Tuesday 23 April 2019

Europe was the game-changer in our evolution

  • Reviewed by an Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
David McWilliams 'The increase in different types of freedoms has helped take us forward'. Photo Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
David McWilliams 'The increase in different types of freedoms has helped take us forward'. Photo Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

The poet Ezra Pound met Arthur Griffith during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, and later immortalised him in verse as 'this stubby little man' who provided intriguing advice about economics and politics.

According to Pound, Griffith told him 'You can't move 'em with a cold thing like economics'. As Griffith explained 'it's a question of feeling'. I suspect that David McWilliams would agree.

You need to persuade people with stories and emotions rather than with cold facts and statistics. Throughout his career he has been on his own personal crusade to change the way we view economics in this country, no longer Thomas Carlyle's 'dismal science', but fundamental to how we live, work and think about the world.

It is perhaps too easy, when reading any new book by David McWilliams, to focus on the amusingly drawn caricatures, and not look any further. And, as always, there are plenty here such as Sliotar Mom, Dad Bod and The Sleeve, presented to elucidate, entertain and provoke. I suspect readers will enjoy recognising others in these archetypes, although not necessarily themselves.

However there is a consistent theme running through the book which is the attempt to answer the question of how Ireland became what he calls 'The Renaissance Nation', a country which 'accepted the challenges of globalisation, seized the opportunity afforded to it, and has grown much more quickly than any of our neighbours'.

Bringing imagination and verve to the study of how Ireland has changed between the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Francis earlier this year, McWilliams throws out many ideas and hypotheses, some which hit the mark, and others which are less successful.

For example, the book provides a strong defence of small businesses and entrepreneurs as the silent heroes of the Irish economic miracle, and reminded me of the reasons why Fine Gael is so determined to stand up for them. McWilliams argues that while there are crises in some other parts of the West, Ireland has been transformed utterly and in a largely positive way, and in a way that allows us to be optimistic about the future.

At the same time, I found myself sceptical of some of his prescriptions, for example, his idea of a wealth tax or how we should redefine our relationship with multinationals in this country.

Nor did I accept his analysis of W.B. Yeats's poem September 1913, seeing his lines about fumbling in the greasy till as an attack on a narrow-minded culture of materialism rather than an assault on hard-working middle Ireland. Nevertheless, by provoking and challenging, McWilliams forces the reader to reassess what they think and jolts you out of any lazy assumptions.

The central thesis of the book, and one which I agree wholeheartedly with, is that the increase in different types of freedom in Ireland - personal, economic, social, political - has helped take us forward as a country.

McWilliams describes this as 'the modern Ireland of the tolerant, ambitious Radical Centre'.

However I am not sure that the best way of viewing this transforming is by looking at what happened between the two Papal visits. For me, we need to take a slightly longer approach and go back to our decision to join the EEC, a decision which was approved by 83pc in a referendum in 1972.

Europe was the game-changer. Until then, we were divided by religion, divided by gender, divided by our past, closed to trade, closed to new ideas, closed to the world. Europe offered something new. It shook us out of our insularity and it encouraged us to see ourselves as citizens of the world. The vision that delivered peace in Europe opened the door to peace in Ireland. It removed borders, brought people together and integrated economies.

We have not looked back. For us, Europe enabled our transformation from being a country on the periphery of the continent, to an island at the centre of the world, at the heart of the common European home that we helped to build.

This helped create the dynamic for the Radical Centre which McWilliams describes in these pages. I believe that today the Centre has to be radical or it faces a much greater problem than being made redundant. It risks being swept away completely, replaced by short-term populism and long-term instability.

McWilliams is correct to show that our respect for diversity - cultural, ethnic, political, social - has made us stronger, both at home and in our dealings with the rest of the world. We value integration because we have seen its worth, and it has enhanced our own self-worth and self-confidence.

On a final and more personal note, I found it a somewhat strange experience to read a book and find myself appearing in a couple of sections, especially when I am discussed next to Conor McGregor in one of them!

McWilliams is at his mischievous best when he suggests that what Barack Obama, Emmanuel Macron, me and a new generation of leaders have in common is that we are champions of what he calls 'the Testocracy'. These are people who are good at exams and table quizzes, although, annoyingly for my argument here, I do happen to be quite good at table quizzes! I suspect that what we really have in common is that we are politicians of our generation who have learned the lessons of the past, and are determined not to make the same mistakes as we work to bring our countries forward.

Leaders must show resilience and creativity when faced with unexpected challenges. In politics that's the most important test.

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