FERGUS FINLAY: We have a chance to finally build a real republic with rights for all

“THIS is the Republic of Ireland 2011. A republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities; of proper civic order; where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version, of a particular kind of “morality”, will no longer be tolerated or ignored.”

Those two sentences are taken from the Taoiseach’s speech in the Dáil during the week. As everyone knows, Enda Kenny spoke in response to the Cloyne Report, and it was reported around the world as a moment almost of revolution. The speech was one of condemnation, but also of assertion. In that sense, it could well represent a turning point in our history as a country.

It has of course been endlessly parsed and analysed. Those who wish to defend the Holy See have found fault with aspects of the speech. They’ve criticised it for selectivity and in some cases for inaccuracy. Volumes of Jesuitical skill have been employed to belittle the speech in a variety of ways – it represents a misreading of the Cloyne Report, it was selective in what it chose to condemn, all that sort of stuff. Some commentators have even pointed to the fact that Kenny is the longest-serving member of the Dáil and should have taken on the Vatican years ago. They seem to have forgotten that he is less than six months Taoiseach.

The criticism is based on a recitation of facts. That doesn’t make it true. In fact the speech, and the reaction to it, was a powerful illustration of how frequently there can be a profound difference between facts and truth. Kenny spoke nothing but the simple truth when he talked about the elitism and the narcissism of the Vatican and the institutional church.

He was right, and truthful, when he talked about the tendency of the Church to minimise abuse in order to protect its own and itself. The parsing and analysis not only doesn’t matter, it does a disservice to the church itself. A penitent church, together with its apologists, would accept the core truth in everything he said.

But the Taoiseach’s speech was potentially far more important in other ways, apart altogether from what it said about our relations with the Holy See. It was, or could have been, a speech about us. Maybe he was holding up a mirror.

The question is: was it a mirror that shows us as we are? Or a mirror that shows us what we could be?

Many of us of a certain age remember an interview given by Garret Fitzgerald during his first long spell as Taoiseach, when he talked about a constitutional crusade, that would usher in a new era of tolerance and openness in Ireland, and address a lot of issues that we had always been reluctant to talk about. Issues like family planning and marital breakdown.

The constitutional crusade didn’t happen then — at least it didn’t happen as Fitzgerald envisaged it. Change did come, and he got and deserved credit for opening public debate. But in many ways the real changes happened after his time.

Kenny has a different opportunity now. If his speech is to ultimately mean more than stirring rhetoric, it’s not unreasonable to question its central premise. Are we really a republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities, of proper civic order? Maybe more to the point, could we be?

It would take about 10 columns like this to spell out what a republic of rights and responsibilities would mean. But it’s a debate we ought to start.

I know there will be many who will say “it’s the economy, stupid” and that we’re in such a mess that there’s no time to concentrate on anything except economic recovery. But actually, economic recovery would have very little value to it if we didn’t learn the lessons about what got us into the mess in the first place. And the irony is that it was precisely a misplaced sense of rights and responsibilities that did the damage.

For 10 to 15 years our political leaders — the awful PDs in particular, with willing accomplices in Fianna Fáil — set about systematically building a culture in which rights became associated with money, and in which the accumulation of wealth could be carried out with little or no regard to any sense of responsibility.

The vulgar ostentation of the period and the collapse of accountability and regulation went hand in hand. If you had money you had rights and no responsibility.

But throughout that period too, campaigns to secure rights for people who had no money were soundly rebuffed. Political chicanery, for example, secured a Disability Act that ministers boasted about as world leading, but the word “rights” doesn’t appear in it once. A basic set of rights for people in education — especially people with special needs — was trumpeted from the rooftops when the so-called EPSEN Act was passed into law. But its provisions were simply never commenced.

We haven’t done too great on the responsibilities front either. There was huge publicity last week, for instance, about a fraudster who had ripped off the state in various social welfare scams, and got as long a jail sentence as if he had committed grievous bodily harm.

But we’re still waiting to see if anyone will ever be prosecuted for the scams that have destroyed our economy and damaged the future of the entire country. Proper civic order, to use Kenny’s phrase, would treat white-collar crime at least as rigorously as any other kind.

We can’t wait for the economy to be in better order to begin developing the republic that I think Kenny is talking about.

And we don’t need to. We need instead a proper debate about what rights and responsibilities mean. And then we need to look at the constitutional underpinning of that and the laws that need to frame it. Finally, we need to be open and honest about the importance of good practice in a republic. Kenny talked about a refusal to tolerate delinquency and arrogance. Bureaucrats can be just as guilty of those traits as churchmen can.

All of that requires dedicated leadership. Anyone who has ever been involved in a discussion about rights in Ireland knows how firmly the Department of Finance can turn its face against change. Their view of the world is founded unalterably on the belief that any improvement in the human condition is bad for the public finances, and therefore cannot be tolerated.

Experience has proved them wrong again and again, but that doesn’t change anything. Only resolute leadership can deliver real change in the face of that argument.

Another prime minister was very much in focus this past weekend. The Prime Minister of Norway vowed solemnly that his people would respond to a terrible atrocity, still unfolding as I write, with more democracy and more openness. No doubt that resolve will be tested in the weeks ahead, because it’s always easier to respond to people’s natural fears by clamping down.

But just like Norway, we need to set a different course. Let’s use our experience to make Ireland a model for the future of how people can be treated. Let’s, at last, start to build a republic.


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