We have a fat economy, but our society looks distinctly anorexic

I’m not quite sure what the official date of birth of the Celtic Tiger was, but in my own mind I perceived the really visible beginnings of economic growth around 1996. It was around that time that house prices began to lift off, albeit at a much slower rate than what we have seen in more recent years.

It seems appropriate now, at the end of 2006, to take stock of where the Celtic Tiger has taken us over these remarkable 10 years.

Of course it has given us much of which we can be proud. We have cultural and recreational opportunities open to us now we never thought imaginable; many people who bought houses 10 years ago are property millionaires; the scourges of emigration and unemployment have been effectively eradicated and the public finances have continued to grow.

These are wonderful achievements in the economic sphere, and they are not to be sniffed at. But it seems hard to point towards equivalent cultural and social achievements of which we can be proud. Our hospitals are in a mess; traffic continues to inch along; violent crime is on the up; families are under pressure; volunteerism and civic engagement are in decline and we seem less welcoming than we once were, not out of meanness but just because we are so busy.

Ireland is a great country with a lot to offer, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that, despite all the gains, we have lost something in the years of economic boom. The public finances are hale and hearty, but our communities and civic culture look distinctly anorexic in comparison.

We have an economy, but do we have a society any more?

Many of these questions revolve around the idea of social capital — the notion that it is the strength of relationships between people that indicates the health of a community.

It is an idea that Bertie Ahern is very fond of, so much so he has in the past invited Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor and leading thinker in the field, to speak on the subject at a number of Fianna Fáil strategic think-ins.

Archbishop Seán Brady touched on some of these issues earlier this week when he criticised the increased coarseness and aggression of public culture. Who can honestly doubt there is some truth in his words? It is naive to imagine some past mythical Ireland where we were poor but happy, living in a country without social problems — but it is equally naive to deny the obvious public coarsening of the last decade. It is likely the archbishop’s comments will be remembered more for his reference to the coarsening effect of Podge and Rodge on the culture than anything else. It’s hard to deny he has a point.

Podge and Rodge exert a subtle, hard-to- measure influence on our culture.

The acceptability of their programme on mainstream television sends a signal about what is now normative and acceptable in public conversation.

Now that’s not to say that they should be banned or censored. Podge and Rodge, admittedly, are very funny at times and it is hard not to chuckle guiltily at some of their outrageousness.

But a bishop-bashing Podge and Rodge is an easy target for certain columnists and radio presenters, and these days a belt of the radio microphone stings a lot more than a belt of the crozier. Whatever the criticism of the archbishop’s comments, he has raised a point worthy of debate.

But reducing the archbishop’s recent interview to a soundbite about Podge and Rodge would be to miss the two most important concepts he floated, namely the need for a central place for religious practice in our culture and about contemporary fears around making serious life commitments, presumably in family settings.

Religion and the family are two spheres of life where people tend to have rather entrenched positions. They can represent no- go areas in public discourse either because of ideological hang-ups or because of a misplaced fear that talk about these issues will be offensive to others.

The latter concern is at least understandable when it touches on the issue of the ideal family form, but it should not prevent us from asking honest questions and seeking answers in the available evidence.

And in the context of the social problems we see around us on the 10th birthday of the Celtic Tiger, the honest question is this: is there any evidence that serious life commitments (specifically marriage) and religious practice contribute to a strengthening of social capital and consequently strengthen the health of our communities?

Should these issues play a central role in our social policy?

The available evidence, most of which comes from international sources, shows that intact married families with regular religious practice provide the best protections for children against a whole range of problems, from crime to drugs and alcohol to teen sex.

Social capital is a complex and multi-faceted concept. The notion of religious practice and its social benefits is absolutely outside the competence of social policy, and the State’s only role in this regard is to guarantee basic freedom of religion for all. Promoting the benefits of religious practice is a task that falls to the various religious groups and it is one they must not shirk.

But the issue of family structure is fundamentally one for social policy and it has long-term implications for social capital. On this matter there can be no hint of moralising or judging others in any way. The point is absolutely not that parents from non-intact homes are doing a bad job, or that their children will ultimately fail to perform as well as others, or that if they do encounter problems it is the parent’s fault. On the contrary, many parents in these circumstances do a heroic job and raise excellent children.

But that job is heroic precisely because of the odds that often have to be surmounted in the process.

Some argue that all kinds of family deserve equal support, but it is probably more appropriate to say people in all kinds of families deserve support. There is a subtle, but important, difference.

Internationally, intact marriage (not cohabitation) tends on average to provide the best outcomes for children and adults. Ignoring the evidence will not change the reality.

But that is precisely the stance the Government seems intent on taking with the suggestions earlier this month that many of the benefits of marriage should be extended to cohabiting couples. This may be well meaning and understandable given the current normative nature of cohabitation. But the expanding research base indicates it is bad social policy.

It also appears to be almost impossible to extend these rights without further weakening the concept of marriage itself.

Our reluctance to learn from the accumulated experience of other countries is often the cause of our own subsequent mistakes.

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