Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Trust me: if the Noughties were anything to go by, we're Dome-d

One little five-letter word sums up the last decade - greed. One element of life has gone missing - trust.

Sorry to sound so negative, but if the next 10 years are anything like the past decade, the quality of our lives will decline even more than in the Noughties.

I can recall attending the opening night of the Millennium in the Dome. The warning signs were there for all too see. Even the clock in the nearby brand-new tube station was registering the wrong time. The organisation was shambolic.

When I bumped into the former Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson (below), he said: "Isn't this a wonderful occasion and a magnificent venue?" My critical reply was not to the liking of a man who had played such a central role alongside the then Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Dome's unduly hasty and extremely costly construction.

"Sorry," I observed. "I think it's pretty awful." At which point, he beckoned me aside from his friends and virtually pinned me against the Dome's unique plastic wall to reiterate what a splendid achievement I was witnessing and how I should think again.

Midnight came. Among the great gathering assembled under the Dome, the grandees of New Labour stood proudly alongside the Monarch and her family.

Tony Blair described the Dome as "a beacon to the world . . . a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity."

But what was meant to be a celebration of British greatness turned into a £800m flop and was eventually sold to become the O2 Arena.

Perhaps our antennae should have twitched on that opening night of the 21st century. I well remember how much went wrong even down to the singing of Auld Lang Syne when the Blairs grabbed the Queen's hand inappropriately at the wrong moment during the first verse.

There were certainly enough bad omens around even though we had yet to encounter the full terror of Osama bin Laden, or realise how greed would play such a degenerative role in our lives or how public trust in politics would be so severely damaged in the years ahead.

The decade of greed is over. The decade of austerity is upon us all as a direct consequence.

We have lived beyond our means. We borrowed more than we could afford. We paid prices for homes and businesses out of all proportion to their worth.

Those days we thought would never end, but they did. Now, as a New Year dawns, we are counting the cost.

Greed in all its manifestations played a central role. Some came to believe that money really did grow on trees.

When the annual increase in value of an ordinary bricks-and-mortar dwelling outstripped our average annual income, we should have known this was too good to last. If we could make more money by owning a home than working, utopia had surely arrived.

By the time the BBC's Robert Peston came on our screens to tell us the worst, the financial tsumami was already over our heads. It was too late, much too late. Greed had got the better of us.

Greedy bankers dispensed their billions as if there were no tomorrow. When they realised belatedly that tomorrow might never come, they demanded their billions back pronto and refused to lend a penny again.

Greedy politicians feathered their second-home nests with taxpayers' funds, but were found out by the Daily Telegraph. Even though the game was up they ducked and dived in every direction to avoid the spotlight of public opprobrium.

Which brings us to that other little five-letter word - trust. The last years of the past decade have placed trust in short supply. All those high hopes of Tony Blair on Millennium night have frittered away.

Everywhere you look there is mistrust. The news headlines of the past decade, dominated by stories of greed and incompetence, have instilled a lack of respect for authority.

Listen to the local radio phone-ins and hear for yourself the outspoken public criticism of politicians, police, the health and education services, the churches and virtually anyone in a post of responsibility. It seems as if no one trusts anyone any more. Trust has become the first casualty of the 21st century.

The distinguished author Anthony Seldon has just published a book tracing how trust was lost in the Noughties and how it might be regained. His ideas range from a year of national community service for everyone at 18 to national award ceremonies recognising the virtues of trust.

Somehow those who seek our votes and who administer our public services must have trust restored in them. This the big challenge for everyone in public life in Northern Ireland.

Be it the governance of Westminster and Stormont, or the administration of a hospital, school, or business - without trust, there is unlikely to be loyalty and respect.

The past decade has left us with a worrying legacy. Many people here, in Britain and the Republic, have had their faith dented in the authority of church and state.

From the current outcry against the Irish Catholic Church to the Westminster expenses scandal, from the excesses of the financial world to the demands on the public to tighten belts, the old certainties of life are being swept aside.

We are facing a decade of deep uncertainty, a far cry from the hopes and aspirations of those Millennium night celebrations. Our wish is still a Happy New Year. The reality as we enter the second decade of the 21st century is somewhat different.

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