Current Affairs / Economy / Irish History

Summer schools for thought

Throughout the summer Ireland explodes with summer school mania. Indeed, these schools or festivals pop up amongst the Irish across the world, and I would like to take this opportunity to wish success and good cheer to the good people who will be staging their annual event at Butte, Montana, in a few days time. But it is on two Irish festivals that I wish to focus.

The two are being held North and South of the border, and accurately sum up both the country’s present preoccupations and the frequently over-looked, but central, identity problem facing contemporary Irish society.

One, to be held in Ballina next month at The Humbert School, asks a stark question: Can Ireland be redeemed? As it normally does, the Humbert lists an imposing cast of participants, ranging from John Hume, to Judge Ryan – who produced the recent Report into clerical child abuse – and European and Irish political and clerical luminaries. Over the weekend of August 23, the School will hold a think-in on the issues of the day – banking and political skulduggery, the Lisbon Treaty, child abuse, and Ireland’s diminishing response to world poverty.

The only major Irish institution to escape scrutiny is the GAA, and given the fact that Mayo are doing particularly well at the football this year, it too may come up for mention. If it does, it will be the only influential force in Irish society which can reasonably expect a kind word.

The thirty two county GAA has historical roots in the subject matter of the other Summer School, The Tom Dunn School, held in Rostrevor, County Down. The school was named in memory of the United Irishman Tom Dunn, who was flogged to death in 1798 without betraying his comrades.

I have just taken part in this remarkable event. It combined magnificent Irish music, a moving tribute to the late Paddy O’Hanlon, a founder of the SDLP and a behind-the-scenes architect of the Good Friday Agreement, by his uncle, Dr. Rory O’Hanlon, the former Fianna Fail Minister whose father was one of Michael Collins’ squad.

The highlight was a banquet, at which 18th Century costumes were worn. The menu was the same as that for a dinner held in honor of Wolfe Tone in Dunn’s time. The toasts included the President of America, of France and King George. The event attracts both Catholic and Protestant support and, while honoring the memory of the United Irishmen in general (and Dunn in particular),  it also seeks to promulgate the Republican doctrine of uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in a common sense of community.

These admirable objectives should command widespread support in the Republic also but, given the anger, cynicism, pessimism, and sense of betrayal, that now permeates  Ireland, anyone who stood outside the GPO today advocating anything which smacked of idealism and a United Ireland would risk either been beaten over the head by a copy of the An Bord Snip Report, or run over by a shopper heading north attracted by prices far lower than those obtaining in the Rip Off Republic.

For at the moment there is nothing left in Irish public life that one might term a tent-pole philosophy around which a sorely beset people could group.

Back in the eighties, not long after I had left the Irish Press in 1987, I began to get worried about the prospect of such a lacuna arising and became so angry at the direction of Irish life, and the clear indications of corrupt relationships between the rich and the would-be rich, and the political elite, that I broke a vow which I had made to myself to shun newspapers and devote myself solely to book authorship.

I rang my old Irish Press colleague, Damian Kiberd, who had earlier left the Press to found the highly successful Sunday Business Post, and arranged to write a blistering article on the theme that Ireland needed to develop a sense of national outrage. In my best Cassandra mode I pointed out that the Irish lack a sense of outrage.

We put up with both the doings of the faceless mandarin and the political poltroon with equal indifference. The stroke-puller, the corner cutting financial whiz kid, the lengthening dole queue are all either tolerated or lazily over-looked until we suddenly find ourselves joining the dole queue, with a mortgage and kids in fee-paying schools.

As a result, twenty years after I wrote that Sunday Business Post article the sense of outrage is all too obvious. Thatching on a windy day has always been an Irish political tendency. But today the thatching is being attempted in the teeth of a howling gale.

To return to the question posed by the Humbert Summer School: Can Ireland be redeemed? The government is hoping that by setting up something called NAMA (National Asset Management Agency) it will calm the tempest. NAMA is supposed to take over the management of the banks’ property loans at a discount, to preserve the ailing Irish banking system. It is a perilous venture.

Nothing definite is known of the extent of the banks indebtedness but guesstimates range from twenty to forty billion. However, in the course of an action brought against a developer last week for a relatively small sum, it was revealed in court that a so called ‘asset’ in Sandyford Co. Dublin, a development site against which 22 million had been loaned, is worth only a half million in to-day’s conditions. That is to say forty four times less than its supposed value.

Just what is the scale of the debt being assumed by the Irish tax-payer, their children and seemingly, their children’s  children? The short answer is we don’t know. But we do know that there are Sandyford-like situations all over the country, and that  the loans involved in them run not to millions but  billions .

However, the government is persevering with NAMA because it fears that if not, Irish bonds will lose their attraction to international investors and the country will go bust. Perhaps so, perhaps not. Most of these bonds are held by international pension funds that have already made provision for bad debts. There is a serious school of thought which says that Ireland is ultimately going to be forced to default on its commitments, because of the real debt situation, and the banks will collapse anyhow.

Better let them go broke now, and allow healthy banks to emerge over the next few years, runs the anti-NAMA argument. How the argument will ultimately be resolved no man can say, but if ever there was a time when the Irish Republic could do with a return to the idealism, and sense of identity, which inspired the Republicanism of Tom Dunn, George Washington and the French revolutionaries,  it is today.

– First published 27th July 2009 at IrishCentral.com