The Centre

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

- The Second Coming(1919), W.B. Yeats



A century after Yeats’ apocalyptic poem forecasting the chaos unleashed by the demise of the centre, today it is the dominance of the centre which threatens. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the birthplace of Yeats where centralization and the rise of the centre has proceeded apace over the last century.


Never has the dominance of the centre been more a feature in Irish life. The power of the centre is now especially evident in the political sphere. New Ireland is characterised as a country where things happen as a consequence of high profile announcements made by leading national figures. To be successful, any plan must be part of some grandiose national plan with a budget of billions.  This has seen the rise of national government and the corresponding demise of local government.


One of the lesser discussed topics of Ireland’s journey into nationhood over the last century is the extent to which the country has become centralized around Dublin. But this is not just the story of demographic centralization, the real story of this journey over the last century has been the relentless drive towards the centralization of power.


One of the stand out statistics of New Ireland is that a hundred years after the 1916 Rising, 40% of the citizens of Ireland now live within 50 km of Dublin’s iconic GPO, birthplace of the rebellion which launched the bid for Irish nationhood. The equivalent figure in 1911, just before the Easter Rising, was 21%. It’s reasonable to say that if New Ireland hasn’t become a city state then it’s well on the way to becoming just that.


Concentrating power in a geographic region or in the hands of a small number of connected elites is not only inequitable, it also leads to poor decision making. A recent example of this is provided by the Irish financial crash of 2008-2010. Like most other activities in New Ireland, the country’s banking and financial decision making tends to be highly concentrated around Dublin’s financial elites. Rogue bank, Anglo-Irish, far from being obstructed by this was positively helped by the group think and competition to agree that comes with small insulated elites.


Dublin may be the political, financial and media centre but that does not mean that all of those who live in Dublin are part of this centre. Dublin is a place of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ and never has the gap between its elites and ordinary Dubliners been greater. They may inhabit the same city but, for all intents and purposes, they inhabit parallel universes when it comes to how they live their daily lives.


The closed and provincial mind set of New Ireland’s elites is betrayed in the language which they use to describe the world around them. Ireland beyond the M50, Dublin’s orbital motorway, is routinely referred to in generic terms such as ‘rural Ireland’ or ‘down the country’. However, it is worth bearing in mind that ‘rural Ireland’ isn’t, in fact, some homogenous entity at all - it is composed of cities, towns, villages and rural countryside, while all interconnected, are still different.


Today, the dynamic between Dublin and the rest of Ireland is fundamentally different to what it was at the inception of the state. In fact, it is fair to say that Dublin city in the early 21st century is a fundamentally different place to the city that became Ireland’s seat of government in 1922. Joyce’s Dublin was a relatively compact city essentially contained between the canals. This was the city that Joyce made famous, and was largely recognisable as such up to the second half of the 20th century. 


Dublin has now morphed into a low density urban sprawl extending for 50 km from Dublin city. If there is a fitting motif for today’s Dublin metropolitan area then surely it has to be the private car which, above anything else, has set the tone for much of the city’s recent development. In fact, modern Dublin has probably more in common with car obsessed Los Angeles than it has with Joyce’s Dublin.


A key feature of New Ireland’s elites is their ability to speak to different constituencies with the objective of safeguarding their own interests. Dealing with the local effects of globalisation and, in particular, a housing crisis requires particular political skill sets. This involves seeing housing and homelessness as something to be dealt with in a charitable setting rather than something requiring systemic change which, in turn, could threaten the hegemonic position of these same elites.


Over the last half century, large areas outside the M50 have had their economic functions stunted. This has manifested itself in everything from the closing of schools, post offices and even pubs. Of course, these are not causes of decline but rather are the symptoms of a failure in terms of strategic vision and economic activity.

The response of the centre to the economic disempowerment of areas outside of Dublin is similar to that of how it has dealt with the plight of ordinary Dubliners – massive programmes of charity via the social welfare system. In fact, the essential characteristic of the centre’s relationship with the rest of Ireland increasingly appears to revolve around charity. While this is presented as a form of altruism on the part of the centre, there can be no denying that such charity is ultimately in the self interests of the elites in that it keeps a lid on social unrest. It is also worth bearing in mind that these charity programmes are ultimately paid for by the people themselves.

Charity is now one of the most important activities of government with social welfare spending accounting for about 40% of all annual government spending. For many, the notion of social welfare as a temporary ‘helping hand’ has long since been replaced by the reality of social welfare maintaining large sections of the population in a near permanent state of charity. This is as much true for Dublin’s traditional working class as it is for people living in economically disempowered regions beyond the capital.

For the centre and, increasingly, the gatekeepers of the nation, the key to survival rests with the ability to present different faces to the widely different constituencies it encounters. As well as the Dublin working class and the economically disempowered beyond the pale, the elites also have to manage the expectations of national and international global players. While much of the charity underpinning a New Ireland is dressed up as liberal altruism, the reality may be that it exists for no other reason than to serve the interests of the centre and its elites.