Decency the touchstone of status, not class

 

Some people hold that the central issue in the Sheedy affair concerned a specific class in Irish society "looking after its own". One letter-writer to this newspaper suggested the issue was whether or not "middle-class people" should be in jail. This suggests a tendency to read events through an imported viewfinder. Irish society has never been characterised by class divisions in that sense.

In rural or small-town society, there was not a class structure, but rather a hierarchy embracing much more than material status. The Catholic Church, in the healing period after the Great Famine, successfully implanted a notion that the social stigma of material deficiency could be offset by moral rectitude. Hence the gaze of the knowing citizen across the faces of his fellows did not perceive status purely in terms of what an individual owned or where he lived.

Two fathers might live side by side on a council estate and be at opposite ends of the social spectrum. One might be seen daily staggering home from the bookie's, the other neatly dressed, sweeping the street as people walked to morning Mass. In the town's hierarchy these men were poles apart. The evidence of this syndrome is seen still in provincial newspaper codes describing a dead person: "a decent, hard-working, inoffensive man", for example, denoting someone who, though poor, had good standing in the community. The other type might be described as "a local character".

It can broadly be said that qualities of industry, honour and quietude were valued above laziness, drunkenness and mendicancy. The shorthand for the currency of evaluation was the term "decency". The attribution of "moral" sanctity to such qualities may be controversial nowadays, but it did the job.

"Decency" brought much more than the patronising approval of the societal elite, including the possibility of material favour, particularly for the coming generation. Although little upward mobility was possible for the adult individual, the system allowed for the children of virtually any social level to rise.

Thus, the academically-inclined children of a "decent" working man could be afforded special attention and guidance towards scholarships and other devices which enabled them to leapfrog social divides. Similarly, a family whose child had got into trouble could cash cheques against their reserves of "decency" and have interventions made on their behalf, for example by a Garda superintendent "putting in a word" with the district justice.

The immediate "modern" assumption is that all this was inequitable, unfair and arbitrary, but it was generally done on the basis of a complex evaluation of the offender's character, background and likelihood to reoffend, and thus had a very practical and moral function within the community.

(This culture was greatly distorted by the application of purely political influence. Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael used connections to effectively bypass this "moral" understanding, which did damage the social contract.)

One characteristic of the O'Flaherty controversy was the contrast it threw up between "traditional" Irish society, as above, and the depersonalised urban Ireland which we are being dragged into willy nilly. Even placing the most prejudicial construction on what we know of what occurred, what was attempted on behalf of Philip Sheedy was within the acceptable limits of a culture which has existed for 150 years. Had it occurred in a country town, there would be a consensus that it was right and proper.

But the denizens of the sprawling suburban estates, which aspire to comprise the essence of this society, have no understanding of this. Insofar as they retain a memory of this culture, it is a pejorative one, based on abuses rather than successes. (Ironically, many such people are themselves among the successes.) The new guard seeks to reduce the influence of culture and replace it with law and a belief in the omnipotent wisdom of the institutions of State.

Thus, all things must be according to rules set down in books, or amenable to examination on the basis of principles formally agreed in advance. This emerging anti-culture effectively inverts the previous moral pyramid which saw self-improvement as virtuous. The philosophy is based on a notional equality which neither exists nor, because it tends to remove all incentive for mobility, is necessarily desirable. By valorising victimhood, it effectively traps people in the layer of society into which they are born.

This anti-culture assumes that all human dilemmas have ready solutions which can be arrived at using quasi-mathematical formulae; and that, moreover, all possibilities have already been encountered in the past.

It assumes, too, that institutions informed by iron principles can remain immune to the human imperfections which characterise politics and human inter-relationships; that, in effect, the evidence of human frailty can be washed out of public administration. This is crystallised in the demand that the appointment of judges be taken out of the hands of politicians, invariably ignoring the obvious question: who, instead, should make such appointments?

Such thinking fails to recognise that there is no perfect authority by which things can be infallibly mediated, and that even the body of principles outlined in "the law" has tangled roots in the infirm profundity of human experience.

Given that they inhabit a society in which an individual is unlikely to know his or her next-door neighbour, it is understandable that the citizens of the new Ireland should think like this. But whether such thinking should be the driving force of a society, nation or culture aspiring to human decency deserves to be more controversial than it is.

jwaters@irish-times.ie