Wednesday 20 November 2019

Martina Devlin: St Patrick's envoys may just deliver crock of gold

ST Patrick obviously had his enemies. In his 'Confessio', written shortly before his death in the 5th Century AD, he took pains to defend himself against what appear to be suggestions of financial impropriety.

He spoke of returning gifts left on altars, even if the donors were offended, and insisted that he had never accepted payment for baptisms or ordinations.

"If I asked any of them anywhere even for the price of one shoe, say so to my face and I will give it back," is how he phrases it, in forthright tones that still echo more than 1,500 years later.

"But in the hope of eternity, I safeguarded myself carefully in all things, so that they might not cheat me of my office of service on any pretext of dishonesty and so that I should not in the smallest way provide any occasion for defamation or disparagement on the part of unbelievers," he wrote.

Clearly, his reputation mattered to him, not just for his own sake but for that of his work and he devoted considerable space in his brief autobiography to safeguarding it.

He challenged his detractors to show how he secured any worldly benefits from his mission among the Irish, adding: "Daily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises."

So the man who became Ireland's patron saint knew how important it was not just to be squeaky clean, but to be seen to be squeaky clean. That repudiation of presents recognised the symbolism of being impervious to personal gain.

And so to Enda, marking St Patrick's feast day with a charm offensive in Washington.

Enda does not aspire to canonisation or even a crosier but he faces as many snakes, in the sense of challenges, as St Patrick. Symbolism continues to matter, in matters secular as in saintly, so the renunciation of that fleet of Mercedes and their garda drivers by the new Government is significant.

Similarly, the decision to cut ministerial salaries was noteworthy, although it didn't go far enough. It was the equivalent of turfing out the boa constrictors but sparing the pythons. Perhaps Enda is deliberately leaving some fat in place to allow further trimming in future -- during the Budget, for example.

The high number of ministerial posts, junior and senior -- a gift from Bertie, which Enda has not seen fit to set aside -- is a continued extravagance. It's apparent from the tone of the 'Confessio' what St Patrick would have made of such indulgence and of Enda's failed commitment to reduce them.

However, the Taoiseach has an opportunity to compensate by scaling down the excess of committees in the Dail, described by a Fianna Fail adviser as "a few bob for the boys".

He should decrease numbers to just four core committees that have a clear remit.

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach and a handful of his ministers are on the world stage this week, Tricolours and shamrock to hand.

Perhaps next year they might consider bringing a cultural ambassador along with each representative -- someone capable of mounting a charm offensive. Seamus Heaney, Saoirse Ronan and Enya spring to mind, but anyone with a substantial profile outside the country would do.

MINISTERS could get down to brass tacks with business people at meetings during the day; and in the evening, the musicians, writers and actors could host cultural events. It's a two-pronged approach that would allow us to put our best foot forward.

We keep hearing about the damage done to Ireland's global brand and how we must market ourselves as a competitive place to do business. I have no quibble with that, but if we are to make a success of it, we also need to change our mindsets.

This means we must stop making fun of the semi-detached Irish. Instead, we should leverage their goodwill, targeting them to come here, either for work or pleasure.

When I lived in England 15 years ago, we used to laugh at the 'Plastic Paddies' -- second-generation Dermots or Siobhans who spoke with London accents and had a Glocca Morra view of Ireland.

We called them the O'Phoneys and the O'Wannabes and dismissed their version of Irish identity as shamrockery. We didn't regard these children of emigrants as Irish, no matter how much Guinness they drank or how many Claddagh rings they wore.

In truth, we were flippant about their version of identity. Not that we showed it to their faces, of course: the Irish long ago learned the value of pretence as a survival mechanism during tough times, though we have remained too attached to it for our own good.

It wasn't just the British strain of Irishness that we trivialised -- we were just as dismissive of American or Australian O'Phoneys. They believed the grass was greener in Ireland, whereas we knew it as a country that couldn't provide a living for all its citizens. So our viewpoint was less romanticised. But parochial to the core, we never grasped how useful they could be.

March 17 is a time of year when we go global, however. It's a date that brings out the Sean in John -- in the US, which becomes the living incarnation of a Lucky Charms cereal box; and in Britain, where one in 10 people is said to have at least one Irish grandparent.

These are our two most substantial trading partners and a brace of ministers apiece has been posted out to each of them in recognition of it.

It's tempting for us to mock those international parades watched by people in leprechaun hats and shamrock face art. But they generate goodwill and there is a chance it could be translated into something more concrete.

While it's too much to hope for crocks of gold, some business opportunities might not be impossible.

As for reputations, St Patrick showed they have to be fought for -- and that's what we need to see happening now.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss