Tuesday 21 January 2020

A week marked by many acts of good and bad authority

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Most weeks, I settle for the sniper shot of a single-issue column rather than a shotgun spread of pellets over a wide target.

But so many topics have silted up in my mind that I would rather briefly dredge a few of them than not refer to them at all.

First up is Pat Leahy's profile of Mary Mitchell O'Connor in the Irish Times last weekend in which a cower of civil servants and Fine Gael TDs sniped anonymously at the Jobs and Enterprise Minister.

Leahy should have drawn the line at letting these pursed lips spit petty bile and venom from the safety of the shadows.

Like many an abused woman, Mitchell O'Connor made matters worse by staying silent after Enda Kenny opened the shooting season on her in his reply to Micheal Martin last month.

The minister should have demanded an immediate apology from Kenny, or, failing that, resigned with dignity.

As philosopher Kant says: "If we act like worms we should not be surprised if people step on us."

Last week, Kenny belatedly said that Mitchell O'Connor had his confidence. Far too late to frighten the spiteful scolds in Fine Gael.

Last weekend, too, John Banville confessed he felt he had given too much to his writing to be a good father.

This produced a pious chorus of contradiction from a plethora of authors, most of whom I had never heard of, never mind read.

All great writers retreat from the world while they are working. Few have the honesty to admit their loved ones lost out.

John Banville is probably being a bit hard on himself. But he told the truth as he saw it. That's why he's our greatest living novelist.


Let me now move on to the matter of bad and good authority - to my mind the biggest issue of our time.

St Thomas Aquinas says good authority is a service to the people, giving the community what it needs rather than what it wants.

Conversely, bad authority is giving in to the powerful few and thus sacrificing the general good.

This Government is acting with bad authority by not taking a hard line with the gardai and the teachers, but more especially the AGSI, who are acting like anarchists.

Let me balance acts of bad authority down here by recording an act of good authority in Northern Ireland.

Colum Eastwood, the new leader of the SDLP, made history by addressing the Ulster Unionist Conference.

He did not make nice or give ground on the nationalist position. But the unionists still gave him a standing ovation - proof that another small bridge has been crossed.

Alas, I cannot say the same for Archbishop Diarmuid Martin's depressing homily at Kilmainham Gaol last weekend.

According to Patsy McGarry's reliable report in the Irish Times, the archbishop told his congregation: "We are celebrating Mass in a sacred space."

And why was it a sacred space? According to the archbishop, it was not sacred "because it was blessed or consecrated in a liturgical ceremony".

No, it was sacred, he said, "because of the extraordinary faith which was shown here at a moment when all else seemed to be dominated by brutality".

Presumably he meant British brutality. Because he made no mention of violence by the Irish Volunteers, nor put the smallest question mark over the morality of a minority taking arms in 1916.

Leaving aside the effect on unionist opinion of a Catholic Archbishop of Dublin conferring a kind of sainthood on Pearse & Co, the archbishop failed to deal with the moral issue posed by the 1916 Rising.

His silence on that crucial topic contrasts with the critical stance taken by Fr Seamus Murphy SJ in a critique called Dark Liturgy published in the spring issue of Studies.

Murphy strongly challenged any attempt to sanitise 1916 and separate it out from the bloody murders and atrocities of all the IRA campaigns that followed.

"From the initiation of the 1919-21 War of Independence, through the occupation of central Dublin by anti-treaty forces in 1922, the border campaign of 1956-62, the provo war, up to the Real IRA's campaign, legitimacy has always been claimed as inherited from the model of the Easter Rising, not from parliamentary elections."

He went on to castigate Pearse's use of Roman Catholic liturgical symbols to sell a message of violence and blood sacrifice.

"Through the sacrificial aspects of the Rising, they perpetrated a spiritual violence upon the Irish nationalist community from which it has not fully recovered."

And he concluded with a condemnation we might have expected from Archbishop Martin: "Only a dark pagan liturgy can command and celebrate such bloody praxis."


Finally, let me mourn a man who spent his life fighting that same bloody praxis: Detective Superintendent Kevin Sheehy, of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who died last weekend.

The word hero has been degraded in recent times. To me, it means a person of supreme moral and physical courage who is prepared to lay down his life for the general good.

By that high standard, Sheehy was the only real hero I have ever met. And his life story is far stranger than any fiction.

Sheehy was born into a Roman Catholic family in Sailortown in North Belfast and studied history at Trinity College Dublin, where he played football with his lifelong friend Pat Finucane, who was later murdered by loyalists.

In his memoir, More Questions Than Answers: Reflections on a Life in the RUC, he recalls their relationship. "I was always unionist and had a picture of the Queen on my bedroom wall which Pat and the others slagged me about."

Their friendship even survived the momentous moral decision Sheehy made on returning to Belfast in 1970 - to join the RUC. "When I said I was considering a career in the RUC, we agreed to differ. But even after I joined, we remained good friends."

He was the first Roman Catholic graduate to join the force. He rose swiftly through the ranks, fighting IRA and loyalist racketeers to finally become head of the Drugs Squad.

In Gerry Gregg's TV3 series Dirty Money, Sheehy said that before the Good Friday Agreement four in every five euro went to the IRA and only one to Sinn Fein - but that after 1998 the ratio was reversed.

Kevin and his close Protestant comrade and friend, Detective Chief Superintendent Eric Anderson, were a formidable team. Together they brought paedophile Fr Brendan Smyth to justice.

The Smyth case opened a Pandora's box that brought down Albert Reynolds and permanently damaged the power base of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

An atheist, a tireless worker for animal rights, and a vegetarian, Sheehy faced death with the same stoicism he showed to provo and loyalist terrorists.

His last, simple request was that his ashes be scattered in Strangford Lough.

Sunday Independent

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