Of pylons and pythons
Trust is a key word in business. This week we have decided to include as our blog the thoughts of a regular collaborator over the years – Feargus O’Raghallaigh – on the pylon debate and trust is the evidence provided in what are not just economic, but societal issues. One thing is certain, without proper debate and evidence we will not have trusted decisions.
Trust in me, just in me,
Shut your eyes and trust in me,
You can sleep safe and sound,
Knowing I am around.
Kaa (the python) luring Mowgli in
The Jungle Book,
Walt Disney (1967)
Contributor: Feargus O’Raghallaigh
Disney’s adaptation of Kipling’s tales was a magical part of the artistic, creative and commercial renewal of Walt Disney Studios. The old Disney and outfits such as Hanna Barbera and others made film animation into an almost essential part of childhood. There were also always though, subversive aspects to animation – and adult appeal. Jungle Book ticked all the boxes with one of the more subversive being Kaa’s lethal and seductive lullaby luring of the boy Mowgli.
One of the abidingly fine non-fiction prose collections of the last few years is Tony Judt’s death-bed collection of thoughts Ill Fares the Land. I will not here deal with why I think so highly of the work. However in this posting (in which I return to pylons and the national grid) I do draw on one part of that collection, his discussion of dissent and conformity.
Richard Bruton recently attested to for him, the self-evident case for more pylons (the upgrade of the national electricity grid). Some other ministers have pronounced in similar vein (Pat Rabbitte comes to mind but then he is the minister politically responsible). Others have remained silent publicly but have been reported as advising the Taoiseach to tread warily. Local elections are in May and this is a hot subject in local communities.
Actually the case for pylons is not at all ‘self-evident’. I say that as someone who favours the upgrade of the grid, sees the undoubted need for it, a strong case made, but from a particular point of view. In fact it has long been necessary (from this point of view) with its suite pressed by ESB executives to politicians over many years. They, acting by their statutory remit dating back to the Board’s establishment. However successive governments shied to indecision – for the very reason that it is today politically contentious.
Judt, in a short essay in his collection, The Case for Dissent, comments on how on certain issues of policy and politics “the citizens of [today] have learned altogether too much modesty.” The particular illustration he chooses is that of economic policy. He observes “We have been advised that these are matters for experts: that economics and its policy implications are far beyond the understanding of the common man or woman …”
He continues: “The liturgy must be chanted in an obscure tongue, accessible only to the initiated. For everyone else, the faith will suffice.” Re-enter old Kaa and his hypnotic refrain, “Trust in me.”
In fact, Judt contends, “faith has not sufficed.” He may state it in the past tense, a matter of history, but the message is clear. To me what he is suggesting is that this line has been so often so inappropriately used that even an altogether modest citizenry now sees – even if at times inadvisedly – almost everything in the sphere of public policy to be in the hidden interests of naked power-and-money. Politics and public officials whether elected or unelected, are on this view at best venal.
This view may often be inspired by prejudice, inflamed by demagoguery, fuelled by the ‘conversation’ and ‘discourse’ of the phone-in, Linkedin and our tweeting society. Often also though it has proved to have some indeed significant, substance. And overhanging everything in Ireland there is the fallout from disintegration of and continuing crises in church and state. Actually Ireland is not unique in the sense that virtually every country has in recent decades experienced shattering disintegration and decay in social and political institutions and fabrics with the world also become a global fishbowl in which it is all constantly conveyed to our eyes and ears.
This is a very tough climate in which to have our modern day mainstream politicians (or their officials) engage wholeheartedly with dissent and dissenters. However Judt makes to me a crucial point: “the disposition to disagree, to reject and to dissent – however irritating it may be when taken to extremes – is the very lifeblood of an open society. We need people who make a virtue of opposing mainstream opinion.” As he deals with his jobs issues, innovation and enterprise Richard may feel this, a demand too far, indeed dilettante. Pat Rabbitte might loudly agree: governments must ‘govern’.
But govern on behalf of and answerable to whom? Or answerable to anybody? There is in the broad constitutional sense here a constituency and a paymaster – and it is all of the rest of us. It’s called democracy and An Bunreacht. That is the point of the dissenter and having dissent.
The case for pylons is far from self-evident – even if I count myself a supporter. It is not self-evident because most of us want electricity but equally, no one wants pylons marching through their paddocks, meadows or back gardens. A low carbon economy involves in some proportion reduced energy consumption, more energy efficiency, greater use of renewably generated electricity (which means bigger grids) and higher prices. But in what combination or combinations? There is no agreement and will also be fierce argument. There are health issues about high voltage lines – however these may be overstated, they exist. There is also something else: some proportion of the population, however small, does not want ‘progress’ – and wish what we have of it undone.
There is furthermore something else. Ireland is in a sense ‘blessed’ with ‘failure’ and has seen ‘success’. What I mean here is first, the national ambitions once to have a steel industry, heavy industry, big shipbuilding, an aircraft industry, motor manufacture, nuclear power were never realised. Second, our nonetheless successes in attracting high productivity high tech US investment and other developments (including the birth to Mrs O Leary of a son) have given us the capacity to travel – and to see high pylon, high voltage, highly industrialised economic landscapes. They are not pretty, to put it mildly. On the other hand they are normal and it has arrived at our shore as part of creating the EU single electricity market – but the case must be made in a democratic cauldron.
If there is one thing self-evident it is the non self-evident nature of the case of the claimed self-evidence for pylons. Oh dear! I feel we need a Rumsfeldian clarification moment.