Analysis

Thursday 21 August 2014

John-Paul McCarthy: Collective silence on key issues has roots in birth of Free State

Populist referendums highlight the State's ability to ignore major problems

John-Paul McCarthy

Published 29/09/2013 | 04:00

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When considered in the abstract, the two looming referendums on the Seanad and the new court of appeal suggest a strange order of priorities.

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We have the time to debate the merits of bicameralism, but not the merits of a rape or incest exception to the constitutional ban on abortion.

And the Cabinet made space for a referendum on our judicial architecture, even though the most obvious remedy for the appellate backlog is an increase in the number of Supreme Court judges, something that can be done by the Dail.

How to explain this weird populism, a populism that sends the People all sorts of subsidiary questions while ignoring the more important ones?

Charles Townshend's new book, The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923 (Allen Lane) offers some guidance here.

Two of the most vexing problems we face today have deep roots, it seems, namely our capacity to ignore major problems for years and the curiously brittle quality of our national debate.

Even though Townshend wants to tell the story of the republican project's descent into paranoia and fratricide by 1923, some of his arguments have an uncomfortable contemporary resonance.

Take the problem of delay for example, so markedly in evidence during the recent abortion argument.

How on earth could we get ourselves into a situation where it took some two decades before the political classes made formal provision for the suicide exception insisted on by the Supreme Court in 1992?

Gesturing toward the time when chattel slavery enjoyed huge public support, Americans have a great term for this kind of thing – "democratic failure" – but that's something for another day.

Townshend reminds us that in some fundamental sense our whole polity is based on a time lag, or what he called "the knowledge deficit" that was "primarily due to that collective silence" that masked the circumstances of the Free State's birth.

The dysfunctional abortion debate makes a lot of sense when you set it side by side with the broader argument about the revolutionary years.

It took a good 70 years before people found the courage to publicly register the fact that between 1917 and 1923 "in Cork alone over 700 people were killed, 400 of them at the hands of the IRA. Over one-third of the dead were civilians. The IRA killed 200 civilians – innocent or not – and 70 of them were Protestants."

Similarly, it took a long time before people could publicly talk about the shambolic aspect of Collins' famous Bloody Sunday assassinations or the way some of the Dail courts only got their way by intimidating witnesses or the fact that so many of our gunmen felt themselves to be isolated from the "host" population around them.

It also took years before some of the internal feuds among our founding fathers were registered properly.

James Joyce hated Patrick Pearse, Tomas MacCurtain in Cork City felt he was losing control of his own men, and even Frank Aiken's lieutenants felt there was something menacing about their boss.

Now, if you can block that stuff out for decades until various foreign scholars start asking awkward questions in the Nineties, then you can probably ignore what the rest of the world is doing on the abortion question for even longer.

This kind of escapism looks a lot like the euphemism that protected the reputations of damaged figures like Dan Breen and Tom Barry for years. (Townshend offers hard-nosed portraits of both).

What about the sloganeering then that has been so prominent a feature of the Seanad argument?

Remember that this is the debate that saw Fianna Fail circle the wagons so as to protect the Seanad's largely illusory "oversight" function.

The Government parties have fared little better here with their cynical claim that abolition will improve the quality of our democratic deliberations.

This is to overlook the fact that the Seanad was not really designed to do something, rather to be something, namely a symbol of our interest in and regard for Roman Catholic ideas about corporatism and other cutting-edge medieval concepts.

Attacks on its failure to deliver the practical goods misread its title deeds so to speak.

Even here, Townshend is helpful.

We have a long history, it seems, of indulging ourselves with portmanteau slogans like "reform", "democracy" and "oversight".

Here too we are very much the flower, fruit and heir of what Edmund Burke, in another era, called the "prevaricating sons of violence".

In analysing the revolutionary generation's interest in abstract ideas, Townshend was struck by the invertebrate quality of their thinking about republicanism, democracy and liberty. The contrast with the French and American revolutionary vocabularies was obvious.

He explains how there was "an extensive empty space for differing conceptions of the republic. . . The American conception of the 'masterless' citizen, it has been suggested, never took root in Ireland."

How true.

Sunday Independent

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