TP O'Mahony: Will Covid-19 prompt an acceleration in real social change?

Ireland has undergone seismic change in recent decades — but the tide has not lifted all boats. Will Covid-19 be an accelerator for broader social change, asks TP O'Mahony.
TP O'Mahony: Will Covid-19 prompt an acceleration in real social change?
Ireland has undergone some seismic social change in recent decades but this has not translated into a fairer society for all. Will this change after Covid-19? File Picture. 

When Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats released their single 'Banana Republic' early in 1981, it was a caustic and searing indictment of an Ireland that had never undergone a genuine social revolution. The Rats were mocking a society that prized cupidity over social justice.

Nearly 40 years on, that remains the case, though during that period Ireland has certainly experienced a socio-moral revolution. We now have divorce, legalised abortion and same-sex marriage. And condoms are as readily available today as corn flakes.

All of this is true and explains why the New York Times, in December 2017, could publish an analysis titled “How Ireland Moved to the Left”. 

Yet, in a real sense, it was talking about events in a parallel Ireland – the “other” Ireland that remained largely impervious to the range of socio-economic reforms we generally associate with left-wing movements distinguished by sympathy for the poor, the disadvantaged, the exploited and the marginalised.

This is not to ignore or downplay the significance of the changes that have occurred in Ireland, especially since the 1960s. The announcement in 1966 by then-Minister for Education Donogh O’Malley (without prior Cabinet approval) that he would introduce free secondary education for all was a bold initiative, and would prove to be a far-sighted and life-changing decision for thousands of Irish children.

This occurred during Sean Lemass’s period as Taoiseach, and the man himself made a significant contribution to the modernising of Irish society when he decided to abandon the policy of protectionism, of which he himself had once been the principal advocate. 

Taoiseach Sean Lemass in 1964.
Taoiseach Sean Lemass in 1964.

Lemass saw that the future of Ireland could not be agrarian and that industrialisation was the way forward.

It was a significant policy shift and the presence today of a multinational company like Apple is part of the Lemass legacy. But industrialisation had very uneven effects. The claim that “a rising tide lifts all boats” is a useful metaphor but also a flawed one. Those without boats were left stranded, while those with very small boats barely noticed the difference or the tide never came that far in.

Some academics talk of “the Lemass revolution” but that, too, is only partially applicable. Lemass, like many of the revolutionary generation of which he was part, didn’t see the need to challenge the elites or the cosy alliances that dominated the worlds of finance, banking, commerce, law, medicine, land hoarding and housing policy – not to mention the conservative social engineering of the Catholic Church, particularly through its stranglehold on education.

In his great 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), Pope John XXIII opened the section on “Rights” with this paragraph: “Beginning our discussion of the rights of man, we see that every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are necessary and suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services. Therefore a human being also has the right to security in cases of sickness, inability to work, widowhood, old age, and unemployment, or in any other case in which he is deprived of the means of subsistence through no fault of his own”.

This paragraph is a charter of socio-economic rights in embryonic form, rights which should be central to the programme of any government wishing to be perceived as pursuing policies aimed at fashioning a “just society”. As such, these rights ought to have constitutional protection, yet no government since the foundation of the State has ever seriously considered providing such protection. Even Dr Garret Fitzgerald who, as Taoiseach in 1981, launched a “constitutional crusade”, never intended that this should extend to socio-economic rights.

It is often forgotten when the “liberal agenda” is referenced, it is limited to personal freedoms or individual rights especially in the areas of sexuality, gender and human reproduction. Whereas, since the foundation of the State, there has always been resistance to the “social agenda” of fairness in society through redistribution of resources, combating poverty and improving the conditions of the deprived and excluded.

The revolutionaries who won Ireland’s independence in 1919-22 had, for the most part, a very limited understanding of how far the “revolution” should go. There were real limits, in other words, to their revolutionary fervour. Hence the admission by Kevin O’Higgins to Dáil Éireann in March 1923: 

We were the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution.

They had a good sense of “freedom from” (Britain) but a very limited sense of “freedom for” (radical socio-economic change). Although women had been among the ranks of the freedom fighters, there was no desire among the men to extend parity of esteem to women in post-Independent Ireland. And that mind-set took root, notwithstanding the efforts of various charities and activists.

The individualist attitude to society could be said to have reached some kind of zenith with the birth of the Celtic Tiger. That may have caused the Irish economy to roar ahead, but what were its effects on Irish society? And what of the values it eroded and the rampant materialism it bred?

Sean Healy, co-director of the CORI Justice Commission, sought to remind us of the full picture of the Celtic Tiger years. “Side by side with the ‘new Ireland’ of the Celtic Tiger is another Ireland characterised in terms of a widening rich/poor gap, long-term unemployment, run-down-inner city housing estates, hidden rural poverty, early school leaving, lone parenthood, homelessness, growing aggression and violence,” he wrote in a 2003 essay.

A few short years later came the financial crisis, and the subsequent austerity measures imposed as part of the EU/IMF bailout programme. Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen told the Oireachtas banking inquiry in July 2015 that it was made clear to the government in late 2010 that it would not be able to access a bailout programme if it burned senior bondholders. Harsh austerity measures followed, greatly worsening the conditions described by Sean Healy.

Coronavirus will pass but it would be a brave or foolhardy person who would predict when we’ll emerge into a post-Covid 19 Ireland. But one thing is certain: it will leave a very different Ireland in its wake. How different? Who can tell?

It may even be that future historians will look back on 2020 as the year of the corona, and talk of Ireland BC (before corona) and Ireland AC (after corona). Former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (in his new role as Tánaiste) said recently that Covid 19 would be “an accelerator of change”. But what kind of change?

It may compel us to ask fundamental questions about the kind of society we wish to live in. Declaring a republic is one thing – creating a genuine, functioning republic is an altogether different matter. Ireland has been officially a republic since 1949, but families and individuals suffering under austerity policies, stuck on housing lists, waiting on hospital trolleys or facing extended delays for surgical procedures due to our two-tier health system, would be entitled to claim that we are a republic in name only.

In other words, we live in a sham republic, one where the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil (1919) is a mere museum piece. We don’t have a democracy rooted in equality, we have a democracy rooted in cupidity.

A central characteristic of a republic is that the benefits and burdens are shared equally by the citizens. Clearly, that’s very far from the reality in the Ireland of the 21st century. We have wealthy elites and influential interest groups and we continue to elect governments committed to preserving the status quo.

This is tearing at the fabric of our democracy, a fabric in any case that for a long time has been in a dodgy condition. Radical solutions are needed to many of our socio-economic problems, such as the present housing crisis, but the last place to look for radical solutions appears to be Leinster House.

The old morality may in many respects have been negative and repressive, but at least it provided us with a moral framework within which to operate. Now in its absence what have we? Prior to the coronavirus crisis we had a society wherein a “green” version of Social Darwinism flourished, breeding rampant individualism, selfishness, greed, and a survival-of-the-fittest philosophy. Is this the Ireland we really want to return to a post-Covid-19 world? Do we want to see a 2020 reincarnation of Geldof’s “banana republic”?

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