It could be because the Chinese deputy premier looked cute in pictures with a calf. It could be because the troika are patting Paddy on the head for being a good little lad. It could be because the Italian prime minister went the full Monti with our Enda and told him Ireland is a model for Italy, so it is. It could be because the daffodils are doing their decorous thing, the sun is warm on our shoulders and the birds are letting rip, early and late.
It’s none of the above and all of the above. And, of course, as dear Bill Clinton would point out, it depends on your definition of what “it” is. “It”, I would propose, is the odd sense of half-abandoned semi-optimism pervading the nation.
It’s only semi-optimism, because negative equity doesn’t evaporate in the face of even the most determined positive thinking. It’s there, though. When the history of the recession is written, these couple of weeks will figure as the point at which Ireland got its mojo back.
And, much as the Government might like to claim the whole kit and kaboodle as consequent upon them implementing the Programme for Government, that’s simply not the case. Everybody who never read it loved the Programme of Government until aspects of it bit them personally in their septic tank. We’re all for tough decisions as long as they apply to someone else.
Nor is it due to the fact that the IMF, the troika and international financial media have given us a standing ovation. The higher the level of the overseas figure who compliments us, the more we desire to tell them where to stick their compliment. For some reason, we are unimpressed by prime ministerial compliments, whereas if Germans recognise Jedward in the street, we get a warm all-over glow.
A key precursor to the current, almost tangible change in national mood is the length of time we’ve spent transfixed by the collapse, not only of where we’d got to, but where we thought we were going. We couldn’t get over it and we didn’t get over it.
It was a little bit like the account a friend tells of the moment she realised her elder son might have a problem beyond the tantrum-throwing with which children prevent family life from becoming pallid. He knocked over an open can of Coke and watched, horrified, as it hit the ground and vomited foamy brown stuff all over the kitchen floor. His horror extended to wordless tearful bellows which caused his mother to drop to her hunkers to hold him and explain that he wasn’t in trouble over the spill. His howling continued, unabated, prompting an outbreak of altruism on the part of his younger brother, who toddled over to the fridge, returning with an unopened can the child wordlessly extended to his older sibling: here’s a replacement to solve your thirst issue. The older boy rejected the proffered can with heavy losses and a light went off in his mother’s brain: he didn’t want Coke. He wanted his original Coke. Right back in its original can. Unspilled. Uh oh, she thought. Bit of expert advice needed here. A few weeks later, it was confirmed that the lad was on the autism spectrum.
Ireland showed a matching level of emotional rigidity when our economic can fell over. Half the economic and journalistic brains in the country produced books telling us how it fell over and who was to blame for it falling over, which was all very fascinating, but did tend to leave us looking at the spill and — even more importantly — training ourselves to believe that the good times before that spill were the norm: something that would and should have gone on forever, if bad bankers and rotten politicians hadn’t interfered.
The good times weren’t the norm. They were just a phase. Time to learn the rules of the next phase. But no, we were stuck with the horror of the spill and wanting to get it back in the can. Nothing would persuade us away from the froth on the floor. Not even Bill Clinton announcing he had faith in us.
That’s an unrecognised aspect of public communication; how co-incident, rather than causative, it can be. You can have the best-crafted, best articulated thoughts in the world, and if your listeners are not ready to be interested, your speechifying will be at best entertaining, at worst infuriating. It certainly won’t be “sticky”, because it can’t scratch an itch people don’t yet have.
Governments, of course, always blame media for the public mood, with members of the current Cabinet in recent times uttering rebukes to the effect that some radio stations have been delivering a dirge from morning to night. Which is always taken by media as unwarranted intrusion leading to a digging in of heels and more enthusiastic dirge-delivery.
In very recent days, dirge-delivery has begun to ebb. Matt Cooper, for example, is now hosting a weekly discussion with Maureen Gaffney on how to flourish as a human being rather than get locked into the whinge-box. Government may believe they caused those changes. Sorry, lads, it ain’t so. It’s a much simpler phenomenon in action. Boredom. Dr Franz Ingelfinger pointed out 30 years ago that 85% of all ailments are self-limiting. Including dismay. In other words, we can get used to anything, even diminished expectations, and after a period of time, we get fed up admiring the wreckage. George Orwell, commenting on the austerity years after the Second World War, put his finger on it.
“Everyone wants, above all things, a rest,” he said.
ONCE broadcasters get the almost subliminal sense that listeners wanted a rest from the anger over the economic spill, they began to change. Not because a Government told them to. Not even because of research. But because thebroadcasters (or at least some of them) have a nose for the emotional elements in the national mix akin to the exquisite olfactory capacity of trained drug-and-explosive dogs who can detect a few particles per billion of a substance in the ambient air. Broadcasters have been picking up a few particles of optimism in the last few weeks.
Those particles of optimism can never be traced to an individual policy, statement, statistic or broadcast. They are generated by the chemistry of chaos and are inexplicable by reason. A bit like the process by which George Soros became a billionaire, one of the most successful investors in the history of the world, and a major-league fibber, according to his son, who rubbishes the theories advanced by Soros Senior to explain his investment decisions.
“I remember seeing it as a kid and thinking ‘at least half of this is bull’,” says the son. “The reason he changes his position on the market is because his back starts killing him. It’s this early warning sign…”
We’re on the turnaround, at least in terms of national mood. Smiley faces everywhere? No. But a still, small sense of possibility.