s needs going forward – with Gross Domestic Product being the pre-eminent example. Instead, a multi-faceted approach should be adopted, offering a more complete indication of the quality of life of Irish citizens and the efficiency of the provision of government-mandated public services in the process including SPI sub-indices ranging from health, education, public transport, the security of the citizen, social housing, the state pension system and more. I am of the belief that a more detailed and complex approach to how we look at economics is going to be key to improving the ‘status-quo’ to quell the support of more radical persuasions. Ideally, the evaluation of policy proposals and consequences will no longer be purely defined about the narrow bottom line but instead by a broader measurement of outcomes, exposing hyper-partisanship in the process.

The point of this piece, simply put, is that as someone who spends as much time as I do studying reports on the socio-economic ills of our society, and who devotes as much time as I do to criticising successive Irish governments on a policy-by-policy basis, it can often be helpful to take a step back and be appreciative of where we live, this nation of ours. Ireland has never been healthier, wealthier, as well informed or as well connected with each other than we currently are. If you claim to be an objective, non-partisan spectator or, in general, an arbiter of truth, then you should strive to spend as much time thinking of and reporting on reasons to be grateful for living in Ireland rather than exclusively illuminating the issues in our country with ideological, anti-establishment political motives being the constant driving purpose. Populist forces, both left-wing and right-wing, thrive when succeeding in convincing a nation’s people that their problems are more significant than they are in reality and that there are fewer reasons to be grateful for living in that country than an honest evaluation would prove.