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Ireland needs to be more like Ryanair and less like Irish Rail

David McWilliams: Irish people in some sectors are playing at the top of their game. In other areas, we can’t even get the basics right

When you look around Ireland and take in the fiasco of the Children’s Hospital, the saga that is the Dublin Metro or the inability to provide affordable homes, and then contrast these with the extraordinary rate of production and productivity stemming from the multinationals operating here, does it strike you that we are looking at two different worlds?

One is an Ireland where nothing can be done on time or within budget, with deleterious results for everyone. The other is an Ireland that deploys the same people and can achieve amazing outcomes, on time, within budget, resulting in more income and more jobs for hundreds of thousands of people.

Results are not only the preserve of multinationals. Take the success of Ryanair, the Irish rugby team, or indeed the prodigious output of Irish literature, theatre and film. In these completely diverse areas, Irish people are playing at the top of their game, innovating, experimenting and executing better than almost anywhere on the planet. In other areas, we can’t even get the basics right.

What is the difference between these various Irish ecosystems, one that works exceptionally well across a wide spectrum of challenges and one that fails lamentably? One ecosystem believes in the future and drives itself on; the other appears resigned to disappoint, fabricating excuses as it misses targets.


We look back to the 1920s and see a period of experimentation with the proliferation of electricity, urbanism, combustion engines, trucks, radios, gramophones and consumer credit. People in the West changed the way they lived and embraced progress, which continued after the second World War, with the arrival of washing machines, electric kettles, dishwashers, family cars, fridges, televisions, three-in-one stereos, microwaves, and 10-storey apartment blocks. Over the first 60 or 70 years of the last century, daily life in the West changed profoundly.

I think about my grandmother, born in the first years of the 20th century, and imagine the changes that occurred in her life, from the pre-electricity world, with sporadic education, where women didn’t go out to work, kitchens were rudimentary places, and disease, child mortality and poverty were not the exception, but the norm. All that would change during her lifetime.

My grandmother lived through accelerated change and embraced it. As a west Cork publican, consider the impact of electricity-powered, carbonated kegs of draft beer on her business and the lives of the punters?

In my lifetime, this future world slowed down. My kitchen today looks very like our kitchen in the 1980s. My granny went from horses to cars; we went from the Hillman Hunter to the Toyota Yaris, two boxes on wheels, driving on narrow roads. The plane I took my first flight on doesn’t look much different from planes today. Sure, there have been innovations, including the internet, but the offices we work in don’t look that different from the offices of the 1980s. The estates we try to build are of the same prototype as those we built in the 1970s. Progress in a huge swathe of day-to-day areas has stalled.

A reasonably new ideology called “accelerationism” tries to explain why this has occurred and how to break free from stagnation. Although there are various foundational texts of accelerationism, one from 2010 stands out: Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism by Benjamin Noys. His message is that rather than slowing down, we should be accelerating, increasing the tempo of capitalism and embracing the possibilities that technology affords.

Accelerationism argues that we should go “all-in” on technological progress just as our grandparents’ generation did, welcoming and adopting new technologies – and, as they did in Ireland, creating an entirely new country, political system and constitution. In fact, a new identity.

Much of the impetus for accelerationism comes from Silicon Valley and its can-do techno-enthusiasm for change

In the context of Ireland, accelerationists argue that the reason we have the Children’s Hospital fiasco, the Dublin Metro overrun and a housing crisis is because we have collectively slowed down progress and turned our back on Ireland’s challenges, preferring to preserve, obstruct and hamper rather than accelerate national development. Accelerationists argue that the people who run Ireland are actually not interested in solving the problems of the country, but are more concerned with keeping things just as they are, and benefiting from stasis.

The roll call of accelerationists’ villains are politicians, top-brass civil servants, “old media” columnists (like me and others in The Irish Times), various public bodies and intellectuals, who are actively throwing up reasons not to do things, rather than offering possibilities. Into this mix they throw the planning system, which works disproportionately well for those people who are trying to stall rather than those who are trying to fast-track.

For accelerationists, Ireland needs to be pro-growth, pro-technology and pro-big projects. In the area of housing, this means building more to fix the problem rather than simply talking about it.

Internationally, much of the impetus for accelerationism comes from Silicon Valley and its can-do techno-enthusiasm for change. Such techno-optimism often pits itself against other movements which aim to slow things down, including people who cite environmental concerns and climate change, arguing for patience rather than impetuosity. These battle lines are often drawn on a left/right basis.

And while accelerationism is regularly painted as a right-wing, big business crusade, accelerationists point out that technological changes benefit the general population more than the owners of the technology. They regularly cite work by economist William Nordhaus, which shows that creators of technology only capture about 2 per cent of the economic value created by new technology. The other 98 per cent flows through to society in the form of what economists call social surplus. This interpretation argues that technological innovation is inherently philanthropic, by a 50:1 ratio.

Who gets more value from a new technology, the single company that makes it or the millions or billions of people who use it to improve their lives?

For example, one of the unintended consequences of the washing machine in the United States of the 1950s and 1960s was, by saving millions of hours washing clothes, the liberation of millions of women to be able to earn their own money working outside the house. There is a link between the washing machine and the rise of the feminist movement of working women in the 1970s.

In more general terms, accelerationists look at the failures of infrastructure projects, such as the housing crisis and the absence of Dublin Metro (after 50 years of talking), and conclude that the lack of urgency in fixing our infrastructural problems comes down to forces deep within the State that have no interest in change.

Accelerationists think it’s a problem of attitude, not ethnicity. Irish people are not genetically disposed to fail on big projects – we are where we are because we want to be here. Our country needs to be more Ryanair and less Irish Rail, more IRFU and less FAI, changing our world rather than accepting our place in it.