US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was so impressed with tales of the Shannon Hydro Electric Scheme, the landmark infrastructure project of the fledging Irish State in the 1920s, that he sought details from Dublin on what he called the ‘magnificent Shannon Scheme’.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
The Ardnacrusha power station in County Clare (it still produces power today), depicted on the cover of our latest book, Gombeens at the Gate served as a model for engineering projects of its time. It’s hard to imagine Barach Obama picking up the phone today to Enda Kenny to pick up hints on infrastructure development; or in particular, anything related to water! Unless of course Obama is compiling a ‘Top Ten List – How NOT to Execute a Public Infrastructure Project’.
The Shannon Scheme at Ardnacrusha was a project that transformed the quality of life for Irish citizens. Ireland, though far poorer then, successfully completed an inspiring venture that garnered worldwide awe and attention.
Cover of Gombeens at the Gate, ‘Night’s Candles Burnt Out’, Seán Keating (1929)
Contrast that with Irish Water. Uisce Éireann cost a lot of money to set up but about half this went on consultancy payments. After a slew of gaffes and about-turns, the company’s role is now confined to sending out bills and installing meters. Worse still, these meters are not even used to conserve water, their original purpose. Local authorities, now saddled with additional layers of staff, still do the actual work of fixing pipes. And Irish Water says it would cost some €100m to abolish itself. The upshot of this debacle: essential water infrastructure is not being upgraded, one of the primary goals in setting up the utility in the first place.
Striving to achieve the common good by managing (and conserving) a shared public resource like water depends on old-fashioned virtues like co-operation, collaboration and self-restraint. Former Minister for State, Fergus O’Dowd, who was involved in setting up Irish Water, is now a critic. He warns about “forces at work” with “agendas” to privatise the utility. When narrow economic self-interest takes over, what we describe as ‘gombeen behavior’ in our book, things are sure to go awry.
Irish Water suggests our ability to plan, manage and deliver national projects has deteriorated since Independence.
Character (individual integrity) combined with idealism (selfless desire for the greater good) seem to be noticeably absent in public life.
Character, freedom and excellence are inextricably linked. Being free means to discern characteristics which allow oneself to flourish; striving to be the best by doing excellent work.
Character played a huge role in both the 1916 Rising and the Irish Revival (1890-1920). Pádraig Pearse, for all of his inner contradictions, evinced many character strengths, from his personal love of learning to his far seeing thinking on public policy in education. From his personal bravery in the Rebellion which led to his execution, to the transcendent themes of justice, fairness, hope and spirituality that pepper the Proclamation.
Common to all Revival organisations, whether the Gaelic League, the Co-operative Movement, the GAA, and others, was a shared gospel of self-help and pride in place. Though never explicitly articulated in any one document, certain key characteristics were quite distinct and found across these organisations.
The building of character figured prominently. The Irish Co-operative Movement, founded by Horace Plunkett exemplifies this. Plunkett preached a gospel of self-reliance through mutual help, traveling about the country with messianic zeal speaking to sceptical farmers and facing fierce opposition from entrenched elites, especially commercial traders and ‘gombeen men’.
Plunkett blamed restraints imposed by London for sapping the industrial instincts of Irish people, preventing the development of commercial morality:
“Not only has the tree been stripped, but the roots have been destroyed.”
He argued that if the people were to raise themselves up, they would need to develop a capacity for collaboration, an internal locus of control, and the self-confidence to believe that they could foster real change.
Inspired by Plunkett, the Movement focused upon the development of individual and collective character, and concerned itself with better and more widely available education, propagation of village libraries, and anything which would improve the vitality and overall quality of rural life.
Although many Revivalists were strange bedfellows, collectively they contributed to a rising tide of patriotic self-confidence. Together they nurtured a deeper and more acute sense of place, all necessary for the development of character and an innovative and entrepreneurial mind-set. Sadly this all seems noticeable by its absence today.
Éamon de Valera
To speak today of character is to often stand accused of trying to drag Ireland back to a de Valerian pipedream. Yet, like many of his peers of the time, de Valera lived frugally, rarely (if ever) taking a holiday. 2016 politicians take note! The just formed 32nd Dáil is off on its 3 month summer recess!
Politicians of today could learn from de Valera’s scrupulous behaviour with nary a hint of corruption during his long career. On the contrary, he suffered from an obsessional fear of being seen as unjust to his foes. One Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis party member directed this sharp jibe at him:
“The policy of Mr de Valera is to forgive your enemies and forget your friends.”
For all its flaws, the civil service bureaucracy in the early decades of the State managed its affairs with a scrupulous commitment to integrity. Up to recent decades, it provided deeply considered advice as a crucial line of defence against the intense pressure of vested interests. This featured prominently in the much praised economic road map of Seán Lemass and T.K. Whitaker.in the late 1950s.
Public servants believed in protecting the national interest, but as this extract from Michael Casey’s book Ireland’s Malaise shows, such idealism no longer holds sway:
“…..at a (recent) conference, the then secretary general of the Department of Finance argued passionately that civil servants in Ireland.…were motivated solely by the public interest, and if they were to be criticised at all, it would be for ‘excessive zeal’. Most of those attending the conference were public servants and the entire hall swayed with barely suppressed laughter. The vast majority of public officials in that room did not believe any longer that the national interest was a guiding star.”
The Nyberg Report pointed out that among the main factors that led to the 2008 banking crisis were groupthink, a pervasive pressure for consensus, and a general hostility to contrarian views.
So what lessons have been learned from the recent economic downtown? None as far as I can tell. Policy-makers are heading down the same well-trodden path.
Since the 1960s when our so-called ‘enterprise culture’ emerged, cronyism and ‘cosying up’ have become the norm. Profit is not seen as payment for working hard and taking risks but as a pay-off for being an ‘insider’.
Ireland inspired the world with its Shannon Scheme. But we no longer compete for poll position on a league table featuring the best in idealism and character. A recent New York Times piece peppered descriptions of Ireland with phrases like ‘addicted to tax breaks’, ‘beggar-thy-neighbor’ policies and ‘tax dodges’.
Perhaps Friedrich Engels, co-author with Karl Marx of The Communist Manifesto, hit the nail on the head when he wrote in an 1869 letter to Marx:
“…the worst about the Irish is that they become corruptible as soon as they stop being peasants and turn bourgeois. True, this is the case with most peasant nations. But in Ireland it is particularly bad.”
In our book Gombeens at the Gate, we put forward a new paradigm for the next wave of Irish development. We should compete on distinctive characteristics that are difficult or impossible for others to duplicate. With three months off and only 100 pages long it should be an easy read for the new TDs of the 32nd Dáil.
Please comment below or feel free to email me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gombeens at the Gate is available online at: www.finbarrbradley.ie.