Red Thread of Anger: If there is a ‘red thread’ running through Irish society at the moment – it’s anger. Anger at the banks who’ve needed a massive capital injection to stay solvent. Anger at individuals in business and politics for ethical lapses. Anger at the Financial Regulator for falling asleep at the switch. Anger at politicians for not reigning in bloated expenses. Anger (and fear) in the private sector about the level of job losses. Anger in the public sector that staff are being scapegoated for all our economic ills and that the 7% pay cut taken to date has not been acknowledged. Anger at Thierry Henri and FIFA for taking away the only bright spot on the horizon. Perhaps a silient anger directed at ourselves for not being able to comprehend all of the changes taking place or knowing exactly what we should do to respond. Fuelling this anger, a recent spate of books on economic and political analysis have highlighted the main culprits in a frenzy of finger pointing. In the fall of the Celtic Tiger, everyone has their favourite villain.
The anger has gone beyond armchair bickering and spilled over onto the streets. In recent times public protests and ‘Days of Action’ have increased. There have been objections to ‘specific cuts’ (e.g. over 70’s means tested medical cards and Passport Office staff) and more general protests which signal people will not just roll over like tabby cats (“we don’t accept it just because you say so”). The old trade union mantra ‘what we have we hold’ is tattooed into the psyche of most workers and there is a growing group of activists from all walks of life believing that “we have to stand up and be counted”. Underpinning the anger is a pervasive sense of unfairness. A concept from the literature of industrial relations, relativity, describes this well. Person A is happy earning €100 a week until he discovers that the person beside him is making €105. A lot of the anger referred to above is driven by a similar sense of inequity i.e. a feeling that the burden is unequally shared. Some people seem able to shelter from the artic wind while the P.A.Y.E worker is seen to be carrying the bulk of the load. Our economic fears are thus multiplied by this sense of unfairness, creating a powerful, negative cocktail. The central question is whether we can we turn this anger, which is a form of energy, into something which is socially useful? Perhaps we can.
Ireland is Not a ‘Business’ : At the most recent Countess Markievitz Memorial Lecture, Jack O’Connor, President of SIPTU, made the point that the media continually refers to Ireland Inc as if it was a business. Ireland is not a business. Nor is it simply an economy. Ireland is a society. And broader societal level ideals need to be brought into play to help us move beyond the morass and negativity in which we seem to be stuck. As we pick up a newspaper or switch on the radio/television, we are deluged with more stories of house repossessions, unemployment blackspots and upward emigration trends. Some commentators have suggested that we simply need to focus on positive stories and ‘talk up’ the country. One idea is to identify the so-called ‘green shoots’.
Green Shoots on the Horizon?: Hidden among all the gloomy stories there are some rays of hope:
• The Ideas Campaign, initiated and run by businesswoman Aileen O’Toole in 2009, generated 4000+ ideas for positive change. Eventually these were whittled down into 40 ‘great ideas’ (i.e. 1% of the total) and submitted to the Government. The Your Country, Your Call campaign run by President Mc Aleeses’s office takes this core idea onto a new level of professionalism.
• The business diaspora met at Farmleigh in September, giving a visible presence to the idea that Irish people want to support Ireland during our ‘new troubles’. A number of initiatives are currently underway following this meeting.
• There is an abundance of volunteering and general community activity – visibly demonstrated in the recent responses to the flooding – where acts of kindness courage have become the norm rather than the exception. This ‘white economy’ effort, recaptures the best of the Irish spirit – some which we lost in the Gordon Gekko ‘greed = good’ days of the Celtic Tiger.
But, somehow, these individual elements don’t seem to be enough. They are pieces of a jigsaw but the overall edifice we are trying to build remains unclear. What’s missing is a clearly articulated ‘better tomorrow’, a message for Irish citizens which says: “Sorry for the short-term disruption while we build you a better future”.
The Creation of a Better Tomorrow: The current scenario provokes anger precisely because we’re not sure that it is leading to a better place. While the sacrifice side of the equation is clear (pay freezes/cuts, job losses etc.), the gains are less certain. We don’t have a clear view of a brilliant healthcare system, an aspiration of full employment, a vision of an inclusive education system that ensures no child is left behind, how a modernised public sector would work and so on. We have lots of analysis about ‘what happened’ (yesterday), data on ‘where we are’ (today), but we are missing a well articulated and emotionally appealing ‘where we want to get to’ (tomorrow).
A Shared Vision: I’m not sure that the Irish culture is open to any single person pronouncing ‘my vision for Ireland is…’. However developing a ‘better tomorrow’ is the central leadership challenge facing the country. At the very heart of this is a key dilemma for politicians i.e. how to think long-term and still get re-elected. The new mindset needed within the electorate is to equate politics with longer-term societal solutions – not speeding up the process to get a medical card for someone’s grandfather (who 99% of the time is entitled to it anyway). In parallel with this creation of a ‘better tomorrow’, our political leaders need to systematically work on the key issues in the current economy i.e. how to close the gap between our revenue (€50+ billion income) and our expenditure (€70+ billion cost) lines. A university professor I worked with in the USA, Bob Fulmer, used to say: ‘Managing in the short-term is easy. Managing in the long-term is easy. Managing both, now that’s hard’.
The articulation of a positive future needs to be completed side by side with the short-term management of the economy. This is actively underway and can be successful, provided that we have the guts to take some hard decisions. At the heart of this is a need to break-out of the historical ‘bargaining’ pattern, a recipe for incremental change, and take bold steps forward. In the words of Charles Mc Carthy, ‘sometimes the events are too great for the men’. In the current economic prediciment, let’s hope that the sentiment expressed by the former Trinity College Professor is proven incorrect.