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Rule-Breakers: Why ‘Being There’ Trumps ‘Being Fair’ in Ireland

There have been many books recently attending to the parlous state of the Irish economy and who’s to blame for it all. Niamh Hourigan, a UCC academic, has tried quite successfully to account for the whole sorry mess by looking at Irish people’s values. In “Rule-Breakers: Why ‘Being There’ Trumps ‘Being Fair’ in Ireland” much of her perspective depends on an understanding of Irish history, in particular our colonial history; but also she concerns herself with human nature, and her realistic approach to blame is welcome.

Hourigan’s thesis is basically that the Irish have a tendency to value relationships over rules and that, while this is certainly not a bad thing in every instance, it can cause serious problems, especially economic ones. Colonialism trained the Irish – so the theory goes – to be outwardly complicit in a system that we privately resented. Resisting it offered little in the way of advancement. British treatment of those who objected to Pax Britannica is well-documented. Our perception that the rules were unfair was nonetheless very real, and we subtly circumvented those roles in a myriad ways which can be conveniently enough categorised as favouring relationships over rules.

The founding fathers of the State such as de Valera, in league with the Catholic Church, espoused enough respect for rules to provide a reasonably stable state from 1922 onwards. However, prosperity was unforthcoming until the 1960s and it came with add-ons that helped sew the seed for the crisis in 2008. In the early few decades of the State, votes were earned through favours; latterly favours were bartered for money. “State capture” is the changing of the rules (rather than simply bending or breaking them) to facilitate these elites. Much of this is of course predicated on relationships – think planning corruption and brown envelopes passing between politicians and their businessmen buddies – but even when rules are introduced to solve the problem, they too are viewed with derision.

Not only has there been a long-standing default belief in Irish society that it is who you know that matters, but even ostensible impartiality fails. The differences in how various individuals have been treated by the State in recent times regarding bankruptcy are compellingly outlined in the book. Those who contributed disproportionately to the crash (i.e. those in NAMA) successfully lobby the courts and maintain their privileged lifestyles, while others less fortunate are dispossessed. The parallels with the late 19th century Land War are striking.

There is one set of rules for some, another for others.

The Irish still maintain a difficult relationship with what Hourigan calls the “weak rules/strong relationships balance.” We recognise that people who broke the rules should be punished while we also demonstrate a desire for preferential treatment when it suits us. Hourigan quotes one woman who successfully managed to have her sick child moved up a waiting list while acknowledging that others may well have been unfairly treated as a result. What sometimes emerges from the evidence is that we tend to deserve the government we get yet we complain when others behave the way we sometimes do ourselves, especially when they can advance as a result.

The blame therefore can be attributed to everyone, but to varying degrees. Clearly government and its business-elite associates must carry a huge share of the burden. However, Irish culture more generally is also to blame and Hourigan doesn’t shy away from encouraging us all to reflect on our own culpability.

“Rule-Breakers” isn’t just another in a long line of books on the Celtic Tiger and how it all went wrong; it tries to get its reader to see a much bigger picture and accept that our collective mindset is, well, a bit “Irish.”

R.H.