I cannot count the number of times I have heard the comment: “The men who died for Ireland must be turning in their graves!” This echoed the popular reaction, from people of my generation, to the Dail’s Public Accounts Committee’s inquiry into the Central Remedial Clinic’s salary and pension arrangements for a former executive: arrangements which involved the use of funds from a charity, the objective of which was the provision of ‘extras’, in the treatment of adults and children suffering from severe disabilities.
As the cameras focused mercilessly on the faces of some of those immediately involved, the squirm factor was there for all to see. And so were the reactions of incredulity and shock on the faces of seasoned politicians, people who are not normally easily shockable.
This has been the latest in a long litany of dubious behaviour, of scandals in high places, and amongst those who would aspire to be the leaders of our country and of our society. All have come rapidly, wave following wave, into public knowledge. There has been little time for analysis, and, as yet, their status, whether criminal or unethical, has not been challenged in our courts of law. And so we Irish people have grown tired and dispirited and cynical.
Think of it! Think of those voluminous reports (now lying on bureaucratic shelves) from our expensive tribunals, in which names were named, and breaches of trust, abuse of the planning process, exchanges of vast amounts of money, and dirty dealings, were identified. Think of the bankers, the developers, the politicians who contributed to our economic collapse, and thus to our levels of unemployment and involuntary emigration. And many of whom have taken themselves off to other countries and other continents and still taunt us by the extravagances of their lifestyles.
These are the thoughts which prompt people (of my generation) to wonder what has brought Ireland into this moral morass: a country where contracts facilitate the taking of small comforts from very vulnerable children, and where unbridled greed has plunged a whole generation of Irish people into austerity and debt. And, of course, to speculate on how the generation that went before us would view the inheritors of their sacrifices and whether they are indeed “turning in their graves”.
In 2016 we will mark the centenary of that generation, forever identified with the 1916 Rising, now accepted as the final salvo in Ireland’s long struggle for independence and the right of Irish people to govern themselves.
While modern historians may well revise the methods of the Rising and question its timing and tactics and its bloodshed, there can be no revision of the motives of the leaders, so many of whom were poets. They were altruistic. They had a passionate love for the country of Ireland, as evidenced by their writings. Their Proclamation displayed their aspirations, which were far-seeing, practical and noble. They knew, and accepted, that in the event of failure (which was predictable) they would almost certainly face death. They were patriotic.
Patriotism is a word which has almost gone out of our language. When the late Brian Lenihan, as Minister for Finance, suggested, in one of his last budgets, that perhaps now was the time for some practical patriotism, the suggestion went down like a ton of bricks. When we stopped laughing, we asked each other: “What’s that?”
Nevertheless, we know it when we see it. It’s responsible citizenship. It’s about honesty and decency. And in looking at the steady release of tribunal reports and the almost daily revelations from the Public Accounts Committee’s hearings, it is obvious that both have been sadly lacking in high and public places. Honesty and decency have been sacrificed to the manipulation of power and the exploitation of ordinary people. The last straw in that exploitation would appear to be at the cost of small children, already incapacitated by the circumstances of their birth. And the chairman of the Committee has warned us that “there is more to come”.
Has all of this been done to us ordinary Irish people by some rampaging foreigner, or some ancient enemy? Would that it was, because then we would have somebody else to blame. It was done by the inheritors of the Rising, the next generation, men who benefited from the educational opportunities, the good schools, the improved living conditions, the freedom won by a previous generation.
Of course, we have always had our own home-brewed ‘wide boys’ and our ‘cute hoors’, but the scale of their meanness never reached the extent of devastation, and loss of public morale, as that caused by our recent breed of clever and respectable ‘suits’.
In the early 1950s, the USA went through a particularly bitter period, spearheaded by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy who became chairman of the powerful Permanent Committee of Investigation, pursuing those citizens who may have had even the most innocent and often youthful contact with Communism. His investigations became a witchhunt, in the process of which false accusations were made and damaging innuendo paraded as ‘truth’. The lives of many decent citizens were ruined. In one of his final hearings, and already discredited, one of his fellow senators looked him in the eyes and asked: “Senator McCarthy, have you no shame?”
As we await the “more to come” from the current investigations, it would seem that all ordinary Irish people can now do is to hopelessly ask of the perpetrators: “Have you no shame?” Don’t expect an answer.