GERARD HOWLIN: Fast and fundamental change is a fearful thing, but change we must

The union flag flies outside Dublin Castle this week for the National Economic Dialogue. Picture:

They have created a future where there will be no Britain — ‘Great’ or otherwise, writes Gerard Howlin


The EU is not an unelected ‘them’ — it is ‘us’, a union of 28 democratic countries. Its decisions are democratically arrived at and accountable because the mandate underpinning them is from those 28 national governments and a European Parliament directly elected by every European citizen.

So-called ‘austerity’ is simply a set of sensible reforms, by and large, that were too long delayed and regrettably have not gone far enough. ‘Globalisation’ is the modern international economy from which Ireland has overwhelmingly benefited. We need to be crystal clear of that which we speak.

Over 50 years, globalisation, deindustrialisation, feminism, and an information technology revolution have irrigated and run parallel with the desacralisation of entire societies. Education has burgeoned; famine, though it still occurs, is more shocking because of its relative rarity. Nothing is as it was, thank God.

And no, the invocation of God is neither an inadvertence nor a pun. We were 3.3bn people on earth in 1965, the year of my birth. Today we have more than doubled in number, at 7.4bn. It is still a cruel world, but far more people eat, far fewer die of curable diseases, and many more can read and write.

The EU cannot take all the credit, though it does deserve a little. With the catastrophic exception of the former Yugoslavia, it has been essential to and latterly presided over peace in Europe, for 70 years.

However, the free movement of people and capital is not just an economic issue — it is a critically important one. It is also, socially and culturally, a liberating one. Some 17% of our people live abroad, the highest percentage of any OECD country.

Regrettably many went from economic necessity, but many did not. We are a country that last recorded a population decrease in 1990. Based on CSO figures for 2015, of 4.6m people here, 578,000, or just over 12%, came from elsewhere.

These people living in our society — and overwhelmingly, in my view, enhancing it — are comprised of roughly two-thirds from within the EU and a third from outside. Immigration hasn’t just been an economic boon, it has been an extraordinarily positive social and cultural phenomenon.

In a society historically defined by the blight of emigration, in hindsight — global societal trends aside — immigration will be seen as the decisive agent of change in Ireland, in our time. I see it as very largely a positive one.

Living in Dublin’s north inner city for 25 years, neither immigration nor globalisation are abstract issues.

This area has the highest concentration of non-nationals, including immigrants from outside the EU, in the State. Life here is different.

In many respects it’s challenged. It is also more interesting, and more mixed than any place I have lived since a brief stint in New York in the late 1980s. By comparison, Fort Lauderdale was an anaemic shade of magnolia.

Who wants to live life in any shade of beige? Well, some it seems. A mésalliance of Alf Garnett and Victor Meldrew, shook by the uncertainty and status anxiety left in the wake of deindustrialisation, and by the disappearance of the defined benefit pension for virtually all except public servants, took back control in Britain last Friday.

Unwilling, or unable to either read the signs to the times, they have created a future where there will be no Britain — ‘Great’ or otherwise — and where the capacity of those left behind to catch up will be further diminished, not enhanced.

Cussed, begrudging, and instinctively against whatever you’re having yourself, they have blighted their own futures and probably put a shadow over ours as well.

I understand that the ‘let’s keep the recovery going’ argument is counterproductive in this cowed world that harkens back to a place which neither ever existed nor will come to be. The challenge now is not to be cowed by it, and to read the signs of our times correctly.

The world is in flux, to an extent, and at a pace and in a direction which is unprecedented. Change is a fearful thing and fast, fundamental change is more so, But change we must.

At its peak, there were 2.2m people employed in the Irish economy. Today after the worst economic crash since the Great Depression there are 1.9m people working here. That figure, depending on events, is continuously if tentatively, rising.

Our challenge is to harness current trends of rising educational attainment, inexorably increasing globalisation and the requirement in a globalised economy for effective multinational supervision of increasingly enormous global corporations.

We can go with it, or be swept aside. It can ignore us, but we cannot ignore it.

This week in Dublin Castle the Government hosted the second National Economic Dialogue. Coinciding with Brexit, it is timely. Capital spending here, at 2% of GDP, is at its lowest levels since the 1970s.

To be competitive, to create jobs and investment in social spending, a sustained increase in capital spending is required. Current spending, to be productive, must be focused in areas like education. It is a moot point whether the Lansdowne Road agreement was too generous. However, it must be a red line that is held.

Investment in public transport infrastructure underpins the land use policy that will enable large scale sustainable housebuilding. Investment in public transport requires both capital investment from the State and market liberalisation to allow private companies run public-transport services based on competitive tendering.

What happened in Luas, and what is spreading to Dublin Bus, is a full-frontal confrontation premised on the obsolete notion that running public services should be the prerogative of public servants working on privileged terms and conditions.

The phenomenon is well exampled in Ireland. Luas, a public service run by a private company, was a totem. That much was made clear.

The lack of logic is exampled by the overlap in protagonists with some of those most prominent in the campaign against water charges. Irish Water was a public utility, run as a public service, and charging for the cost of running and investing in that public service.

But no matter. Where the counter current enters the whirlpool, what is sucked in is less important that what it does, which is to create a vortex from which there is no exit.

Brexit is done. So is Britain. Our neighbouring island, an assembly of four countries, no longer comprises one functioning state.

In the polity called Britain, there is not a single political party that can credibly call itself British in the sense of having significant representation in all its constituent parts. But their problem is ours. It is ours in the overlap of their exit from the EU.

More profoundly it is ours in the sense that the same destructive forces are active here. Regrettably some resent our immigrants. Many more, who do not, are disoriented by profound change and are ripe for having their angst exploited by those for whom anger is the single object of their agenda.

Fast and fundamental change is a fearful thing, but change we must

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