Deep down, we Irish would prefer to be occupied

Column: It is a truism of Irish culture and society that we never got our heads around the idea that the State now belongs to us

The simmering “checkpointgate” farce is more than a comedy. It goes to the heart of the kind of society we are, and how we regard the State which presumes to rule over us, allegedly on our own behalf.

A politician is stopped at a routine police traffic roadblock. It should be a simple matter of procedure greased by banal courtesy, but this is impossible in our kind of culture.

The politician has acquired a certain status within the apparatus of the State. He is conscious of his importance and feels entitled to a certain respect. He is comfortable with the idea of State officials exercising power – but not over him. Given a different history, he might see the uniform of the garda as signifying an authority vested in the wearer on behalf of all citizens of the Republic, but he sees only an upstart, an impersonator, and moreover understands the relationship between this imposter and himself in terms of a hierarchy of importance within the apparatus. He thinks the police officer should simply bow and wave him on.

The word "police" is closely linked to "polis" – a body of citizens which governs itself. This connection has never successfully translated in Irish life.

It is a truism of Irish culture and society that we never got our heads around the idea that the State now belongs to us. We kicked the English out but co-opted their systems, and, because we did, preserved in our culture the same forms of subversion exhibited by our ancestors who resented, with good reason, being forced to bend the knee to an alien crown. Nowadays, this subversion is directed towards ourselves and our capacity for self-governance.

By definition, post-colonial pathologies have as their primary syndrome a total invisibility to those exhibiting them. In such societies, certain forms of aberrance become normalised because the culture’s core has been hollowed out, leaving no sense of self-possession or ownership.

Another symptom is fear of power – both of exercising it and enduring it. A culture which spends too long in the grip of a coerced dependency becomes infantilised to the point where its members become incapable of healthily inhabiting the necessary structures and institutions of self-administration.

A crazed officiousness
The standard critique of state bureaucracy relates to its impersonalism – the state as machine, incapable of human response or discretion. In a post-colonial culture, you end up with this problem and its antithesis: a crazed officiousness and an over-compensatory excess of familiarity. Because the very idea of state has become contaminated by abuse, nobody really wants definitively to adopt the role of representing it. Conversely, to bow to it carries a sense of existential affront.

An Irish person who dons a uniform – far from representing the community, becomes somehow alien to it. To represent the State should rightly mean representing “the people”, but the intrinsic implausibility of this idea is impossible to shake off. Uniforms, then, are worn with both an apology and a strut. Power becomes both unctuous and intimidating – casual and, by virtue of over-adjustment, remote. Few seem capable of representing the State in a way that is comfortable for themselves or anyone else. Fewer see themselves represented in the State.

In such a culture, public matters always become personal, leading to arbitrariness. Those who rule over us tend to treat the authority vested in them as their personal fiefdom, and the rest of us respond with resentment or supplicancy.

Everyone surely knows that the idea of “official discretion” by Garda officers is a fiction: this kind of thing has always been done on the basis of nods and winks, because we demand that power be at all times amenable to the personal, to empathy, discretion and fellowship. Such favours are actually a way of greasing the awkwardness rather than abuses in the normal sense. The true problem is an inability to remove the personal dimension from the exercising of State power, which often becomes confused with “corruption”.

In Ireland, power can sometimes be used benignly and sometimes vindictively, but is almost invariably kept vaguely within the personal domain. Some of us resent this; others see it as something to be exploited by force of position or personality. And, in the absence of a correct analysis, we become confused between what is and what, on the basis of comparisons with “other developed societies”, we imagine ought to be.

Reluctant citizenship
But the truth is that, we Irish – all or most of us – are reluctant citizens. We hate being our own masters, and hate what this requires of us: that some of us are called to authority in different situations, in the common good. Deep down, we'd prefer to be occupied, so that we didn't have to take responsibility or submit to our own shared authority. We'd sooner be "in it together" – against somebody else.