What should you do when you realise you’ve made a bad mistake? Own up? Accept responsibility? Nonsense – when in doubt, look about! Although by no means a new phenomenon (Irish people have always had a masochistic need to elect the irresponsible), the government has in recent years become quite adept at apportioning blame at a societal level for disasters of its own making on the one hand and then steadfastly committing to individual solutions for inherently systematic problems on the other. Whether it be an insultingly uninformed approach to housing, the response to the pandemic, or even the Marie-Antoinette-like pronouncement of Minister of State Seán Flemming that those concerned with inflation should just “shop around”, there exists a dangerous belief among those in positions of power in Ireland that problems of a systemic nature can be solved at the level of the individual. This is false.
“Those in positions of power in Ireland have long treated public problems with private solutions.”
When Minister of State for Finance Seán Flemming recently argued on RTÉ’s Drivetime that his constituents would be well served by opting to shop around for better prices when faced with a rising cost of living “rather than complaining on what the Government can do”, he rightfully earned both harsh criticism and pitiful mockery. Yet behind such a seemingly innocuous, though clearly economically illiterate, statement lies a more serious problem: those in positions of power in Ireland have long treated public problems with private solutions.
“So much for hoping the ‘all in it together’ attitude would outlive the pandemic.”
This extends beyond the farcical commentary of underachieving politicians. Despite the fact that the people of Ireland have now had to suffer rising residential prices for close to a decade with no real equivalent growth in wages, the government exercised for years a near-homicidal commitment to treating a national problem primarily at the level of the individual – devoting huge resources to First Time Buyer and Rent to Buy schemes that, although beneficial to a fortunate few, only served to exacerbate rising prices generally. Even today, the government continues to fail in the delivery of its commitment to increase the supply of affordable homes in response to demand. This myopia is by no means limited to elected representatives however – it’s worth recalling the claims of Conor Skehan, TUD planning lecturer and Housing Agency chief between 2013-2018, that Irish people should “stop ourselves to be painted into a picture of being victims” and instead “move somewhere cheaper” in the face of rising house prices. So much for hoping the ‘all in it together’ attitude would outlive the pandemic.
Yet even in response to the pandemic, the government has shown an unnerving reluctance to accept that societal problems cannot be solved by individual actions alone. Although responsible for introducing the restrictions generally necessary to minimise the spread of COVID-19, the government’s implementation of these rules often arrived too late to avoid the unnecessary deaths that might have been avoided, had it initially relied on more than unenforced guidelines. Even now, this pull to the individual in response to the systemic rears its head again – despite there being no noticeable pressure for the change, we are now told that masks are again to be only voluntary when indoors. A naked attempt to finally bring the ‘pandemic bounce’ (currently the El Dorado for government parties) to Ireland, the same faulty idea rests therein; that the individual is best suited to deal with problems of inherently wider, societal seriousness.
There is a strange irony to this. Back in the seat of government only a decade after its mismanagement and devastation of the Irish economy still vividly recalled by many, Fianna Fáil has little to boast about in its recent history. Indeed when talking to a party campaigner, you’re more likely to hear a call-back to the social housing programmes of the 1940s (itself something the modern organisation shows no capacity to achieve) than any reference to its last decade of life. Yet if there is one policy achievement from the 21st century Fianna Fáil can actually boast of, it only points to the inadequacy of dealing with large-scale problems at the level of the individual. Enacted in 2004 by none other than Taoiseach Mícheál Martin himself when serving as Minister for Health, the smoking ban has undeniably saved countless lives and made indoor eating/drinking a more enjoyable experience for most. It also demonstrates just how important engaging with systemic issues at the appropriate level is – would ‘just don’t smoke inside’ have had quite the same effect?
“The claws of a neoliberal ideology deliberately blind to the failings of a purely individual-oriented approach to societal problems such as unemployment, housing costs or healthcare can be found in the attitude to problem solving of countless governments across the world.”
This is by no means a peculiarly Irish phenomenon. The claws of a neoliberal ideology deliberately blind to the failings of a purely individual-oriented approach to societal problems such as unemployment, housing costs or healthcare can be found in the attitude to problem solving of countless governments across the world. Yet after two years of a pandemic in which it was made clear time and time again that collective health measures and large-scale expansionary fiscal policy alone offered the solution to many of the problems plaguing Irish life, it is time the government abandon its myopic focus on the individual and learn new tricks.