Missed chances for wholesome governance

Today The Pensive Quill carries an article by guest writer, David Adams

Missed chances for wholesome governance
by David Adams

What an almighty mess we’ve made here in Ireland, North and South – we could hardly have done worse if we’d tried.

After partition, both nationalists and unionists had the perfect opportunity to build genuinely wholesome structures of governance within their own separate fiefdoms, but neither even bothered to try. Instead they each created something in their own worst image, and had the cheek to call it a liberal democracy.

For the North, it was a Protestant state for a Protestant people, which, in its everyday reality, had a sizeable Catholic minority isolated and routinely discriminated against. In the South, a Roman Catholic theocracy (in all but name) was the preferred option, with elected representatives largely subordinate to the real seat of power, the church.

It was only a matter of time before it all blew up in our faces. More than 40 years after civil rights protesters took to the streets of Northern Ireland – and well over 3,500 deaths and countless broken bodies and minds later – the place still pulsates with sectarian hatred. Just the other week, in Coleraine, a loyalist mob beat a Catholic man to death and left his friend critically injured. Sectarian murder is not an everyday occurrence in the North, but still common enough to be unsurprising.

On the face of it, the Republic fared better, with, at least to the outside observer, widespread political corruption seemingly the only major problem. But that was an illusion; it just took longer there than in the North for things to come to a head.

It’s not for me, a northern Protestant, to be rummaging through the Ryan report, but there are general points to be made. No individual or organisation of any kind can ever be trusted with unaccountable power, for they will always abuse it, and to the maximum extent possible. That the latest culprit happens to be the church is incidental to that immutable truth.

Further, regardless of its founding ideals or supposed guiding lights, the principal if not sole concern of an organisation that feels itself threatened is self-preservation – this is as true of a government or a church as it is of a hive of bees.

From the moment the first allegations of child abuse became public, the church fell into a pattern of self-protective behaviour – denials, evasions, cover-ups, and all the rest of it – that was as predictable as it is pathetic to observe. For the transgressor, it is always primarily about damage limitation and eventual self-recovery, not about the harm done. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the church is now coupling its declarations of contrition with wondering aloud how it can win back public confidence.

We could argue that, at root, partition is to blame for the mess we’ve made of things. At least in theory, a substantial Protestant minority within an Irish unitary state would have prevented excesses by either side. However, given the type of people we are, I think it much more likely that perpetual instability would have resulted if Ireland had in its entirety been pushed out of the UK, or been forced to remain within it. Imagine Northern Ireland, only a larger scale. Where, then, should we go from here?

We could do what we usually do, of course, and blame it all on the British for coming to Ireland in the first place, and making us what we are. Cast them once again in the role of Philip Larkin’s “Mum and Dad”, as it were, and declare that until the British leave Ireland completely, we will never be quite as we should be. That would bring us neatly back to our comfort-blanket dispute over partition.

Another option is an equally pointless debate on who created the bigger mess. How about, instead, we adopt a completely new approach, starting with an acknowledgment that we alone are to blame? After all, on one side of the Border we kept voting for politicians who routinely discriminated against our neighbours.

On the other side, we successively voted for those who handed many of the powers and responsibilities of state to an unaccountable body. While we’re about it, we could take an honest look at ourselves, and resolve to stop believing our own publicity – accepting that we are neither the most historically sinned against people in the world, nor inherently the most decent.

We may conclude, perhaps, that we are exceptional only in being amongst the most self-obsessed. Who knows where all this self-reappraisal may lead. We could end up acknowledging that Irishness and Britishness are not mutually exclusive, nor is one superior to the other, or either one tied to a single religion, ethnicity or culture.

We may decide never again to be in thrall to church or to history: eschewing sectarianism, and worshipping no more at the shrines of 1690, 1916 and 1969.If we take that route, maybe what divides us will evaporate of its own accord, including partition. We may even end up building a shared polity to be proud of, one without institutionalised discrimination or unaccountability: one that is moulded in the best image of both of us.

From the Irish Times 4/06/2009

1 comment: