Often, we hear talk about the need to reinvent Ireland. I don't see how that's possible. We can't scrap everything and begin again from scratch -- there's no going back to the drawing board as if Ireland was a car designed without a steering wheel, balanced on square wheels instead of round. But our country can be re-imagined.
By this, I mean we can set goals and use them to redefine the calibre of culture we live in. We ought to take an unsentimental, impartial look at what exists now -- a Colm McCarthy-style assessment of society and its institutions, dealing not with finances but fitness for purpose and the attainability of objectives -- and then we should have another crack at it.
"Try again. Fail again. Fail better," as Beckett put it.
Re-imagining Ireland ought to be an ongoing process. At no stage can it be decided that perfection has been reached because room for improvement always exists. If Leonardo da Vinci had the 'Mona Lisa' in front of him today and a paintbrush to hand, he'd start tweaking. Mind you, Ireland today is no work of art.
Our founders re-imagined the State as an independent entity, instead of a colony. But the heirs to 1916 let slide their predecessors' aspirations to equality and social justice. Even efficiency seems an impossible ideal. We, the people, allowed these goals to ebb away too.
Standards slipped and we shrugged. High hopes were replaced by low expectations -- experience reduced them still further. We swapped masters in London for masters in Dublin, and believed because they came from among us they were like us. We were wrong. Once set above us, they forgot.
But we were negligent. We were silent when we should have protested. We surrendered our expectations when we looked the other way. We allowed ourselves to be bought and sold. We were complicit.
If Ireland is to be re-imagined, we -- the people -- must play an active role in this reformed society. We cannot take a back seat and complain about what ensues. Re-imagining Ireland requires participation in it.
Participation means no tax evasion. It means politicians closing more legal tax avoidance loopholes. It means no relocating savings to Swiss bank accounts. It means spending locally. It means no opportunistic price hikes from service providers. It means rediscovering patriotism as a practical concept, rather than as a flag of convenience on high days and holidays.
I'd like to say participation means going on holiday at home in the interests of supporting the tourism industry. But I find I can't after spending last week in west Cork, where the weather was consistently wet, and few of the pubs and restaurants I patronised appeared to have lowered their prices following the VAT reduction.
In fact, eating out in Dublin strikes me as cheaper than in the small towns of west Cork. This is not helpful for Ireland's tourism brand. Re-imagining Ireland must include offering value for money everywhere, not just in the capital, so that customers will be inclined to return.
Politics needs to be re-imagined as well. The 2011 General Election was won on the basis of reform, including political remodelling, but can politicians truly transform themselves?
They are not disinterested observers; they are self-interested participants whose livelihoods will be affected by the outcome. Some tinkering at the edges is all we have witnessed so far, such as halving the payments to chairs of Dail committees.
Enda Kenny is willing to sacrifice the Seanad on the altar of political reform, but attention should be directed toward the Dail, where fewer deputies would be an improvement.
A hundred TDs should be ample, which requires constitutional change to allow for less representation per unit of population. We are invited to vote on another constitutional modification (relating to judicial salaries) during the presidential election on October 21; there is no reason why TD numbers shouldn't be included.
Here's another way to re-imagine Ireland: operate a more selective approach to paying pensions to certain former ministers and civil servants. We have a host of people on the retirement fund payroll whose record of gross incompetence should preclude them from annuities altogether, or reduced incomes at least. How can it be proper for those people whose behaviour helped deliver us to the IMF to receive super-sized rewards from the Exchequer?
More ways to re-imagine Ireland: tackle the vested interests of over-paid professionals. Hospital consultants spring to mind, but there are others.
In fairness, the Government is already squaring up to the judiciary -- a highly regarded sector busy squandering its esteem by fumbling in a greasy till. Our judges mistake respect for their office with personal respect. They are about to discover that reputation takes time to build -- and no time to lose.
We can re-imagine the Presidency -- I'm dismayed by Fine Gael and Labour's anointing of career politicians to contest the election, as though the Aras is a plum for card-carrying members. I want a President with va-va-voom, not a long-service record in a political party.
I was under the impression the Presidency had been re-imagined with Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, but apparently not. It's two steps forward and one step back in the hands of the government parties. We can only hope that Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein might each back a non-affiliated candidate in the interest of giving us genuine choice, and that the few -- the too few -- independent aspirants manage to drum up sufficient support to run.
Time to re-imagine the presidential selection process as well, allowing citizens not involved in politics as county councillors or Oireachtas members to nominate candidates.
But other re-imaginings need to happen in Irish life. We must re-imagine our commitment to civic duty, our attitude to philanthropy, our willingness to back the State in large ways and in small.
We can't go outside, come back in and start over. We can't operate a scorched-earth policy followed by a rebuilding programme. The best we can hope for is steady advance.
What bothers me, however, is that the basics are being ignored -- the areas in need of improvement need to be identified and clearly targeted. I don't believe this has happened yet.