Saturday 19 January 2019

Dan O'Brien: Upwardly mobile Ireland sees the bright side in 2017

Despite much angry noise, this nation is a happier place than most of our peer countries, writes Dan O'Brien

OLE OLE: The Irish fans called it first — Ireland’s doing well, economically at least.
OLE OLE: The Irish fans called it first — Ireland’s doing well, economically at least.
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Angry venting is a vice of our age. Social media has given cranks and ranters a platform to do in public what they once did in private, or attempted to do at the end of a bar before being told where to go by those trying to enjoy a quiet drink. Much of the comment is shrill and unmeasured: the intemperate care little about facts and evidence.

This is a feature of the collective consciousness in the western world right now. Ireland is no different. But what marks public discourse out in this country are comments such as "only in Ireland" or "Ireland must be the worst country in the world for…"

When discussing problems such as homelessness and inadequacies in the health service, there is a tendency among the angry brigade to portray Ireland's failings as uniquely bad. One might get the impression from some of their comments that such problems do not exist at all elsewhere. Even more cerebral commentators have described Ireland as a "failed state", a description usually reserved for benighted places such as Afghanistan and Venezuela where the basic functions of government have broken down and violence is widespread.

If this represents a vestigial national inferiority complex, it does not reflect a widespread desire for radical change. Perhaps the most striking aspect (from an Irish perspective) of a Europe-wide poll published just before Christmas was how change in society should be brought about.

Irish respondents were the (joint) most cautious about radical reform among 28 countries. An overwhelming 80pc of people in Ireland believe that important changes in society should be achieved gradually 'even if that takes more time'. Just 16pc preferred acting quickly 'even if that means sometimes being radical'.

Does this suggest that we are a nation of conservative gradualists? The philosophical father of that political tradition - Edmund Burke - was, after all, an Irishman.

It may well do, but it could also reflect contentment with the status quo. It is worth noting that the other countries in which gradualism is most widely espoused and radical change eschewed are Sweden, Denmark and Finland. All are well-functioning. None is known for its conservatism or anti-reformism.

The Eurobarometer poll, which asked many questions about the nature of society and politics in every EU country in September and October, shows that the angry brigade on social media do not reflect most Irish people's views.

An astonishing 98pc of respondents in Ireland said they were happy living here. Only residents of Denmark, who have a reputation among their near neighbours for being somewhat smug, are happier where they are.

Many things account for a country's quality of life and the contentment of its people. The extent of one's life chances is of profound importance, not only for individual happiness but also for how people view others and their society more widely.

More meritocratic societies tend to be happier places in many ways. That was brought home to me as a twentysomething living in Italy and Spain when so many of my contemporaries seethed with anger and frustration about how limited they felt their chances of getting ahead were.

Not much has changed. The Eurobarometer poll asked people if, in their respective countries, "everyone has a chance to succeed in life". Spain has the smallest percentage in Europe which agreed, and Italy wasn't much better. That is how substantial majorities in both countries felt.

Ireland, by contrast, has the second highest proportion of respondents in Europe - more than seven in 10 - who believe that everyone has a chance to get ahead in life.

A mere 7pc of people strongly disagreed, one of the lowest shares among the 28 countries surveyed and far below the average across the continent.

This reflects a generally well-functioning meritocracy in Ireland. Although there is much that could be improved and Irish society is not as classless as is sometimes asserted, opportunities to get ahead are better than in most countries in Europe and far better than in most other places in the world.

The publication early in the year of the latest census showed just how upwardly mobile Ireland has been in recent decades. Unskilled and agricultural workers are the 'lowest' social class groupings categorised by census takers. In 1996, 350,000 people (including dependents) were in these two socio-economic groupings. They made up around one 10th of the population. As of last year just 3pc of people were in these social classes and their absolute number had halved.

There can be little doubt that Ireland's social mobility bolsters legitimacy in the political system. Here again, the Eurobarometer poll provides some fascinating insights, asking people if they feel their interests are taken into account by the political system.

A substantial majority of Irish respondents - 57pc - said that their personal interests were considered by the system. This put Ireland in seventh place among the 28 countries, which was well down on the best performers - Denmark, Sweden and Luxembourg - but substantially above the average, and well above those countries in which people feel most sidelined: Lithuania, Latvia and - again - Spain.

Given Ireland's electoral system, which gives voters an unusually high level of access to and influence over their elected representatives, and highish number of parliamentarians relative to population, one might have expected a better ranking.

Here it is worth raising the two distinctive kinds of political legitimacy scholars look at when considering the matter.

The first, which is well captured in the question above, is "input legitimacy", or the extent people feel the system is responsive to their needs and wants. The second is "output legitimacy", or the effectiveness of the system in delivering the functions it takes on, such as providing security, managing the economy and redistributing wealth.

None of the questions in the survey captures views on output legitimacy - but my hunch is that Ireland would rank considerably lower than seventh (among the 28) if one was included.

That is not to say that Ireland is a "failed State" or to deny pockets of excellence across the public sector, but in too many areas the efficiency of the State is not what it should be, given wealth and human capital levels along with a cohesive society.

State failings are often the subject of anger and venting in both mainstream and social media.

There may be excessive and inchoate negativity, but if shortcomings are not highlighted there is less chance that they will be addressed.

No country gets the balance quite right. Ireland certainly doesn't, something that those of us who have the privilege of writing columns for a living deserve our share of blame.

Further data from the Eurobarometer poll, along with graphics and comment, can be found on Twitter at @danobrien20

Sunday Independent

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