A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Apropos something else altogether, Utah Phillips is supposed to have said that `the Earth is not dying: it is being killed and the people doing it have names and addresses.’ There have been a number of recent books, some of them very good, about the corruption, mediocrity and stupidity that have led to the present state of the nation; some of them have named the people responsible, whether the property developers and beef barons who bought the politicians, or the politicians who let themselves be bought. Conor McCabe’s book is the first to ask, and to answer, the question: how did these people become so powerful in the first place?
It is worth remembering just what a pig’s mickey has been made of Ireland. The commercial banks have run large scale tax frauds and stolen from their customers; property developers have abandoned unfinished housing estates and bribed politicians to get new sites; the economy exists in order to service foreign multinationals. This was how things operated before the crash: this was business as usual. Since the crash, the country has been mortgaged to the IMF to pay the gambling debts of the speculators, emigration has restarted and an already feeble welfare state has been subjected to cuts which will leave even more people dying on trolleys in hospital corridors.
At the height of the boom, the then Taoiseach said that for the first time ever, Ireland could decide what it wanted, and go out and pay for it. As it turned out, he wanted a stadium; development of infrastructure, education, and health were not even considered. Sins of the Father addresses the question of why certain groups in society were given, or allowed to take, such power in Irish society that they could effectively block any rational development strategy. The narrative is built around beef, banks and builders.
The beef industry in Ireland long specialized in exporting live cattle, mainly to Britain, with little change after independence. Despite a number of government-sponsored inquiries over the last century, it was never considered a good idea to develop indigenous processing industries, to retain added value within the country. McCabe describes the chain of production, as Taylorist as anything inside a factory, by which small farmers on poor land take the risks involved in raising calves, before selling on to fatteners, with bigger farms, who then sell to ranchers who finish the cattle for export. The risk is pushed onto the small farmer and the profits are taken by the big ranchers. A short-sighted refusal to adopt modern methods of increasing yield or to specialize in breeds of cattle properly suited to beef or dairy production led to the development of a stunted agricultural sector. When Ireland received Marshall Plan aid, most of it was used for land reclamation, rather than to develop productive industries.
Meanwhile, Irish development policy was based on foreign investment, with the attractions of tariff-free access to the UK market, and unlimited repatriation of capital. This led to the development of what politicians are pleased to call a service industry economy. The most developed sectors of the Irish economy, and those with the greatest political influence, are construction, because new businesses need their factories built and their workers housed, finance, because multinationals want their tax minimized, and law, because they want to get away with it. The net contribution to the development of Irish society has been almost nil. This is most obvious in the Irish Financial Services Centre, in central Dublin, where foreign companies set up offshore subsidiaries, as did Irish ones, where they could filter money to benefit from exceptionally low corporate tax rates, and some of the lightest touch regulation on offer anywhere in the world. Not long after the IFSC was established, it was investigated by the German and Swedish governments, concerned that it was being used to avoid tax, and it has indeed turned out to be an essential part of the notorious `double Irish’, which is at least as filthy as it sounds. All of this, ranging from sharp practice to outright criminality, was ignored by regulators and politicians.
The dominance of the banks was aided by the policies pursued in construction, especially of housing. For many years, Irish governments offered subsidies for the construction of new houses, so that taxpayers’ money was used to build private homes which the majority of taxpayers could never afford. When schemes existed to allow local authorities to lend directly to individuals for house purchase, the criteria for loans were so tight that very few working class people qualified for them. Meanwhile, less public housing was being built for rent and what already existed was sold off, or tenants were encouraged to move out. McCabe discusses the effect of this on the new suburbs of West Dublin, especially Tallaght, where I grew up.
In the early eighties, the government introduced a scheme to offer tenants five thousand pounds to give up their right to council housing if they purchased a private dwelling, in effect a subsidy to the construction sector. The effect was that in areas such as Jobstown and Fettercairn in West Dublin (I went to school with people from Fettercairn), the people with jobs, the only ones who could get mortgages, moved out, and the estates were abandoned to the unemployed: 177 families left Fettercairn, and likewise Jobstown, where the unemployment rate was 65 per cent. In a 2001 study, six electoral districts in Dublin had exceptionally high numbers of heroin-related deaths in 1999: two of those districts were Fettercairn and Jobstown.
The subsidy to private builders was not limited to housing. Government policy from the sixties onwards was to offer tax breaks for the construction of office buildings, already in oversupply, and then rent them from the developers, in effect, paying twice for a facility which the country did not own. On the other hand, it did mean that the developers who funded the political parties came out ahead.
The corruption of Irish life has a certain comedy value and a number of writers have catalogued the (literal) crimes of those in charge of the failed state, which is now relapsing into its traditional role of supplying human livestock to the world’s labour markets. The problem is that outrage is not action. Without an understanding of why things are this way, and not some other way, Ireland will remain in the hands of the mediocre, at best, and the outright criminal, at worst. Conor McCabe has written an analysis of Ireland which, as he put it, explains to the person on the bus from Dublin to Cavan why it is that he lives fifty miles from his job. It also explains why so many Irish people live five thousand miles from home. Where other writers have assumed that the problem is one of criminal people making the decisions, Sins of the father explains why it was inevitable that such decisions would be made, and why they will go on being made while the priorities of the Irish elite remain unchanged.
Sins of the Father, Conor McCabe, ISBN 978-1-84588-693-6