The politics of blah, blah, blah

Notes from the Western Periphery

CONSPICUOUS BY ITS ABSENCE The cover of the latest government National Development Plan features Mayo’s Great Western Greenway, but remarkably, the word Mayo is not mentioned anywhere in the 184-page document.

John Bradley

My thoughts this week are influenced by the recent publication of the revised National Development Plan 2021-2030. This is where the government updates and presents its investment priorities for the next ten years, as part of national planning for a future that extends out to the year 2040.
During this period our economy faces many challenges. A rapid rise in population; a housing crisis; an aging population; a more hostile and fragmented global economic environment; Brexit-induced chaos in Britain. The list is endless. But the biggest challenge is likely to be the most difficult to anticipate. The next twenty years will be our last chance to prepare for the kinds of drastic changes in our economy and in our personal lives that will be needed if the adverse consequences of human-induced climate change are to be handled and contained at a tolerable level.
Dealing with these challenges is made more difficult by the fact that we live in a world where political communication has come to be dominated by an obsession with public relations and the instant, often hostile, social media reactions.  
This is a world where the objective is no longer to anticipate future problems, to present them honestly to the people, and to act responsibly to address or mitigate them. As problems emerge and action is required, the approach has become a process of avoidance, delay, postponement, denial; anything rather than send a message to a fractious electorate that choices must be made, costs must be borne, and behaviour must change. Any political party that takes ‘brave’ decisions requiring costs or change fears that it will pay a high price when it next faces the electorate.  
In a speech to the Youth4Climate summit in Milan, Italy, on Tuesday, September 28, Greta Thunberg excoriated global leaders over their promises to address the climate emergency, dismissing them as ‘blah, blah, blah’.
“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah,” she said. “This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”
The situation is even more serious than ‘no action’.  In many cases wrong actions are continued, new bad actions are taken, and an already serious problem becomes even worse.  Our attitude to climate change is captured well in the exhortation attributed to St Augustine (354-430) - “Please God, make me good, but not just yet.”
History teaches us that when necessary actions are postponed, the price of delayed action is always higher. For example, the dangers posed by the rise the fascism in Germany in the 1930s were clear to anyone who was even mildly observant. Lack of decisive action and the concessions to Hitler at Munich in 1938 made war inevitable in 1939. The cost of delay was catastrophic for the world.
In my lifetime, there have been three occasions when serious systemic political failures in Ireland were the primary causes of catastrophic economic consequences. The first was the existential crisis of the 1950s when sclerotic and inward looking policies that had isolated Ireland from post-war reconstruction and international trade produced stagnation and massive outmigration. The second was the economic recession of the 1980s, when reckless and extravagant public expenditure policies of the late 1970s left the economy naked and vulnerable to the global recession that followed the OPEC 2 oil crisis.  
The third, and by far the worst, was the financial and fiscal crisis of 2008. Actions and inactions during the preceding years blew away the gains of the solid growth achievements of the 1990s and almost sank the economy under a mountain of barely sustainable debt.
The subliminal message conveyed in the revised National Development Plan is one where tomorrow will simply be a continuation of today, but much better after €165 billion (of your money!) has been spent, much of it on building new roads and high-speed rail links between Belfast, Dublin and Cork. The Northern and Western Region is thrown some sops, of course, but do not be fooled by the glossy, optimistic picture conveyed by the scatter of modestly priced ‘rural regeneration’ projects that populate the Plan. The bulk of the expenditure will be directed elsewhere, feeding a market-led process that has produced regionally unbalanced development which will get worse.
The NW region is cut off, to a considerable extent, from the more dynamic prosperity process of the eastern and southern parts of our island. This isolation was created by historical circumstances in previous centuries and cannot be blamed on the present government. But continued neglect in their National Development Plan of genuine, structural strategic development actions in the West is inexcusable.
You cannot expect the rest of our country to care.  Why should they if the people of the west don’t seem to care either? It is up to you to decide if crumbs from the Leinster House table will be enough or whether you want genuine strategic development in this region. If you want it, you must fight for it.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.