Over seven years writing in these pages, so much has changed – for Ireland and the world.
Among the most striking changes has been the rise of anger in politics and among voters. This has been driven by a growing desire for things to be done differently – an almost universal demand of big chunks of electorates in western countries and beyond.
It was much in evidence in last February’s general election and it transformed Irish politics – now that the Civil War parties which dominated for almost a century are in coalition, things can probably never go back to the duopolistic way they used to be.
What’s driving this anger and desire for change? A debate is raging internationally on this very question.
For some, it is a reaction to too much change. An increasingly globalised world has led to a sense that voters are no longer in control.
Elections have become irrelevant, this argument goes, because the same policies are pursued regardless of who is office. Many people believe that global forces and international elites, not their votes, determine how their lives are lived. A desire “to take back control” has led to political shocks that this column has discussed so often over the past seven years.
An alternative explanation for these political shocks is economic change and greater insecurity. This explanation is not entirely incompatible with the first, but it is primarily focused on material standards of living.
Across most of the western world, economic growth has slowed from the decades of boom after WWII. Secure manufacturing jobs have disappeared. It is argued - not convincingly, in my view - that decent jobs have been replaced by precarious ones in the services sector. This economics-focused explanation for the shift to the political extremes also places great emphasis on how economic changes have caused greater inequality in incomes.
Ireland’s experience is important in the wider international debate. Our economic fortunes have been exactly the reverse of most peer countries – a long, grim post-war period, followed by the strongest economic growth in the western world over the past quarter of century (and that’s true even when the property crash is factored in).
Irish household incomes have grown strongly in recent decades and, as Tuesday’s official income equality figures showed, money was never as evenly spread in Ireland as it was in 2019. Add to this the quality of jobs, which has improved over time as educational attainment in Ireland’s workforce has risen to become the highest in Europe. Despite all these achievements, and the stark difference with so many other countries, it is striking that the tone and tenor of Irish politics is in sync with the angry dystopianism across the western world.
This suggests that ideas, fashions and fads from the rest of the world are as important, if not more important in a country’s politics, than facts on the ground.
That is particularly true for smaller countries, which tend to be ideas-takers. It is probably becoming truer all the time given how connected people are to non-national networks of various kinds on-line.
How the underlying mood in Ireland and across the western world changes in response to Covid remains unclear. But the severe economic dislocation and increase in inequality it will cause is more likely to accelerate the trend towards the political extremes than to reverse it.
The power of ideas, and how mindsets have changed over the past seven years, is also illustrated by two other issues that have stormed up the agenda internationally and in Ireland: gender equality and climate change.
Both give reason for hope.
Seven years ago it was commonplace to see only men discussing matters in public forums, and for that to go uncommented on. Now both are a rarity. It is to be hoped that in the not too distant future gender equality will be achieved and people will hardly notice the sex of ministers, experts, celebrities and broadcasters, just as today peoples’ age is not commented on in public life because it is assumed that nobody is discriminated against solely on that basis.
There is also reason to be hopeful about climate change, awareness of which has surged over the past half decade or so. People, businesses, and governments are acting ever more urgently to address this slow-burn issue. Government measures, business decisions and behavioural changes should be enough to prevent major dislocation for swathes of the world’s population in the decades to come, and to limit other damage, such as species loss, in the meantime.
Much of the pressure to take climate change more seriously can be credited to the young. A new generation gap has clearly opened up on this issue, and on others. The last time a big generation gap opened up was in the 1960s.
The youth movement of that time wanted more freedom. ‘Anything goes’ was one of its clarion calls. Today’s youth movement is different. It can often be highly judgmental. Dissent or questioning is seen, in some quarters at least, as heretical. For anyone who is truly liberal, this is a concerning trend.
One feature of today’s youth is almost universal support for social liberalism. As someone who leans that way, I am more comfortable in today’s Ireland than I would have been when social conservatism dominated.
But it is not all good news. Social conservatives have every right to make their case and not be hounded and derided. Theirs is a valid viewpoint. I am convinced that many of today’s socially liberal virtue signalers would have been the socially conservative finger-pointers of the 1950s had they been alive at that time. All societies have their fair share of people who unthinkingly join the mob. Time and again, we in Ireland have shown ourselves to be particularly vulnerable to groupthink.
If groupthink deepens its grip on society, and if our politics takes a dark turn in the times to come, Ireland will not be nearly as a good a place in which to live as it has been over the past three decades or so.
But the country will come through whatever the future throws up. We are a people of common decency and underlying moderation.
Though mid-20th century Ireland looks like a bleak place from the vantage point of 2020, it should always be remembered that the political extremes of that period never took hold here, as they did in so many of our neighbours.
That is something we can always take some quiet pride in. It can also offer some reassurance for the difficult times ahead.
:: It has been a pleasure to work – always remotely – with so many people across Independent newspapers over the past seven years. I wish them well. Most of all, in this final weekly column, thanks to Irish Independent readers for reading, and for their thoughts, feedback and constructive criticism over the years.