Thursday, July 09, 2020

Opinion: Adrian Langan

Happier times: Former taoiseach Leo Varadkar during a past visit to Westport, home town of his party colleague – and former minister – Michael Ring. Picture: Maxwells

Being from one place and spending your life in another means you spend a lot of time lost in translation. For me, it’s because Mayo is home and Dublin is where I live. On so many things, people in Dublin just don’t get the west. Returning the favour, people in the west often don’t get Dublin.

Everybody from the west who lives or has lived in Dublin has experienced this from both sides. It struck me again with great force when listening to and discussing the debate around Cabinet appointments last week.

You could tell it first of all in the tone of the political response, which had a Dublin mindset written all over it. The messages from the new administration went as follows. Firstly, it was stressed that Governments are national – as if this was news. Secondly, it was emphasised that no region can be guaranteed representation – the reality of which was rather what the row was all about. Thirdly, we were informed that being in the cabinet is not about delivering pork barrel projects for constituencies – a most worthy message, and one with which I totally agree, but which defies all evidence to the contrary. Fourthly, the west was advised not to worry, for we’ve got your back, with the new government thinking about the west of the Shannon day and night – thinking yes, while perhaps also wondering what is to be found west of that mighty river.

And finally, there was the slightly wounded appeal from them: Ah now, Cromwell? Steady on folks. We’re not that bad.

Now when those lines were exhausted, the communications plan swung into Stage 2. Sure, they aren’t full ministers, it was confirmed, but don’t worry, everyone’s voice will be equally heard. That last one in particular made me laugh. Since the night of the bank bailout in 2008, cabinet government as we knew it in Ireland, where big decisions were taken collectively, has never recovered. We saw this also during the Fine Gael/Labour government, with the creation of the Economic Management Council where four ministers made all the key decisions. We saw it again during the pandemic when everyone knows that only a small number of cabinet ministers mattered, with many others managing to express their views via anonymous briefings to the newspapers. ‘Everyone’s voice will be equally heard’. Ho ho.

Finally, Leo Varadkar had the good sense to say, yeah never mind any of that, we got this wrong and we’ll fix it when we reshuffle. It was an apology without exactly saying sorry, which – in politics – still seems to be the hardest word.

Because the political error was so obvious, some Dubliners were kind of sympathetic for a while. At the same time, they didn’t fully understand, and at the end of the day, they certainly didn’t care. You could see by Day 2 of the story that they were getting bored, irritated and even a little annoyed about it. The subtext was ‘here comes that crowd from the west again, giving out’. Dublin people listen to representatives from the west and they all too often hear a sense of entitlement, of grievance, a bitter complaint about our lot.

It is very similar to how the English historically liked to see the Irish – with the shrug of the shoulders which says you can’t please that lot no matter what you do. It is the classic way that people who consider themselves the ‘centre’ like to see those on the ‘periphery’. The centre of things for any person is, naturally enough, where they are standing. Peripheral is how the centre sees anything that is not it. That tension was at the heart of the matter last week.

Strangely enough, Dublin people form many of their views about what they see as the periphery for positive reasons, as when they come west they have limited experiences. They see big houses in the countryside, feel the fantastic community spirit around the place, visit Westport in July and then think ‘what are these people complaining about?’ There is a version of that in the west, which the economist Colm McCarthy recounted. When people from home come shopping in Dublin they go to Henry Street and Grafton Street and think wow, this place is booming. Whereas in fact, in many other areas within Dublin, the independent bakers and butchers and newsagents are closing for exactly the same reasons they are so challenged in the west.

Mayo county councillor, Fianna Fáil’s Paul McNamara was among those appalled by the omission of Dara Calleary from Micheál Martin’s list of senior cabinets.

So those differences in perception and limited understanding of each other explain why so much needs translation. If you’re not from a place, you don’t know what its rhythms are, what’s in its heart. So when you live in Dublin but your heart is in Mayo you find yourself constantly explaining both sides to each other. It is not always the route to popularity.

If these recent events produce in the west an even deeper desire to do down Dublin, it would be entirely unhelpful. In a global world, this country needs a big city – in our case, Dublin – to be its engine of economic activity and expertise. That is how we will continue to generate the serious resources we need for the future. As with so many debates around social justice and balance in Irish life, you can’t remove the reality of the economic dimension from the discussion. Calling for fairness or balance without that economic perspective is like cursing the rain while denouncing umbrellas.

How the west engages with and accesses the opportunities from that success of Dublin should be what the debate is about. Balance will come from getting a larger slice of a growing cake. So one of the key things needed in the west is the social and economic infrastructure to plug into more of the economic activity which will in the future continue to be channelled into this country through Dublin. In that context debates around broadband; remote working; rebuilding our towns and villages to make them attractive places to live; the role the west can play in the green energy revolution, and ensuring excellent transportation links to Dublin are absolutely key.

On the other hand, there needs to be greater understanding on the east coast of the point the west is making – that the people who live here are at the centre of their reality, and can’t be dismissed as peripheral.

Let’s try a little exercise to illustrate that point, noting that the population of Dublin and of the region from Donegal to Limerick is broadly the same. If the FF/FG/Green government, or Sinn Féin leading a new government of the left, did not appoint one single cabinet minister from Dublin, there would be no need for anyone to explain the problem.

There would be no need for a dramatic use of language by the editor of a local newspaper in the city – about, say, the ‘culchies raiding the pale’ – to highlight the issue. It would not simply be an interesting or quirky diversion from the main news of the day. It could not be explained away as a lack of co-ordination among the political leaders. It would be a political crisis that would lead the news, and for days. But of course, such a thing would never lead the evening news, or become a political crisis, because such an extraordinary thing would never happen.

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