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Review: Conor McCabe, Sins of the Father – Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy and Peadar Kirby and Mary P. Murphy: Towards a Second Republic – Irish politics after the Celtic Tiger. London: Pluto Press

On a sweltering summer’s evening the crowd packed into Connolly Books, Dublin’s last radical bookshop, heard Conor McCabe’s book presented as “an examination of the house itself and not just of the broken furniture” that could become a “weapon.” The house and the furniture are seriously dilapidated. Following several years of steady growth in the economy and personal income, budget surpluses, even healthier trade surpluses and near-full employment – though also widening inequality – Ireland went into dramatic reversal from 2008.  This small open economy on the periphery of Europe might have struggled just to deal with the impact of the global recession. But it was also hit by a near-terminal crisis in its banking system, collapse of the property development and construction sectors and major shortfalls in the public finances.

In late 2010 the then government of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party negotiated a bailout with the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund (“the troika”) making up to $110 billion available in loans to the state on stringent conditions for reducing public expenditure. The one-time economic wunderkind of Europe now hosts quarterly visitations from troika representatives to check on its good behaviour.  The Irish banks are now wholly or partly owned by the state and the whole population is paying – and will pay for many more years – to keep them afloat.

The crisis has generated a mini-industry in instant histories that produces best-sellers like an analysis by Irish Times journalist Simon Carswell of the rogue Anglo Irish Bank,  whose massive property loans portfolio brought it down and a lot more with it. Business journalists Matt Cooper and Shane Ross have had a strong public response to their narratives of how Ireland went from boom to bust. Prominent essayist and muckraker Fintan O’Toole has detailed and denounced the corruption and stupidity of those in power. Economists Jim Power and Stephen Kinsella have analysed the bailouts of the banks and of the state. Burning bondholders, subordinated loans and debt forgiveness are part of everyday discourse on city streets and in the most remote rural areas.

Historian Conor McCabe told the bookshop gathering how his ambition grew to contribute something much more substantial to the debate. He started by trying to tell the story of his own working-class neighbourhood in Dublin but realised he needed a “macrohistory in order to tell the microhistory”. He went searching for explanations and origins. His contributions to a radical blog, dublinopinion.ie, attracted a publisher’s attention and the expanded blog posts have been shaped into a lively denunciation of key strategic choices that McCabe credits for the present mess the irish Republic is plunged in. These various origins of Sins of the Father are reflected in the book’s considerable strengths and in its several weaknesses.

Having himself emerged from a neighborhood with a large proportion of public housing McCabe examines Ireland’s housing sector. But there is also a more fundamental reason for starting here: the scandalous disproportion of economic effort in construction and property contributed decisively to Ireland’s bubble and its bursting. Of the four chapters on key sectors of the Irish economy, this opening chapter, Housing, is the longest and strongest. McCabe’s skill in archival research shows here to very good effect. He finds evidence in the reports of commissions that the earliest independent Irish governments knew the alternatives available to them. The choices they took deliberately favoured a speculator element in the growing middle class. The early heavy reliance on private property developers to provide housing and office space – including a large part of government office space – has stayed with us.

In considering the property bubble of the 2000s McCabe is a tad excessive perhaps on discounting a socio-cultural dimension to the ‘property madness’ that had young families financially over-stretched and committed to long commutes in their pursuit of home ownership, older couples investing in second, third and further houses as a form of pension and high wage-earners speculating in the totally unfamiliar Bulgarian and Hungarian property markets. McCabe reminds us of the forty-year-old recommendations of a government-appointed commission on controlling land prices that successive governments failed to enact. He successfully weaves the threads from key decisions taken seventy and eighty years ago to the contemporary over-exposure of the banks to property investment and speculative lending and a consequent collapse. In that important sense, we are having the sins of the father – what social scientists call a policy legacy – visited upon us.

McCabe’s treatment of Irish agriculture is much less satisfactory. Following the same cui bono form of inquiry – which social group benefited from key decisions? – he examines, like prescient critics like Ray Crotty long before him, Irish over-reliance on live cattle exports. He identifies the principal beneficiaries as the sub-group of farmers who owned grazing land on which beef cattle were ‘finished’ for export. But live cattle for export have for many years ceased to be the major, or even a major, element of agricultural production. Meat and dairy products – no doubt less completely processed than they might be – are many times more important The chapter on industry is more rounded but also ends early with the critique of industrial strategy by the consulting group Telesis published thirty years ago. The case for strengthening indigenous manufacturing made by that group and by others before and since is valid. The case histories of the Gulf Oil terminal in County Cork and cheap sale of natural resources are well chosen to illustrate the deference to multinational corporations. But the terms of the argument also have shifted with intensive globalisation and in the altered balance between services and manufacturing investment.

Here again McCabe is perhaps too single-minded in his critique, making no reference to the significant growth in employment over the period of export-led, foreign-investment-driven growth.  Even with the drastic downturn of the last three years there are still 70 per cent more people employed in Ireland in 2011 than there were twenty years ago. More recently, he has shown that foreign industry contributed very little directly to employment growth. But the book argues that excessive attention to foreign investment was at a cost to the indigenous sector – so how did employment grow? McCabe is right to point to the benefits that groups like land-owners, builders, commercial property owners, lawyers and accountants derived from the dominant industrial strategy. Here he is building towards the conclusion’s claim that “the middleman is the dominant force in modern Irish capitalism”. He links this to international experience through occasional reference to an avid Irish comprador class but, surprisingly for a historian, does not refer to the emergence in the 19th century of the gombeen as a particular familiar type of Irishman.

The chapter on finance shows how several feasible options for reorganisation of the banking sector were available and how the choices made benefited speculative finance over productive finance. McCabe reminds us of two earlier state bailouts of over-stretched financial services companies. This wider context adds context to the analysis of the almost gratuitous 2008 state guarantee to Irish banks’ loans as well as savers’ deposits. In his narrative of the last few years McCabe acknowledges his debt to several of the instant histories mentioned earlier but the framework he has built is stable and allows him to show very recent (and contested) decisions as a consequence of earlier ones. The transition from essays and blog posts to chapters and a book needed a firmer editorial hand. There are too many repeated phrases and unfinished thoughts. There are too many claims to know what “the fact is” or “the real intention.” McCabe also might have been encouraged to look at more of the critical literature of the past two or three decades on Ireland’s economic and social development, which was ample if largely ignored or derided at the time.

Among those with a long and strong track record in critical analysis of Ireland’s economy and society are Peadar Kirby and Mary Murphy. They take up historically where McCabe leaves off and, like him, they aim not just to interpret the world but also to change it. They examine Ireland’s current financial, economic and political crisis in scholarly detail, drawing on a very large number of academic studies and commentaries. While McCabe presents a narrative, Kirby and Murphy offer a structural analysis based on political economy theory and, especially helpful, international comparisons. A more complex picture emerges of the key economic and political actors who generated the Celtic Tiger phenomenon, for good and/or ill.

The sections on the economy, political institutions and the role of the bureaucracy are replete with citations, statistics and conceptual distinctions; much of the book is densely presented, though with signposts to the prospective reader. Their critique of the neoliberal model of capitalism and of its political shaping is strong, though it wavers a bit under the weight of analytical terms such as “technocractic developmentalism”, “fiscal latitude” and “competition state” and more popular denunciation of “crony capitalism”, “the Fianna Fáil state” and “cosy cartels”.

From the start they stress their interest in exploring realistic alternatives to the present model, though also noting the “passive citizenry”, as observed by other analysts, the “weak public intellectual tradition” and the “absence of counter-discourse” in Ireland. Later, however, they derive some comfort from the February 2011 general election, the wipe-out of Fianna Fáil and the commitment of the new coalition government, including the Labour Party, to significant political and constitutional reform. They consider the battlefield of ideas to be more open than at any time in the history of the state. They draw attention to many progressive civil society initiatives of the last few years and they consider the possibilities for new parties or movements to push for a progressive “second republic”. This, they say, would redefines traditional Irish republicanism in terms of social substance and be based on values of equality, sustainability and robust public debate.

The launch event for Towards a Second Republic was a more formal affair than that of Sins of the Father but it also celebrated the possibility of radical change and the contribution of well-informed analysis and argument to such change. There was an air of optimism too as a strong advocate of a new republic, Labour Party politician, academic and poet, Michael D Higgins, had just been elected president. The “communicative discourse” that Kirby and Murphy urge will have an talented and articulate proponent in the highest office of the land.

 

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