If you’re ever sitting in the snug of your tavern of choice, two pints in and of a disposition to start a good all-cannons-roaring row, I’ve just the trigger phrase for you. Never mind your religion or football, that’s amateur hour. For the full finger-jabbed-in-chest and threat of jerseys being pulled out of shape in the car park later, just lob out the following:
“I think we’ve got an world-class health service.”
Make it nice and loud. Not shouty, just nice and clear. That’s all you need, because somewhere in the pub a pair of ears will prick up and a spike in blood pressure will occur. Because there is no shortage of people in this country willing not only to argue the point, but regard it as an act of heresy.
Now, I’m not talking a disagreement of HSE priorities. I’m not talking a debate about small and local versus regional and specialist. These are all legitimate points of policy debate.
I’m talking “Health service? We don’t have a health service!” The words third-world and medieval will be bellowed out like political shibboleths. There will be anger at you for questioning the popular myth that the health service is not in absolute chaos, incapable of delivering even basic services.
Yet here’s the thing: we have a good health service. By global standards, our life expectancy and access to high quality healthcare is very good. There are plenty of countries that look at us and aspire to be us.
And not just in health. I’ll go further. I’ll argue that we are a contender to be the greatest country in the world to live in. I’ll not guarantee it, but I’ll certainly place our name in contention.
You would be hard pressed to find a country with our level of political freedom, our standard of living, our social safety net, and our rights.
Yes, we have problems. Our hospital waiting lists or the number of people sleeping on our streets will tell you that. Our national debate over abortion is a battle about rights too.
But altogether, being an Irish citizen is, amongst the seven billion people on this planet, a winning lottery ticket.
You will live longer than most Africans. You don’t fear the secret police thugs of Erdogan or Kim Jong Un. You don’t fear the legal state executions of the United States. You don’t have the rigged elections of Russia, nor the toilet paper shortages of Venezuela. Any one of us Irish citizens, without even being born on this island, can be elected head of state. That’s not true elsewhere. There’s a four year old wandering around Windsor Castle who is head of state designate of Canada, Australia and New Zealand without even knowing what they are, never mind where they are. Unlike any Canadian, Australian or Kiwi.
Yet have someone tell you that, have an international agency or publication remark as to the great achievement this nation is and watch the anger. Read the comments under any good news story about Ireland, and the vitriol flows. It’s like it’s hardwired into us. If an Irish government told us that we’d get a full weeks’ pay but only have to work on Tuesdays, you know what the response would be. What? Every Tuesday?
What is it that makes us have such an irrational attitude to our national successes? That doesn’t see them as building blocks from which to turn a good country into a great country? I often wonder is it the Dublin Castle hangover, that hundreds of years of foreign rule has almost genetically programmed us to believe that we just aren’t really in charge of ourselves as a people.
That Them in Power are, and with that a permanent sense of victimhood and grievance to go with it, sub-consciously refusing to accept that we are the controllers of our own destiny? After all, who’s fault is it that we keep voting for the political equivalent of the rhythm method and then are shocked to find ourselves once again up disappointment duff?
We spent the first seventy years of our independence accusing each other of betrayal whilst thousands went off to look for a country run by someone else other than us to live in and give us opportunity. Bear in mind the ultimate indignity we never talk about: that from day one of our independence, our people were leaving voluntarily to go live under the people we’d just thrown out. There’s a country with victim hard-baked in.
You see it with Irish emigrants, who give out yards about our health service and employers and paying for water, then move to that paradise of socialized medicine and workers rights, the US, or that damp, waterlogged bog that is Australia. For some reason, having someone non-Irish demanding you pay for your healthcare or water is acceptable in a way we’d never accept at home. It’s as if the ultimate crime in Ireland is that of “having notions”. Look at your man, thinking he’s like the now-departed Brits, with his water meters and “rules”.
And yet: here’s a country that held onto democracy when fascists and communists looked like being the coming thing. A country that kept its culture whilst also using the world’s dominant language. A country that saw, and sees in European integration not sheer terror and inferiority but a playing pitch that we can not only compete on but compete on well. A country that dismisses the ideological strait jacket of right or left as the over-thumbed missives of fanatics. We have built a centrist homeland based on a mixture of freedom and Whatever Works.
The Irish model has its flaws. We see it everyday. 687,000 people on waiting lists is jaw-dropping stuff. But there are also hundreds of thousands of people who go through our health service every year, getting the treatment they need. There are dozens and dozens of nations who would look at us and say “We want that”. Our passports are cherished documents.
Most of all, we don’t have despair. We aren’t doomed. We know we can solve the waiting lists and build the homes if we have but the will to do so. But it will require us making choices about sacrifice, of time, effort and taxes.
That in itself is an achievement. A nation where its people face free choices about how we spend our finite resources is the ultimate demonstration of a successful sovereign independent nation.
Just ask anyone eating tree bark north of the 38th parallel, or sitting in a leaky boat in the Mediterranean. Or looking for a Twix in Caracas.