After the noughties rollercoaster a new reality dawns for our children

TODAY is the last day of the noughties decade. Many milestone events have occurred in politics, economics and global affairs.

Substantive shifts are more intriguing. It is timely to benchmark how we view our affairs differently now relative to 10 years ago.

Incremental change often passes subconsciously, without being fully acknowledged. Irish society has made a number of transformational changes in terms of lifestyle, identity and outlook.

Immigration has had more impact in this decade than any other in living memory. The number of foreign residents who have settled here has doubled from 200,000 to more than 400,000. Many of these are rearing their own children here and consider themselves Irish. This will develop a more cosmopolitan and multicultural Irishness. One in 10 of the population doesn’t fit into our previous stereotypical identity. The economic opportunity that caused this influx has vanished. While some migrant workers have returned home, the majority have settled and put down family roots.

Our lifestyle has been subject to a rollercoaster ride of constant change. From overriding concern about a “work-life balance”, many now face the prospect of no work and no life. The paramount concern of the individual is a robust materialism and consumerism.

The quality of life has been defined by the number and nature of holidays, size and spec of car, interior decor of home and gaudy displays of unnecessary expenditure. The happiness provided by these shallow desires has been short-lived. Now that we can no longer afford them, we find that they weren’t all that they were cracked up to be.

The nanny state is ever more evident. Smoking has become a social taboo as well as legally prohibited. Our consumption of alcohol is as prevalent as ever. Because of drink driving restrictions, the new going out is staying in. Wine consumption has taken hold in ageing middle Ireland.

The recycling sites provide ample evidence of our desire for private escapism. It must be me, as a parent of teenagers, but it seems youngsters drink to get drunk with greater deliberation and intent. Maybe it was ever thus.

Within our entertainment culture, two new television/media trends have taken hold. “Celebrity” seems to have developed an entire industry. Chefs have become household names. Tabloid fascination with the likes of Jordan and Jade Goody knows no bounds. The trivia of their love lives grabs front pages. Editors and marketing departments merely respond to readers’ appetites. This trend has been copperfastened by the explosion of reality TV. The formula is to pole vault ordinary people, heretofore talentless ‘nobodies’, into stardom. Susan Boyle can be plucked from obscurity into international stardom overnight. The power of Simon Cowell knows no bounds. Our fascination can be equally fixated on crime personas such as Joe O’Reilly, Catherine Nevin and Sharon ‘Lying Eyes’ Collins.

With the passage of time politics evolves into history. The historical annals will declare Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair as the predominant victors and statesmen of this decade.

Personally, having decided to exit national politics in January 2001, I could not have foreseen that Fine Gael would have been out of power for the entire decade. The exclusion of Labour and FG from government for more than 10 years is unprecedented. Throughout the period profound change has occurred.

Twenty years ago people said there was no difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. This was not actually true. The Haughey era created a fault line in relation to probity in politics and public office – self-service or public service.

The second point of difference was Northern Ireland. At a fundamental level, FF believed the republican ethos of a united 32-county Ireland. Whereas since Garret Fitzgerald’s leadership, FG and others believed this was only achievable and acceptable with the consent of a million Northern unionists.

Nowadays, the powersharing Northern government and the final passing of the Haughey influence through Bertie Ahern’s retirement raise renewed questions about the points of difference. Day-to-day differences on policies, fiscal rectitude, economic competence and personalities will be perennial.

Politics always follows economics. The current overriding unpopularity of FF is due to the scale of boom to bust. The greatest real life drama of the decade has been the unprecedented contraction of the Irish economy. The ESRI quantifies the total decline at 14% of GNP. This makes it the worst economic depression of any developed state in the world since the 1930s.

The new realities are negative equity, unemployment, house repossessions, business failures, emigration, a return to further education and poverty. The bitter blame for this will hang around FF until the next election, whenever it is. Irrespective of corrective action, voters are waiting in the long grass for retribution. The squandermania of public administration is only half the story. Seething anger is reserved for the cosy relationship between senior politicians, bankers and the development/construction industry.

The lack of accountability and punishment for the pin-up boys of greed is deeply upsetting for ordinary victims. The recent plethora of books has accurately nailed Seán Fitzpatrick, Michael Fingleton and their pals for their failings. The prevailing culture of support rather than scrutiny was well articulated on last week’s RTÉ programme, Prime Time Investigates. Whistleblowers’ testimony explained reckless arrogance and complete failure of regulation.

AND communication has utterly changed. Letter-writing is almost obsolete. Emails and texts prevail – it’s quicker, slicker and better. The relentless march of the internet will create a whole new generation of interpersonal connection.

Social networking sites have created new communities online. Our media consumption will be increasingly selective by podcasting favourite television and radio material. The efficiencies of Google search are changing the way we access information. These are irreversible trends.

The other mega irrevocable aspect of life over the past decade has been environmental. The acceptance of scientific evidence relating to climate change is a done deal. It is merely a case of who, where and when in relation to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Waste disposal, recycling and reusing patterns are now household normality.

Energy efficiency and renewable energy sources of electricity generation will create commercial growth opportunities. The imperative of sustainability will increasingly drive public policy. Further innovations such as electric cars will be prevalent in the next decade.

All in all, we are sadder and wiser. The greatest tragedy of the past period is that we can now conclude for the first time there is an inevitability that the next generation (ie, current school-leavers) will be worse off than their parents or grandparents. This age-old aspiration of betterment has peaked. A new reality dawns.


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