Ireland's lack of civic morality grounded in our history


Our economic and financial failures have a common factor – we lack civic responsibility

A FACTOR common to a whole range of recent Irish economic and financial failures seems to have been a striking absence of a sense of civic responsibility throughout our entire society.

The civic morality that underlies the social cohesion of many democratic societies, especially in northern Europe, has been absent in Ireland for some time.

I want to suggest that the source of this phenomenon is to be found in our history, which has been different from that of the remainder of northern Europe.

First of all, in most of northern Europe since the 17th century rulers and ruled within each state have generally shared the same faith and culture.

However, most Irish people did not have that advantage, and this cultural and religious alienation from our rulers had a profound effect on the psychology of most Irish people.

We also remained until quite recently a largely agricultural country. By contrast, the United Kingdom pioneered the industrial revolution, which then spread to the rest of northern European – except to the area which became the Irish State.

As a result, Ireland did not experience the modernisation in the 19th and early 20th centuries that was the common lot of most of the rest of this area.

Moreover, for several centuries public administration of the island, a large part of its commercial life, and the owners of 95 per cent of its land, were all alien to the mass of the Irish people. For the rest, we remained a predominately peasant society.

Finally, it was only at the very end of the 19th century that a native democratic process was introduced. It was confined at first to the level of local administration, and was largely inefficient and in some important respects financially corrupt.

In such a society it is not to be expected that the alienated majority would develop the kind of strong civic sense which was able to emerge in other parts of northern Europe.

In Ireland a strong civic sense did exist – but mainly amongst Protestants and especially Anglicans.

And despite the disproportionate role awarded to the Protestant minority in the new State, that group later ceased to play a significant role in the governance of independent Ireland.

Ireland’s popular Catholic Church, in opposition to the dominance of a ruling Irish minority of another faith and then to aspects of an alien UK system of government, could not be expected to instil much respect for public authority amongst the bulk of the population.

One might have hoped that all this would change with independence. Yet the Irish Catholic Church sought instead to bend the new State to its purpose, relying upon the strong personal faith of members of successive governments to secure its objectives. And it succeeded – up to a point. It secured censorship of books and films, and was successful in having contraception banned.

However, when in 1929 the Catholic hierarchy challenged the non-denominational provisions of our constitution by attempting to persuade the government to confine the appointment of dispensary doctors to Roman Catholics, it was outwitted by WT Cosgrave. He told the hierarchy that as guardian of a non-denominational constitution he could not implement their proposal and would have to resign from office if their proposal were to be pressed. The request was dropped.

Then in 1937, in drawing up his new Constitution, de Valera refused to make Ireland formally a Catholic state, despite Vatican pressure.

This underlying stand-off between church and State seems to have inhibited the Irish Catholic Church from advocating civic responsibility.

Instead much of its energy was concentrated on aspects of sexual morality – an area where it eventually lost credibility not only with the younger generation but with the older one as well.

The consequences of all this have been that a society with an educational system almost exclusively in the hands of the Catholic Church has been left with virtually no tradition of, or training in, civic morality or civic responsibility.

This has been particularly noticeable in the evident reluctance of the Catholic Church authorities over the years to address the evils of tax evasion.

The failure of tens of thousands of self-employed people to pay what we now know to have been billions of euro of due tax has necessitated higher payments by the honest remainder.

And because of public resistance to income tax increases, this additional revenue needed to replace the evaded taxes has generally had to come from additional taxation on expenditure, which bears on the less well-off more heavily than do taxes on income.

A further complication has been that Dublin, the political and commercial centre of the country, remained in some measure alien to, and resented by, many people in the rest of the State.

In much of rural Ireland, tax continued to be seen as something imposed on the plain people of Ireland by Dublin, and evasion was thus seen by many as a weapon against what was perceived as exploitation from the capital city.

This situation has been complicated by the land reforms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that converted a large proportion of the population into property owners. This seems to have led to a situation in which the acquisition of property became a disproportionately important goal for many people – a major factor in our property and financial crisis.

But, you may well say, while all this may help to explain Irish deficiencies in civic morality and responsibility, why has it been only in recent times that this defect became fatal to the integrity of Irish political life?

I shall address this matter in my next article.