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Meet The Authors: Enda Delaney


16-10-2012 10:45

Ireland in the 1840s seems like another world. But as Enda Delaney’s new book The Curse of Reason shows, there were a few similarities between that era and our own. Here he explains how a worryingly familiar political attitude led to the devastation of a nation...

 

A global financial crisis, welfare programmes slashed at the behest of remote and distant faceless bureaucrats in another country, mass emigration and massive individual and national debt … such was Ireland at the time of the Great Famine in the late 1840s.

 

The parallels between the plight of ordinary people in those years and the situation which ordinary Irish families face today are at once very different and strangely familiar.

 

The obvious difference is that in the late 1840s, it was an ecological disaster, blight, which first ruined the potato crop on which ordinary people relied on to survive in 1845. But mass mortality was neither immediate nor inevitable. Initially, the state response was swift and effective — first, selling food at cost price to depress prices, then providing employment on public works’ schemes, and later, in the spring and summer of 1847, feeding the poor directly at soup kitchens.

 

But an outcry in Britain at reports of widespread fraud on the public works resulted in the winding up of the most effective support systems. The old and the infirm, the ill and the abandoned were thrown back on workhouses—a threadbare safety net at the best of times. And therein was the road to catastrophe.

 

The ideology that shaped policy in the darkest years of the Great Famine stipulated light-touch regulation and limited state intervention—still today catch-cries of conservatives. Whether labelled political economy, or free trade or laissez faire economics, those policies were couched in appeals to reason and rationality, and predicated on an assumption that Ireland confounded reason. By leaving the fate of the poor and vulnerable to the ravages of the market, the state abandoned 3–4 million people.

 

The Great Famine, Karl Marx was to say, ‘killed poor devils only’ and he was not far from the truth. Poverty rather than religion or geography was the surest guide to mortality. Today, government professes to protect ordinary people from the worst of the cuts in public expenditure of a bailout programme dictated not from London but from Brussels and Frankfurt. But cuts in welfare, health and education have a disproportionate impact on those on the average industrial wage, while the marginalised in historically disadvantaged western regions and the ‘sink’ estates of Dublin, Limerick and Cork will be the people most affected by the excesses of the bankers and the media and political elites who facilitated those excesses.

 

The state today may be a more complex institution than it was the mid-nineteenth century. Yet when politicians bow to ideology, whether it be free trade in the past or the neo-liberalist consensus today, humanitarian concerns get pushed aside.

 

In 1850 it was calculated that the Treasury in London had contributed £8.1 million to Irish famine relief, much of it in the form of grants to be repaid at a later date. In 1853 William E. Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, cancelled all these debts, recognising that it was simply impossible to repay them. Maybe it is too fanciful to think that one day the troika of the IMF/EU/ECB will come to a similar recognition, acknowledging that the capacity of a small nation to repay such a huge debt is beyond any reasonable expectation.



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