When I landed up here 20 years ago everyone else was heading in the other direction, houses were dirt cheap and the late Raymond Crotty's Ireland in Crisis had just come out. Taking a country's yardstick for success its ability to provide for its people, he exposed a bankrupt state bled dry by very extensive, deeply entrenched vested interests. Another contemporary observer, Desmond Fennell, had a nightmare vision of our future as larger, insular version of Luxemburg, populated by a tiny comfortable elite surviving on EC handouts and sinecures and presiding over an empty rural playground for wealthy visitors. A decade later the mental landscape charted in John Water's insightful An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Ireland was recognizably the same except that an economic boom that nobody had seen coming had somehow contrived to happen.
While David McWilliam's perceptive and highly readable new book appears to belong to a different universe it resembles Crotty's work in surprising ways. Crotty's overvalued land (which he wanted to have taxed so as to bring it into use) is now McWilliam's overpriced "property", rejection of the EU returns as rejection of monetary union, and Crotty's emigrants show up again in the diaspora. An economist by training, McWilliams shows the same independence and practical intelligence as the self-taught Kilkenny man and grounds his case in personal observation and experience.
In what can be seen as a sequel to Ireland in Crisis, the mood is in contrast breezily upbeat and can-do and there is plenty of incidental detail to keep the pages turning. His cartoonish stereotypes will irritate the easily aroused but their catchiness is a virtue in helping the reader to follow the ins and outs of the argument. The signs are that it was written in a hurry, perhaps with TV deadlines in mind, particularly the final chapter, but I'd guess he's always in a hurry. And the generalizations can get a little airy, as for example his passing reference to "old Ratzinger's" Regensburg speech. I thought the "old Ratzinger's" intention here was not so much to open a debate about the future of Europe as rather to argue the centrality of reason in religious faith - a point the ever-reasonable McWilliams will surely accept. You might also question his confident prognosis for China in the absence of liberal reforms - see Will Hutton. But this is mere nitpicking as it's the bigger picture that we want from McWilliams.
In contrast to the other three writers (four, if you include John Healy) McWilliams is more the insider, a southsider economist and journalist, secure in his own place within things. He is also blunt in his acceptance of the post-Cultural Revolution settlement - his Redundant Radicals came out on top "because they were right". But he is clearly a decent man and fair to all the players in the game - immigrants, emigrants, winners, losers, even the ordinary Chinese working man.
Overt criticism has so far been reserved for Fianna Fail and their propertied friends (see his website for a lively discussion forum). But if Fennell and Waters are right many people continue stubbornly to support them precisely because they see more skullduggery (albeit of the genteel variety) outside FF than within. Maybe they are wrong, and maybe Crotty's vested interests were imaginary or, if real, have since vanished mysteriously like the morning mists. But if not, then McWilliams, who has cast himself as the people's champion, is on a collision course with his own tribe (to use a favourite word). As the others could testify, this won't be pleasant but he will be able to share the consolation of knowing that they at least were right - and more intelligent than their critics. Mar sin tabhair bualadh bos do. After all, who else do we have?