Ballyvaughan Signpost

Fintan O’Toole has a piece in the Irish Times today decrying the removal of the road signs at Ballyvaughan.  He argues that it signals three kinds of stupidity.  First, that it erodes a sense of place.  Second, that it undermines local democracy.  Third, that it illustrates a lack of joined up thinking between the NRA and the needs of tourism and local economy.

The argument about place is well made.

“Like the rocks on the nearby seashore, it has accumulated an exotic accretion of barnacles and seaweed, in this case about 20 signs. They point in a conventional way towards other places: Lisdoonvarna, Corofin, Killimer, Fanore, though until fairly recently there were two signs for Lisdoonvarna, one pointing left and the other right. But local businesses and attractions – BBs, Monk’s Pub, the Tea and Garden Rooms, Aillwee Cave – gradually added their own markers. The result was a kind of organic art installation, a riot of letters, colours and angles.

The signs didn’t just point to particular places, however. They also indicated a certain kind of place, an Ireland that is a little bit different, a little bit more richly textured, where place itself is a multi-layered concept. It is not a piece of Paddywhackery or of self-conscious performance for tourists. It’s a real, functional thing that happens to tell you something about the way Irish people think of where they are. … The Ballyvaughan signpost is this kind of conversation stuck on to a pole to form a prickly porcupine of possibilities. …

There are now no pointers at all to the businesses along the coast road to Black Head, one of the most beautiful stretches of Ireland. This may be a small thing in itself, but it points to three different kinds of official stupidity, each of which has had a disastrous effect. The first is the stupidity of not understanding the importance of place. Place isn’t an abstract concept. On the contrary, it’s where all the big things come together – economics and society, the past and the present, the idea of what is distinctive with the idea of a shared space. And one of the things we screwed up so mightily in the boom years was this sense of place. Putting 300 suburban houses on the edge of an old village of 200 houses, leaving the whole thing as a ghost estate, is what happens when a sense of place is lost.

For the NRA, the Ballyvaughan sign isn’t an aspect of a particular place, it’s an affront to the proper sense of placelessness. They see the village as an obstacle to be driven through in the most efficient manner possible. As an NRA spokesman explained: “The purpose of signing on the road network is to promote safety and efficiency by providing for the orderly movement of traffic”. The sin committed by the signpost is that it exceeds its proper purpose of being exactly like every other signpost.”

The other two arguments are a bit more tricky.  Admittedly we’re talking about a signpost here and there is latitude for some commonsense and pragmatism, but at the same time one of the prime reasons we’ve ended up in the mess we’re in is because of a lack of good governance and the fact that we haven’t been following sensible rules and procedures.   The reason we have ghost estates on the edge of villages is not solely because a sense of place was lost and local democracy was not allowed to operate.  In fact, local democracy in the form of councillors were allowed to lose the run of themselves and good practice around planning failed to take place.  There is a clearly a tension here between being over-officious and leaving things too loosely governed.

Exceptionalism is always a difficult issue to deal with.  Exceptionalism around one road sign is okay.  All road signs and it becomes a major issue.  Clearly a balance has to be found between local interests and good governance and democracy.

Rob Kitchin

It’s a year on from Fintan O’Toole’s damning critique of the Celtic Tiger model of development in Ship of Fools and his analysis of the political and economic decisions that sailed Ireland onto the rocks.  In Enough is Enough he turns his attention to what he sees at the core problems at the heart of Ireland’s present woes and what needs to happen to rebuilt a new republic fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.  Split into two parts, in the first half of the book he argues that there are five myths that shape how Ireland functions – these are 1) that Ireland operates as a Republic, 2) that people are politically represented, 3) that the Dail functions as a parliamentary democracy, 4) that every decent service was delivered by charity and through the church rather than by the state, 5) that Ireland is a wealthy country.  In each chapter, he reveals through polemical argument how each of these supposed truths are in fact self-delusions; that there is in fact deep flaws in the nature of Irish political democracy that require fundamental redress.  In the second half of the book, he sets out five ‘decencies’ that should underpin the ideals of new republic.  These are the decencies of security, health, education, equality and citizenship.  In an appendix he sets out 50 suggestions for immediate actions.

Enough is Enough is an engaging read.  O’Toole writes with passion and at a level that is easy to follow.  The argument is polemical and forceful, and he makes good use of sources and data to back-up his contentions.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does feel a little rushed, but clearly this is a book trying to tap into and react to the zeitgeist.  And he makes a convincing case that there are a number of problems with how the Irish political system functions and the ideals that underpin its operation that do need revisiting and revision.  However, whilst he sets out the ways in which he would like reform, it is often at a quite conceptual or abstract level.  Where there are specific suggestions, these often lack sufficient detail as to what changes would need to happen and their consequences.  At a more general level, it is also not clear where the impetus and drive is going to come from to enact the kinds of changes he feels are necessary – it is certainly unlikely to come from the present political classes.  In this sense, the book sets out a broad vision that provides a framing for a more detailed debate, but does not quite set out the road map he wishes for in his opening chapter, nor the mechanisms needed to shift citizens from the present map to his new one.

More broadly, politics and ideals, only gets us so far.  Building a new republic will not simply consist of reconstituting the political base of society and hoping all else flows from that process.  It is clear, to me at least, that we also need to rethink the Irish economic model predicated as it is on a form of neoliberalism.  In other words, the book would have been more powerful if it had been widened to re-envisioning the broader political economy of the country.  Clearly, setting out such a new vision would have been a more challenging task, but one that we undoubtedly need to undertake.  That said, the book is nonetheless an important and timely contribution to the on-going debate about Ireland’s future and it deserves to be read and debated.

Rob Kitchin

 

Fintan O’Toole is one Ireland’s best known social and economic commentators and cultural critics, and Deputy Editor of the Irish Times. Never shy about airing his views, he doesn’t pull his punches in telling it as he sees it, and in Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger he provides a damning critique of both the Celtic Tiger model of development and the Fianna Fail (and coalition partners) government since 1997. Rather than focus on one particular aspect of the present crisis – as with The Builders or Banksters – O’Toole provides a broad sided polemic on how Ireland went from bust to boom and back again in a twenty year period. (more…)