Most of us decided to hold our nerve, to stay positive and to remain doggedly optimistic

Did Ireland’s bailout in December 2010 constitute a national trauma? Well, it certainly seemed so at the time. The government was floundering. The airways were alight with forecasts of national doom. It seemed that the game was up for Ireland. We watched in horror as our hard won view of ourselves dissolved before our eyes. What we had painstakingly built up over the preceding two decades – a modern, prosperous, outward looking, enterprising nation taking a more assured place in the wider world – was gone overnight. Worse, the world that had been beating a path to our door to learn the secret of our success, saw now instead a shamed and foolish nation. 

So the economic crash and the subsequent bailout met the criteria of a trauma. It was a major setback, with significant losses, resulting in a severe disruption of what psychologists call “life narrative” – the fundamental set of assumptions and beliefs we have about ourselves, about what to expect from other people, and about the future. 

But while the immediate effects of trauma are largely universal, the more long-term effects are not. Quite simply it depends on how you cope with it. And what is now clear is that Ireland has coped very well indeed. I will leave it to my economic elders and betters to discuss what contribution economic policies made to our successful coping. What is abundantly clear to me is that the psychological response of Irish people, and the collective resilience we have shown, have been a major part of our continuing recovery. 

After the initial shock of the bailout, and despite the insistent drumbeat of negativity in much public discourse, most Irish people decided to adopt a very particular stance – to hold our nerve, to stay positive and remain doggedly optimistic. To do that, we had to rely heavily on our natural disposition to be cheerful, to seek each other out for enjoyment and consolation. We knocked whatever fun we could out of things. We took solace from our successes in whatever little corner of the world we controlled. A stance best summed up in a phrase I heard again and again when I met people all over the country – “I’m just getting on with things”.

The strategy worked, as demonstrated by successive polls of wellbeing conducted globally by the Gallup organisation. In 2012, after a full three years of recession, 51 per cent of us were still “thriving’, 46 per cent were “struggling” – reporting more stress and worry in our lives but still maintaining moderately high levels of wellbeing. Only 3 percent were “suffering”. We are actually doing better in the wellbeing stakes than Germany – our economic taskmaster – and significantly better than countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece. This pattern of resilience and positivity is consistently borne out by other national polls. 

So far, so good. But we cannot neatly consign the bailout to the past. Glen Elder’s masterful longitudinal study of the effects of the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s showed that the long-term effects of mass unemployment and family disruption were cross-generational and lasted well into the late 1960s. The study also found that the younger you were when the Depression hit, the higher the risk of more long-lasting negative effects. Of course, the pattern may be different here. But what is already clear is that Ireland is no country for young adults. 

Young adults under pressure

The stress of reduced pay, welfare cuts, emigration and, most of all, the burden of unsustainable mortgage debt has been disproportionately placed on the shoulders of young adults. All this at a stage of their lives when they are charged with the social responsibility of raising the next generation – the time when they are desperately in need of emotional and economic support, not just from immediate family, but from the society at large. Apart then from the obvious challenge of maintaining our economic recovery, one urgent political tasks that needs to be addressed is to rethink how we are dealing with that cohort of young people. 

The second national task is the urgent need to rebuild civic trust in government and in politics more generally. In Ireland, we now live in two contradictory states of mind. While as individuals we inhabit a private universe of optimism, as citizens we inhabit a political universe of distrust. Of course, a certain amount of scepticism about politicians is to be expected and probably wise. But when healthy scepticism shades into chronic distrust, we should be concerned. Trust really counts. It is not some touchy-feely psychological accessory. It is the oil in the machine -not just in personal relationship but in the functioning of organisations and society and it underpins a well functioning democracy. 

The egregious breach of trust that caused the economic meltdown in 2010 is, of course, a major explanation for our parlous state of mind about politics. But the unravelling of trust in government and politics has continued since then and we can’t blame it all on austerity. At the height of the crisis in 2011, we had to muster sufficient trust to elect another government. But, so recently betrayed, we remained hyper-vigilant, on the lookout for any warning sign that we were going to be let down again. Any act of perceived self-interest or cronyism, any show of arrogance, of being out of touch, is fatal. And the reaction is swift and damning. That is why politicians’ use of power, perks and patronage are so salient – not so much because of their substantive effects but because they carry so much symbolic value – a psychological point that seems lost on many politicians. 

As well as remaining hyper-vigilant, we exact a price for our renewed act of trust. Whether in personal relationships, or in politics we set very stringent tests for those in whom we have now placed that trust. We expect them to do more than is required, or even on occasions, more than is reasonable. We want to see if they are willing to make themselves vulnerable. That is the essence of rebuilding trust. Nelson Mandela understood that. That was why he risked his own personal authority and political position by not just negotiating with, but by embracing the old enemy – literally and metaphorically. 

Bridging the divide

Does it matter that we are maintaining our optimism not because of our politics but in spite of it? Well, it does. The danger is that we will essentially privatise optimism and the energy and ideas that it generates, defending ourselves from further political disappointment by withdrawing our civic energies and hopes from that realm. To rebuild Ireland, to not just recover from the crisis but to flourish, the task now facing us is to find a way ways to bridge the divide between private optimism and positive political engagement. Despite our disappointment, disillusionment, or even despair about politics, we must struggle against this emphasis on the fallen state and corrupted nature of political endeavour. We cannot allow our feelings of political learned helplessness to disconnect us from our sense of citizenship and crucially from the sense of our best self. 

If our private optimism were harnessed to a movement for real political reform, it would be an unstoppable force. Even if we find no great achievement in the end, as in any other realm in life, it is the effort to make sense of setbacks and failures, yet to the retain a glimpse of the word as perfect, that makes a true republic. 

Originally published in The Irish Times.

Posted: 13 December 2013