Fergus Finlay: We should celebrate the real patriots at this time

I agree with the proposition that if a friend dies, it’s the right thing to do, assuming you can, to go to that friend’s funeral and honour him or her.
Fergus Finlay: We should celebrate the real patriots at this time
Margaret Kennedy has just been awarded the The Langton Award for Community Service - for rendering outstanding service to victims and survivors of Church-related sexual abuse in the UK. Picture: Matthew Lloyd
Margaret Kennedy has just been awarded the The Langton Award for Community Service - for rendering outstanding service to victims and survivors of Church-related sexual abuse in the UK. Picture: Matthew Lloyd

I agree with the proposition that if a friend dies, it’s the right thing to do, assuming you can, to go to that friend’s funeral and honour him or her.

In the middle of a pandemic, that has to be done with care if at all, because everyone understands that attendance at a funeral shouldn’t be the cause of more illness or suffering.

But in a week where the word patriotism has been used a lot, I feel honour bound to dissent from the application of that word to Bobby Storey.

John Hume talked often about people who defined their patriotism in terms of their willingness to die for Ireland. He admired people most, he frequently said, who were willing to work and sweat for Ireland. And he had no time at all for people who were willing to kill or maim for Ireland.

We can all make our own decisions, I suppose, about which of those categorisations best fitted Bobby Storey. If a man is part of the process that decides to stop the killing and replace it with democratic politics, that’s to be recognised. If he is one of the men who ordered the killing to start in the first place, that’s to be noted too.

Bust speaking personally, I will never accept that someone like Bobby Storey has done more for Irish independence and freedom that men and women who have faced the electorate and who have espoused the cause of peace through all their adult lives. Not for the first time, I found the assertion by Gerry Adams that “Bobby has done more for Irish freedom, peace and unity on this island than either Leo Varadkar or Micheál Martin” genuinely sickening.

By all means, Mr Adams, feel free to describe Mr Storey as your friend or your hero. But spare us the spectacle of seeking to compare a life-long enforcer for the Provos to genuine democrats and peacemakers.

I’ve met real patriots in the last year. And I’ve met them because of an involvement with the health system in Ireland that I never thought I’d have. It’s been a huge honour to be able to say I know them.

Patriotism is a word that has been applied a lot in the last few days to Tony Holohan. We all know now that he has stepped back from his job to devote his time to his wife and children, because his wife is battling a desperately serious illness.

Tony Holohan is a public servant. Most of his working life has been spent in the Department of Health, and his background and expertise is in public health. I have no idea whether he wanted or welcomed the fame that has gone hand-in-hand with the necessity to respond to the coronavirus. I suspect he’d tell you that words like patriot or hero belong much more to the people on the front line of this crisis.

But I’ll tell you this. Because I now work in the health system, as a member of the board of the HSE, I keep a close eye on what’s happening around the world. We see British and American news a lot, of course, but it’s really helpful to have a sense of how other countries are responding too – like Canada or France or Australia.

And the more you look, the more you realise that we’re lucky to have had the work and dedication of people like Tony Holohan to rely on. He’s not alone, of course – the frontline nurses and doctors and paramedics and orderlies and cleaners are all national heroes. And it may just be the case that nobody in the history of the world has ever had to learn so much so fast in the course of his on-the-job training as Paul Reid, the CEO of the HSE, has.

But we’ve all come to rely on Tony Holohan. His calmness and authority have been the qualities that have guided him – and us – since the crisis began. He has chaired the national emergency team with authority, while resisting the temptation to be domineering. He has earned trust, day after day.

None of us knew that he was doing all that while preoccupied with the serious illness of someone he loves. Knowing the background turns respect for his professionalism into admiration for the person.

But my involvement with the HSE has also introduced me to another patriot.

Margaret Kennedy is her name. She and her twin sister Ann live in constant pain. They both have a range of unusual conditions which are almost impossible to group together under one label – although the term “very rare neuro-muscular degenerative disease” is most commonly used. They both live in wheelchairs. They find life, and the independent living they cherish, very hard to attain.

I’ve seen a lot of Ann’s work, as a painter and a writer, and she is amazingly creative, expressive and talented. She needs and deserves to be exhibited.

Margaret is quieter. But on the basis of a lifetimes’ work, much of it in the UK, she has just been awarded the “The Langton Award for Community Service - for rendering outstanding service to victims and survivors of Church-related sexual abuse”. The award is given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and only goes to people who have done outstanding work.

The work of Margaret’s life – her study, her writing, her campaigning, her advocacy – has been on behalf of adults who have suffered clerical abuse. She has surmounted her own pain and frequent infirmity to make a profound difference, here and in the UK.

The organisation she founded - Minister And Clergy Sexual Abuse, or Macsas – is still providing support to hundreds of people who have suffered abuse at the hands of trusted figures.

When she came home to Ireland she worked for a faith-based organisation as a consultant on the protection of vulnerable people here. She had to blow the whistle on practices that others were trying to hide – and then had to go to court to protect her reputation. In our often oppressive climate, that’s the work of a genuine patriot.

I got to know Margaret and Ann first because they are harsh, even ferocious, critics of the HSE, and I wanted to figure out if it was possible for the organisation to repair the damage they (the sisters) feel has been done to their lives and wellbeing.

I’m not going to go into all that here, because it would involve breaches of patient confidentiality. But I do know that there are a lot of people of goodwill at all levels within the HSE who are hellbent on doing the right thing. Bureaucratic structures and rules and regulations aren’t helping, but I hope we’ll all get there in the end.

In the meantime, these are two women who transcend pain and genuine suffering to produce work of talent and creativity. They have, just like Tony Holohan, done the state some service.

Because of their illness and the pandemic, they can’t travel to London so that Margaret can be presented with her award. I’m hoping the award will come to her instead. And I’m also secretly hoping I get an invitation to that ceremony!

 

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