Wednesday 17 July 2019

Words stimulate debate - but not always reform

For all the self-projection and white noise, the MacGill Summer School still falls short of expectations.

Joe Mulholland at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties in 2014. Photo: Jason McGarrigle
Joe Mulholland at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties in 2014. Photo: Jason McGarrigle

John-Paul McCarthy

Those who enjoy the rhythms of the summer school circuit must have been riveted by Miriam Lord's recent critique of the MacGill symposium. Her charge sheet listed self-absorption, abstraction and repetition, and it seems to have registered with MacGill's director, Joe Mulholland.

When asked on radio for a response to Lord by Sean O'Rourke, he laughed it off, but his tone suggested that his smile did not quite reach his eyes. And despite his belief that MacGill was "unique in the world", it probably has some way to go yet before Königswinter or Chatham House need fear comparison.

For all its self-projection, MacGill still falls short of Oakeshott's ideal of deliberation "without the sense of an enemy at one's back". After all, Pearse Doherty and Lucinda Creighton had important partisan contributions to make.

Looked at in general terms, MacGill seems to have been unusually susceptible in recent years to the "renew the republic" instinct, this being a formally benign project for sure, but one that has nothing but the constitutionalisation of budgetary policy via the Fiscal Compact to show for itself in all candour. The contributors to this chorus remain fixated by institutional reform and the amorphous problem of "trust".

Perhaps the most influential rendering of these arguments was in Fintan O'Toole's widely read edited collection Up the Republic!: Towards A New Ireland (2012). Here, the word "republic" itself was worked fairly hard and many of the essays seemed powered by the assumption that so many stones could be rolled from our hearts if only we could properly comprehend the meaning of this antique word. It's as well to remember that that approach has had decidedly mixed results in the past. Who can forget the surreal argument that convulsed the Supreme Court for nearly two decades about the meaning of the Irish phrase "ina dtreoir"? (Important aspects of our extradition law were prisoners of this semantic squabble between proponents of "rule" or "guide").

So much of that literature assumed that all major political problems can be reduced to linguistic debates, and this despite Conor Cruise O'Brien's warning in Maria Cross that "truth is so far beyond words that one can only let the words follow it in a great mass as the tide follows the moon".

Lord's complaint about the slightly Martian tone of some of the MacGill contributions also suggests another problem with the renewed republic ideal. Many of the debates there seem to assume that the ideal relationship between the institutions of the state and the population at large must, by definition, be a close one. That's not always true though. Some of the great anti-Soviet dissidents since the war insisted in fact that the ideal state-citizen relationship was a fairly remote one.

Soviet communism ensured that the citizenry could think of nothing else in their daily lives except the state, its whims, its callousness and its unpredictability. In that context, the citizen really craved distance from the state.

President Havel of Czechoslovakia tried to explain this to the US Congress within weeks of his election in Prague in 1990 by emphasising the communist state's near total hostility to the idea that "the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility."

Something like this feeling seems to be at work in our polity too, as we try to push the lunatic banks and their inept regulators out of our lives. Havel's mentor, the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, said something similar in his celebrated book, The Captive Mind, when he wrote that true human dignity was the consciousness of enjoying "privacy in the midst of the crowd".

Economic implosion of the magnitude we have suffered here attacks that kind of dignity at its deepest integrity because it makes us all feel permanently subject to the whims of the political and administrative elite. Far from wanting a deeper connection with the state, maybe a majority of citizens here crave the opposite, namely the chance to enjoy the most sublime right of all, the right to be left alone.

Is the MacGill conclave too institutionally conservative to think in these terms? Perhaps. It has provided a platform for conservative, even nostalgic analysis in the past.

Old reports recount John Hume's attacks on the "Orange Card", Garret FitzGerald's pounds-and-pennies approach to Europe, Joe Lee's defence of deValera's social vision, and even a lecture by Seán MacBride in 1985 detailing Michael Collins's unsettling long-term vision of a return to violence.

For all the white noise though, on balance it probably is good to talk.

That said, words alone have never been much of a match for the twin engines that have nearly always been required to extort structural reform here; our old friends, shame and necessity.

Sunday Independent

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