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Reviewing the year: Five things I got wrong in 2021

One of the things about journalism – in theory – is that the purpose of it is to hold people to account. Not directly, of course: Journalists cannot force somebody to resign, or vote a Government out of office, or fire an advisor. What we can do, though, and should, is inform the public about what those in power are doing, and try and explain their reasons for doing it, and highlight the reasons that doing what they are doing might be a mistake. That’s what we try to do, here, at Gript.

But it is also important to hold ourselves to account. After all, if you’ve read Gript all year, then you’ll have read an awful lot of opinions from us, and, by the law of averages, some of those opinons will be times that we got it wrong. So, as an annual exercise, it’s worth looking back at some of the things we did get wrong. In this instance, I’ll be focusing on my own writing. Here are five things I got slightly, or, in some cases, more than slightly, wrong, in 2021:

–          I was badly wrong about vaccines in January, in two ways

On January 14th, I wrote a piece titled “DONNELLY: WE’RE GOING TO VACCINATE 4 MILLION BY SEPTEMBER, MARK MY WORDS”.

The general thrust of it, if you read it, was that the Government would never be able to vaccinate 4 million Irish people by December. I wrote:

The problem with that plan is that people who’ve been trained to test for Covid have not, necessarily, been trained to vaccinate for Covid. The other problem is that while, over time, as vaccinations increase, demand for testing should fall, that won’t be the case straight away. So who is going to physically administer four million doses of the vaccine between now and September?

As it turned out, the Government beat that target comfortably. My scepticism was wholly misplaced. Donnelly was right, and I was wrong. Sorry, Minister.

But I was also wrong in another way, in that same piece:

Given that vaccinated people, in theory, at least, don’t get Covid symptoms, or need to go to hospital, that should mean a return to normal life, with schools open as usual, and no more lockdowns.

Yeah. Less said about that one, the better.

–          I was wrong about public opinion, in February

In my defence on this one, it was based off an Irish Times poll which showed, in February, that there was “strong support for re-opening society as soon as possible”. In hindsight, I misinterpreted this, writing at the time:

But the stakes, you sense, are higher this time. Past and prior attempted re-openings were consistently met with something approaching ambivalence from the electorate. They were understood, but there was no sense that there was a real hunger from the public to get back to normal.

That’s all changed, now. The change is probably most easily explained by the relative success of the UK as compared to Ireland: In laymans terms, if the Brits get to drink pints on June 21st, the average Irish person will feel very annoyed if we can’t have what they have, either on the same day, or shortly thereafter.

As it turned out, the Irish public were not very annoyed – at least, not noticeably – about the fact that we did not open over the summer. They perhaps should have been, but, by and large, compliance with NPHET and acceptance of their diktats has been very high. This was a case of substituting my own opinion for that of the public, and seeing what I wanted to see, in retrospect.

–          I was partially wrong about Texas and Florida

In March, and April, and May, and June, I wrote a series of articles asking two questions: First, were Texas and Florida right to abandon all restrictions, and secondly, why were the Irish media failing to notice what Texas and Florida had done, and ask questions about it.

On the second part of that, I do not think I was wrong: The refusal to look at countries with few restrictions, and consider their models as alternatives, remains a massive, systemic failure by the Irish media, who seem only ever interested in countries and states with high restrictions.

That said, I was also partially wrong: My writing in those pieces certainly conveyed my opinion at the time that Florida and Texas were definitively right, and Ireland definitively wrong. That is something that doesn’t necessarily stand the test of time: While Florida and Texas remain much more liberal on Covid than Ireland, it’s also true that both states subsequently went on to experience big covid surges that killed a large number of people. Texas and Florida have stuck to their strategy regardless, but, in hindsight, I underplayed the risks of their approach. My own view remains that, on Covid, I would rather live there than here, but my enthusiasm to counterbalance the rest of the Irish media led to less caution in my writing than readers probably deserved.

–          I was completely, and totally, wrong about support for vaccine passports

Also in March, I wrote a piece about the likelihood of Ireland adopting vaccine passports, after Florida banned them. In that piece, I wrote:

But the whole idea will be very short lived, if this writer had to bet, for a number of reasons.

First, most people will simply get vaccinated, and those people see the benefit of vaccination as an individual benefit: I’m safe, and that’s the important thing. Unless they’re married to someone who isn’t vaccinated, or otherwise related by blood, they won’t much care about the welfare and health of people who turn down the vaccine. People are much more liberal than we give them credit for, when there’s a selfish angle. In other words, the thirst to punish anti-vaxxers will be confined, largely, to the internet and the media, where people obsess about this sort of culture war rubbish. The average person, especially the average business owner, isn’t going to want to erect barriers to customers, when the whole point of the pandemic ending is to open up society again.

Second, it will be a nightmare to administer. The Irish vaccine process is highly decentralised to begin with – so who’s responsible for providing the vaccine certificate? If people want one, will they have to ask their doctors for a certificate of vaccination? Will the licensing authorities have to check hospital records? What office of Government would manage such a programme? It’s a potentially enormous administrative undertaking, and people should never underestimate the sheer inertia and laziness of the state when it comes to enormous administrative undertakings.

No, much more likely that the vaccine passport will be one of those ideas that floats around for years, but never goes anywhere: Like Seanad reform, or exclusion zones around abortion clinics, or elected Mayors. Nice to talk about, and a small number of people fanatically interested in it, but, at the end of the day, there are few votes in it for politicians, and no incentives for anybody else.

The bits in bold? Yeah, it’s not possible to get much more wrong that that, is it? Reading back what I wrote, it still seems to me to stand up to logic. The problem, really, is that I over-estimated the public’s liberalism on issues like this. I thought that, with 95% of people vaccinated, punishing the unvaccinated would not be a high priority for people. Turns out, that was exactly wrong. Vaccine Passports, though, in my view, an abominable policy, remain popular, and here for the long term. That’s a tragedy, but not one I foresaw at all.

–          I was wrong about the likelihood of a corporate tax surrender

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece arguing that the global minimum tax was just a non runner, and that Ireland would not have much to worry about unless, in years to come, we badly needed EU assistance and they demanded changes in return. That, as it turns out, was wrong. In the end, the Government agreed the new tax plan without much of a whimper of opposition from anybody.

The reason for getting that one wrong was simple: I assumed that the Irish Government would oppose it, and that they would be pushed to oppose it by Irish business, Irish media, and Irish opposition politicians. As it happened, all three of those were completely in favour of it. This remains inexplicable to me, but that’s my own fault.

  • There are, of course, many other things, in probability, that I got wrong this year. Those are just five examples.

It is an important exercise – both for you as a reader, and me, as a writer. As a reader, the lesson is this: Don’t ever put your trust in any writer, even one you like, to be right all the time. Everybody gets stuff badly wrong, from time to time.

As a writer, the lesson for me, reviewing the areas where I did get it wrong, is this: Too often, my assumptions about the way Irish society would react to new developments were too fixed. If Irish society has a strength – and a weakness – it is that we are endlessly malleable and open to shifting our views on a sixpence. This should always make us more cautious about anticipating what might happen, in response to a given stimulus.

I’ll try and do better in 2022. Thank you, though, for reading, all year.

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