We need to learn lessons of Irish history and avoid ‘group think’

YESTERDAY marked the centenary of the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in the House of Commons at Westminster. We are beginning a decade of commemoration lasting until the centenary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 2022.

The high point will be Easter Monday 2016. The proclamation of the Republic, the Rising and the subsequent executions transformed this island forever. Divisions which were restrained in constitutional struggle exploded into revolutionary violence.

We have lived to see the Good Friday Agreement, a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland and an historic visit by Queen Elizabeth. It has taken almost a century to repair and renew the fabric of our society.

In Apr 1912 the success of John Redmond’s Irish Party seemed assured. The Home Rule Bill, after a major constitutional crisis, was passed into law and expected to come into effect in 1914. The Rising and the Great War were unimaginable. Yet as events cumulated, one by one every certainty was cremated. World War I broke out, Home Rule was postponed, and nationalist solidarity was sundered and then reassembled. Ireland was partitioned.

In hindsight the vulnerability of the Irish Party is clear. The long involvement at Westminster had loosened the hold of its absentee MPs on Irish opinion. Aging and more out of touch than was apparent; their electoral and apparently imminent political success masked a flagging vigour. A younger generation of cultural nationalists and the growth of a labour movement meant that an alternative leadership was waiting. Events gave them their chance.

The similarities with the fall of Fianna Fáil in 2011, if not to be exaggerated, are obvious. A party that was increasingly an electoral machine rather than a political movement was utterly unable to withstand the onslaught of economic catastrophe. So the Irish political landscape is made and remade.

As events ebb and flow identity is changed and hindsight often prevails over truth. But the truth now as then is essentially the same. Most of us are followers and not leaders. “Groupthink” was the phrase used according to Tuesday’s Irish Times report by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to characterise thinking within the Prime Time Investigates team responsible for the Mission to Prey programme that libelled Father Kevin Reynolds.

This analysis is eerily similar to the findings of the Nyberg Report into the Banking Sector in Ireland published in Mar 2011. Referring to a ‘hierarchical/conformist style of policy making’, Peter Nyberg found that there ‘was pressure for “group think” within the (regulatory) institutions and, possibly between them as well’. On a grander scale the Mahon Tribunal reported that in its view ‘widespread public knowledge’ of corruption ‘did not translate into public disapproval at the ballot box or elsewhere’ and found this ‘particularly disquieting’.

Yet in spite of these insights, or perhaps because of them, our debate is characterised far more by blame that it is by responsibility. We have a deep seated need to be part of the herd, to be on the right side of events. Much of Irish public life in the 20th century was based on a reconstruction of reality. It as a standing joke that the GPO could have been filled many times over, with all those who claimed, to have fought there. Far more Irish men marched to the front in France than turned out on Easter Monday.

Until the transformation of public opinion by the execution of the leaders after the Rising was over, Seán O’Casey’s Bessie Burgess in The Plough and the Stars was probably closer to the mainstream of public opinion that Padraig Pearse and the Irish Volunteers. ‘Young men with th’ sunny lust of life beamin in them layin’ down their white bodies shredded into torn and bloody pieces on the altar that God himself has built for the sacrifice heroes’ she said of those like her son who heeded Redmond’s call to join the British army.

We are all entitled to hindsight. But we should recognise it for what is. Queen Elizabeth’s successful visit last year emulated the success of the visit of her great grandfather King George V in 1911. He was cheered from the rooftops as he passed through the streets of Dublin.

One of the great learnings of recent years has been the complexity of our history. It has marked an immeasurable strengthening of the Republic proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916. That political reawakening was begun on Jan 14, 1965, by Seán Lemass when he visited Captain Terence O’Neill at Stormont. It took another 40 years and thousands of dead for a balanced and inclusive settlement to be reached. Seán Lemass had been in the GPO. His elder brother Noel had been horribly mutilated and murdered by the Free State. His political life was an essay in leadership. Yet, his decades in power were marked, indeed maimed, by a culture of acute and often physical repression of tens of thousands of our own people. Industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and psychiatric institutions were repositories for the shunned and the unwanted.

The ‘group think’ identified in recent events is nothing new. Neither is the widespread public knowledge it conveniently masked. It just appears and reappears in new forms. It affects nearly us all.

It is imperative that truth is spoken onto power. It is important that journalists, the public and their elected politicians feel empowered to step out of the prevailing consensus. But there are few weaknesses in public life that do not faithfully mirror our weaknesses as private individuals. The claustrophobic and oppressive morality of earlier decades, the hubris and greed of more recent ones are rooted alike in the people we were and that we are. Morality is ultimately a matter of personal responsibility. It seldom thrives in a crowd and neither does democracy.

TRIBUNALS and investigations are no substitute for responsibility. Responsibility in our republic has been blighted first by amnesia about what is happening around us and then by delegation for dealing with its consequences. The monoliths of our society to whom we subcontracted our responsibilities have crumbled. Every institution has been found wanting. The kernel of the matter has not been the malevolence of the few. It has been the apathy of the many.

One hundred years ago the accusation against nationalist Ireland was that Home Rule was Rome Rule. Individual conscience would be subjugated to the diktats of an overweening clergy. If there was never the truth in that accusation asserted by unionist opinion then, or reiterated by revisionist opinion since, there is enough in it to be acutely uncomfortable about. Now we are unthinkingly replacing anointed bishops with appointed judges as a new moral authority. A republic under lawyers will ultimately be a more dangerous amnesia.

What is needed now is a vigorous individuality that participates, takes responsibility and shares in its consequences. The right of dissent must be reinvigorated. We have a challenge to face up to, to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship we have systematically shirked. Politics is never them, it is always us. ‘Why aren’t yous in th’ GPO if yous are men? It’s paler an’ paler yous are getting’ was Bessie Burgess abuse of her neighbours. The question for us is; are we up to our own history?

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