“You’re on the very edge of Europe right here,” I said.
“What about Iceland, Dad?”
“Never mind about Iceland and just enjoy the view, will you?”
This is the first summer we have spent here since a very rainy one in 2008. Of course, not just the weather has changed since then. Five years ago, Ireland was still the “Celtic Tiger” and this little country on the edge of the continent was being held up as a model for others in Europe to follow – a shining example of what unfettered capital, “light-touch” regulation and a low tax regime could do. Not for long.
Following the global crash in late 2008, Ireland went swiftly from being a Tiger to one of the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) as the property bubble burst and the country’s reckless bankers were saved by their feckless friends in the Fianna Fáil-led government who very generously made private debt public. This resulted of course in the state itself eventually having to be bailed out by the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Ireland’s story became one of prosperity to austerity in just a few years.
The long hangover after the brief, spectacular party of the boom years is still very much in evidence this summer. Talk is of the next budget which is likely to contain another €3 billion in cuts and taxes. Of unemployment levels that have been described even by the IMF as “staggering”. And of the continuation of an ancient Irish tradition: emigration. On Inis Mór’s magnificent Kilmurvey beach in the Aran Islands, I chatted with a local who had lived all her life on the island, but had a brother in Perth who is undecided whether to stay in his good job in the Western Australian mining industry or try to come back home. The “stoite” (“uprooted”) as the great Irish-language poet from Inis Mór, Máirtín O Díreáin, called them, are again to be found in increasing numbers in cities across Europe, North America and Australia. Mine was the first generation of Irish who left, thinking we would have no trouble coming back. We were wrong. Those following us now are under no such illusions.
And yet, despite the gloom, I saw some positives this summer pointing to an Ireland which may not be nouveau riche any more, but is moving towards being a more mature society. The first concerns the relations between the Catholic Church and the political class. The big issue in July was the passing of a bill in the Dáil (the Irish parliament) which would allow a very limited use of abortion in line with the decisions of the citizens in three [referendums in 1992](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelfth_Amendment_of_the_Constitution_Bill,1992(Ireland).
Irrespective of what one thinks about the issue itself, the fact that our politicians - out of fear of the church’s reaction - for over twenty years ducked the introduction of legislation which had been sanctioned by a popular vote was a stain on our democracy. For most of its history, post-independence Ireland has been a country which obeyed its priests and censored their critics. This is clearly changing. And, whatever his other flaws, it is hard to imagine any previous Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland giving a speech like this one by Enda Kenny in February when he apologised to the women who suffered so appallingly thanks to the state and the religious orders in the Magdalene laundries.
A second, albeit less high-profile, sign of progress is the establishment of the Constitutional Convention. Following in the footsteps of the very successful “We the Citizens” deliberative democracy project led by University College Dublin’s Professor David Farrell in 2011, the Constitutional Convention is comprised of 66 ordinary citizens and 33 politicians. The former are selected from across the country by a polling company and include all ages and social backgrounds. Having listened to expert testimony and held discussions amongst themselves, the group votes on questions such as reducing the voting age, same-sex marriage, the length of the President’s term of office and the reform of the electoral system. Their recommendations can then be put to a referendum by the government.
Citizens’ assembly experiments in other countries have often produced disappointing results, but - although different in its composition and format - the experience of the Constitutional Convention so far suggests that this may not only be a success for such instruments, but also an important step for Irish political culture. Our politics have been shaped by what the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair termed “amoral localism”. In his speech to the annual MacGill Summer School in 2011, he defined this as “you do anything you can to benefit your locality and your constituency and your district, and your TD [parliamentary representative] will do anything he can to benefit your locality and your district and your constituency and, in a sense, damn everything else”.
He was spot on. In Ireland, we have used our TDs like we used our saints - to intercede on our behalf with higher powers. To procure favours. Or, perhaps even worse: to acquire that to which we were in fact already entitled, but afraid to ask for. It was a mindset well encapsulated in this sketch by the excellent Irish comedian David McSavage (himself the son of a former Fianna Fáil minister). The culture of “amoral localism” meant, as Mair explained, that we were so busy “ensuring the representation of our own interests and those of our constituencies that we have lost sight of the broader, collective interest”. Blinded by short term local gain, we allowed our representatives to get away with long-term national mediocrity. The establishment of the Constitutional Convention seems at least in part designed to redress this predominance of the local over the national. And that can only be a good thing.
Like lots of other Irish, this week I return to the place far from home where I have made a new home. But I do so more optimistic about this little island on the edge of Europe than I expected to be before the summer. Although it is happening in fits and starts, the Ireland in which parish pump politics and parish priests ruled may be on the wane. And, if it really is, then one day we may be able to return to a better Ireland than the one we left.