Sunday, August 9, 2009

Best Country In The World (if you're broke, fat, depressed and poor)

By Jennifer O’Connell

Can it really be a mere five years since we all sat around our granite-topped kitchen islands, congratulating ourselves on being officially the world’s jammiest citizens?

It feels more like a lifetime has passed since the Economist magazine declared that Ireland would be the best country in the world in which to live in 2005. Which, of course, it was – as long as you were gone again by 2006.

The ravages of a further half decade of Fianna Fail-led government; one global banking crisis; a decimated property market; and the heart-wrenching effects of a report into abuse in State-run institutions later, and our chance of regaining the top spot in any international quality of life survey looks about as likely as us winning the Eurovision, the soccer World Cup and the World Ostrich Racing Championships all at once.

The magazine’s description of this damp little island as “combining the most desirable elements of the new, such as low unemployment and political liberties, with the preservation of certain cosy elements of the old, such as stable family and community life” bears about as much reality to modern day Ireland as, say, Thackeray’s Irish Sketchbook, which was published in the 1840s.

Take the last fortnight as a snapshot of the state we’re in now.

Over the last two weeks, we learned that we are reproducing at a faster rate than at any time since 1896 – irrespective of the economic crisis and the imminent slashing of State support for parents. One in three of these little Jack-or-Avas is born outside marriage. And although ‘outside marriage’ doesn’t mean ‘into lone parent households’, the number of families headed by a single parent is also rising: nearly half a million people now live in a family headed by a single parent.

We learned, courtesy of the CSO, that almost 1 in 7 lone parents are unable to heat their homes in winter, and that these homes are more likely to have inadequate plumbing and electrical installations.

We learned that, as unemployment has risen, more women are being forced into prostitution and that Ireland is firmly on the radar for human traffickers.

We learned that house prices fell a further 24 per cent in the past two years. Surveys of businesses showed that banks are still not lending. Mortgage borrowing is at almost zero.

We learned that almost half of us are overweight, or ‘dangerously overweight’. We learned that the majority of our GPs think we will comfort eat ourselves to death, before we manage to smoke or drink ourselves into an early grave.

We learned - from the CSO again – that suicide remains a significant choice for many who feel they have no choices left: 424 people took their own lives in 2008. We learned that, while some single mothers are struggling to keep their houses warm and other women are being forced into prostitution, men are finding life after the Tiger unbearable too. They accounted for 78 per cent of the suicides committed in 2008.

Boy, we’ve fallen a long way.

Some of our problems are caused by global factors like the credit crunch. But we can’t blame Lehman Brothers for everything. No country rose as high or toppled so spectacularly. As the Economist put it of the country it was once lauding as the world’s loveliest: “To envious observers, Ireland’s fall from grace is an overdue payback for its previous swift rise.”

But it’s not as simple as that: not all the gains made between 2000 and 2006 were fuelled by the illusion that property prices would go on rising indefinitely. And not all the losses accrued since were down to the greed of the populace. The export boom and high levels of foreign investment laid the foundation stones of the Celtic Tiger: poor leadership ensured these foundations were left fatally exposed to outside elements.

Buried in all the other good news stories of recent weeks was the admission from the Taoiseach that he made mistakes as Finance Minister, but he’s not sorry.

It takes a certain kind of arrogance to say you’re sorry without admitting you made a mistake; it takes an ego of epic proportions to admit you made mistakes, but say you’re not sorry.

And when those ‘mistakes’ refer to the part you played as Minister for Finance in transforming a country that was one of the world’s most prosperous and pleasant to live in into a country full of people who are broke, fat, depressed and too poor to turn on the heating in winter; refusing to apologise is not just colossally arrogant or spectacularly egotistical, it’s stupid. Especially when you know there might very well be an election around the corner.

In retrospect, it’s not entirely true to say that Thackeray’s Irish Sketch Book has little insight to offer into modern Ireland. There is one character, Peleg W. Ponder, who might strike a chord with contemporary readers. He is a politician who “never arrived at a conclusion, or contrived to reach a result. Peleg is always ‘stumped’—he ‘don't know what to think’ —he ‘can't tell what to say’.”

Thackeray’s creation deliberates and procrastinates, shirks questions, gives the illusion of contributing to the debate, while all the time evading actually saying anything, until eventually he concludes: “the best thing that can be done now, I guess, as my character is established both ways, is to turn in quietly till the row is all over. Nobody will miss me when they are so busy; and afterward, when we know all about it, just look for Peleg W. Ponder as he comes down the street, shaking people by the hand, and saying how ‘we’ have used ‘them’ up. I can't say so now, or I would — for I am not perfectly sure yet which is ‘we,’ or which is ‘them.’ Time enough when the election is over.”

It’s perhaps the most insightful thing written about modern Ireland for at least one hundred and seventy years.


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