The man who foresaw our decline and fall needs to get back on track

I WAS listening to David McWilliams on Ryan Tubridy’s radio show the other day.

Fine fellow, that David McWilliams. Always full of interesting ideas and good catchphrases.

Anyway, as far as I could tell, he was promoting a conference due to be held in Dublin Castle next month. It’s his idea, apparently, and it’s going to bring together a lot of Irish people who have made it abroad.

Their energy and their creativity are going to help us to get off our own backsides and start tackling the problems we have. It wasn’t all that clear who’s coming to the conference – Chad Hurley, the founder of YouTube and definitely someone with an Irish surname, was mentioned — but they’re all going to bring fresh thinking.

Our interaction with them is going to create a real buzz. And who knows — apart from new ideas and new ways of looking at the world, they may decide to invest something in the ould sod.

Now, I have to say this seems to me like a pretty good idea, and David McWilliams is getting a lot of support and help from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, and his department.

In fact, McWilliams has been enormously impressed, he told us, with the professionalism of the Department of Foreign Affairs. It may not have been their idea, but that didn’t stop them getting involved with real gusto and enthusiasm.

Oddly enough, of course, it’s not the first time someone has had an idea like that. The Department of Foreign Affairs was very heavily involved in developing the highly successful Washington investment conference in the mid-1990s.

The purpose of that conference was, believe it or not, to interest Irish people who had been hugely successful in America in investing in the island of Ireland at a time when the peace process was beginning to hold out real promise of a new dynamic. So I’m guessing the department will know how to make a success of this conference.

If it works, and I hope it will, the conference will make a decent contribution at the very least to national morale. At best, it could kick-start a whole new approach to entrepreneurship in Ireland, and that would be fantastic.

But what struck me as a little odd about the interview was that in the middle of it, Tubridy asked McWilliams “what about the naysayers? What are you going to do about them?”

“Ah sure,” he replied (I’m paraphrasing now because I didn’t write down his exact words), there are always naysayers and begrudgers in Ireland. If you listened to them you’d never get anywhere. Just ignore the naysayers would be my advice, and get on with the job.”

Tubridy actually felt a little more strongly than McWilliams on the matter. Anyone who didn’t agree with McWilliams’s “fantastic” idea was only a begudger, and Tubridy knew what needed to be said to begrudgers. Unfortunately, he said it involved phraseology that couldn’t be used on early morning radio.

What a strange and mysterious exchange that was. First of all, nothing in the interview had suggested that anyone was actually opposed to the conference.

As far as one could tell, everyone who had been asked to get behind the idea had done so immediately, with a heart and half. The Taoiseach was sending out letters of invitation, the entire State apparatus was being mobilised to ensure everything went smoothly, and the whole thing was, in McWilliams’s words, a joy to be involved in.

So who are the naysayers? And secondly, isn’t David McWilliams the very same fellow who spent years warning us that the Celtic Tiger (a phrase he invented himself) could only end in tears?

Was he not one of the very people whom Bertie Ahern once advised to go and “commit suicide” because he (Bertie, that is), was fed up listening to all the negativity?

In other words, has McWilliams not made something of a career out of being a professional naysayer himself? And more power to his elbow, I say. It was sad and dispiriting to hear an independent and fresh thinker like him being so dismissive of anyone who might have a contrary view, and all the more so because his own contrariness (if that’s a word) has been a national asset over the years.

I wouldn’t always agree with him, by any means, but he has always tried to inject something different into public debate and discourse. I suspect in his enthusiasm for this new project, he has found himself just a bit prickly about the sort of criticism he has dished out in the past (even though there hasn’t been any).

I don’t want to sound too high and mighty about what was, after all, a fairly trivial exchange in the course of an interview. But I actually believe there are times when we all have a duty to be naysayers or begrudgers.

If you genuinely believe that public policy is wrong or unfair, or that the outcomes are going to be disastrous, you don’t just have a right to say so — you have a duty.

You can take stick for it, as David McWilliams and others have in the past, and you can sometimes feel you’re in a tiny and unpopular minority, but that’s not the point. No democracy works if everyone refuses to tolerate criticism on the one hand, or to voice it on the other.

There’s an awful lot wrong in this country right now. As good an idea as an international conference is, it’s not going to fix our major problems. It’s not going to reverse the property bubble.

It’s not going to inject the sense of fairness that is so fundamentally lacking in many of the major public policy decisions. It’s not going to reform the delivery of public services in ways that make them more efficient as well as responsive to real need. If we’re not allowed to debate these things, without being dismissed as begrudgers or naysayers, we’re all in deep trouble.

THERE has always been a tendency in Ireland to use language and labels that make people afraid to speak out. Over recent years, “left-wing pinko” was one favoured term of abuse (especially favoured by former Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy).

On another memorable occasion, critics were dismissed by Bertie Ahern as “creeping Jesus’s”. The former leader of the Progressive Democrats, Michael McDowell, once said that anyone who expressed a doubt about the direction of public policy was guilty of “middle-class self-loathing masquerading as moral superiority”.

The odd thing was that the left-wing pinkos and the creeping Jesus’s got it right. The era of reckless tax breaks and pumped-up public spending had its own inbuilt self-destruct button, and we’re all now paying the price for that. And we will be for years to come.

If we’re not going to make a complete hames of the recovery, we urgently need the likes of David McWilliams back in his critic’s role, making sure the politicians take notice. So good luck with that conference, David — I hope it’s a great success. And when it’s over, get back over here with the rest of us naysayers. We need you.

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