Imagining and creating a prosperous economy and society

What does the future hold for Ireland?

Asking this question in 1914 might have elicited different replies.

For certain, nobody could have predicted the shape and state of Ireland in 1924 — culturally, politically, and in terms of economics.

Then, nobody could have predicted the state of Europe in 1924 following the most terrible of wars and a series of revolutions.

Were we to pose the same question in the late 1980s about the coming three decades, who could have predicted the rise and fall and recovery of the Celtic Tiger?

What fantasist might have drawn a picture of daily life on a train or bus in Ireland with almost everyone glued to a little gadget with powers

of instant communication to family members in Australia, real-time banking, and streaming of music and videos?

Who would have predicted the outbreak of relative peace in Northern Ireland to be followed by the emergence of a new power-sharing administration with the most curious of bedfellows? And the fall of the Berlin Wall, the global rise of forms of religious-political identity, Brexit, US president Donald Trump, and much more besides?

There is much that remains unknown or unknowable.

No economist could have predicted the report showing a jump of over 25% in Ireland’s GDP in 2015 when the CSO revised and published its final estimates last July.

Neither can anyone foresee the final impact of Brexit, which has not happened yet.

Like the impact of the French Revolution in 1789, it is too early to say yet.

There seems to be little point in trying to predict the future even beyond the next turn of political drama in the Middle East, Europe, or North America, never mind the possible political make-up of future administrations in the North and the Republic.

However, we do need to imagine different possibilities, options, and outcomes.

Economists and political scientists are very good at predicting the past from known models of known data where outcomes and determining factors can be analysed to the 100th degree.

We have been less successful at predicting the future because the complex ecological, social, and human environments in which we live do not work as machines or laboratories.

Instead, we need to infer from emerging trends and possibilities the likely effects of current behaviour and institutional patterns.

Because we cannot predict the future, we do not have the luxury of not seeking to shape future outcomes and events by means of wise policies.

Political economy has a role and a duty to assist but never to dominate the discussion.

Wise and urgent action is needed over the coming decade, which might encompass approximately two-and-a-half electoral cycles, to reshape policy in vital areas of human wellbeing and social progress.

These areas include income from work, where the impact of demography and technology will continue to have huge impacts and where we need to boost employment participation, raise skills, transform company cultures, and ensure decent jobs that pay and reward ability.

It includes public services where we need to undertake a root-and-branch reform of the way we fund, organise, and deliver community care, education, training, healthcare, public housing, as well as other areas.

It will also involve developing a strong, competitive, export-orientated, and innovative enterprise sector when some multinationals have flown and not been replaced, as seems likely.

It will require a fundamental and measurable shift in patterns of production, consumption, and behaviour in the direction of securing a zero-carbon footprint.

Can we imagine and work for an Ireland where there is significantly greater social and economic equality and where no child, family, or worker lives in material deprivation or in a state of homelessness?

Now, I leave George Bernard Shaw a great Irish playwright, critic, and polemicist, to ask: “You see things; and you say ‘why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘why not?’ ”

If it should come to pass that Ireland were to become such a beacon of prosperity, fairness, tolerance, and vindication of human rights that an overwhelming majority of citizens in both parts of the island wanted to move towards some form of political unity with close and “Scandinavian ties” to our sister island, then, as Charles Stewart Parnell, the ‘uncrowned king of Ireland’, said in a speech in Cork in 1885: “While we leave those things to time, circumstances, and the future, we must each one of us resolve in our own hearts that we shall at all times do everything which within us lies to obtain Ireland the fullest measure of her rights.”

Tom Healy is director of the Nevin Economic Research Institute

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