The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
A PHENOMENON overlooked by most of those who comment upon the international scene is the extraordinary shrinkage of Ireland. Forty years ago, as the biggest and most persistent headache of the biggest empire the world had seen, Ireland outranked most of Asia, all Africa and South America, and the dominions beyond the seas, at least in the Sunday papers. The Irish Question, having long baffled British ingenuity, was defying British force as well, and with even more interesting results. It was constantly in the news. When nothing else stirred, every unelected statesman could keep his clientele awake by discussing how the Question should be solved or why it never would be.
Today, though the I.R.A. is once more on the warpath, Ireland is certainly the least of Britain's many worries. If one tries to follow Irish events in the American press, one finds that the news from there is about on a par with weather reports from Kerguelen--scarce, and indicating fog. The Irish Question has vanished, mined out like the Mesabi range. Where once the mountain reared its impregnable head, two small states and the Partition problem are vaguely discernible amid the surrounding emptiness.
This relative invisibility may not last much longer. Though its leaders have had much success in making the country appear the small, remote and damp but sinless nirvana of their elderly dreams, Ireland is presently in serious trouble, with many indications of worse trouble to come. I do not refer to the breakup of the coalition government in late January, or to the general election scheduled for March 5, from which De Valera will no doubt emerge with a small majority and a headache of more than Victorian severity. Nor do I refer to the new eruption of I.R.A. activity, though the popular response it has evoked in southern Ireland is unquestionably full of portent--for southern Ireland. For the moment, anyway, other matters are much more alarming.
In 1955, the Republic of Ireland, the 26-county area, earned itself a deficit of £35,500,000, some £30,000,000 greater than for the preceding year. Despite austerity measures taken since, reports suggest that the deficit for 1956 may be as large. Emigration seems to be running at about 40,000 a year, the highest since the 1880s. In November 1956, unemployment was stated to be 70,000 and in January 1957, 100,000. In 1955, it had averaged 40,000, or 6.8 percent of the insured population, the lowest since 1934 when records were first kept; but the total labor force was low too, down by about 65,000 since 1946. The amount and value of imports had increased; exports had declined; agricultural productivity, the basis of the whole economy, had gone down 2 percent, quite probably to its lowest level in this century, since its peak in 1938 was not far above the position in 1901. As for the present population, it is anybody's guess. The 1951 census produced a total of about 2,960,000--260,000 fewer than in 1901--and there were 54,000 more males than females. If emigration has averaged nearly 40,000 annually these last six years, as some domestic critics claim, the present total may be close to 2,750,000. (Since there is also considerable emigration from Northern Ireland--10,000 a year has been mentioned in the Dublin papers--the population of the island as a whole may now be about 4,000,000. It was once 8,600,000, just before the Famine of 1845-47.) These are some current estimates as I can gather or guess them from the Irish newspapers. I do not swear to any of them. The true figures may be more adverse; they are certainly not a great deal better.
On October 5, last year, Premier Costello addressed a meeting of the Inter-Party (coalition) ministers and deputies. He made what seems a very frank and sensible speech on the general situation, and then outlined a plan for the economic regeneration of the country. In his speech he made no bones about the deficit or about the way it was incurred or about the necessity of avoiding its repetition. At the same time he refused to take a pessimistic view of the future. The economy, he insisted, was fundamentally sound; industrial progress was continuing; new markets and new products were being studied; the bases for a good life were now thoroughly established in Ireland; and if the people would but put their backs to the job, there was nothing to prevent Irish courage, vigor and imagination gaining what they all desired. Success, he said, was imperative. Failure would mean such widespread and permanent unemployment as the country had not seen since independence was won. It would mean the loss of economic independence. Naturally, he did not envision failure. He was certain that the Irish people could be counted on to accept some temporary deprivations and to arm themselves for the long-term efforts that would bring enduring prosperity.
The plan he then presented was a good one. It touched on every aspect of the national economy and was conceived throughout in terms of bold self-reliance. That it seemed to resemble rather closely other plans and programs put forward there since the war was no objection, for there can be no secret about what needs to be done in Ireland and little disagreement about how it should be done. Mr. Costello's plan differed in being more detailed, more thoroughgoing, more fully stocked with inducements to the native investment of native capital, and in being presented with new urgency. Still, though one may not quarrel with the plan in detail, there are a few questions of context. The first is that if the vigor, courage and imagination Mr. Costello so confidently relied on were characteristic of the Irish these last ten years, there would be no need for the plan. There is, after all, no good reason why Ireland should be in such a fix. There are several bad reasons, all thoroughly characteristic, but these were not mentioned except inferentially. The worst reason of all, emigration, was referred to only as an unfortunate condition to be cured in time by improved employment and better material rewards. The truth is by no means so simple, but we will get to that later.
Some of the other possible objections were naturally left undiscussed: the meeting was not a Communist self-criticism klatsch. We may, however, discuss them here. There is, for instance, little reason to suppose that either the Inter-Party Government or its only present alternative, a Fianna Fáil administration headed by DeValera and Seán Lemass, could manage now to infuse the people with the enthusiasm, or despair, needed to put the plan over. This is not only because Mr. Costello's address was so devoid of the blood-sweat-and-tears approach and contained so many firm assurances that all is still fundamentally sound. It is not because, in statements issued since, he and his fellow politicians have blown alternately so warm and cool about the gravity of the situation. Rather, I believe, it is because the people in general do not regard the Government as having final power or final authority, no matter what its party name or who heads it. In social, educational and cultural matters the Catholic hierarchy is felt to have greater and more effective authority. In economic matters power is thought to be the monopoly of those owners, bankers, large shareholders, directors and managers who control the new industries and are linked fraternally in that anti-Masonic secret society, the Knights of Columbanus. Since so many ministers and parliamentary secretaries and their opposition shadow-cabinet replacements are also directors, shareholders, managers and Knights, the people somewhat distrust the government's willingness or ability to force the business community in any daring, vigorous or self-sacrificing direction the businessmen do not feel inclined to take.
This attitude is unfair as well as unfortunate. In such a small country it would be silly to expect a clear division between business leaders and political leaders; and certainly the politicians are better for knowing which end of a company report goes up. Still suspicion persists. It has been thickened by the fact that a case or two of presumed corruption in upper political circles, with indications of greasier tenacular development downward through successively lower circles to somebody's cousin's wife's uncle's bacon-curing plant, have been rather sketchily investigated and have resulted in rather light penalties. The real cause, however, is that the people know the structure of Irish society; and if many a political-financial transaction is felt to be surrounded by an aura of mutual aid among well-placed and long-tailed families, this is not because the suspicion is correct but because it very well might be. Add to this the entirely natural fact that the same families that produce Dáil deputies and company managers also produce influential clergymen, and the circle of suspicion is complete. The most suspicious country that ever yet was seen.
One might indeed argue that popular suspicion denies that the Government is a government at all, at least in the sense of an institution meant to determine the people's wishes democratically and to translate them democratically into acts and statutes. It is designed as such an institution. Usually it functions that way--or as nearly so as can be expected where the people's wishes are so faintly expressed. There is, however, clear evidence, furnished by Premier Costello himself, that if the Catholic hierarchy privately registers an objection to a proposed measure the democratic process will not be followed and the measure, no matter how popular, will be dropped without open discussion. (I refer to the Browne case of 1951, the key incident in postwar Irish politics.) Since the Dáil is the only political forum in the country that has any semblance of real power--local government is administered by county and borough managers appointed from Dublin--when the democratic process is reneged there, the end of the line is reached. The people have no other recourse than to vote for Tweedledee in the next election: which they do, but with the full expectation that Tweedledee will operate in the same way, only a little more discreetly. And what sort of government is that, to rally a nation to bold efforts and stern sacrifices?
And what sort of a nation is it that the Government is supposed to rally? If the people will not speak up and will not kick effectively when the democratic process is short-circuited, why should the Government be expected to challenge the bishops all alone? Every democratic politician has the right to be pushed. The sad truth is that there has been no push at all in the Irish political situation since before the war. Instead of vocal discontent there is silent emigration; and in what emigration leaves behind there is apathy below and smugness above.
A word on the latter. Most references to the fundamental soundness of the Irish economy relate to the 150 percent increase in industrial productivity over the last 25 years, from, of course, an abysmally low base. This productivity could probably increase a thousand percent and still make little difference in Ireland's earning capacity. It is mostly for home consumption, and too much is non-competitive, being protected by tariffs, import-quotas, monopolies and trade associations. Then, too, the habitual outlook must be considered--unless, by some miracle, it has changed greatly from what it was four years ago when a team of American experts, engaged to examine the possibilities of increased exports to the dollar areas, made their report.
The criterion for their study was "most profitable and immediate exportability." The report was almost entirely negative. Some of the products examined were judged simply unprofitable for marketing in America; others would be unacceptable because of price, quality, style or undependability of supply; a few might be restudied for later possibilities; woolen textiles and Waterford glass had some promise and might be pushed moderately. The most interesting part of the report was the section headed "Smugness." Three excerpts will indicate its tone.
There is a persistent illusion concerning the superior quality of the Irish product. This, of course, is not shared by people of experience, but it permeates the general atmosphere nonetheless.
More to the point:
There is a very real shortage of capital; but what there is remains buried. We have discovered no inclination among Irish producers to take any sort of risk. On the contrary, they wish to know the price their product will bring in the American market for years to come; the quantity which can be sold indefinitely; the designs which will be fashionable next year; what the tariffs are going to be; what their taxes will be; what every person concerned in a transaction will earn from it; and, on top of all this, in some cases, just what their competitors' costs are.
All this is fantastic, and we suspect that it is a method of rationalising a negative attitude. It is a very poor spirit with which to approach the highly-volatile and risk-conscious American market.
And how is that for vigor, daring and imagination?
The real basis of the Irish economy is, of course, agricultural production. As we have seen, it is not even valiantly standing still. In Mr. Costello's speech he called for more government cooperation with the farmers and in his plan he proposed new or stronger ways of trying to induce them to raise more, to use more fertilizer, to plant better grass for grazing, to accept technical advice, to consider mechanization and rural electrification a little more warmly, and to avail themselves of the already very generous state loans for the improvement of their terribly undercapitalized farms. Considering what efforts toward coöperation with the farmers the various governments have made these last 20 years, and what lackadaisical response these overtures have evoked, it is hard to see what more coöperation could mean, unless the politicians intend to do the herding and tilling and fertilizing and ditching themselves while the farmers sit by the hedge and gripe.
Here, by the way, we may reintroduce the topic of suspicion. The urban population is firmly convinced that the farmers get all the gravy and do too little towards earning it. Any visitor will be told, with absolute conviction, that the present income-tax system makes it impossible for the people in the towns and cities to save money and just as impossible for the farmers to lose money. Though there are never more than a handful of farmers in the Dáil, most of the deputies, it is pointed out, are elected from rural districts. For parties as a whole the urban vote is not decisive; the farm vote is. As a result, the city dwellers say, the whole tax burden is carried by themselves, regardless of earnings, cost of living or common equity. Belief in the farmer's sock of gold is universal; and the strong-farmers, those with enough and good-enough land for grazing, are thought of as flint-fisted Crœsuses.
Again this is, if understandable, unfair. Outside the wonderful grazing lands of Meath, farming in Ireland is generally a melancholy business; and the small-farmers seldom have the capital, the labor, the land or even the incentive for more intensive use of the soil. They have not the education, either. Few farm children go beyond the sixth grade in the National Schools. Moreover, in these schools, no agricultural science is taught. It used to be, but after the Revolution compulsory Irish (Gaelic) was foisted on the schools--for the first three years everything is taught in and through Irish; thereafter, it is a required subject--and since the curriculum was already overloaded, something had to go. Agricultural instruction went. Of course, the loss was not uncompensated. Nowadays any youngish small-farmer, looking out over his meagre, rainswept, rush-embroidered, unfertilized fields and at the increasingly lonely countryside beyond, can comfort himself by thinking his thoughts in Irish, if he happens to remember any of it. His life may be easy--all too easy. He may not be able to lose money at his job. But if, as he does in his thousands every year, he presently packs up and leaves for Dublin or Liverpool, it is not because he has found his existence unbearably satisfactory. The evidence is plain in the census figures for nearly every county outside Leinster (the eastern province containing Dublin) and for a few counties in Leinster. Six years ago Leitrim had a twelfth the population it had before the Famine. West Kerry, the heart of the Munster Gaeltacht, is now emptying out like a shaken sack. Constantly one comes on empty houses and the fields in rushes. The conclusion seems inescapable that everywhere, but especially in the rural districts, Irish life is no longer able to hold its own. That can be interpreted two ways, both right.
Ireland has no right to be sick. If we compare its resources with those of other small Western European countries, and its population with what those have to support, one can hardly avoid deciding that Irish ills are largely psychosomatic. True, they can all be explained from history; but to explain is not always to excuse, the less so indeed since Irish history records so little energetic common sense and so much casual acceptance of accidental developments. Any conversation about Ireland in Ireland is almost bound to produce some defensive mention of the terrible troubles the Irish have survived and the hard time of it the nation has had generally. Alas, the truth is that Ireland has had an almost fatally easy time of it, at least in this century. The revolutionary victory of 1916-21 was assisted powerfully by outside circumstances and by the fact that it was a thoroughly respectable 1848-type revolt, a little delayed. For a national struggle of such romantic fame, the actual fighting was mostly confined to two rather short periods and to two smallish areas. The Civil War that followed in 1922-23 was much wider and much worse, but that was strictly an internal affair and was the result chiefly of the inability, common to the whole Republican tradition, to distinguish a principle from an aspiration or to deal consecutively, much less realistically, with the cold, hard, lumpy facts. Then as now the chief fact was emigration which went on before the Troubles, during the Troubles, and after the Troubles--continually lowering the pressure of Irish life.
Emigration is a comment, silent but explicit, on every Irish condition. It is a contributing cause of every Irish condition. Some observers argue that, in the 110 years since the Famine, emigration has become a self-operating social mechanism, governed by its own laws and not amenable to any usual remedies. To this may be replied that the theory does not explain the sudden fall-off, almost 50 years ago, of the movement to the United States. (For years only a small fraction of the much-envied Irish quota of 17,853 has been used.) And one can object, too, that if by the usual remedies is meant making life in Ireland sufficiently attractive, they have not been applied enough. The thin and drab quality of Irish life, however, is largely due to emigration--so that it is, in a certain way, a self-perpetuating phenomenon.
First of all, emigration drains off youth, energy and discontent. Next, it lowers the pressure on resources. That lowering of pressure is felt through the whole social organism. To it may be attributed the apathy that repeatedly deprives every new program of its motive power. To it again may be attributed the despair, felt by energetic men, of forcing upon the powers that be in Church and State the changes of policy or attitude needed to institute and carry out pertinent reforms, or even to consider them. Ultimately the despair refers not to the bishops and politicians, unexhilarating as most of them are, but to the people themselves, for the people have had the power in their hands all along to stir up their leaders or to change them or, in the case of the Church, induce them to consider the benefits of a little more sympathetic humanity and some Christian prudence. The people's failure to do this can be ascribed only to indifference or suspicion or naïveté, or all three at once. The indifference is either from inanition or from the intention to emigrate. The suspicion, whether justified or not, is an ugly and cancerous condition, as deadly to action as any apathy. The naïveté is in some ways a sheltered innocence, in other ways mere crudeness, in all ways another product of low pressure and, hence, of emigration.
One thing is certain, that the prime causes of emigration are not economic. If the economy is in a pickle now, it was not so a few years ago, or was not obviously so. Ireland emerged from the war period a creditor nation; and in a burst of good sense the Government embarked on a very large-scale housing program and, a little later, on a hospital-building program. A lot of money was spent, too, on land drainage--a big problem in so low and wet a country--and on improving social services. Quite a few new schools were built. However indifferently or unimaginatively, a welfare state was created, possibly even beyond the means of the country to support. All these improvements were being developed at a great rate by 1950--and that was the year emigration reached 40,000.
The people emigrate because they do not like what they are offered and because they do not expect to be offered anything else. They go out, too, in a pretty sour frame of mind, as is evidenced by persistent reports from England that between 60 and 80 percent of the new Irish immigrants cease to communicate as Catholics within a year of their arrival. That also is a comment on what they leave behind. Among the young people who stay in Ireland and who quarrel with the present conditions, the comments range from I.R.A. activity which, though more romantic than intelligent, has at least some hope in it, to--at the other extreme--the Dublin version of teddy-boyism which is as hopeless as it looks. The dearth of young people in the established parties is all but complete.
What the people are offered and what the emigrants reject is paternalism. Long years ago Mr. DeValera was credited with the statement that he had only to look into his own heart to know what the Irish people wanted. Whether he said it or not, it sounds like him. The statement, however, is incomplete. What is meant is what the good people of Ireland want, or ought to want; and in this sense it is not illogical, for who in Ireland was ever gooder or more Irish than Mr. DeValera himself, the most lugubriously virtuous statesman of the age? (It must be understood that the opposition leaders are quite as virtuous and as nearly lugubrious as their means permit.) What Mr. DeValera found in his heart was a burning desire for compulsory Irish in the schools and civil service; a thoroughgoing, or at least hardworking, censorship; efficiency and honesty in local government (achieved by taking all real powers away from the elected county and borough councils and killing such community initiative as there was); and in general a society based upon Catholic and "Gaelic" principles of "frugal sufficiency" and geared to the supposed tastes and interests of the small-farmer, the truly representative Irish citizen.
He found other things there too. Among many real accomplishments, both political and economic, he must be credited with the success of Irish industrialization, with the first attempts to grapple with current social problems like unemployment, and with the creation of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. What counts today, however, is that he and his successors have left Ireland a duller and, in spirit, a deader place than they found it. One has only to look at the literature, the theatre, the newspapers, the few magazines, the censored libraries for the proof--or listen to Radio Eireann--or spend a rainy weekend in a small town. To a great extent this has been achieved by a round-robin process of politicians, clergymen, professional Gaels, pietists and other comfortable bourgeoisie looking into each other's hearts and finding there, or pretending to find, the same tepid desires. The process requires that they ignore the silent comment of emigration and such other evidences of discontent as the annual flood of letters to the press from parents protesting against compulsory Irish and against the whole inadequate, outmoded, chaotic school system. This paternalism requires, too, that the general public never be asked to register its opinion on any of the desired blessings which so many obviously do not desire. Yet these things, taken together, account for far more of the situation from which the emigrants flee than does any of the topics mentioned in Mr. Costello's speech and plan. Another incentive to flight may be stronger still: the desire to escape from those of their neighbors, probably a majority, who have no great complaint against things as they are and who neither desire nor will assist substantial change.
Every cantankerous critic has the duty to hazard at least one positive suggestion. Since I have given so one-sided a picture, omitting all that makes Ireland pleasant and attractive--which it is--my duty is the stronger. I would, then, suggest that the leaders of Church and State in Ireland accept emigration as a major and, for the moment, insoluble native problem. They should cease to regard it as a historical accident. Accepting it, they should at the same time accept the responsibility for seeing that those who do emigrate go out into the world well enough trained and educated to make an advantageous start in their new countries. In the nineteenth century an Irishman with a sixth grade education was at no special disadvantage in England or America. Today, three out of four Irish children still do not go beyond the sixth grade; and the education they receive is half-ruined by concentration on a language they will never speak again, anywhere. As emigrants they simply cannot compete on equal terms with Englishmen or Americans of the same class, who have had a better and longer education.
I am inclined to believe that if an educational system adequate for this task were created in Ireland--and its creation would necessarily involve real vigor, daring and imagination, as well as searching reappraisal of old "principles" and actual conditions--the effects of the effort would soon manifest themselves in every aspect of life. Everything would be changed; and not impossibly, so much for the better that the young might decide to stay at home and make a go of the country after all. There is, to be sure, the danger that they might make a go of it in ways the present fatherly rulers could only regard with horror; but it is the ultimate function of fathers to be horrified, and the function of the young to insure it happens to them. Anyway, that prospect, for all its uncertainty, is a better one to face up to than the likelihood of things going on as they are. I cannot imagine the sudden sweeping outbreak of anti-clerical rage which some of my Irish friends so gloomily but confidently predict. I can, however, imagine that Ireland may do what no other nation has ever tried, and perish by sudden implosion upon a central vacuity.