Friday 24 January 2020

Time to look forward and stop wallowing in our guilt

We need to stop bemoaning the mistakes of the past and instead get on with putting things back together, writes Brendan O'Connor

French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has written a book called The Tyranny of Guilt. The subtitle of the book is An Essay on Western Masochism. His basic thesis is that the entire western world is addicted to wallowing in guilt about the past, and that the root of it all is roughly religious -- stemming form the notion of original sin. Bruckner's most vivid illustration of our addiction to guilt is that so many thinkers and commentators could greet the murder of 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, with cries of "we had it coming".

"We had it coming" could be Ireland 2010's catchcry as well.

Bruckner reckons that in a weird way this wallowing in guilt and remorse is a form of narcissism. "Our superiority complex," he says of the West, "has taken refuge in the perpetual avowal of our sins." He could be talking about Ireland. We were the best at economic miracles, now we are the best at repentance and austerity.

So maybe then the time has come to look forward. Even to look at the now. The malaise of masochism that envelops the country is now etched not just on our faces and in our national discourse but on the main streets of our towns and cities, on the very landscape of our country.

Here's a funny thing. There will be another boom. Hard to believe right now maybe, but then again, we thought the good times would never stop either. They did. Things change. And they'll change again.

And we need to be ready for that boom. Everyone seems to agree that part of being ready for that boom means taking the time not just to lick our wounds but to get ready for the next fight. Everyone agrees that this country has a problem with infrastructure. The foreign-owned companies that make up the vast majority of our exports complain a lot about it. A little over a year ago more than half of the foreign companies here said they would not choose Ireland if they had their time over again, and infrastructure was a major reason why.

The basics of our transport network still aren't in place. Can you believe that we are still talking about potholes in 21st Century Ireland? But it is still a major and costly problem. It is costing motorists a bomb in new tyres and whatnot, it is causing accidents and jolts to people's backs and hips and it is everywhere, not just on rural byroads but around the affluent suburbs of our cities and towns.

Potholes represent our shabby infrastructure at its most basic. Then there is the broader transport network, the communications network, energy -- the list goes on.

And then, on a more aesthetic level, there are those increasingly shabby main streets around the country. They are the country's despair and regret and neglect made physical.

We are currently paying hundreds of thousands of people in this country to do nothing. Some 100,000-plus of these people are construction workers and tradesmen. Some of them are young men who nearly became tradesmen but who now cannot finish serving their time, when some of them would only need weeks more work in order to qualify. Many of the hundreds of thousands of people we are paying to do nothing would rather be doing something. Apart from the obvious monetary problems of unemployment they are suffering the esteem problems, the social isolation problems and the despair that can come with not having a reason to get up in the morning.

So would it be crazy to suggest that if, on the one hand we have a load of work to be done around the place, and, on the other hand, we have a load of people, many of whom are specifically qualified to do this work, and who might welcome something to do, that we should consider joining the dots here and creating some sort of public works scheme?

The look and general ambience of this country was always one of our huge assets. Tourism was something we were genuinely good at. Over the past couple of years, for all sorts of reasons, tourism has been decimated. This, in turn, has decimated parts of the country where there was nothing else but tourism. If we keep letting the place go to rack and ruin, as we cut back on capital spending, we are not going to help that industry and those areas.

So we can sit around bemoaning the past and the mistakes we made, and we can let the place fall apart around us, and it can start having a snowball effect where the shabbiness and dereliction slowly take over and we become one of those depressing little countries you see on TV that you wouldn't dream of visiting.

Or we can decide to get on with it and start putting things back together. True, it was our first real boom, and we thought it was forever and now we believe we'll never be able to boom again. But we will. There'll be other booms. And while they might not be as wild and exciting as that one was, and while we may not lose our heads so much the next time, it will be all the better that we will learn to love a different kind of boom, a mature one, maybe without the fireworks, but still better than this.

Recovery will not come if we just sit around and wait for it. Ask anyone who has ever been depressed. You need to start acting and from that action will come confidence. You don't wait until the day you feel like getting out of bed, because that will never come. You make yourself get out of bed every morning. And if you keep doing it, and you keep forcing yourself to act, then the real confidence and energy will come later. You need to fake it initially.

Maybe while we are cleaning the place up we should consider building some things as well. Have we ever regretted building anything fabulous? Despite the fact that it cost a bomb that we probably couldn't afford, is anyone regretting the Aviva Stadium this weekend? I mentioned before a plan they have in Kenmare for a Centre for Contemporary Irish Culture (CCIC). The last time I wrote about it, it looked like it might not happen. The people of Kenmare have raised €1m for it. It will cost about €12m in all. The rest of the money will hopefully come from the Government and further private investment. The CCIC is one of those great visionary ideas that we will never regret, and it will pay for itself plenty of times over in an area where the local economy is heavily dependent on tourism.

"The CCIC champions the current day culture of Ireland in dynamic exhibitions that change annually," says John Brennan of the Park Hotel, who is one of the mad big thinkers behind the scheme. "A stunning architectural design by Niall McLoughlin is planned for a majestic sight overlooking Kenmare Bay."

The kind of arts people who support it include Moya Doherty, Joe Dowling and Philip King among others. The idea would be basically that, instead of just taking travelling exhibitions from around the world the CCIC would use Ireland's own rich cultural heritage from Joyce to U2. As well as the exhibitions there would be shows and events throughout the year. The fact that the exhibitions would change every year would also mean repeat tourism.

Ultimately it would seem that what they are recognising in Kenmare is that while lovely, mist-soaked scenery was enough for a previous generation of Yanks, it's not enough anymore. People need things to do when they come to Ireland. They love us and our country and our food but they need tourist attractions.

Things like the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the even the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin show that if you build it, they will come and that man-made tourist attractions can transform a city's tourism prospects.

The CCIC is quite an inspirational notion. It makes you think that perhaps we should build for a few more things while we have so many skilled young men with time on their hands, young men that we have on the payroll anyway. Why doesn't Ireland have a theme park, for example? We might look down our noses at them but it would probably encourage a lot more people to bring their kids here. And God knows what other great ideas are out there that would cost what we now know are paltry sums like €12m.

The past seems to hang over us a lot these days, and we are very wedded it to it. But, you know, the future will do a lot more for us than the past will. And if we don't shake ourselves up for it soon, it'll be here and we won't be ready for it. We'll still be wallowing in bed indulging ourselves in remorse for the awful things we did in the boom.

Sunday Independent

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