Michael Clifford: Not everyone’s sitting at top table, Leo

Leo Varadkar believes he and his colleagues should be celebrated for their politics and patriotism.

Michael Clifford: Not everyone’s sitting at top table, Leo

Leo Varadkar believes he and his colleagues should be celebrated for their politics and patriotism.

During the week he told the Dáil that Ireland was the third best country to live in, according to a new UN report.

The report is based on the Human Development Index, which is calculated by examining health, education and income on a national basis.

Norway came in first, Switzerland second. And then lil’ ole Ireland, former basket case, now up there at the top table of places to live.

By comparison, the UK came in at 15th and the USA at 16th. These were the two favoured destinations of generations of Irish people who fled poverty and lack of opportunity in this country for about 150 years, up until recent decades.

A few of the pointers towards a good, or at least fair-to-middling, life were among the stats in the UN report.

Life expectancy here is 82 years, 16th out of the 189 countries examined.

For education, Ireland ranked seventh and the state ranked 12th in terms of income, which was a gross average of €55,265.

The taoiseach expressed himself particularly pleased that the country had moved up the rankings from 17th place in 2012 to its current station.

He told the Dáil that he looked forward to the “Prime Time special on how exactly we moved up the rankings”.

Later, he tweeted: “No country is without its problems, but overall we’re doing pretty well.”

If he’s seeking out credit for the elevation of Ireland to third position since 2012, during which Fine Gael has been in government, he should consider the full picture of that narrative.

The rise quite obviously tracked the economy. In 2012, the country was just emerging from the worst economic collapse in 70 years.

Credit is due to government policy — both Fine Gael administrations and the one led by Brian Cowen — for steering the economy away from the rocks.

Things have most certainly got better since then for the majority of people, but at what cost?

The austerity which was deemed at the time to be necessary had a huge impact on many cohorts of society, but particularly those least able to bear it.

The economic recovery in those places has been slow and is coming from a base of devastation in some instances.

There has been little acknowledgement of how the burden of emerging from the bank - and - politics driven crash was disproportionately distributed.

There has also been little discussion as to whether the extent of austerity was necessary to get the country back on its feet.

The other thing that should cause Mr Varadkar to think, before patting himself on the back, is the deterioration of the housing challenges during his party’s tenure.

There were voices in 2011 and 2012 warning about what was coming down the line. A little imagination might have seen investment in house building given priority when the economy was still in the early stages of recovery.

Even since acknowledging the extent of the problem, many questions persist about the government’s response.

Is it being treated like an emergency, or an electoral issue to be surmounted? Are there ideological barriers to building more social housing.

Why isn’t more responsibility for the building taken by the state rather than leaving it, to a large extent, to developers?

Housing policy and actions do not directly form part of the Human Development Index but the issue is having a major impact on a huge chunk of the population.

The housing emergency will be front and centre at the next election, and perhaps that is why Mr Varadkar would prefer if everybody looked at the headline about Ireland’s place in the world rather than the specifics of how we got here, and who within the state has yet to arrive.

There is a bigger picture of Ireland’s rise through the rankings in which Mr Varadkar has a cameo rather than a leading role.

The report illustrates where the country has come from. Between 1970 and 2017, average income grew in this country by 182%.

This is far in excess of income growths in any other European, and most western, countries.

Effectively this country went, through those decades, from being an economic basket case to a wealthy state.

The opening up of the economy in the early 1960s quite obviously has a huge impact, as did the introduction of free second level education later in that decade.

The evolution of foreign direct investment has also been a boon, but one which requires constant vigilance.

Successive governments did pursue sensible policies that drove those improvements from a very low base.

But let’s not pretend that this was a question of politicians fearlessly dragging society towards the sunny uplands with their ability and courage.

In the 1970s we had the Lynch giveaway government, walking blindly towards a recession.

The following decade the Fitzgerald coalition futtered and fumbled its way through the deep recession.

The 1990s were as good as it was going to get before Bertie Ahern went and spoiled it all in the 2000s with his policy of living high on the hog on the back of an illusory building boom.

All of these governments did play a role in the underlying upward trajectory, but they also, at times, played fast and loose with the public good in pursuit of electoral advantage.

That’s where we’re at now — a wealthy country, but one in which structural problems — most obviously housing — continues to impinge of the collective quality of life which one might reasonably expect in such a country.

Now that Ireland has nominally arrived at the top table the most pressing question is what kind of country do we want.

One feature of most wealthy countries is that there is an acceptance, or even celebration in places like the USA, of gross inequalities.

For instance, wealthy countries in general accept that there will be a cohort forced to live either without homes or in precarious circumstances.

Homelessness is accepted as being a problem in wealthy western countries but not a pressing issue.

Society is not seen as a collective. Those who live on the margins are the recipients of charity in the complete absence of any solidarity.

Has this country already embarked down the same road? Can Irish society maintain the kind of solidarity that was part of the country in the past when there wasn’t that much to go around?

That is one of the challenges into the future, one that leading politicians might consider when they’re patting themselves on the back for the arrival of the country at the top table of the wealthy nations of the world.

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