Welcome to the Metrostate
Just over one hundred years ago, Patrick Pearse famously stepped out of Dublin’s GPO to read the Proclamation to a somewhat bemused Dublin populace. Pearse’s reading of the Proclamation is generally viewed as the founding act of a new independent Ireland. A hundred years later, the narrative underpinning the centenary celebrations of that same event revolved around the notion that today’s Ireland remains largely faithful to Pearse’s vision of Irish nationhood. But, just how true is this?
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 a mere 50 km of that same GPO. The equivalent figure in 1911, just before the Easter Rising, was 21%. 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. What we have seen emerging is not just a country centred largely on the east coast of Ireland but a de facto Metrostate where power and decision making is increasingly concentrated in the hands of an ever decreasing circle of connected people.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Ireland’s political elites. Fine Gael’s political representation is highly concentrated on the east coast – 27 of their 50 TDs or 54% represent constituencies in the province of Leinster. However, the concentration of power is even more acute when one looks at the composition of the cabinet, the fifteen member executive who effectively run the country. Seven out of fifteen cabinet ministers – 47% - represent Dublin constituencies. When two other ministers are included - Simon Harris (Wicklow) and Regina Doherty (Meath East) - we are left with a situation whereby 60% of the cabinet is drawn from what is effectively the Dublin metropolitan area. An interesting sociological overview on the composition of this same cabinet is obtained when it is considered that 40% of them attended private fee-paying secondary schools – a figure well in excess of the general population. At a time when ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’ have been elevated to the status of dogma in Irish political culture, the supreme irony is that the political executive supposedly charged with driving this same agenda is about as far removed as it is possible to be from a diverse and socially inclusive group. An examination of the make-up of Ireland’s other power elites in areas such as the media, banking and the NGO/quango sector is likely to come up with a similar finding – namely, Ireland’s rulers tend to be drawn disproportionately from the elites of the Dublin metropolitan area.
It is an undeniable fact that capital cities dominate and tend to punch above their weight simply because they are capital cities. However, the sheer dominance of Dublin in an Irish domestic setting sets it apart from other capital cities. London, capital city and global financial hub, is viewed as a particularly dominant player in the U.K. accounting for 12% of national population and 23% of GDP. However, even this pales in comparison with Dublin’s dominance which comes in with 28% of national population and 45% of national GDP.
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 would be 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 – also the city known to the 1916 signatories - 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. Today, Dublin has 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.
The hegemonic position of Dublin in the life of new Ireland is about much more than some grudge contest between Dubliners and disgruntled culchies beyond the M50. It could be argued that some of the biggest losers in the rise of the Metrostate have, in fact, been ordinary Dubliners. Not alone is Dublin at the top of the class with population share and national GDP, it also has the unenviable distinction of being at the top of the class for social inequality with homelessness in Dublin accounting for a staggering 72% of all homelessness in Ireland. In effect, the Dublin housing crisis is Ireland’s housing crisis. However, a statistic such as this doesn’t even begin to do justice to the increasing social chasm between Dubliners. The notion of Dubliners as some homogeneous grouping who, arm-in-arm, belt out rousing versions of Molly Malone may be an attractive idea especially for Dublin’s thriving tourist industry but it masks the sharp social divisions between people who, although sharing the same living space, increasingly inhabit different social and economic worlds.
The Dublin property market – a constant source of fascination for Ireland’s power elites – is testimony to this growing social and economic divide within Dublin. When it’s examined up close, one of the most striking features of this market is just how polarized it is. A My Home study in 2017 based on actual prices paid for properties showed that the highest average prices in the capital were in Dublin 4 (€890,000) making them approximately 6 times greater than those in Dublin 10 (€153,000). Both postal districts are less than 10km apart! However, even this doesn’t capture the growing chasm between Dublin’s ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ as the city’s transient rental population and the homeless don’t even make it on to the bottom scale of this measurement of economic and social inequality.
The Dublin housing crisis and more particularly, the city’s homeless crisis, is about much more than a shortage of bricks and mortar. While Dublin’s elites have prospered in the wake of nationhood and more recently, the opportunities presented by globalisation, it is quite obvious that this same trend has been disastrous for what might be termed Dublin’s traditional working class. One of the reasons why the Dublin’s homelessness crisis is so acute is because the economic viability underpinning much of its traditional working class has been undermined.
This is well illustrated by a company such as Guinness, not only one of Ireland’s most iconic brands but also traditionally one of Dublin’s most important sources of employment. As many will well know, it wasn’t just the Guinness stout that made Guinness famous in Dublin it was above all else, the pay and conditions enjoyed by their workers who benefitted from a secure and stable work environment. Many of these were skilled manual jobs which underpinned the basic fabric of what was the traditional Dublin working class.
From the standpoint of today, the numbers around the economic impact of Guinness on Dublin working class employment are truly impressive. In 1960, Guinness had an estimated 5,000 employees at its James’ Gate brewery ranging from skilled manual jobs to brewing to clerical roles. What happened at Guinness has happened just about everywhere else across the developed world – the drive towards globalisation has meant that the unique combination of technology and capital has disproportionately affected the working class and essentially eliminated entire crafts and jobs. In 2014, Guinness opened its latest state of the art facility, Brewhouse 4, and while production is now a multiple of what it was in 1959, the corollary is that today, employment (1,000) is just a fraction of what it once was. What is truly remarkable about the last half century is the manner in which globalisation has impacted disproportionately on traditional blue collar workers. This has been the case with Guinness as it has been with numerous other employers.
The official response to the Dublin homelessness crisis hasn’t been a debate about how globalism has consigned large sections of the traditional labour market to the scrapheap or about the questionable merits of concentrating a disproportionate amount of national economic activity in one extended low density metropolitan area. Instead, the debate has been largely about the scale and extent of the charitable response to the housing crisis namely, how many subsidised social housing units should be provided. No one, least of all the power elites, has touched on the essentials of the big picture in all of this – the need to make people economically independent so that they can provide for themselves and their families.
It’s hardly surprising that the Metrostate has opted for charity rather than a debate on the underlying factors that have led to large sections of the workforce trying to eke out an existence in the twilight world of the new globalised workplace. Charity, after all, is now one of the most important activities of government with social welfare spending accounting for 20bn or 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.
One of new Ireland’s self-sustaining myths about itself is that of an inclusive and socially progressive country and the scale and extent of the country’s welfare budget is often pointed to as evidence of this. However, a less benign interpretation might be that the ultimate beneficiaries of this largesse are, in fact, the political elites who end up with a massive stockpile of cash with which to placate and manipulate sections of the electorate for their own benefit.
The journey from Proclamation to a new, ‘socially progressive’ and ‘inclusive’ Ireland centred on an east coast Metrostate has indeed been a long one. Whatever way you look at it, centralizing so much economic activity, population and power in one area has only served the interests of the power elites who now effectively run Ireland. The rise of the Metrostate has not only had a detrimental effect on the lives of many ordinary Dubliners; it has also sucked the life out of Ireland’s regions. Rural depopulation, closing schools, post offices and Garda stations aren’t the causes of decline; they are the effects of concentrating a disproportionate amount of economic activity in one area. The reality may well be that the Dublin homeless and the rural communities struggling to keep their local post office open may have a lot more in common than they realise. They may also have a lot more in common than those in power would like to admit.