The exchange of ideas between Britain and Ireland is drying up

Why is there a dearth of public intellectuals in Ireland? Andreas Hess, an American sociologist currently teaching in UCD poses the question in an Irish Times opinion piece pegged to a RIA symposium later this week. The exercise seems prompted by the fall-out from the recession, recognising that the roots of Irish problems lie deeper than in a discussion about money. The interplay of ideas and events shapes the future. In Britain and Ireland we like to preen ourselves as practical folk who avoid high falutin notions like the plague. But as Keynes reminded us :

“even the most practical man of affairs is usually in thrall to the ideas of some long-dead economist”

– and not only economists. Not wishing to play down the contributions of Irish opinion formers from David McWilliams and Fintan O’Toole to John Waters (whether they and others would call themselves public intellectuals or not, I’m not sure) Hess’s question also suggests another. Am I imagining it or is Irish national conversation on what it’s all about, far less influenced by what goes on in Britain than it used to be? I can’t recall reading a decent comparison of the British and Irish experience in the recession, for instance, or on Europe, or lifestyle. Granted the imperial legacy has faded, but is this growing separation altogether a good thing, when the two islands share broadly the same culture and intercourse of all kinds should move in two directions ?

Hess for example commends Harvard lectures by the academic lawyer Michael Sandell on The Right Thing To Do without seemingly being aware of the fact that Sandell gave this year’s seminal BBC Reith lectures on human rights this year. OK, that’s hardly a crime. But just look at the list of the “top” 100 public intellectuals readers voted on for the monthly journal of ideas, Prospect magazine. The list voted on by half a million readers worldwide is pretty international and obviously subject to a write-in campaign. Still, it would be great if the Irish Times or some other forum would lead a far wide range of ideas than we’re currently getting. Is it anti-national heresy to suggest that Irish participation in such British debates helps disseminate Irish ideas too? And create ideas which can be called British and Irish? If you take swap national labels you’ll find “British values” are much the same as Irish values.. Maybe just a pioneering website is doing the biz and I’m the last to hear of it?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London