Photo by Anthony Cronin
The results of a survey dubbed the Good Country Index were released earlier this week. Weirdly, Ireland was officially named the best country in the world, ahead of Finland in 2nd, Britain in 7th and the United States in 21st. The survey, which drew on a wide range of data from the UN and other international organisations, claims to measure what each country on Earth has contributed to the good of humanity – and, conversely, what it has taken away. Iraq, Vietnam and Libya comprised the bottom three.
Anyone living in Ireland, as I am, could be forgiven for asking the question What The Fuck? In 2014, the country bears more resemblance to a flailing amateur boxer than a world heavyweight champion, throwing desperate punches with a glazed look in the eyes which suggests Ireland already knows it's beaten. Meanwhile, the spectators, of which I'm one, sit by yawning and getting pissed.
Harsh? Not really. Let's look at reality. Let's also allow first that Ireland has contributed a shitload to humanity – James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, good affordable whiskey – and that, despite its flaws, I'm choosing to live here because I love it. Okay?
In 2001 Ireland's unemployment rate was 3.7 percent, the lowest it's ever been. This came with the country's property bubble, which saw hundreds of thousands of people working in construction, building houses to be sold – along with existing ones – at inflated prices, making everyone rich. The banks were offering cheap credit, so people built and bought more houses – it seemed a no-brainer – and all this fell in line with people spending more money elsewhere. Businesses, high on profits, could expand and take on more staff, paying them more as well. Everyone was happy.
But in 2014 the unemployment rate lies at 11.8. What happened was the banks – undermined by the global financial crisis – could no longer afford to keep the cheap credit going, and the property bubble burst. People lost their jobs, businesses went under and anyone who had drunk the Kool-Aid and bought houses (everyone, basically) got caught holding a debt grenade when the banks, who had been relieved of their own debt by a complicit government, came calling with bailiffs and a very large dog. Essentially, the shit sandwich we were forced to swallow would appear on the menu as: Pay your debts twice.
Our reaction to the economy's collapse reveals deep flaws in the Irish psyche. Firstly, there have been no protests of note, nor riots. The political awareness of what happened and what is continuing to happen is virtually zero. People have lost their jobs, houses and friends and family members to emigration, every budget in our social services is being slashed to ribbons, and future generations are being buried beneath mountains of debt from which they'll never escape. But the prescription here seems to be inaction, moaning about expenses and some vague tabloid waffle, blaming the Polish for fiddling the dole when most of them have long since gone home.
What very few want to admit is that we've the mentality of a beaten wife. We've almost been put in the ground by inflated property prices yet, secretly, all we're hoping for is another fucking bubble. It doesn't matter what sort of delusion and corruption has to take place for this to happen. We're willing to turn a blind eye, again, if it means a return to the glory days of the mid-2000s and another excuse not to confront the bald reality – which is, if you want a sustainable first-world economy, you actually have to make stuff (which we still don't seem interested in doing).
In its past, Ireland has overcome the British Empire, the Great Famine and decades of recessions far worse than this. Yet what helped us overcome these things was a fight and tenacity that we now seem to lack. The property bubble made us soft. We lived high on the hog for ten years and gained a sense of entitlement that now even the empty bedrooms of our children can't seem to shake. We're like a snake – St. Patrick reference! – who, having swallowed a sheep, basked in the glow of his meal, only for another snake to come along and eat him. It pains me to say it, but this generation of Irish people will never protest anything.
But what about our younger people, those too young to have really experienced the bubble? Like I said, many of them have gone, are going or are trying to go. Whether spurred on by university debt or just an unwillingness to waste their lives rattling around their hometowns on a permanent roundabout of JobBridge gigs – Ireland's equivalent to Workfare – they don't have the time to fight. Every year 90,000 people leave Ireland, most of them young. And the remaining ones? They don't have the will. Disenfranchised, demotivated, they struggle to keep their heads above water and some sense of self-esteem intact as they're funnelled here and there by aforementioned government programmes in the vague hope that – one day – it'll all end.
And yet for those of us still here, Ireland isn't always a nightmare. The natural beauty of our landscape is undeniable in any economy and the people, no matter our shortcomings, are generally sympathetic to suffering, creating communities that help sustain us. Though some have slipped through the net – sadly, Ireland has Europe's second highest rate of suicide – most pubs in the country, for all our negative stereotypes about drinking, offer adults the opportunity to bitch, moan and have someone listen. Is this perfect? No. Is it Irish? Yes.
So, in light of this, I'd say the Good Country Index is flawed. Ireland definitely isn't the best country in the world because, regardless of what it's giving to the good of humanity, it certainly isn't giving all that much to its citizens. What Ireland should be giving to humanity instead – more than culture, science and technology, etc. – is a lesson: If you somehow get rich having done nothing to earn it, don't fuck it up.
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