Friday, November 12th, 2010

For those of us contributing to social commentary at present there is a constant tension between the incessant streams of bad news it seems we are all confronted with daily and a desire to avoid portraying contemporary Ireland as in the midst of ineluctable apocalypse.  We know there is a sun somewhere behind all those clouds but sometimes it’s just so hard to see.  If we are to take Brian Cowen’s point of view, all the naysayers pointing out the nation’s ills are not acting in the interests of the country or any sort of economic recovery.  This perspective is far from constructive in that it tries to hide Ireland’s problems behind what amounts to a net-curtain of artifice.  Hard times, in a variety of manifestations and degrees of severity, are simply a reality for the majority of the population at the moment.

An article in today’s Guardian paints this picture of this latent despair rather aptly.  Without being overly sensationalist it offers a series of snapshots of some of the ways people’s economic and emotional wellbeing has been challenged by the recession.  More than exhibiting trenchant anger, these vignettes suggest a deeper sense of melancholy disillusionment at the way the country has turned out, and the injustice of the Government’s handling of the situation.

As much of the discussion on this blog has suggested, the crash has literally trapped many people in negative equity, on ghost estates, in places where the lives they constructed have crumbled or stand on the precipice of doing so.  They have been stuck in place, imprisoned by the banks in an economic quicksand.

The crash has affected more people than those in heavy mortgage debt, however. There is a whole generation of young people who are emerging into maturity in a country that seems to have sold their future out from under them.  One of those interviewed for the Guardian piece expressed quite succinctly what I think is a common feeling of hopelessness.  Explaining why he was considering emigration he suggested

“I know we are the country’s future but at the same time why should we stay and pay for someone else’s mess?”

This sense of loss has been keenly felt by young people.  For those swaths of society exiting school and college it seems like they have been denied a chance at building a life for themselves in their own country.  In contrast to those who have been almost forcibly stuck to place, many others are being denied their homeplace.  Ireland has been here before during the 1980s, when emigration was almost a necessity, especially for high-skilled labour.  This situation is creeping back into the everyday language of the youth.  A couple of years ago in Ireland emigration was a choice that an individual made.  Now there is a sense that it will again become a choice that is made for us.  Nor is this sense of disillusion confined to the indigenous Irish.  The same fears are undoubtedly felt by many others who have come to Ireland and set up lives for themselves.  Many people I talk to now have emigration in their mind as a definite possibility.

Ireland’s longstanding history of emigration was reversed during the boom.  For the young people currently in the labour market it finally felt like a life of your choosing could be made in Ireland, that you wouldn’t have to start anew, that you wouldn’t have to leave behind friends and family to do it.  Now these ghosts that we thought were gone have returned, spectres of an all too recent past come to haunt the freshly killed dreams of the youth.  We hear all the time about the necessity to build a knowledge economy, yet Ireland is complacently slipping into brain drain mode once again.  We can debate the economic sense of the decisions currently being made about who is saved from the Celtic Tiger wreck and who is not.  What is clear I think is that the outcomes of these decisions are going to be more than financial; they will be emotional and psychological and open up wounds that may never fully heal.

As for seeing the sun through the clouds of despair, it is not just a case of looking on the financial bright side.  Of course there is still much joy and love in people’s lives; the despair is not all encompassing by any means.  But to stare down the country as it stands, I think, necessitates that we feel this disillusionment.  As Bonnie Prince Billy once sang , “I wake up and I’m fine, with my dreaming still on my mind, but it don’t take long you see, for the demons to come and visit me”.

Cian O’ Callaghan

(with Rob Kitchin)

As reported in today’s Irish Times, a judgement in the Commercial Court has found that Minister Gormley acted outside his legislative powers when he intervened in a land-use zoning case in Dun-Laoghaire Rathdown.  In April 2009, the County Council voted to rezone a ‘neighbourhood centre’ in Carrickmines to the status of ‘District Centre’ to facilitate the ambitious retail development plans of Tristor developments and developer Michael Cotter, against the advice of the County Manager. In March of this year Minister Gormley directed this rezoning to overturned, arguing that the draft development plan failed to provide an’overall strategy for the proper planning and sustainable development of the area’as required by the Planning and Development Act, 2000.

Site Plan of 'The Park' Carrickmines,

The court judgement found that the Minister was not entitled to impose his own views on the proper planning and development of a local area. In effect it clearly establishes that local councillors retain significant decision-making powers on planning matters. Whatever about the merits or otherwise of the land-use zonings in question, from the point of view of local democracy and politcal accountability this must be seen as a positive judgement. It would set a poor precedent if the Minister could intervene in any planning issues without a clear case being made that a local decision was in breach of the planning legislation.

It is through Court cases like this that the full implications of the 2010 Planning and Development (Ammendment) Act will be tested. There may a considerable grey area between what is considered a signficant and clear-cut breach of the National Spatial Strategy, Ministerial Guidelines or  Regional Planning Guidelines and what is just about acceptable. In practice, political decision-making at the local level will continue to be a significant element of the planning system. Part of living in a democratic society includes accepting the power of elected representatives to make decisions on the behalf of the citizens they represent. There is of course also a responsibility on elected representatives to make informed decisions which fall within the parameters set by legislation and policy and serve the public interest, but that is another story.

Cormac Walsh

Some readers may be interested in this full length article by Proinnsias Breathnach in the international Geography journal, Antipode (Vol. 42 No. 5, pp 1180–1199)


From Spatial Keynesianism to Post-Fordist Neoliberalism: Emerging Contradictions in the Spatiality of the Irish State

Abstract: The transition from Fordism to post-Fordism has been accompanied by profound changes in the spatiality of west European states. The hierarchical, top-down and redistributive structures that typified the Fordist welfare state have been replaced by more complex spatial configurations as elements of economic and political power have shifted both downwards to subnational territorial levels and upwards to the supranational level. A major debate has developed around the nature of these emerging forms of state spatiality and of the processes underpinning their formation. This paper examines how these processes have operated in the particular case of the Republic of Ireland. Here, the spatiality of the state was founded on a peculiar post-colonial combination of a localised populist politics and a centralised state bureaucracy. While this arrangement was quite suited to the spatial dispersal of industrial branch plants which underpinned regional policy in the 1960s and 1970s, it has become increasingly problematic with the more recent emergence of new trends in the nature and locational preferences of inward investment. This is reflected in the profound conflicts that have attended the formulation and implementation of the National Spatial Strategy, introduced in 2002. The result is a national space economy whose increasing dysfunctionality may now be compromising the very development model upon which Ireland’s recent spectacular economic growth has been built.