Review: Preventing the Future – Why Ireland was so poor for so long

Preventing the Future: Why was Ireland so poor for so long? by Tom Garvin

This new study by UCD politics professor Tom Garvin addresses a question that will surely be of interest to many Irish people in Britain.

After all, the continuation of mass emigration was one of the most obvious signs of Ireland’s failure to develop economically in the period between independence and the dawn of the Celtic Tiger in the 1990s. That failure is the subject of this book.

The picture that Garvin presents is conventional enough in its broad outlines.

Ireland pursued inward-looking economic policies in the 1930s and 1940s which were inevitable in the context of the Great Depression and the Second World War, but failed to adapt to the new opportunities of the post-war boom.

Export-oriented economic policies did not emerge until the late 1950s, under the guidance of Sean Lemass and the Secretary of the Department of Finance, TK Whitaker, and did not fully bear fruit until the 1990s.

The key question is why this process took so long.

One ironic possibility suggested by Garvin is that De Valera’s electoral defeats in the 1940s and 1950s deprived the country of a government strong enough to drive through change, and of its most effective moderniser in Lemass.

However his main conclusion is that a ‘blocking coalition’ of interests hostile to modernisation was able to override the national interest.

Ironically, while this coalition had a conservative nationalist character, Garvin argues that several of its components emerged as a result of British policies before independence.

In its attempts to keep Ireland quiescent, Britain conceded a major social role to the Catholic Church and a land settlement that Garvin argues was uneconomic.

The Church and small farmers went on to become two elements of the ‘blocking coalition.’ However, British policy can hardly be blamed for the third component, about which Garvin is particularly scathing, the Irish language lobby.

These three forces were all opposed to modernisation of education, which Garvin identifies as the key issue in Ireland’s transition to a competitive economy.

This conservative wing of Irish nationalism was increasingly opposed over time by a more ‘developmentalist’ wing, as the consequences for the country became clear.

The developmentalists were themselves divided between statists and free marketers. Garvin comes down largely on the side of the latter, although he argues that the state must play a greater role in smaller countries.

In this respect, it is disappointing that Garvin only compares Ireland with other European countries like Denmark, and not with the original post-colonial ‘tigers’ of Asia, where the state has played a key role in creating an export-oriented economy.

He acknowledges that Ireland was still largely Britain’s breadbasket in the 1920s, and he cites, but never really addresses, the argument of the young Lemass that state intervention was needed to enable the Irish economy to shift its comparative advantage from agriculture.

Nevertheless, this is a valuable and very readable book, with some penetrating insights into modern Irish economic and cultural history. It will no doubt stimulate renewed debate about Ireland’s economic development.







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