Cosy consensus has led to our talent for reading instructions in the vast spaces between the lines, writes Marc Coleman
Listening to things we don't want to hear is not one of our strengths as Irish people. When the unbearable is spoken, our usual response is to block our ears and circle the wagons. But the comments of Richard Tol, the energy economist formerly of the ESRI, have touched a nerve.
Combining a tall frame and intelligent mind with feisty independence and mad hair, Richard Tol looks like the result of a gene-splicing experiment between the ESRI's John FitzGerald and former Dutch soccer international Edgar Davids. He is also famous for a controversial suggesting that we solve our CO2 emissions problem by slaughtering more cattle.
Like Davids' play on the pitch, Tol's style of commentary on the field of economics was too much for conventional ESRI culture.
Like their footballers, the Dutch are Calvinists; individualists who find their own way to God. For all the talk, we Irish remain deeply Catholic -- with a small "c" at least; highly averse to independent thinking outside the team consensus.
In his criticisms, Tol was nonetheless unfair to the ESRI. In June 2006, John Fitzgerald clearly warned that a possible recession was under way, and at a press conference on July 17, 2006, I relayed this to both Brian Cowen and Micheal Martin -- then Finance and Enterprise Ministers respectively -- and asked if their departments would prepare contingency plans.
Cowen said no. Tol criticised the ESRI for not making its warnings sufficiently attention-grabbing. But it is not paid to produce gripping documentaries.
In 2006, FitzGerald did his job and I did mine. It was the economic ministers Cowen and Martin -- and they alone -- who failed us.
The ESRI also gave us Alan Barrett, one of the few academics who had both the independence and the guts to highlight the public/private pay differential.
Nonetheless, Tol spoke a truth that is fundamental to understanding our national condition: too many bodies in Ireland -- the National Economic & Social Council, RTE, the ESRI, among others -- are too dependent on and too close to government for our own good.
Cosy cocoons of consensus only breed that uniquely Irish thing: the subconscious mentality that doesn't need to be told what to do, but reads its instructions in vast spaces between ambiguous lines. And acts accordingly.
And here the ESRI is open to criticism -- both for its cheerleading for ever higher taxes, and (Alan Barrett apart) its reluctance to recommend reducing massive waste in spending as an alternative to tax increases.
The preponderance of politically correct studies -- apparently cheerleading the decline of the traditional family and recommending policies designed to make Ireland more "progressive" -- also shows how the intellectual left now controls our public policy apparatus.
The ESRI's bias is not deliberate or intended. Rather it reflects the funding bias of the left-wing establishment that rules our permanent government and social partnership, imposing taxes on us to serve its own financial and ideological interests.
This bias exists right across government. Quango-land is awash with State-funded left-wingers busy designing policies to increase their power and influence over our lives, while pushing the rest of us to pay higher taxes to fund it.
The Dutch would have no tolerance for this. They believe in independent thinking, straight talking and honest dealing. We find this frightening, offensive even.
Here in Ireland (and also in the south of Italy and Greece), it is considered rude to tell people what they need to know but find unpleasant.
However in the Netherlands, feeding people only what they want to hear is rude -- and if you really love someone, you will tell them what they need to know.
Hardly a surprise then that Ireland, Italy and Greece were hit hardest by the crisis, while the Netherlands was barely scathed.
On Monday, Tol's compatriot Willem Buiter predicted that we would need a second bailout. It prompted a question of my own: should someone like Buiter -- who blogged in June 2009 that Citibank was an "agglomeration of worst practice", only to become its chief economist five months later -- be taken literally? I think not.
But again, behind the comment was a grain of truth. He was not criticising Ireland. If anything, his description of our fiscal correction as "fierce" was a compliment.
But in the small print of what he said was a truth that no reasonable economist can deny: the burden of promissory imposed under the terms of the bailout is unreasonably excessive and counterproductive to the same bailout's purpose of restoring the State's viability.
Far from saying a bailout was inevitable, Buiter pointed out that more favourable terms on our debt interest -- or better still, a larger write-down on debt, would avert the need for a second bailout.
So what do we want to do, ignore this truth or act on it? (Buiter is, by the way, saying nothing different from what Kenny and Gilmore were telling us before their election.)
There is a historic irony in all this: Ireland is the European country whose national flag contains an orange reference to the Dutch Calvinist tradition. And yet Ireland is a country in which the positive aspect of those traditions (independent thinking and no-nonsense honest talking) is despised and rejected.
This is the real tragedy of partition: that our Republic was sundered from half a million of our brothers and sisters who proclaim that tradition.
To date, we in the Republic have only seen the negative side of that culture. Looking back on the mess that we've made of the past, perhaps its time to make the orange in our flag finally mean something useful.
We shouldn't go for Tol's more bizzare sugestion of slaughtering cows. Maybe just the sacred ones.
You can follow @marcpcoleman on Twitter, or tune into 'Coleman at Large' from 10pm on Tuesday and Wednesday on Newstalk FM