Wednesday 16 January 2019

Ivan Yates: 'A century on from historic vote, State has enjoyed huge progress'

Loaded with history: Minister Josepha Madigan with curator Sinead McCoole at the pop-up museum ‘Women in Politics and Public Life from 1918 to 2018’ in Dublin Castle. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Loaded with history: Minister Josepha Madigan with curator Sinead McCoole at the pop-up museum ‘Women in Politics and Public Life from 1918 to 2018’ in Dublin Castle. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

Yesterday marked the centenary of a date of destiny for Irish democracy. The 1918 Westminster general election across Ireland delivered 67pc of votes for independence from Britain, electing 73 Sinn Féin MPs, who would go on to establish the first Dáil within weeks, in the Mansion House.

It's fitting therefore to assess our performance over that century, from fledgling state to the Ireland of 2018.

It would be reassuring to believe we are not repeating past errors or losing sight of the best of our Irishness, but it pays to be honest.

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So what would the founding fathers have made of the Republic of Ireland today?

Because both Fianna Fáil and eventually Fine Gael spawned from Sinn Féin, there's a tendency to airbrush the pivotal roles of Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Constance Markievicz and Éamon de Valera while Sinn Féin public representatives. History is written by winners, but academic historians are best qualified to explain contemporary contexts.

Today's media coverage of politics is conducted on a highly competitive basis. News and analysis costs money - journalists, researchers, editors and producers have to be paid, ultimately by advertisers and you, dear reader.

Ratings and newspaper sales matter. They're the media's lifeblood. So content can't be bland or boring. Journalism and broadcasting are built on controversy and conflict, so critical comments are far more likely to be noticed than dreary consensus. Panel discussions without clashing viewpoints are a turn-off. The torrent of critical commentary drives a narrative of negativity that's not reflective of the strides in progress our nation has made over a century.

Any fair-minded evaluation would overwhelmingly conclude that Ireland Inc, despite its small population and peripheral location, has punched way beyond its weight and reach.

Countries with greater scale, natural resources and macro-economic advantages have to give us a grudging respect. Even discounting our GDP per capita being falsely inflated by multinational balance sheets, we've over-achieved.

The centre for Economics and Business Research (London) ranks us 33rd out of 192 states, and 14th out of 37 European states. The bedrock of this growth is an underlying pro-enterprise, market economy philosophy. Embracing the fundamentals of competitiveness and regulatory and labour market flexibility has been a hallmark since Seán Lemass's era.

We can be proud of a secular modernisation that asserts the public interest through State rather than Church control. Fostering tolerant approaches to marital breakdown, same-sex marriage equality, birth control and crisis pregnancies has made us comfortable in the 21st century.

It is a much changed country since Garret FitzGerald led the charge for a constitutional crusade in the 1980s.

EU membership, since 1973, has defined our law-making, political identity, currency and trade frameworks.

Post-Brexit, it will also definitively mark us apart from Britain, despite our common cultures and language.

Strategic positioning within the EU has boosted US investment in Ireland, which by 2014 stood at $310bn. This exceeds the total invested in Latin America, Central America and the Middle East. This makes Ireland the optimal transatlantic hub for EU/US commerce.

The transformation of the working environment has been remarkable - unimaginable back in December 1918.

Since then, direct agricultural employment has declined from over one million people to fewer than 200,000 - a drop of 80pc.

If we had relied solely on our natural resources, we'd be goosed. Pharmaceuticals, tech giants and financial services are now the wealth-creating backbone of 1.7 million private sector jobs, and a national output of €294bn.

This performance does not mean we've attained our full potential. At critical stages of our development, we've been blighted by the short-term politics of boom-to-bust irresponsibility.

Parties and voters have gorged on wastefully competitive giveaway budgets. Think Jack Lynch in 1977. Or the Celtic Tiger bubbles of unsustainable credit and runaway public expenditure. Our bailout in 2010 was the most ignominious low point.

New challenges are coming over the hill. Artificial Intelligence is expected to wipe out 30pc of jobs. Post-Brexit, the EU will insist on tax harmonisation to neutralise our economic incentives.

The internet will wreak havoc in service sectors, especially high-street retail, just as agricultural mechanisation did for farm labourers.

Increased life expectancy dramatically threatens our public finances through uncosted and unfunded pensions, housing and health care.

Inequality and poverty measurements are perpetually changing and relative.

Progress on gender equality in the workplace is an ongoing challenge, but clearly attainable, given parity for those exiting the education system.

Our landscape of infrastructural development has been transformative in urban Ireland, particularly over the last three decades.

The national road network (originally EU-funded) and city development can host an increased population of 600,000 over the next 12 years. This compares with intergenerational emigration and static population from 1926 to 1979.

Despite our tireless bitching and cribbing, criticising all and sundry, we've exceeded the wildest ambitions of the nationalism espoused by 1918 general election candidates.

Notwithstanding the continuing partition on the island, our country is a republic of opportunity that many migrants want to join.

The nation's collective progress isn't attributable to any one politician, rather the totality of politics and public service. In fact, probably our highest accolades should acknowledge the evolving standards of ethics, experience and abilities of senior civil servants.

Maybe once every 100 years, we can cut ourselves a little slack.

Rest assured, normal disapproving bloody-mindedness will return when the centenary genuflections for our first Dáil are complete.

Irish Independent

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