Did the recession end at the Easter weekend?
We're not allowed to say that things might be getting better, says Brendan O'Connor - but maybe it's time we allowed ourselves a bit of positivity
Published 12/04/2015 | 02:30
I sat on a stone, eating a bag of chips, looking down over a thronged beach at Lahinch last Monday, and a strange, unfamiliar thought struck me.
It was probably the unfamiliar surroundings that did it, and the sunshine, the crowded beach, the town packed with people looking for pints and ice creams, the traffic, the surfers. And, for a minute, I dared to think: "Is the recession over?"
I even dared to think that maybe we would look back on Easter 2015, and the unexpected blast of summer, and how people took to the beaches, the pubs, the cafes and O'Connell Street in Dublin, as a turning point. Maybe historians in 10 or 20 years' time will look back and say: "That weekend is when people's mindset shifted. Unemployment had been going down and there was economic growth - but then we won a second Six Nations in an extraordinary day of sport, and then the weather came for the Easter holidays, and somehow that gave people the nudge they needed."
I say I dared to think the recession might be over, because such thoughts are not allowed in Ireland now.
Technically, of course, Ireland has been out of recession for quite a while, in that the economy has been growing for more than two quarters. But in Ireland, recession has become a state of mind that we are reluctant to end.
A peculiar thing about depression, when it happens to a person, is that there can be a part of that person that does not want to let go of their depression. Depression can become a safe place to be. It can become like a comfort blanket, and it can insulate people from the risks of daily life.
So, as we can do with grief, we can tend to cling onto depression, even though rationally, we know we want to get out of it, because it is acutely painful. You'd wonder if Ireland has become a bit like this in terms of our recession mentality.
After seven or eight years of it now, it's as if this is just how we are now. We don't know any other way of being, or of looking at the world.
And that mindset lags far behind economic indicators, just as the recovery in people's daily lives and in their pockets, lags far behind macroeconomic growth figures.
You could argue that last Monday in Lahinch, I was feeling a version of Harry Truman's maxim - that a recession is when your neighbour loses his job and a depression is when you lose your job.
It was easy for me, gainfully employed, sitting in the sun, eating chips, to think that things were good. And it was easy for things to feel good as all around me families and young people hit the beach for the day and spent a few quid.
But not far away from where I sat on my rock, presumably there were people who were in danger of losing their homes, and families decimated by unemployment who still weren't feeling the bounce.
And that, in a way, is why you dare not think the recession is over. Because no one wants to stand up these days and say things might be looking good because they will be told that's easy for them to say, but that there are loads of people out there who can't feed their children and can't pay water charges and who are victims of austerity.
And this is all true.
But if we are not going to let the recession mindset end until every last person in the country is doing OK, then it will never be over.
It's a bit flippant to say the poor will always be with us, but the truth is that things will never be perfect. There will always be some level of structural unemployment, for example.
While we are nowhere near that baseline level of unemployment now, we equally have to accept at some stage that unemployment is falling and that this is a good thing.
There will always be people in trouble with debt too. There will always be people who can't afford everything they need. There will always be inequality. There has never been such as thing as a society where everyone is equal. Even those societies where everyone was supposed to be equal, turned out to be even more corrupt than capitalist countries.
None of this is to say that we shouldn't keep working to solve all these problems, but you have to think too that our focus cannot always be exclusively on our problems. That is not the healthiest path to recovery.
The healthy path to recovery is not to ignore any good news or talk it down with bad news. The healthy path to recovery is not for people to be afraid to talk about success or about doing well.
The healthy path to recovery is to focus a little bit on nurturing confidence and positivity. No one is suggesting we engage in that kind of mindless positivity that is so popular these days and that contributed to the global financial crisis. Neither should we be closed off to positivity on principle, because we have become addicted to being the most wronged, damaged and impoverished people ever.
There is a funny conversation that happens these days between Irish people and visitors to this country, or with emigrants who are home for a few weeks.
The run-up to this conversation will usually be that the visitor will have been warned, for weeks before their visit to Ireland, how bad things are here. They may even have read stories in the New York Times or elsewhere about how awful things are in Ireland. And then they come, and are somewhat bemused. Because things don't seem to be that bad.
And, at some point, they may dare to remark on this. And when they do try and suggest that things don't seem to be too bad, they will be shut down by the locals, who will tell them that it's only like this because it's Christmas or summer holidays or because the local festival is on. Or else they will be told that things only look good because they are in Dublin/Galway/Kenmare or wherever they are, and that if they went anywhere else things would be different.
It is an automatic response with us by now. If anyone comes from the outside and dares to see any glimmer of energy, we jump in to talk it down as soon as we can.
The reality is there are many parts of the country where local economies are thriving, and it's not just on Friday or Saturday nights.
And while equally, there are parts of the country not doing as well, there will always be parts of the country not doing as well, and insisting on maintaining a recession mentality is not going to help them. In fact, the opposite is probably true.
It is, of course, understandable that we are wary of feeling in anyway smug or successful or positive.
We are all acutely aware of how we lost the run of ourselves less than a decade ago.
But you have to wonder how long we can keep overcompensating for that by not allowing any positivity into our worldview. It's hard to move on, and it's a scary thing to be confident when confidence got us all in such trouble so recently.
But increasingly, you sense that people are feeling that they only have one life and that they'd like to live it again a little in whatever way they can. Increasingly, you sense that, albeit in a more modest way, people want to dare to dream again.