Last week Irish economist David McWilliams cleared his throat and took to the stage of the Abbey, Ireland national theater, for a performance that was part stand-up, part discussion and part social observation about Ireland’s disastrous economic crash.Titled Outsiders, a stark reference to the closed shop that the Irish economy actually is, McWilliams’ show was a sell out weeks in advance (a New York run is already under discussion).
Rarely has such a senior public figure decided to call a spade a spade on an Irish stage, so the public fought for tickets alongside Irish politicians including Richard Bruton and celebrities like U2’s Bono. They came to hear the man who has an incisive thing or two to say about what happened to the Irish economy and why, if the Irish don’t change this time, it’s going happen all over again.
For McWilliams, Ireland’s economy isn’t capitalist, it isn’t fair and it isn’t working. Instead of deferring to brainpower and enterprise, the very things that will help the Irish claw our way out of the mess, they’re still stuck in a 17th century model where brawn and property are rewarded. It’s an age-old tradition that’s killing the country, he says.
After decades of study McWilliams believes Ireland’s political and social divide is not so much about rich and poor, young and old, urban and rural, but about what he calls Insiders and Outsiders.
The Insiders, who are found in every village, town and city, are those with a stake in the country who believe that the status quo must be preserved at all costs. The Outsiders, who might live next door, are those who realize that the status quo is actually a part of the problem.
In his performance McWilliams follows the collusion between the insiders of the Irish political system and the insiders of the financial sector. In Ireland, he contends, every time there is an economic crisis the insiders actually get stronger, not weaker.
Instead of losing power and paying for the chaos they caused, the Irish political establishment actually tightens its grip on the country. In contrast, the outsiders are excluded and left to fend for themselves.
That is what happened in the 1950s and the 1980s and it is happening again now. But there really is an alternative, McWilliams says.
To make his point and to explain why he has finally taken to the stage to deliver it, McWilliams quotes an old adage from 1960s revolutionary France: “When the National Parliament becomes a theater, the theater should become a parliament.”
There’s certainly no doubting McWilliams’ credentials for expounding on the faint shadow of the Celtic Tiger. While the other commentators cheered the boom, only he accurately predicted the collapse and the mess Ireland now finds itself in.
“I felt as an economist that this country was going wrong in the early part of 2001,” McWilliams tells the Irish Voice. “I was much ridiculed by my peers at the time for doing that.
“I thought there was no point in warning about the property market in 2007. You had to tell people in 2002 that this would all end in tears, and it has done.”
But ideas go through three phases in Ireland, he says. First of all there’s the ridicule phase, then there’s the violent opposition phase, and then there’s the universal acceptance phase.
“People pretend they were on your side all the time, which is clearly bulls***. In Ireland right now we have reached the universal acceptance stage, but the rewriting of history is ongoing.”
Financially and politically Ireland is a conservative country, McWilliams says. It’s paternalistic and resistant to change, and if the spectacular financial collapse has proved anything it has proved this -- the country really does have the golden circle of insiders McWilliams is talking about. They can weather every storm and walk between the raindrops because their positions are traditionally so secure, or so it would seem.
“One of the major themes in Outsiders is that fact that since Irish society is split between insiders and outsiders, the outsiders get told to leave and the insiders get stronger with each departure. They repeat the process over and over again and they f*** up again and again, and that’s the way this country works.”
With such a potentially anti-establishment take on Ireland’s economy, McWilliams laughs at the suggestion that it’s courageous to stick his head above the parapet for some plain speaking.
“Oh yeah, you’re hated and loved in equal measure,” he says with a knowing laugh.
But what compelled him to speak up? He could have sat back, folded his arms, and claimed, “I told you so.”
“Ireland has suffered the greatest loss in its economy of any country since the Great Depression. In terms of sheer magnitude it’s not a recession or a downturn, it’s a crash,” he says.
A lot of the veils that hide the interests of the Irish establishment have been ripped away by it, but there still are many left, which is why McWilliams engagement at the Abbey was a sell out.
“If there was clarity now people wouldn’t turn up to the Abbey to see a celebrated Irish economist hold forth on what happened and what it all means for the future,” he says.
“What I would say is that there’s an extraordinary attempt by our political classes to rewrite history going on right now in Ireland. It’s important that the national theater and independent journalists expose that attempt.”
There’s a personal aspect to McWilliams’ performance. When he was a boy during the late 1970s, McWilliams’ middle class father lost his job. McWilliams talks about it in the play, discussing how his family coped with their sudden change in fortunes.
“I think that what compelled me to speak up is my own father’s experience with unemployment. That’s what makes me keep doing these things,” he says.
“Economics is not about abstract concepts like finance and money and GDP, it’s about life and personal experience and what happens to people. It’s without boundaries: it goes into psychology, emotional, physical and mental health – all these things.
“It has always driven my own personal sense of economics. It’s not simply a science, it changes lives. It’s not just something theoretical or financial. I saw what happened to my dad and I wouldn’t like that to happen to more people.”
Ireland has options. It’s just not pursuing the right ones, McWilliams’ says.
When the financial crisis hit Iceland, for example, it didn’t adopt the austerity measures Ireland did and it’s getting out of the mess very quickly.
“Their unemployment peaked at 7% and Ireland’s is still rising at 14%. I have always felt that unemployment is the only thing that matters in an economic sense, everything else is extraneous. Everything else is just simply noise,” says Williams.
The thing is Ireland is a society that can get its economy right, McWilliams says. If you get your economy right, you can do anything. But if you get it wrong, and Ireland has done so, you destroy lives.
“We should let the failing banks close down, forget them, not bail hem out and stick the taxpayers with the bill. You have to draw a line under the sand and stop giving the next generation the bill for the last generation,” he feels.
“That’s what happening now. If you do that by manifest and clear economic decisions you start to corrode and destroy the insider system here. The idea is to liberate the country, not through socialism but through capitalism, by saying we can make this country into a better capitalist country where people have a better opportunity and we can do that by destroying the power of the insiders.
“That’s what I’m saying in the theater, and I believe it’s the right message to bring to the national stage.”
Despite the crash, some claim that the Irish political class have yet again managed to contain the public relations explosion. McWilliams has an answer for that.
“It’s not over yet. They are rewriting the history but you can only airbrush out so much. You see their claws at the bottom of the photograph.”
Then he adds with a laugh, “If I don’t get kicked out of the country hopefully I can bring the show to New York soon.”