GUEST COLUMNIST: Citizenship and accounting need to be kept apart in Brooks debate

THE way I remember it, in secondary school our first class on civics and citizenship became our last class on civics and citizenship very quickly.

The teacher spoke about what a citizen was, explaining that being born in a country made you a citizen of that jurisdiction, subject to its laws and rules, with rights and obligations, when one of my classmates — a man who now holds a very responsible position in life — asked if, hypothetically, one were born on an airplane that was directly over the border separating three different countries, right over the line dividing them, then what country . . .

We were told to take out the accountancy textbooks and it was balance sheets and ledgers from then on.

Events this week have given us a new perspective on the precise challenges of citizenship, however, and the criterion is very simple: your position on the Garth Brooks concerts gives us a good indication of your views on the obligations of citizenship.

Why? Because you support the rule of law or you don’t.

I’m hardly the first person to point out that for the last few years the entire country has bemoaned the fact that we didn’t abide by the planning regulations during the Celtic Tiger years, seeing them as hilarious starting points for discussion and negotiation rather than what they were: the laws of the land.

That indifference to those laws is the reason there are housing estates all over the country now which could double as the locations for photographs of deserted neighbourhoods near the Chernobyl reactors, footpaths trailing to bleakness, street-lights wireless, bulbless and ineffectual.

It also explains the other signifiers of disaster, from the thousands of people who are emigrating from the country to the little queues that you spot in supermarkets around the corners where discounted food is put on display at a particular time on a specific evening in the week.

I recently read The Unwinding, George Packer’s magnificent account of America over four decades, and his chapter on the development madness that overtook Tampa, Florida, was an uncanny echo of what happened here. The difference is that Tampa is one county in one state; that madness was a national malaise here.

Now, though, we have a situation where the planning regulations have been exercised and enforced, and the reaction? Outrage.

The official identified with the decision not to allow two Garth Brooks concerts is the subject of in-depth profiles in the newspapers, and the subject of elaborate cursing by the taxi driver who dropped me to Heuston Station last Sunday evening. I won’t use his name here, not because it’s unfair but because I expect him to be used soon as a totem to scare small children into going to bed.

Not all the parallels with the days of buying-off-the-plans and getting-on-the-ladder stack up here, obviously. For instance, this isn’t a matter of throwing up sub-standard houses on a flood plain or erecting apartment blocks which could fall apart at any moment. There isn’t a dodgy spiv pocketing the proceeds even as he’s eulogised by the lifestyle sections of the Sunday newspapers.

Those profiting from the concerts are Garth Brooks, Aiken Promotions and the GAA, through renting out Croke Park. (In the interests of balance, whatever about the first two members of that triumvirate, the GAA can argue that almost 90% of its income is recycled through the organisation. That is revenue which spreads throughout the economy at large, in stadium renovations, hurley purchases, coaching salaries, and dozens of other ways — money spent around the country over the course of a financial year, not just in the environs of Dublin 3 over five nights.) There is a vast sum of money in question here, with general agreement on the sum of €50 million as the gross spend likely over the five nights originally mooted for the concerts, and that has been cited as one of the principal reasons for allowing the events to proceed, the sheer size of the pot.

Flip that argument around, though.

Is money sufficient reason to disagree so violently with the decision to refuse a licence for two of the concerts? This, remember, was the logic that brought us to this position as a country in the first place — that there was too much money involved in this development, this housing estate, this apartment block, that there were too many jobs dependent on it, that it all had to be kept going and the engine had to keep turning over.

If the money didn’t continue to flow, then like a shark which needs to keep water streaming past its gills, we’d sink to the bottom, which is a pretty accurate description of how it all worked out for us. The soft landing we were told about turned out to be the silt and sand encrusting the sea-bed.

If we go back to the bottom-line, cash-money justification, and cling to the notion that in the middle of a recession the country can’t turn its back on €50m, then we’re playing a dangerous game, and one we didn’t play very well the last time.

It also leaves us open to allowing the next event that takes precedence over the laws, the cash generator which must be accommodated because the money is what counts. What happens when that gig rolls around? How many regulations get squeezed to let that one slip through the net? Citizenship means obligation, and in this case that obligation is owed to the rules.

BUT what about the rights of citizens, four hundred thousand of whom bought tickets in good faith and are entitled to an evening’s entertainment, surely? The residents’ committees opposing the concerts make up a tiny fraction of that number, but I think that’s a distraction from the real narrative: the inciting incident for the plot doesn’t have to influence the lesson to be drawn from the story.

Focusing on how representative those groups are, or the possibility of forged signatures on petitions isn’t the point; it’s local colour.

The decision is the key issue.

Don’t feel bad if you feel a certain sympathy for both sides, though, because this is the country which puts the double in doublethink.

From the last week or so we had a senator who says she represents the interests of publicans and is also her party’s spokesperson on children, while we also had the Revenue Commissioners, who investigate people for financial irregularity, having to fire people for financial irregularities.

But there isn’t room for doublethink on this issue, because a budge here introduces the notion of bending the rules according to the cash being generated. As I learned long ago, citizenship and accounting are two separate subjects and need to be kept apart.


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