This is a young country, and like any youngster, it’s made some mistakes growing up and learning to live in the world. Also, somewhat like a youngster, Ireland is still growing out of being a repressed, subjugated, deprived nation. Even now, most Irish folk would seem to be more comfortable with being of service than giving commands. The country is finding the balls to get out in the world and stand up straight.
The fact is, if you spend centuries under the thumb, it’s hard to believe you’re the thumb now. But a change is underway.
The events of these last few years in the economy and in the body politic have been traumatic. They have altered the way people think, both public commentators and the man next to you in the pub. The effect has touched everything, all sectors of society, as they say. And with every crash and scandal, the people have come out of their unquestioning acceptance, the old “Ah, ’tis the way it is,” acquiescence and started questioning all authority and custom.
First it was the Government and the money people, the bankers and their developer clients, who figured they and the country could get rich forever and ever by selling each other houses. When it all came crashing down, as many people had been predicting it would for at least three years, some longer (and any political historian since about 1998 probably – all bubbles look the same i.e. dumb), most didn’t see it coming (didn’t want to see it coming), including apparently Brian Cowen, the Finance Minister who became Taoiseach just in time to take the hit of the Crash, the sneaky, sleazy Bertie Ahern having legged it just before the dam broke.
The people lost faith in their politicians, and they lost their deference to them. They grew cynical and they are growing more cynical every day. This is also a land of tribal loyalties, and political parties, like the GAA clubs, are something you’re born into, as they say here. Or rather, they used to be, but not any longer. Of course, ancient loyalties die hard, but the younger generations are not so in thrall to those loyalties as their parents and grandparents. They weren’t there when blood was being spilt. They think about the economy, the world they see around them, and they think about how those politicians and bankers and so on have tried to pull the wool over their eyes and they’re not going to take it anymore.
After the Government and the financial wheeler dealers, they lost faith in the Catholic Church, for so long the repository of all authority, the final arbiter, the ruler above that cannot be questioned. Like the Romans, the Danes, the Normans and the English before them. Since independence the Church had been central to the Irish Constitution, to Irish society. But the Church had a cancer that grew out of that obeisance. It took the children of its congregation Young boys were sent to seminaries at the age of 12, girls went to Convents when they were 18. before they had a chance to learn about life, too young to make such terminal decisions about their futures. So it was a mixed bag that populated the clergy, in which, inevitably, there would be some wholly unsuited to be priests or nuns, who grew cruel in their frustration, or, being sexually frustrated by the rule of celibacy, fell to abusing that rule. As far as sex went, mostly, in my experience (I was brought up Catholic), they just hooked up with a nice woman whom everyone called their housekeeper, and frankly I don’t care if they had sex or not, they had a companion in life, which I think is the way God planned it. But some raped the children in their care, little boys and girls who thought they had no choice but to obey. That really set the cat among the pigeons. This country is going secular, and I for one thank God for it.
And now, miracle of miracles, we are seeing the Guarda Siochana, the Irish Police Force, come into the glare of public suspicion. By this I mean, by the way, broadcast public attention. Again in my experience, talking to my friends and acquaintances in Kerry and Dublin over the decades, the Guards have always put themselves above society, to be obeyed in all things if they choose to ask or demand. I remember once on Joe Duffy’s RTE 1 talk show “Talk To Joe” a young man rang in. He had been stopped by a Guard and breathalised. He passed the test and the Guard threw the test kit into the gutter. The young man told the Guard that was littering and he should pick it up and dispose of it properly. The Guard couldn’t believe his ears. He arrested the man (I don’t know on what legal pretext – obstruction? Questioning a Guard?), and took him to the station, where the Sergeant couldn’t believe his ears either. In the end the Sergeant conceded that there was no reason to hold him, but before releasing him, told him “You shouldn’t be talking to a Guard like that.”
The interesting thing about this anecdote is that Joe Duffy too couldn’t understand how the lad had the nerve to question a Guard like that. I grew up in the UK, and there the Police can sometimes be a bunch of heavy handed thugs, as anywhere in the world, and maybe they must be, but their general rule of behaviour is of Public Servant, here to serve us, not us them. When things were breaking over the head of the soon to resign Chief Commissioner, Martin Callinan, he referred to “my men… my Force” being above reproach and blah blah. They are not his, they’re ours, as at least one columnist wrote the next day. The Guards are usually nice enough fellows, I’ve been stopped for speeding a couple of times (I’ll get onto the subject of Irish roads one day) and once or twice at checkpoints, but even when they are being perfectly polite, it is clear they feel entitled to expect everyone to treat them with deference. And it has always been accepted by the media and the majority of the people, that they deserve to be so treated.
I wonder if now that will change too. The Police in the UK on the whole, don’t carry guns, they don’t swagger, and they don’t bully the general public. They certainly do not see themselves as above questioning, and their Ombudsman has absolute discretion to investigate and interrogate anyone up to the Chief Honcho himself. Here they have yet to have that scope. The British Police are respected and generally get on well with the law-abiding citizens and deal as successfully as any Police Force with the problems of crime and public peace.
The Guarda Siochana should try it sometime.