In Transition

(The Nationalist, 23 March 2007)


Recently, I read a statement that Irish people, without Christianity, are barbarians. I don’t know who said it, where, when, or in what context. What did it mean? I think it meant that Ireland does not have a civic culture. Some countries do: in the US, there is respect for law, the democratic process and freedom of speech; tax-paying is regarded as a civic responsibility. In New Zealand, I found people to be just, hard-working, law-abiding, and intolerant of corruption. In Korea, university students leave gloves and helmets on their motor-bikes in the parking area in the morning, and find them there in the evening; “honour” ensures their security.

Is there any truth in the statement at the top? The dramatic increase in crime in recent decades suggests the answer should be yes. Recently, a mob stormed Naas General Hospital, broke down the front doors and smashed windows in an attempt to get at a patient, bring him out and beat him. In Limerick, in a gangland feud, in addition to guns, a hand grenade was used. Barbarians, what else?

In the general election of 2002, a candidate, described by the McCracken Tribunal as being ‘able to ignore, and indeed cynically evade, both the taxation and exchange control laws of the State with impunity,’ topped the poll. Another TD, found by a jury to have colluded with tax evasion, was also re-elected. A candidate who was caught gun-running was elected. Jim Mitchell TD, who headed the Dáil Public Accounts Committee that uncovered corruption among public officials, was rejected by voters, who, in the same constituency, gave more support to a man arrested for involvement in attempted kidnapping. We made those choices.

What does that say about the public attitude? Is it compassion for the fallen, or is it moral flabbiness, the familiar, user-friendly, unwritten code of nod, wink, nudge, and cronyism? Is it charming roguery or shameless shamrockery? Are critics of such attitudes self-righteous Savonarolas, narrow-minded Puritans, or are they issuing an overdue wake-up call? For me, there is the smell of rottenness about public attitudes; we don’t seem to recognize a bottom line.

Where is the church, the traditional moral guide, in this? It is largely silent, and for reasons everyone knows. The scandal of the child abuse cases, and the further scandal of their cover-up, represent the clergy’s complicity in the same mentality. We have compromised our right to speak.

But it goes further. Anyone who knows the church knows that openness, transparency, and accountability, are foreign to its way of operating. Whether it is in the formulation of doctrine, or the appointment of bishops, or the management of money, decisions are taken behind closed doors, unaccountably, from the top down. It was the much-maligned media that lifted the lid on corruption in the church, and maintained the pressure for a decade until a measure of reform came.

The no less maligned – in some church circles – secular, liberal neo-establishment began the process of changing Ireland from a unitary to a pluralistic society. That enabled individuals to liberate themselves from group pressure to conform. It also challenged corruption in public life. In the closed world we had lived in, it had been covered up. That process has only begun, and there’s a weight of public inertia and passive aggression resisting it. But a start has been made. Ireland is in a state of transition.