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Saturday, September 05, 2009
WATCHING this week’s RTÉ programme on the beginning of the Troubles in 1969, I was struck by the similarity of what happened then and what has been happening in the past year.
Are we on the brink of more strife? For most people the trouble started in October 1968 when a civil rights march was attacked by the RUC. The genie was out of the bottle and things got steadily worse. By August 1969 Taoiseach Jack Lynch was proclaiming we could not "stand by". But in reality he had no intention of getting involved.
It would have been crazy to try to intervene in the North militarily. If the Irish army had invaded the North, it would have been wiped out. To fight one needs either the vitality of hate, or a least the sense of defending one’s home. Our army would not have been defending their homes and they would not have had the vitality of hate.
Few people in the Republic realised or understood the kind of sectarian hatred that existed in Northern Ireland. The Irish army would not have known what hit them. They would not have been able to tell unionists from republicans in the North.
Some foreigner writer trying to explain what was happening in Northern Ireland mentioned that you could distinguish people by their names. Going back to the Battle of the Boyne, the author suggested that Protestants used the name William or a derivative of it, while Catholics did the same with James. Ironically during the troubles, William Conway was the Catholic cardinal and James Molyneux was the unionist leader. So much for that little theory! Most people in the South did not understand the North any more than foreigners did.
When it comes to the current economic problems, our Government seems to be operating in the same kind of fog as its predecessor was in 1969. For the past year the Government has been standing idly by, doing little but blathering. Nobody should be surprised because when times were good they did not have the vision to capitalise on them. Instead, they messed up our prosperity. If he had foreseen the coming economic troubles while he was finance minister, Brian Cowen admitted last week that he would have cut spending. He also said the Government might not have increased the VAT rate from 21% to 21.5% in the budget last October if they had known that the British chancellor of the exchequer was about to lower VAT. Increasing VAT here was a "serious mistake," according to Finance Minister Brian Lenihan. "It was a mistake and the wrong thing to do," he said in March. "We have lost €700m in revenue going to the North." It didn’t work but they tried, some might say.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt’s remedy in the United States was to act. "It is commonsense to take a method and try it," he said. "If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all try something."
Instead of trying something else when the VAT increase backfired here, the Government has kept on doing the same thing. The mistake has still not been rectified. This Government has neither foresight nor hindsight. Its idea of trying to do something seems to be to try the patience of the people.
The latest public opinion poll would seem to suggest that people have become exasperated. With hindsight it is easy to recognise the mistakes that were made, but what was going to happen should have been apparent to anyone with any foresight.
"A majority of people may think the Government is doing a good job," I wrote in this column on December 22, 1999, "but in reality this is probably the worst government we have had since the Gubu administration of 1982, which was the worst government in the history of the state."
At least we got rid of Haughey’s Gubu government within a matter of months, whereas the current Fianna Fáil crowd have been around for almost another decade, which is perilously too long. It is much more unpopular than Haughey’s government was, even at the height of the Gubus.
In the past couple of years Fianna Fáil’s popularity has plummeted to an unprecedented degree, and only 17% now approve the Government’s performance. At the current rate of decline, the independents could be more popular by Christmas.
The Government has failed dismally to provide leadership, which requires that they lead by example. In good times they splurged recklessly; now in hard times they are advocating that everybody should cut back while they continue to pay themselves exorbitant unvouched expenses that really amount to a tax-free supplement to their already-generous incomes.
They have been talking about NAMA now for almost a year. Most people do not understand how NAMA is supposed to function, but what is even more worrying is that the Government still does not seem to know either. Anyway, how could anyone have confidence in this crowd to have the vision to get something of this magnitude right when they have got so many other things so badly wrong. When the Troubles began in the North in the late 1960s few people would have predicted more than over two decades of trouble and strife ahead. Violence tends to have a momentum of its own that it very difficult to stop once it takes root, and we should be mindful of the dangers because we could be close to a major upheaval.
There was a health report this week about the increase in drug problems. Between 2002 and 2007 there was a 31% increase in the number of people presenting themselves for treatment for opiate addiction. This problem is increasing like property prices inflated in the past 20 years.
When Veronica Guerin was murdered the heroin problem was still largely confined to Dublin. Fianna Fáil berated Nora Owen as Minister for Justice and promised a regime of zero tolerance.
THE first known heroine addict in Tralee was convicted in 1998 of murdering a young woman. He is currently in jail serving a life sentence, but now figures suggest that there are around 100 heroine users in the town.
With the Rose of Tralee festival coming up the spotlight was put on social unrest in Tralee, but it is no worse than many other provincial towns in the country. Therein lies a real problem.
Having failed so dismally to lead by example, there could be serious unrest when the Government does finally cut back on spending. There will probably be street protests, which might easily be exploited by criminal elements for their own purposes.
There seems to be something about momentous events and years ending with the number nine. In 1789 the French Revolution began. In 1829 there was Catholic Emancipation, and the War of Independence started in 1919, while the Second World War erupted in 1939, the Republic was proclaimed in 1949, Seán Lemass came to power in 1959, all hell broke lose in the North in 1969, Charlie Haughey came to power in 1979, while 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the PDs — of all people — came to Charlie Haughey’s rescue.
What will 2009 be remembered for?
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