Defenders of the public interest look more at peril every week


Two well-worn phrases come to mind as the year begins: "Cherishing all the children of the nation equally" and "The public's right to know".

These phrases are often abused and sometimes misunderstood. Still, we're bound to hear a lot of them in 1999 as we get down to the most pressing of last year's unfinished business.

That means completing the terms of the Belfast Agreement - setting up an executive, reforming the RUC and ensuring that Northern Ireland is not left with what Bertie Ahern called an armed peace.

It also means taking seriously corrosive social divisions in the Republic and, for Fianna Fail in particular, the painful business of shedding light on high living and low standards in the uncomfortably recent past.

"Cherishing all the children of the nation equally" has long been used as if it were a constitutional commitment to equality; one that has been reduced to rhetorical piety and abandoned.

In that sense it forms part of a debate about inequality which the Budget failed to silence; a debate certain to intensify as succeeding reports promise prosperity and record the poverty of our public services.

But the phrase is not in the Constitution; it's part of the Proclamation of 1916. And the reference is not to divisions between rich and poor but to those between unionist and nationalist.

This is clear from the sentence in which the phrase appears:

"The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government which have divided a minority from the majority in the past."

The need for reassurance was obvious in 1916. Huge amounts of weapons had been imported through Larne, Howth and Kilcoole; armed bands of unionist and nationalist volunteers had become a familiar sight on the streets.

There was a risk of civil war between nationalist and unionist forces.

It was not until 1998 and the Belfast Agreement that the task of "cherishing the children of the nation equally" was finally confronted with any hope of success by governments, (most) parties and the electorates at large.

The problem presented by paramilitary forces is still at the heart of Irish politics.

The agreement may have reduced the risk of civil war; it has not gone away.

But comparisons between one period and another are invariably incomplete and often misleading, a point missed by those who argue against decommissioning now because it has never happened before.

While the problem is the same, the circumstances have changed. In the 1920s the anti-Treaty forces had been defeated; it took three years for them to set up Fianna Fail, another year to enter the Dail; all told, almost 10 years before they took office.

The campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s ended in defeat for the IRA. Neither had been conducted with realistic political aims, let alone any hope of reaching agreement with unionism or, for that matter, constitutional nationalism.

Clann na Poblachta, in spite of its title, was not an exclusively republican party in the style of Sinn Fein or Fianna Fail.

Circumstances are vastly different now. Never before has the idea of equality between nationalist and unionist been the subject of agreement between the two sides with solid public support and the encouragement of Britain, our European neighbours and the United States.

Sinn Fein does not have to wait years for a significant role in politics; it is to share power with other nationalists and with unionists.

Its leaders have had access to the centres of power in Dublin, London, Washington and Brussels which their predecessors never thought possible.

No one, North, South or in Britain, would now claim that the IRA has been defeated. The only people the republican leaders have to convince that this is so are the republicans themselves.

It is for them - and the loyalist parties and paramilitaries - to do voluntarily what they cannot be forced to do: dispose of weapons, the only purpose of which is mutual destruction.

The authors of the Proclamation recognised the danger of intercommunal conflict - and blamed an alien government for fostering differences which could provoke it.

Neither government has any interest in provoking conflict now. On the contrary: both fully recognise that it's for the people of Northern Ireland to agree on how to live at ease with each other.

Changes in the Constitution have helped to relieve fear and mistrust in the North. Changes in favour of the public interest or common good - and "cherishing the children of the nation equally" - would help to reduce divisions in the Republic.

But if defining the common good is difficult, it's not the full explanation for our failure to defend and promote the public interest.

True, the Constitution is a document of its time; and private property was considered more worthy of protection in the 1930s than the interests of the community.

The trouble is that, if anything, the balance of forces seems to have shifted in favour of the rich and powerful. The defenders of the public interest are beginning to look more vulnerable every week.

The Flood and Moriarty tribunals were set up by the Oireachtas - not by the Government - to investigate and report on events in public life, in the public interest.

But the Flood tribunal (on planning and payments to politicians) has been the subject of a series of leaks and sustained criticism which has amazed experienced journalists, politicians and lawyers.

IF IT ceased to function there would be relief in many quarters, from Ray Burke and his erstwhile colleagues in politics to the corporate contributors to his or FF's election funds. (A structural engineering company and a member of the Fitzwilton group have been identified.)

Most of the leaks and the most serious criticism - of the tribunal, not the leakers - have been published in newspapers of the Independent group or by journalists from the group in contributions to radio programmes.

On December 18th Mr Justice Flood complained that information was being "deliberately and systematically dripfed to elements in the media" in what amounted to "a conscious and deliberate attempt" to undermine the work of the tribunal.

Independent Newspapers, he said, had been "less than persuasive" when they defended their right to publish confidential documents, "giving an impression that they consider themselves in some fashion above the law."

He asked for a copy of an affidavit the Sunday Independent had published. It was refused on the grounds that the document's source could be traced: journalists must protect their sources.

Indeed they must - in the public interest.

The practice which gave rise to the convention protected vulnerable informants, often in politically sensitive areas.

In this case disclosure - in support of the public's right to know - is the business of the tribunal.