Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, General, Issue 2 (March/April 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970sDiarmaid Ferriter (Profile Books, £30) ISBN 9781846684685

Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s
Diarmaid Ferriter
(Profile Books, £30)
ISBN 9781846684685

The French historian François Simiand once admonished historians not to ‘forecast the weather from your back garden’, warning against the tendency to seek for explanations in the local and immediate environment and the analysis of internal processes. This may be particularly true when it comes to small countries buffeted by events over which they have no control. Economic as well as political conditions depend to a significant extent on the overall conjuncture within which they are played out. Can 1916 and the War of Independence be understood without locating these events within the complex conjuncture of the rivalry between the European imperial powers?

 

If we look to the past to help us understand the present, then one crucial conjuncture emerges to help us analyse the present perilous state of the Irish Republic, mired in debt and haemorrhaging its young people. In the course of a doleful editorial in the Irish Times of 8 December 1953 the writer pens a portrait of the typical purchaser of a family house:

 

‘The man who wants to buy his own house is generally a man of a salaried “white-collared” class—that is to say a member of the hardest-hit section of the community . . . The incomes of most “white-collared” people, however, lag well behind the cost of living, and the increase in them bears no relationship to the increased cost of houses with the result that houses are a drug on the market.’

Two decades or so later the housing market was on the cusp of change. While the majority of people still lived in private or local authority rented property, people were finding ways of circumventing strict Building Society rules to procure mortgages. But the real winds of change gusted from outside. The collapse of the Bretton Woods Agreement and the deregulation of the financial sector opened the floodgates of cheap credit. The Irish ruling élite, a fatal stew of corruption, greed and stupidity, eagerly embraced this new reality, which, fortuitously or otherwise, dovetailed with the national obsession to own a house, or two. A conjuncture, if there ever was one. Equally fatal was the widespread and unquestioned belief that property prices would rise indefinitely and houses would become a source of wealth. Economists, historians and other experts seemed unwilling or unable to point to the obvious dangers of this nostrum. What we saw in the mid- to late seventies was the beginning of a series of boom-and-bust cycles: when credit expands it drives economic expansion and inflates asset prices, which creates a further spiral of credit. Eventually expanding credit outstrips wages and income and the debt cannot be serviced: the bubble bursts.

Other important changes were also in train: the increased use of contraception and a rise in the child-bearing age freed up women for entry into the workforce at a time when demographic trends in the rest of Europe were leading to labour shortages. Economic expansion, rising incomes, the impact of the rapidly spreading culture of consumerism and financial deregulation fused into an unplanned and scarcely analysed conjuncture which laid the groundwork for the crisis to come.

From this perspective alone, external events in the 1970s were of lasting significance for the Irish economy and society, and what Ferriter points out, or at least implies, is that the Irish political and academic establishment was sadly deficient and self-serving in its response to the changes wrought by the now discredited neo-liberal project which swept the globe. How much of this was down to corruption (a word which does not appear in the book’s index) or sheer incompetence is hard to say. It would be churlish not to praise this book for what it does achieve in offering a panoramic view of the decade of the seventies—although why this ‘tumultuous decade’, as the publisher’s blurb calls it, should so conveniently begin with a zero and end with a nine is hard to fathom—but the price to be paid for this approach, even over 800 or so pages, is a certain lack of depth. For instance, the twenty pages on the Garda leaves one in no doubt that the force was lacking in clear direction, broadly incompetent and more than willing to make up for professional deficiencies by bending the rules in the clear knowledge that they would not be held accountable. The close and basically unmediated relationship between the police and the ruling élite was (and remains) crucial, and the dangers to democracy inherent in this relationship were to become glaringly obvious during the Haughey regime in the next decade.

The episodic nature of the book imposes a narrative rather than an analytic structure, which makes the book very accessible and informative in a head-shaking sort of way. For little seems to have changed since the seventies on any fundamental level. Of course, important social changes have taken place, particularly with regard to the status and rights of women, and two pillars of repression and corruption, the Catholic Church and Fianna Fáil, have been, at least temporarily, discredited. Abuses of power and endemic corruption have been exposed. Yet the structures and culture that allowed these abuses have been scarcely touched and a deeply entrenched reality of inequality and class privilege remains intact. The bishops still sit in their palaces, Fianna Fáil still sits in a dysfunctional Dáil, and the bankers, the new criminal class, still sit in their boardrooms.  HI

 

Jim Smyth lectures in Sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast.
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