Back in 2006 the economist and commentator David McWilliams spoke at a conference on the new Ireland organized by the Church of Ireland Hard Gospel Project. I interviewed him afterwards about morality and values in a very changed society.
It’s a la carte morality, which I would agree with. You have two ways to live your life: You have rules or discretion. As long as your discretion is based on a certain general view of what’s right and wrong, and I believe they have that, then jettisoning the rather strict rules that have governed this country over the last hundred years isn’t probably a bad thing. If you look at what has happened in terms of violence in this society, it’s not the people I portrayed who are perpetrating violence. They seem to be rather well behaved people.
Think about the changes this younger generation have had to live through. They have had to shoulder enormous burdens financially with respect to mortgages, which their parents didn’t have. They have had to adapt and change with a society that is absorbing more immigrants and strangers than any society in Europe has ever done. Are we seeing outbreaks of racism? No, we’re not. Are we seeing some sort of revolutionary movement? No, we’re not. What you have, I think, are a reasonably heroic bunch; very tolerant, having a good time, being reasonably pleasant and behaving rather well.
When Brian Cowen became Taoiseach last week, the novelist Joseph O’Connor was asked on BBC Radio 4 what the change was like. He replied that it was like a stern Christian Brother coming into the school dance at five minutes to midnight and telling everyone it was time to go home.
So how would McWilliams’ Ireland cope with the change?
It seems they approve: in January, with the shadow of corruption allegations hanging over Bertie Ahern, the governing Fianna Fail party stood at 34% in the opinion polls as against 31% for the opposition Fine Gael. This morning RTE report Fianna Fail at 42% and Fine Gael at 26%
Is the poll a vindication of McWilliams? Does an a la carte morality still have a strict sense of what is unacceptable? Does the new Ireland still have a place for someone who behaves like an old schoolmaster?