independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

The tragedy of our moral isolationists

The gulf that separates us from the rest of the civilised world appears as wide as ever, writes John-Paul McCarthy

IN Paul Bew's powerful recent book on Irish neutrality, The Memoir of David Gray: A Yankee in De Valera's Ireland, he reminded us that "de Valera himself estimated in 1940 that a majority of the Irish wanted Germany to prevail".

He also reminded us that our chief diplomat during the Second World War, JP Walshe, was an enthusiastic adherent to the "German New Order", who wrote in 1940 that "British defeat has been placed beyond all doubt".

This last despatch hit de Valera's desk shortly after Hitler had crushed Holland and Belgium.

Reading Bew on the day that Savita Halappanavar's ordeal hit the wires brought the moral quality of Irish statecraft front and centre.

Previously unseen assonances between the Emergency period and contemporary Ireland began to loom into view.

Bew's book is an edition of the memoirs of the American ambassador in Dublin from 1940-45. Gray arrived here fairly certain that de Valera would cut a deal with Stormont over his constitution so as to bring a united Ireland into the war on the Allied side.

He left Ireland an embittered man, perplexed and ultimately revolted by the narcissism and self-pity of the Irish national conversation.

Gray never forgave Walshe in particular for seeking formal diplomatic reassurance that Hitler was not contemplating "the abandonment of Ireland" and the withdrawal of German support for "the final realisation of Irish demands" as regards Northern Ireland.

Reading through Gray's papers, we meet a man who just can't quite figure out the moral calculus being silently invoked all around him.

Gray never understood how de Valera came to present his neutrality policy in positive, moral terms. This was "de Valera's tragedy" in Gray's opinion, his sly decision to suppress his own instinctual recognition of the "decisive gulf" that separated his Catholic faith from the values of German fascism.

Gray was an unpleasant man by all accounts – almost as unpleasant as Walshe even – but he was no fool.

What his analysis was missing, though, was a recognition of the fact that Irish nationalism had been wearing the medals of its moral defeats for decades before 1940.

In electing to treat the Allies and the Nazis as equidistant points on a flat moral line, de Valera was extending the logic of the Fenians and Pearse (and excluding the moral intuitions of Irish D-Day veterans like Richard Todd, the subject of Neil Richardson's Dark Times, Decent Men).

This is the logic that says Ireland is special, and we present our specialness to the world by standing apart from broader moral consensus. Isolation in this Fenian idiom suggests moral clarity rather than deformity.

This was the soft spot President Kennedy spoke to in his Dail address in 1963 when he referred to Lloyd George's claim that "the salvation of mankind came through a little nation".

This seductive isolationist instinct was brilliantly caricatured by Mairtin O Cadhain in his novel Cre na Cille (1949) when he had one of his talking corpses refer to the Great War as simply "cogadh an da-ghall" – literally, the war of the two foreigners, as if they were talking about a brawl between two Spanish sailors in a pub.

De Valera reworked these themes with cynical aplomb then at the end of the war when he gave his famous retort to Churchill and invoked neutrality as the final, irrevocable step in the long Fenian march to splendid isolation.

Gray listened open-mouthed as a fellow Christian democrat peered out over the charred ruins of European Jewry in 1945 and chose to offer a selfish, electioneering monologue about the worries of "a small nation that has stood alone". If he had read Pearse or John Mitchel though, he would not have been surprised.

It was all but inevitable given the culture.

Now, a similarly ugly moral impulse has given us the tragedy we witnessed in Galway last month.

Every single abortion- related case in the American federal courts since the Seventies has contained briefs filed by some of the finest doctors in the world swearing to the medical need for all abortion restrictions to contain exceptions to cover the life and health of the mother.

As I write, I have the medical briefs from a pending abortion rights case in Arizona open in front of me, complete with the solemn declaration from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists that Irish-style abortion laws can delay appropriate medical care, "put the patient's health in serious jeopardy" and "compromise the physician's ethical duty to the patient".

The only question now is how our laws have been allowed to develop in a way that flouts this simple, basic axiom.

The late Brian Lenihan's report on abortion law gave the impression that powerful voices in Irish life actually exulted in our moral and legal isolation on the abortion issue.

As in the neutrality calculus, our medieval abortion regime makes us seem very much like an island. Not the cold Caribbean imagined by Haughey though, rather the nightmarish society imagined by O Cadhain where corpses praise Hitler, and young women suffer because of a "pro-life" constitutional amendment.

Has that "decisive gulf" David Gray imagined separating Ireland from the rest of the civilised world ever seemed wider?

Sunday Independent

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