By Tom Healy.
The Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI) is an all-island trade union funded think-tank. The Institute will be publishing a book in mid-April entitled ‘An Ireland Worth Working For – towards a new democratic programme’.
The book, which I have authored, is about a vision for Ireland – all of it – that goes beyond narrow sectarian or party political agendas. It seeks to learn from the past, understand the present and envision the future. However, a vision is not enough. A credible and carefully worked out strategy to move towards a shared vision is needed. This is what seems to be lacking in the marketplace for ideas.
Referring to different models of economic, social and political development abroad or in the recent past may be helpful. However, what worked then or elsewhere may not work so well now or in this place. We don’t need a blueprint for the future because we do not know what events, shocks and surprises might await us. Rather, we need a set of pointers to guide the direction of policy, action and public conversation. This seems to be missing at this time.
The year 2019 marks the centenary of what is known as An Chéad Dáil, or the First Parliament, of what was to become the Irish Free State. Informing the meeting of the first Dáil was a lesser known, short but highly significant document referred to, simply, as the Democratic Programme. It was the work, mainly, of Tom Johnson but modified and moderated by others. A reading and revisiting of that document is timely a hundred years later.
Have the aspirations contained in that document been realised in the century up to 2019? What vision did it contain and how might it inform the direction of policy for the next one hundred years? Remembering the past is one thing; doing things differently now and in the future is another. Outlining a vision for Ireland that entails more of the same is not going to move us towards a sustainable and more self-reliant island economy integrated into a global chain.
Imagining the future should not just be left to prophets, poets and dreamers. It is also the responsibility of economists and others to imagine a different order of things that ensures all persons can live happy, healthy and meaningful lives.
Understanding the roots of our present crises is vital. The ‘model’ in Ireland failed because it relied too much on external support instead of investing in its own domestic enterprises such as happened in other northern European countries.
Self-reliance and globalisation are not necessarily at odds with each other. As a result of being externally over-reliant, we underwent a particularly severe ‘economic drought’ in 2008-2013, only to be followed by an ‘economic flood’, especially since 2015 in the Republic of Ireland. Tax avoidance remains a key driver of turbo-charged growth in GDP, there.
It is suggested that the seeds of a future bust are being sown right now. In other words, lessons have not been learned and the wrong reasons are accepted for what happened in the period leading up to 2008. In the meantime, Brexit has changed everything and the notion of an all-island economy on the island of Ireland is very much open to question.
To be for equality is not to be anti-business. A dynamic, pro-business environment can co-exist with a strong social protection safety net as well as a creative and dynamic partnership between public, private and voluntary bodies. A greater role in the running of enterprises – for workers, consumers and communities – could boost productivity and address some of the challenges posed by climate change and the need to switch away from fossil fuels.
The vision underpinning this book is summed up in three challenges: demographic change; technological change; and environmental change.
And in three ‘big ideas’: Equality; democracy; and sustainability.
And in three goals: Reclaiming work; transforming public service; and renewing native industries and enterprise.
‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann an pobal’ is a saying used in the Irish Gaelic language. It means ‘we live in each other’s shadow’. It is impossible to consider the future of Ireland without addressing the uncertainties in regards to the United Kingdom, as it currently, stands as well as all of Europe, which includes the European Union.
I will leave the last word, here, with George Bernard Shaw: “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’”.
Tom Healy is Director of the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI). Follow him on Twitter @TomHealyNERI.