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James Downey: Gombeenism thrives long after it should have been eradicated


Captain Shane Keogh reads the
Proclamation at a ceremony to
mark the 96th anniversary of the
1916 Easter Rising outside the
GPO in Dublin last weekend.

Captain Shane Keogh reads the Proclamation at a ceremony to mark the 96th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising outside the GPO in Dublin last weekend.

Captain Shane Keogh reads the Proclamation at a ceremony to mark the 96th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising outside the GPO in Dublin last weekend.

MANY years ago, Conor Cruise O'Brien painted in these columns a grim picture of a future Ireland dominated by successors of the Sinn Fein-IRA of the Northern Troubles, in which the chief cultural events would be grisly commemorations featuring men in black uniforms.

For all our woes, that has not happened and will not happen. Instead, we can look forward to a "decade of commemorations" marked by serious reflection on the past, books giving us new insights and information about the revolutionary developments between 1912 and 1923, and (let's hope) useful pointers to the future.

The series began last month in a rather low-key style, with a conference organised by the Church of Ireland in Moira, Co Down. This looked back to the Ulster Covenant of 1912, which foreshadowed the partition of Ireland. It was very impressive, objective and scholarly, if perhaps a teeny bit on the highbrow side.

Next came the Titanic centenary. Myths and superstitions have grown up about that disaster. Some have seen it as divine punishment for the arrogant belief that men could build an unsinkable ship, and/or a warning of the devastating war that would break out in 1914 and destroy the existing order.

Myself, I don't go in for any of that stuff. The sinking of the Titanic was an appalling accident, but still just an accident.

The next sequence, however, was certainly real: the Third Home Rule Bill, the outbreak of war, and the Easter Rising.

Earlier wars, in modern times at any rate, had been essentially professional affairs. They were fought, as a rule, for more or less clear objectives. They ended with peace treaties which might punish, but usually did not destroy, the defeated. Afterwards, people would ask themselves if the price had been worth paying.

This one gave rise to collective madness on an unprecedented scale. Men who would formerly have been regarded as sensible and level-headed exulted at the spilling of oceans of blood. John Redmond, who made the epochal mistake of sending his men to die in the trenches, thought the bloodbath a glorious thing.

Patrick Pearse has often been condemned for his attachment to the "blood sacrifice", but he had before him the example of the killing fields of France. The men who actually organised the 1916 Rising were quite dissimilar: tough, smart, and practical.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) of 1916, and their predecessors going back more than half a century, believed that only armed force could bring about Irish independence. They had evidence, in the shape of so many failures of constitutional struggles, to back their opinion.

They also believed that they could not succeed alone. They needed the "gallant allies in Europe" to whom the Proclamation of the Republic referred. Here, they failed to learn from history. In former times, aid from France and Spain had proved inadequate. The same was true of England's new enemies, the Germans.

But they learned their lesson. The war of independence was fought in a totally different manner. The guerrilla campaign went in tandem with a brilliantly worked campaign to make the country ungovernable and to prove the illegitimacy of British rule.

In 1918 Sinn Fein scored a spectacular victory in the Westminster general election. In January 1919 the Sinn Fein MPs refused to sit at Westminster and sat in Dublin as the First Dail.

No doubt some of the forthcoming books and speeches will tell us more about the role of Michael Collins and the IRB in these events. But regardless of the IRB's influence, the convening of the First Dail was a tremendous democratic statement.

There will be -- has already been -- academic speculation on the "what if". What if Home Rule had come about in 1886 or 1893? Intriguing, perhaps, for those with a historical bent, but ultimately pointless. History has happened and we cannot change it. The fact remains that the Easter Rising is the foundation myth of the Irish State, nothing less.

SO when the time comes to celebrate its centenary, we had better do it right. That means, for example, repudiating the preposterous claim of the present-day Sinn Fein to descend from the insurgents of 1916. The commemoration does not belong to Sinn Fein. It belongs to us all.

The broader question is what we have done with the independence which we gained in the period 1916-1921 and on which our leaders subsequently built.

It's tempting to say that our ancestors won it and that our own generation has thrown it away. Not only tempting, but in important respects true. Undoubtedly we have lost our economic independence and will take a very long time to regain it.

But some of the aspirations of the 1916 Proclamation were never feasible anyway. No country, even the biggest and most powerful, has "unfettered" control of its destinies.

Independent Irish governments did not set out to make Ireland either a Marxist paradise or a dreamy medieval vision on the de Valera model. They set out to make it a normal liberal-democratic, capitalist state.

To a considerable extent they succeeded. They managed the transition from a peasant society to an industrial country reasonably well.

Where they went wrong was not so much in the excesses of the Tiger years -- although these have brought us, and will continue to bring us, much suffering -- as in the failure, and worse than failure, to curb corruption and what we like to call 'gombeenism'.

We all know this word and use it constantly, but it is dreadfully hard to define.

It can cover almost anything from dramatic strokes and deals to improper political and business practices to the trading of small favours and abuse of petty power.

It was endemic before independence. It is still endemic. In some ways it is worse than before. Virtually all the measures aimed at putting it down have been insincere or misdirected, ruined by political and official inertia or subverted by the cynical Irish belief that nothing can ever change for the better.

We don't have to go back 100 years, or 100 days, to watch it in operation. Who believes the Mahon Report will produce any good results? Who thinks the Fine Gael-Labour coalition will eradicate the cronyism that tarnished its predecessors?

We won't find answers to such sad questions in commemorations. We have to seek them in the here and now.

Irish Independent