What would Patrick MacGill have made of last week? What would he think about all that was being waffled in his name?
MacGill was known as the 'navvy poet'. He became an overnight literary sensation in Britain in 1914 when he wrote a novel about the lives of impoverished navvies in both his native Donegal and in Scotland, to where he had been forced to emigrate.
Children of The Dead End raked over the power hierarchy in small-town Ireland, where those at the lower rungs were excess to requirements. The boat was their only option, and if they hesitated in catching it, they were given an unceremonious push to help them on their way.
These days, MacGill is celebrated in a summer school in Glenties, near his birthplace. Last week, the town was heaving with those from the upper echelons of the power hierarchy. The list of speakers at the MacGill Summer School included bankers, politicians and economists. They expanded and expounded on the issue up for debate, 'The Irish Economy, What Went Wrong, How Will We Fix It?'
One strain of thought to emerge from the conference was that the sacrifices required in our bedraggled economy should be borne by today's Patrick MacGills. The gathering was used to run a flag up the pole. Let's see how the rabble react to a suggested cut in the minimum wage?
First up was Peter Bacon – he has a post-graduate academic qualification in something or other so convention demands we refer to him as Dr Peter Bacon.
Dr Bacon is the brains behind the government's secret agent for recovery, the National Asset Management Agency. He is Dr Nama.
The doctor says we need to cut wages to become competitive. "Reductions in the order of 10% to 15% is the kind of adjustment I am talking about, across the economy," he said.
"I'm not sure if you can achieve compression; that is to say, leave minimum wages where they are and adjust down… you cannot avoid a downward adjustment in all wages."
Well, maybe you can and maybe you can't, depending on the kind of society you want to have. Why should there be a 10%-15% cut across the board? Why, for instance, could those at the top not accept a far greater cut, as they were the biggest beneficiaries when the country was run on Bertie-nomics.
Brian Lenihan was up next to man the flagpole. "Clearly, if the minimum wage becomes an impediment to job creation, the government has to look at it," he told the assembled schoolgoers.
Around 80,000 workers are currently on the minimum wage of €8.65. If they take their medicine in the national interest – maybe eat a little less meat during the week – then we're on the one road to recovery.
Apart from the obscenity involved, it is difficult to see the economic benefits. It's easy to see where the forgone money would go – back up the ladder into the pockets of those who can afford to hoard rather than spend.
Last week, it was announced that fees for lawyers working for the Moriarty tribunal had been reduced to €2,300 per day, from €2,500. These boys may have to ease up on the Sunday-evening caviar. Their fees have been cut by 8% in recognition of troubled times. What exact sacrifice in living standards would be required by the well-off if they were asked to contribute more in the national interest?
Dr John Barton (this guy is a real doctor) spoke last week of the absurdity of he and his hospital consultant colleagues receiving a top-up of €25,000 to their €200,000 salaries this year.
His is a lonely voice from that echelon of society. Mary Harney was asked for a reaction. She said he's free to refuse the increase. She didn't see the increase as being absurd.
Earlier in the week, she also suggested we might have to look at lowering the minimum wage. Who's absurd now?
The most depressing aspect to the gabfest on the economy is that so little emerged to point a new way forward. The whole thrust of the big thoughts of these people is that we get the books balanced and off we go again, sailing merrily back out into treacherous currents of the free market. The only exception to this was a few words from Eamon Gilmore, who mentioned the economy in a societal context.
Precious little is being put forward on how we might better organise society. Nothing on whether the glaring inequalities thrown up by the bubble could be a lesson learned in how not to proceed. No thoughts on how an economy can be better used to serve society, rather than the other way around, as developed over the last decade. Nothing but cut at the point of least resistance, balance the books and off we go again.
What would Patrick MacGill have made of it? The raging social injustices he experienced turned him towards socialism, a philosophy that was then in its infancy. He never repeated the success of Children Of The Dead End, but his work has survived and prospered.
It wouldn't be too difficult to speculate on his reaction to what unfolded in his name last week. Anger, most likely followed by resignation. The decades have rolled on, progress has been made in some areas, but as far as the power hierarchy is concerned, it's the same as it ever was.