In a 1973 commentary piece entitled “The Great Forgetting,” New York Times columnist Russell Baker made a startling suggestion. “What the country needs now at the end of the Vietnam War is not amnesty,” he wrote, “but amnesia. It is time to put the whole thing up in the attic.” Mr. Baker went on to say: “Nobody knows what to make of Vietnam right now, and it is in our way…Politicians keep shoving it into our shins. People with axes to grind keep using it to win this argument or clinch that.”
Baker’s words might well apply here in Ireland to the bickering and point-scoring that ensues whenever the property frenzy of the Celtic Tiger era is discussed. The talk can get downright demoralizing. Opposition lawmakers insist their policies would have minimized the subsequent meltdown, while those in power at the time cast themselves as unwitting victims of the global economy. Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, say they were bamboozled by it all.
All the finger pointing isn’t just unpleasant; it stymies real progress. And this moving forward is essential not just for debt-laden Ireland’s economic future. Ireland’s recovery also matters deeply to the European countries that bailed it out with over $85 billion in loans last year.
So, with an Irish general election set for Feb. 25, it’s time to put that contentious Celtic Tiger up in the attic.
Irish politicians need a fresh perspective
Of course, forgetting an entire decade of unprecedented prosperity won’t be easy – especially when it contrasts so strikingly with the current period of 13 percent unemployment and an emigration rate that sees more than 1,000 people per week leaving the country.
But like an amnesia patient waking to a vivid new world, Irish politicians – and their supporters – need to see the country from a fresh perspective, one not dictated by the official party line or past personal grievance. As important, candidates need to speak not to each other, but to the people – and the nation – they aspire to serve.
During the 2008 United States presidential election, those in Ireland who care about such things lamented that a leader of President Barack Obama’s caliber could never emerge here. The rigid party system and the dynastic nature of Irish politics would thwart such a spontaneous candidacy. Perhaps that’s true, but the man’s message might speak to this country still.
In his State of the Union address last month, Mr. Obama offered Americans the type of direction that departing Prime Minister Brian Cowen should have been suggesting to the Irish people months ago. “We will move forward together, or not at all – for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics,” Obama said.
Further on, he delivered a line that Irish voters might easily interpret as a rebuke to their own legislators, who use the national assembly as a private sparring ring, tossing witless jabs across the chamber at one another. “Instead of refighting the battles of the last two years, let’s fix what needs fixing and move forward,” Obama said.
Put the blame-game in the attic...for now
This is not the president at his oratorical best, but the message is clear enough for Irish parliamentarians of every stripe to understand: They need to “get over themselves” and consent to some multilateral forgetfulness in order to deal with the massive economic crisis now facing their country.
Of course, Russell Baker was wise enough, back in 1973, to see that absolute forgetfulness wasn’t an option. “The great forgetting [of Vietnam] wouldn’t be forever,” he wrote. “The attic isn’t for things we want to forget forever. Later…we will go up there and examine this and that on the chance that it will tell us something about who we were once, what sort of times we lived through, what kind of people we have become.”
In Ireland, this societal self-examination will be a relatively easy exercise, given our recent experience with the many inquiries and commissions empowered to investigate various unsavory episodes in Irish life, such as dodgy payments to politicians and child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
The past holds sway here much more firmly than in other countries. So unless Ireland ceases its internal bickering and agrees to "a great forgetting" about the Celtic Tiger era and its disastrous fallout, I see nothing ahead but the same old story. And I fear that the 70-million strong worldwide Irish diaspora will be one of the few growth industries to emerge out of the coming election.
The lesson here is clear: Ireland’s leaders need to put the blame-game in the attic for now, and get on with the business of recovery. The country – and the Continent – demands it.
Boston native Steve Coronella has lived in Ireland since 1992. He is the author of “This Thought’s On Me: A Boston Guy Reflects on Leaving the Hub, Becoming a Dub & Other Topics.”