THE central truth to hold onto -- the roof strap on the crowded commuter-train as it leaves the tracks and ploughs through Madsville -- is that almost everything you see is of a piece.
Virtually no act of lunacy or inertia or stupidity that is now being enacted on the stage of public life of Ireland is entirely disconnected from other deeds, other omissions, other delinquencies.
Within a single week, we saw the job of Irish commissioner being given to a Fianna Fail has-been whom most of us had forgotten existed; we had a nationwide display of infantile hysteria over a mere soccer match, even affecting national government policy; four more people died on a stretch of road which has been a butchering-ground for years, the ESB opened its dams without warning and flooded the city of Cork, and today the entire public sector withdraws its services -- that is, in those areas that remain above flood-level.
Where to begin to describe this madness? The soccer, curiously, is as good as any; for the repeated failure of Ireland to produce a ruthless striker over the generations is symptomatic of the broader culture that bedevils Irish life. A striker must be brave. He must scorn the consensus and its fears of failure: he must take on the responsibility that others shirk. He must train ferociously hard to refine those solitary skills that he will need for no more than four or five seconds in an entire match.
When did Ireland last produce a striker who was in the top five scorers in the English first division or Premiership? When did the culture of our working-class housing estates ever encourage the ruthless individualism, the reckless bravado, the lonely courage of the maverick striker of the kind that would have wrapped up the French match as it should have been within the first hour? The truth is that Irish people are made deeply uncomfortable by the perpetual outsider, the man who scorns the reassurance of the consensus, who seeks personal glory with the single ruthless, selfish, egotistical act of scoring goals. We have no Thierry Henrys because we do not cherish the values that make his arrogance possible.
No, we prefer consensualist team-players. We reward conformists, and then invest them with qualities they never possessed. Thus almost every single recent profile of Maire Geoghegan-Quinn described her 1993 decision to decriminalise male homosexual acts as "brave". Rubbish. Under European law, she had no choice. Moreover, for 15 years she had been a leading figure in a Fianna Fail party that had defended the old laws against David Norris's lonely campaign for reform. Moreover, her repeal of the homosexual laws was cynically packaged with freshly punitive laws on prostitution designed to keep the craw-thumping, busybody punishment-freaks happy. Not merely would girls who sold their sexual wares on the streets still be liable to criminal prosecution, with new and harsher fines, so now would their clients.
The sound of shovels disinterring Maire Geoghegan-Quinn's political career reminded us of that other and even more pertinacious tradition: Fianna Fail cronyism. In all my gullible witlessness, I had genuinely thought that with the national crisis intensifying into a catastrophe the party might actually look outside its ranks to nominate a European Commissioner. For this would reassure us all that it did not simply look on the Irish state rather as a fat baby cuckoo regards its frantically striving foster-parents. Wrong again.
Next came a new nadir in the already melancholy domestic history of political populism when the Government sought to reverse the result of a soccer match. Yes, a cabinet minister degraded both himself and his country by asking President Sarkozy to overrule the result of Wednesday's match as if the French president were Caligula; sporting laws do not exist, and the only thing that counts is the mob.
Meanwhile, the failure of yet another government body to meet the most rudimentary obligations was excruciatingly revealed. The National Roads Authority, which has managed to build only about 300 kilometres of true motorway in over 15 years, had failed to impose control-zone limitations on a lethal stretch of road in Galway despite the repeated pleas of locals. Last week, in a single crash, the road claimed the lives of four young women.
The journey through Madsville continues today, with a general strike by the public service, just a fortnight after the revelations about the "sickness" levels of those on the government payroll.
In 2007, three-quarters of all clerical officers took sick leave, with the average for female civil servants being 14 days, yes FOURTEEN DAYS, per year. Meanwhile, the 100,000 employees of the HSE nearly matched the girls' figure, on average taking 100,000 days sick leave a month.
And so today, as the public sector unions lead their members in a national stoppage in protest against the very state which allows them almost uncounted sick days and rewards them upon retirement with vast, tax-free golden handshakes, largely paid for by a private sector that can only dream of such largesse, the only real question remaining is: "What Next? Dear God, what next?"