Kevin Myers: Cathedral in the sky celebrating pieties and pensions of our public service unions
Published 27/11/2012 | 17:00
THE word was originally Aramaic. It entered the English language in the late 19th Century from Yiddish, in which it took the form we know it by today: chutzpah. And by heavens, it took some chutzpah for SIPTU to press ahead with its plans for a new and super-sized multi-million euro Liberty Hall, 22 storeys and 100 metres high, while the rest of the economy was on its hands and knees, licking puddles.
But why would SIPTU not have chutzpah? It is simply the public-service in martial-mode, armed and ready for the fray, and would have as much understanding of the lives and worries of the private sector as the Vatican had of the famished serfs of Latvia when it decided to build St Peter's Basilica 500 years ago.
Moreover, SIPTU not merely has architectural vision: it also has an assurance of an income flow.
It knows that no government will ever take it on: it has met our politicians, and has discovered it has their measure. So yes, SIPTU was probably as astounded at the effrontery of An Bord Pleanala in overturning Dublin City's Council's planning permission as Rome was when Martin Luther hammered his 95 Theses on a church door.
What will SIPTU do next? Whatever it is, it will probably be an architectural declaration of both purpose and status. For victors always build big: hence Dublin's medieval churches, hence Manhattan's phallic landscape, and hence, in 1965, Liberty Hall – still the capital's tallest building.
In those more innocent days, it was even called a skyscraper, and symbolised the cultural and political power of the trade union movement, even when this was divided by scores of rival unions. Yet such was their clout that RTE was even forced to employ two members of the Seamen's Union to climb the mast, who no doubt filled in their spare time by dancing hornpipes and bellowing socialist sea-shanties. Neither bank nor church nor government since Independence has ever built anything to compare with the vertiginous temple to Lemassian Ireland that was Liberty Hall. In that strange, forgotten Republic of yesteryear, unions and capital were bound by state-backed regulations: the prices of butter, bread, and beer and whiskey were decided by government officials, who were themselves union members. Much has changed since then. Our politicians are now ruled by the EU, our banks are bankrupt and the Catholic Church has about as much power as a lunar windfarm. Only the public-service unions retain the ancestral authority that they had when Liberty Hall was erected – indeed even more so.
Their achievement in protecting their jobs, and most of all, their pensions at Croke Park, was one of the most astounding political victories of recent years. Who else but a public service union would propose building a huge building, while all around 'For Let' signs are going up? It was an elegant coincidence that the architects of the superb Croke Park stadium were also the architects of the proposed new Liberty Hall. That we might not see the fruits of five years' work from perhaps the finest architectural minds in Ireland, is perversely regrettable.
Though the old Liberty Hall is rather like a Lego construction from a seven-year-old with spatial disorders, it has nonetheless become quintessentially part of Dublin. However, Liberty Hall is prematurely aged. The prefabricated slabs have shifted: doors do not close, windows have warped, walls leak, and demolition might be the only realistic option.
IN which case, we might joyously seize the resulting opportunities: the removal of Liberty Hall would restore some of the linear perspectives of the glorious Customs House, though these would still be restricted by that Victorian homage to iron ugliness, the monstrous loop-line bridge. So that would have to be rebuilt totally, using less visually-intrusive structures.
But what am I talking about?
Clearly, on the gin again. For SIPTU will almost certainly look for a revised planning permission.
And why not? For, like the Vatican, SIPTU has a self-confidence that enables it to think in decades. After all, it managed to get Dublin City Council to agree permission for a whopping great cathedral celebrating the chutzpah, pieties and permanent pensions of the public service.
The single major obstacle remains An Bord Pleanala – and that, very definitely, is not Martin Luther.