‘The poisonous virus of nationalisation’

Published in Editorial, Issue 1 (January/February 2019), Volume 27


As we commemorate the centenary of the convening of the first Dáil Éireann on 21 January 1919, it is natural that we take stock of the performance of independent Ireland in the interim. The hope and idealism of that first meeting—with a Declaration of Independence, a Message to Free Nations and the adoption of a Democratic Programme—was within a few years cruelly mocked by the rancour of a bitter civil war and the economic realities of a partitioned island. Nevertheless, a stable democracy emerged, bucking the trend in the rest of Europe.

But what could be lauded as stability in the 1930s was clearly stagnation by the 1950s, and Irish people were voting with their feet and leaving in their tens of thousands. And in spite of the subsequent abandonment of protectionism, in the 1980s Prof. Joe Lee observed (Ireland, 1912–1985: politics and society [1989]) that economically Ireland had fallen behind comparable small European states.

At the same time we must acknowledge the efforts that were made to tackle this malign state of affairs. This year also marks the 90th anniversary of the completion of the Shannon scheme (infamously denounced in 1925 by Senator Sir John Keane as ‘the poisonous virus of nationalisation’). Within twenty years a programme of rural electrification was under way, and by the late 1970s the ESB had connected in excess of 420,000 customers in rural Ireland (the last in Kerry’s Black Valley). The effect of this ‘quiet revolution’ cannot be underestimated. In addition, a programme of slum clearnace and public housing was already under way—and all this in spite of severe fiscal constraints.

The contrast with current official ineptitude in relation to the housing crisis and the roll-out of broadband to rural Ireland could not be starker. Just like electricity then, access to broadband now is akin to a basic right. Let’s hope the people of Black Valley aren’t waiting another 50 years for theirs.

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