The media is structurally biased to bring you bad news. But the big picture, as ever, has more to it than that. As the year ends, here are several things to be cheerful about:
We live in one of the most comfortable countries in the world. The heating of the planet, and the uncomfortable temperatures experienced by much of Europe and the UK last summer, as well as the proliferation of extreme weather events around the world, has only served to emphasise our geographic good fortune. As climate change worsens in the coming decades, this advantage is likely to count for more and more. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to prepare for all this – we do. But compared to other places, we do so with huge advantages.
With democracy in retreat around the world, it no harm to remind ourselves of its value, and our good fortune to live in one of the world’s longest-established democratic states. Unlike billions of people, we have the meaningful right to sack our governments on a regular basis. If Sinn Féin (as many people expect) wins enough votes to command a parliamentary majority at the next election, or assembles a coalition with other parties and TDs that can, it will take power peacefully and with the co-operation of the State’s institutions and the consent of the losers. Micheál Martin will not lead an assault on Leinster House to overturn the election result. At least I don’t think he will.
Our political stability has been enhanced by our economic success, with which we have become so familiar as to breed complacency. But it is no harm to remind ourselves of how astonishing the country’s economic progress has been in recent decades. We are now one of the richest countries in the world. Remarkably, as wealth has grown, inequality has fallen, as taxation pays for social supports. Nobody disputes for a moment that there aren’t very significant social challenges facing the country, especially in housing. But nor does anyone doubt the State’s capacity to meet those challenges, even if there are very different ideas about how to do it. That’s politics.
This time last year, we were still in the grip of the pandemic, having suffered nearly two years of lockdowns and other restrictions on personal, social and economic life. In January of this year, in the wake of last Christmas, the numbers of daily cases – and remember how we used to follow them anxiously? – went gangbusters. But thanks to the successful roll-out and enthusiastic take-up of the HSE’s vaccine programme, the hospitals were not put under unbearable pressure, despite the daily number hitting 25,000 at one point. The meaning of this was clear: the vaccine had beaten the pandemic, and we were free.
This was a bad year for the world’s biggest autocrats. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has turned into an unmitigated disaster for him, destroying much of his army, exposing his military weakness, isolating him in the world and – inevitably – undermining his authority at home. Yes, Xi Jingping secured a third term as Chinese leader, underlining his complete control over the country’s political and military apparatus – a modern day emperor. But his authority among ordinary people has been severely damaged by China’s disastrous handling of Covid-19 – the endless “zero Covid” lockdowns, now abandoned – with the result that cases are skyrocketing.
Trump is goosed. The US mid-term elections were important for what didn’t happen: the Republican red wave never materialised. Chief among the reasons for this is that many conservative voters have given up on Donald Trump. They don’t buy his claims about the stolen election, and they certainly don’t think the constitution should be somehow suspended to allow him to retake the White House, as he recently suggested. The takeaway from all this is that while it is not hard to see Trump tearing the Republican Party asunder in his quest for the nomination, it is now very difficult to see him winning the White House again.
The good news doesn’t stop there – Boris is goosed, too. Chucked out by a rebellion of his cabinet and MPs, the most reckless British prime minister in memory later attempted the most brazen comeback anyone had even seen. But he was unambiguously rebuffed, and speculation that he might try to return if Rishi Sunak is toppled in the new year seems fanciful – even the dimmer reaches of the Conservative Party must realise that governing itself like a third-world kleptocracy is not a good electoral look.
Partially as a consequence of Boris-exit, relations between the governments in Dublin and London have improved significantly. There will be an attempt to reach a deal between the UK and EU in the new year over the Northern Ireland protocol, an outcome that the Irish government would dearly love to see. The prospect of ongoing and escalating trade hostilities between the EU and UK – with Ireland caught in the middle – has receded greatly.
The reception for Ukrainian refugees here has been magnificent. The numbers – along with a big increase in asylum seekers arriving here from elsewhere – are putting huge pressure on the system, with accommodation the biggest problem. But in general the country and its people have welcomed as many Ukrainians as have come, with many people opening their homes or second properties to people in dire need. Proportionately, Ireland has taken in many more times the number of refugees than other European countries.
The challenges of climate change are finally being taken seriously. Yes, the problem is immense. But it is now on the political agenda – here and elsewhere – in a way that long seemed impossible. The advances in renewable energy technology make carbon-free economies possible. And if the political will isn’t universally there to achieve that, it’s moving that way. Will it be too late to avoid catastrophic climate change? Possibly. But at least we’ve started to try.