Architects of Independence cast a long shadow
Opinion: What is striking about the events of recent years is that we are constantly reminded how deep rooted and historical these problems are
‘It might be tempting to invoke the ghosts of the War of Independence generation, highlight their public service and lack of greed and compare that with a post Civil War generation far too focused on self-promotion’. Meeting of Dáil Éireann, shortly after the end of the War of Independence. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Ireland
A recent invitation to contribute the closing chapter to a book on modern Irish history created a dilemma, as the chapter title is “Ireland in the twenty first century”.
How does the historian write about such recent history, particularly when that history blends into current affairs and in the absence of archival material and adequate perspective? More than 40 years ago Irish historian Leland Lyons posed this question: “Can contemporary history be history?” In answering his own question, he suggested it suffered from “fundamental disabilities, which place it firmly and irredeemably outside the cognisance of the historical profession”. What contemporaries witnessed, he suggested, were only “fragments”, and it was difficult to recognise what was of permanent importance. But he also acknowledged that if historians abandoned contemporary history it would be left to propagandists.
Despite the drawbacks, therefore, there are legitimate reasons for historians to attempt to make sense of recent events, both to challenge the infuriating mantra “we are where we are” which invites a closing down of a much-needed historical perspective concerning specific controversies, but also to try to give a wider sense of why there has been such continuity in the fundamental problems this State has faced over decades.
Reflecting on recent experience also makes the historian think about the extent to which the crises of the early
21st century will fundamentally alter how the experiences of the State since its formation in 1922 will be historically framed.
When I began studying history 25 years ago, there was much attention devoted in the lectures and textbooks to the difficulties experienced by the State in its formative decades. The Civil War and its legacy, economic crises, the threat from subversives and emigration featured prominently. But there was also a broad consensus that the State had notable achievements to its name. They included the survival of democracy and institutions of State during difficult years, at a time when other European democracies floundered, a maturation in politics that allowed a consensus to develop about foreign policy, including neutrality during the second World War, a depoliticised Civil Service, and a mostly unarmed police force that earned the respect of the people it served.
In 1997, at the time of the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the State, political scientist Tom Garvin suggested: “Despite their mistakes and sins . . . the Irish revolutionaries-turned-politicians got it more right than wrong.” Today, many might accept that this balance sheet of achievements and failures is still broadly accurate. But such has been the sustained exposure of poor governance and abuse of power through an abundance of inquiries, reports and investigations that it is tempting to conclude there is something contrived about such a balance sheet.
The assessments of some historians in the 1980s and 1990s were also affected by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, not just in the sense of them wanting to critically question the role of violence in Irish history, but also seeking to emphasise that whatever the difficulties of the Republic, it was a remarkably stable and peaceful entity compared to the North. Such influences might not be as relevant to a younger generation of historians.
What is striking about events of recent years, including mismanagement of the economy, scandals over policing, a refusal to take political reform seriously and the exposure of a Catholic Church that became so powerful it too often forgot to be Christian, is that we are constantly reminded how deep rooted and historical these problems are.
Among the conclusions of the Murphy report in 2009 into how allegations of child sexual abuse were handled in the Dublin Catholic Archdiocese was that there was an “obsessive concern with secrecy and the avoidance of scandal”, and “little or no concern for the welfare of the abused.” These words could just as easily sum up attitudes to a host of problems, not just those concerning child sex abuse.
It will be a particular challenge for historians to decide in the coming years if a century of Independence has been more about disappointment than achievement. It might be tempting to invoke the ghosts of the War of Independence generation, highlight their public service, lack of greed and compare that with a post-Civil War generation who, in the words of historian Tony Judt, “substituted endless commerce for public purpose.”
But that too, would be overly simplistic. While the achievements of the revolutionary generation were significant, many of the structures and attitudes that have facilitated corruption, lethargy and resistance to change were championed by the architects of independence, especially the premium attached to excessive centralisation and self-protecting hierarchies. Recent controversies and failures of leadership are further evidence of the deep roots and longevity of our dysfunctional governing culture and, with it, far too many victims.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD