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The Future State of Ireland?

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The future state of Ireland: how can we envisage it in these times of economic uncertainty and crippling austerity? Currently 14.8% of the population are unemployed: a huge leap from the record low of 3.7% in 2001, but not yet at the high of 17.3% in 1985. In September 2012, Goodbody downgraded Ireland's gross domestic product (GDP) forecasts by 0.5% for 2012 (to 0.3%) and 2013 (to 1.3%) as a result of weaker domestic demand, lower export growth and lower consumption.

How is austerity affecting Ireland? While the economic argument for the successful outcome of austerity measures may be easier to win, what are the implications of severe cuts in public services, reduced spending and deficit reduction for the political, social and cultural fabric of Irish society? Seán Healy, director of Social Justice Ireland argues that what "the government is proposing is bad for the economy, for society and for social cohesion." Because if Ireland is "not in a position to produce growth, it won't be able to pay off its debt". Deputy directory of the IMF's European department, Ajai Chopra, disagrees, asserting in October 2012 that the EU/IMF rescue package "has struck an appropriate balance and continues to do so for the period ahead, enabling Ireland to make steady progress in reducing fiscal imbalances while protecting the still fragile economic recovery".

Who is affected by the austerity measures? Figures from the Central Statistics Office of Ireland show that the incomes of the poorest fell by 18% in the last year while incomes of the richest households rose by 4%. Women are worst affected by austerity measures: Deirdre Cronin points out that while "austerity has devastated lives across the board", "many of the most vicious cuts have been to services and benefits that women disproportionately rely on, thus ensuring that they bear the brunt of the recession".

The annual household income of lone parent families--usually headed by women--has reduced by 5%, driving them deeper into poverty. The inability of labour figures to account for the invisible work done by women, part of the 'precariat' to use Guy Standing's phrase, leads to policies such as the recent decision to reduce the upper age limit of the youngest child of those claiming One Parent Family Payment (OPFP) from 14 years to 12 years, with that threshold reducing to seven years by 2014. In an economic climate of high unemployment and expensive or elusive after-school care, who will raise that seven-year-old child? What is the social cost of such a policy?

Beneath the ostensible quiescence of Irish people in the face of austerity measures is a growing anger about lack of accountability within the banking sector, a lack of transparency within politics, and endemic corruption at the interface between politics and finance. Elaine Byrne's meticulous research into corruption in Ireland from 1922 to 2010 leads her to conclude that "the durability of Irish corruption has been due to the combined influence of several variables: the absence of alternating government made negligible by a homogenic political culture, which reinforced the possibility and expectation of reciprocal control; the escalating costs of politics and the absence of legal or social sanctions against corrupt politicians and business actors."

The political gamble, according to Fintan O'Toole, is a psychological one. In Ship of Fools he argues that "the collapse of the Irish economy was rooted not primarily in banking or property development or the lack of regulation, but in the political culture that created a lethal cocktail of all of these elements". A year later he names Irish quiescence as central to the government's strategy, arguing that '"there is a calculated judgment that the Irish people will take all the pain of shrinking public services, mass unemployment and forced emigration in order to pay off the gambling debts of their betters, and that Ireland will remain politically stable".

Will this gamble pay off? The rubber bullets, tear gas, and baton charges that marked police responses to austerity protests in Athens and Madrid are absent from the streets of Dublin. Does this mean that Irish people accept the inevitability of austerity measures even if they were not directly responsible for their causes? Did, as O'Toole argues, Ireland outsource morality to the Catholic Church?

What now? During the prosperous times Luke Gibbons identified an unsettling shift of power relations in which culture and society were made "subservient to the needs of the market". He argued for culture as a "site of resistance to the dominant social order and as a political means to fashion an alternative future". How can culture fashion an alternative future for Ireland?

One example is this: Dublin's Fire Station Artists' Studios collaborated with Danish curatorial collective Kuratorisk Aktion to commission a series of works from Irish artists called Troubling Ireland. One of these, Augustine O'Donoghue's Strength in Community, examines the ecological and social cost of the Corrib Gas Project and the unequal distribution of its economic benefits. The issues raised by O'Donoghue are even more pressing in the light of the discovery of oil near Barryroe, Cork, by Providence Resources (headed by Tony O'Reilly Jnr.) which will benefit from extensive tax breaks from the Irish government.

Why should we look at culture to gauge the effects of austerity measures in Ireland? Cultural initiatives enable us to take the temperature of social opinion, to find out how people are thinking, and to evaluate social cohesion. In the light of shifting relations between eurozone states, knowledge of cultural responses to economic realities is vital.

The traumatic upheaval of prosperity followed by austerity was the subject of a conference at Goldsmiths, University of London, 'The Future State of Ireland' was held 17-18 November 2012. No better phrase. What is the future for Ireland? What state will Ireland be in as a result of severe austerity measures? Has the concept of a sovereign state been undermined by the loss of fiscal autonomy? Should Ireland have taken Iceland's lead? Could it have, within the EU?