Having gone to bed early, I didn’t get to see the first episode of The Pope’s Children on RTE. But there was no way I was missing the second. Any programme attacked in double-page spreads by almost every broadsheet newspaper had to be worth a look.
I knew David McWilliams had made an impact when I produced an organic rice biscuit for one of the children when visiting friends last Sunday. The six adults all shrieked in laughter. “Organic! That’s so HiCo,” hooted one, a reference to the Hibernian Cosmopolitan stereotype coined by McWilliams. While I didn’t let my sense of humour fail totally, I did go on the defensive. “But there are no additives. And they eat Jaffa Cakes at home all the time,” I said. Privately I resolved to become the anti-HiCo â€” no one was going to label me.
Everyone else seemed to have an organic rice biscuit moment last week too. A nation reared itself up in collective indignation at McWilliams’ claim that we are creatures of mass hysteria. Well, the nation didn’t rear up; the media did.
Anyone I met thought The Pope’s Children provided an amusing insight into a society that has undergone a profound revolution in the last 10 years. Commentators, however, were divided only on the precise nature of McWilliams’s crime. Either he’d gotten it completely wrong, or everything he said was absolutely right but others had been saying it for years.
I tuned in eagerly last Monday. My husband and I alternated between sniggers and gasps. The sniggering came as we recognised the stereotypes McWilliams described. There’s the Kell’s Angels, well-educated, well-travelled, long-distance commuters. Then we have DIY Declan, the high priest of DIY found in Woodies every Sunday, and Robopaddy, the Irishman who owns 15 properties in English cities or on Bulgaria’s coastline having borrowed on the value of his Dublin home.
McWillams points out our foibles with an engaging wit which makes his stating of the obvious look all too easy.
Our gasps were when McWilliams used well-proven economic theories to explain how the Celtic tiger is following a standard pattern of behaviour which may end in disaster.
By the end I was hugely relieved. I’d missed the boat in the mid-1990s by not buying property in Dublin. According to McWilliams, the property boom is bound to collapse and I can get back in again in 10 years’ time.
Of course, if I was a journalist living in Dublin who’d just paid an enormous sum for my house, I might see things differently. If my newspaper’s well-being was dependent on advertising earnt from the weekly property supplement, I might be worried about the effect a property crash would have on my job. If I was being wined and dined by bankers, developers and auctioneers, all insisting this bubble will never burst, I might start to believe it. Hey, I might even write a few thousand words attacking McWilliams. I worked too long in PR and know too many journalists with rental properties to believe all comment is made from a neutral position.
The bottom line is this: McWilliams must be wrong. He has to be wrong. Too much depends on him being wrong.
I am not saying that everything McWilliams says is right. Indeed, Vincent Browne points out that a property crash may not be disastrous once unemployment levels stay low. Browne observes that the value of your house is irrelevant once you can make the mortgage repayments.
I’d contend that a crash in property values will trigger a general recession in which people lose their jobs. A lot of our spending is based on the liberation of equity from those homes now mortgaged to the hilt.
The point is that all theories are open to analysis and debate. But when you see such uniformity of vilification, then you know someone hasn’t said something inaccurate â€” they’ve said something dangerous.
The clearest sign is when the comment shifts from the merits of the argument to the flaws in the presenter’s personality. When a consensus on the daftness of McWilliams’ economic observations had bedded down, we moved swiftly to personal attack. Eddie Hobbs suffered the same experience when he exposed our crazy spending habits and the vested interests of retailing in his Rip-Off Republic series. When they’d finished tearing up his theories they moved onto his involvement with Tony Taylor’s investment group. The accepted history was that Hobbs was a whistle blower. The spin put out last summer was that he was one of the guilty himself.
The same strategy applied to McWilliams. Not only was he wrong, but when he was right, he’d only ripped off what someone else said. We heard again that “he didn’t invent the term Celtic tiger”. But McWilliams has never claimed he did. It was erroneously attributed to him because in 1994 he predicted that Ireland’s economy would “grow like an Asian tiger” â€” Asian tiger being a recognised economic phenomenon indicating rapid growth.
Interestingly, The Daily Telegraph quoted McWilliams and lampooned him for suggesting such a ridiculous notion. He turned out to be right then. I bet he’s right now too.
McWilliams’ stereotypes, such as HiCos, are being compared to the famous Bobos, the Bohemian bourgeoisie identified by David Brooks, a popular American economist he frequently quotes. The practice of categorising people by lifestyle is a long-established habit of strategic-marketing managers. Bobos are simply the descendants of the 1980s’ Yuppies. HiCos are the Irish Bobos.
And there’s the rub. The commentariat has taken offence because McWilliams has highlighted the rather obvious fact Ireland is not much different to anywhere else. We all conform to established patterns. We laugh because we know HiCos and DIY Declans. But none of us likes to think those labels apply to us.
When it comes to property we are in the fifth stage of a pattern identified in 1945 by the renowned economist Charles Kindleberger. It’s the bubble phase. Six is the stage of distress. Seven is shut-the-door panic.
The merit of McWilliams’ thesis is its very lack of originality. So why the collective denial? Whether McWilliams is right or wrong, he has annoyed the establishment so effectively you have to think he’s doing something right.