The Times from 1987 to 2002

The Times
from 1987 to 2002
by Helena Sheehan

an extract from
The Continuing Story of Irish Television Drama: Tracking the Tiger
(Four-Courts-Press 2004)

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The world turned upside down as the last decade of the 20th century approached. Whole countries, which looked in the late 1980s as if they had a future, suddenly ceased to exist in the early 1990s, and a multiplicity of new ones took up their spaces on the map. The cold war was over and a new world order was declared. The first world reigned supreme. The second world disappeared. The third world was all but discarded. Plane loads of westerners headed for the wild east to stake their claims in a new gold rush. Experts came to advise the natives on how to create capitalism and how to build democracy, as if the two were compatible. Prisoners became presidents and presidents became prisoners.

Ireland elected a president who was not only female but feminist. Looking at the world from Ireland, the news and current affairs programmes were full of this drama, even if the fictional characters of its drama took little notice. They continued to grow vegetables and have affairs and buy titles and lived much of the time in a curiously undramatic world, but eventually they too took notice of new times.

The iconic figures of the new right gave way to more subdued successors and then to smooth designer-labelled new social democrats. The hard greed-is-good eighties were said to be giving way to the much nicer nineties. Not that you could tell if you were reading The Sunday Independent, where greed was still seen as good and so very glamorous. At least the journalists themselves thought so, propagating a new narcissism, as alien to the faith of their fathers as it was to the brief sojourn of some of them with ideas of socialism and social democracy. The Keane Edge was Ireland’s Dallas. Even they eventually toned it down, catching the new tide after its crest. There were tribunals revealing how those who told the rest of us to tighten our belts lived themselves. We found out the price of the haute cuisine and vintage wine they ate and drank, not to mention the mansions, the islands, the stables, the yachts, the helicopters, the holidays, even the shirts, they bought. We caught glimpses of the shadowy world in which enormous amounts of money passed hands, even if they found it hard to remember such trivia.

It was an uneven development. In the east greed-is-good only got its time to triumph in the 90s. At first it seemed that obstacles had been cleared and a new creativity was possible. There was talk of a real third way. Then glasnost and perestroika gave way to mafiacracy. That was not even the worst of it, as a terrible spiral of disintegration fractured harmonious societies into murderous mini-ethnicities. In the other direction, the land of apartheid became the rainbow nation. The wretched of the earth queued for hours in the sun to vote and sang and toyi-toyi-ed and told their stories and forgave those who persecuted them, but they still lived in shacks and fainted from hunger and lived in fear. Those who persecuted them did not forgive them and lived behind electrified security gates and ate and drank the best of everything and complained about crime and corruption. Things had changed though and some who had lived in shacks went to live in leafy suburbs and drive flash cars and started to think that greed wasn’t so bad after all. Besides, there were rules and they were not made by nation states. There was no alternative, almost everyone believed, to the rules of the global economy. Public assets, at least those with the potential for profitability, had to be privatised. It might not be equitable, it might not be efficient, but it just must be. Public health, housing, transport, education were not priorities. Some institutions had intranets and pentium 4s, while others did not have electricity or running water. Virulent viruses, both those that wreaked havoc on computer systems and those that devastated human populations, spread uncontrollably. The aids statistics for Africa became alarming.

Globalisation swept all before it. Globalisation and fragmentation paradoxically went together. All the old ties that bound loosened and gave way. Local communities, political movements, nation states, public service broadcasting were a shadow of what they were, but, never mind, you could buy a big mac anywhere. The communications revolution rolled on. Anyone who couldn’t get e-mail or surf the web or send text messages on their mobile phone just wasn’t with it. The world really was connected in a whole new way through the internet.

The Asian tigers roared in youthful exuberance, strutted their stuff on the world stage and then collapsed into a shambling quotidian hunt. Then a Celtic cub came into the clearing and was much more charming and better behaved. Rising tides lifted many boats. There was a building boom. Construction workers, long queuing for the dole, had more work than they could handle and it was hard to walk ten steps without walking by a building site. Recruitment fairs were held in far flung places as a land of emigration became a place of immigration. People of many colours queued for buses on O’Connell Street. Seminars were organised on multiculturalism, refugees and racism. New forms of Irish culture stepped up and strode across the world stage, whether in song (U2, the Corrs, Sinead O’Connor) or in film (The Commitments, The Crying Game, In the Name of the Father, Dancing at Lughnasa). Temple Bar in Dublin city centre became the new left bank. New buildings and cultural institutions shot up and tourists came from far and wide. It was the place to be for film, music, multimedia, stand-up comedy and foreign stag parties.

There were changes in government in Ireland and Britain and a peace process and new institutions in Northern Ireland. There was a new level of scrutiny of older institutions of church and state. Media exposés and tribunals shed a light on the dark secrets of the days gone by. The stories of priests and bishops and their sons and lovers shocked the nation at first, but then came a torrent of tales about where consecrated hands had been and about children who carried on confused and abused. The faith of our fathers was no longer ours, no matter how well the cd sold. Nothing Sacred, Priest, Father Ted, dramas of priests fallen from pedestals, hounded off screens by catholics in America, were lauded in Ireland. Truly nothing was sacred any more.

A sharp struggle of opposites had played itself out in the preceding decades, but what had come of this vigorous dialectic was not a vibrant new synthesis but an insipid eclecticism. Right and left were declared irrelevant and everyone crowded into the centre with nothing very interesting to say or do there. The big ideas, insofar as there were any, were the debris of previous decades. Postmodernism made the zanier recombinations seem chic sometimes, but there was really a kind of hopelessness in the flux, a desperation to fill the empty space with anything at all. Generation x and y and z felt that all the great causes had already been fought, that all the good lines had already been written, that all the good songs had already been sung. Universities were reined in to serve the needs of the market. Philosophy departments closed down, but Sophie’s World topped the best seller list in country after country.

Without communists to threaten it, the ‘free world’ was suddenly full of aliens to expose and vampires to slay and rogue nations to deter and terrorists to decimate. The last alas were real. The scenario lived already in the popular imagination of the time with multiplying fictional images of architectural icons of political, financial and military power exploding spectacularly. ‘Operation infinite justice’ sketched a manichean world of good versus evil and all were told they must take sides. If you did not stand with the US, which had the right to call the shots for the whole world, you were with the terrorists. The nation state was not what it was, but for the one surviving superpower, it could be what it wanted and no one seemed to have the power to say otherwise.

The millennium, along with the y2k scare, came and went and the year 2000 was very like 1999. 2001 was different altogether. A normal day began and catastrophe struck and the world prepared for a weird war. Jihad versus McWorld1 was drawing blood and creating world historical havoc. Television drama was suspended for a night then came back with what was in the can, eerily showing on the skyline buildings that were gone. The West Wing and Third Watch put new episodes into production to reflect the new reality. The playgrounds of privilege became precarious. The masters of the universe discovered their vulnerability, but did not extend their gaze much beyond vengeance and the singularity of their own suffering and still did not understand how the rest of the world lived and suffered. Capitalism appealed to non-capitalist values. God was claimed to be on both sides, as in most wars. Public servants briefly became public heroes.

Even earlier in 2001 there was talk of slowdown, even recession, as the factory closures began again. Was the time of the tiger over ?

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