In the last twelve months, there has been a lot of talk about Ireland’s future and a lot of soul-searching about the crisis Ireland currently finds itself in. We’ve been here before. In the 1950s and again the 1980s, there was a sense that the whole “independence project” hadn’t really worked. The instinct is often to blame, to find those responsible for bringing us where we are and punishing them. But the danger is that we waste too much effort doing this and miss both the need to drag ourselves out of crisis and the opportunity to rebuild the country and reshape it for the next generation.
This week sees the launch of Next Generation Ireland. It stemmed from separate conversations that Ed Burke and I had with Shane Ross in late 2009. He was very curious to see what the next generation, those born since about 1970, thought about what needs to be done to set Ireland on the right path for the 2020s and 2030s. Ed and I got in touch with each other and, with the help of Blackhall Publishing, haven’t looked back!
The book brings together ten of the “next generation”, Irish researchers and analysts across a range of areas who are emerging as clear thinkers with new ideas. As an editor of the book, I have been lucky enough to be in a position to learn an awful lot about Ireland’s challenges in a range of areas, from engaging our Diaspora to tackling climate change.
In this post, I thought I’d outline my take on some of the ideas brought up in the book. The book itself is available from Blackhall Press as well as from bookshops around the country. Its style is consciously not academic – it is a book meant for the curious citizen, who wants to get a new take on some of Ireland’s challenges, so if the ideas below sound interesting, do at least check it out.
Politics & Society
- Many of us probably think that the whip system and the single transferable vote are responsible for producing an Oireachtas of glorified county councillors. While they are easy scapegoats, they might not be the right ones. Two measures – drastically reducing the size of the Cabinet and reinventing the role of the Ceann Comhairle – could be much more effective.
- Over the last generation, consensus became a trap in Ireland. We became addicted to the idea that if we all agreed on something, it must be the right way forward. Instead, we need to foster dissent and the concept that we should be looking for ideas that survive robust scrutiny. One idea worth discussing: why not have a Department of the Opposition in the Civil Service?
- Publicly provided services in Ireland are among the most important in society. And yet the public service is largely based on a model devised in the 1850s. Can you think of a privately owned company that isn’t almost completely unrecognisable from its 1850s counterpart? We need to change how we look at public services from a cost perspective to one based on both benefits and costs. And we need to put public service organisations in charge of their resources, both human and financial.
- Across all areas, Ireland can certainly learn from the successes of other countries, but we can also learn from their failures. Nowhere is this clearer than in migration, where Ireland’s waves of migration have come up to half a century after our European neighbours. Ireland should eschew the easy extremes of assimilation (i.e. ignoring that migrants are different) and multi-culturalism (i.e. ignoring that migrants live in the same country). An integrationist approach, though, means that we may need to redefine what it is to be a citizen.
Economy & Environment
- In relation to economic policy, Ireland has to adjust to being a small number of regions in a broader currency union. This means fiscal policy becomes the new monetary policy – very tight control of government spending is needed… but it also means that policy, statistics and most importantly local government need to be reorganised bearing in mind there are at most five economically viable hubs in the country.
- International competitiveness has been an area where Ireland has performed better than most. For this to continue, though, Ireland needs to rebuild its education system around far more than bonus points for Higher Level Maths. The skills we will need for lifelong careers will be about more than just science, they will be about globalisation and innovation – in practical terms, teamwork and creative thinking. These are skills that are largely absent from primary and secondary education currently.
- Much as economic models often think otherwise, our economy cannot exist in abstract – it exists on Planet Earth. The goal of a carbon-neutral economy by 2050 creates a huge challenge, not necessarily for big business – who are learning to adapt already through emissions trading – but for the three big polluters in Ireland: farms, homes and cars. In each of these areas, though, Ireland is not beyond fixing.
Ireland & the World
- We often hear something along the lines of “Ireland has a huge untapped potential in its Diaspora”. One of the things I learnt is that you can’t really expect to treat your Diaspora as a resource to be tapped and hope they won’t mind. They are people and Ireland’s relationship with its offshore sons and daughters has to be two-way. The question we really need to tackle is what can we put in place – as other countries such as India and Israel have done – that will create a meaningful bond between Ireland and its Diaspora.
- The Northern Ireland peace process was a huge success of the 1990s. As a consequence, many in the “next generation” may take it for granted. The Good Friday Agreement, though, is just the start of the process, not the end, and as we have seen with the rise of dissident activity (reported and unreported) over the last couple of years, complacency cannot be an option.
- Ireland likes to think of itself as punching above its weight in international relations. The truth, however, is a little more disappointing, with Ireland largely anonymous in the UN and tactical in the EU. A constructive, strategic and coherent foreign policy of which we can be proud will require us, for example, to shed the silly notion that we are in any way neutral and to take a long hard look at how CAP sits with our global development objectives.
These are some of the things I took away from the book. If you get a chance to read the book, I’d be interested in hearing what caught your eye among the ideas presented in it, as well as what major topics you thought were left off. (We could only do ten chapters this time around!)
We hear a lot of talk about things Ireland needs to do over the next one, two or five years. I think we need to look beyond that, to not get trapped in the urgent and forget the important. I hope this book can help start a meaningful discussion and a debate about what we do now at this critical crossroad in Irish history.