Irish society shot through with debased authority


This generation must engage in painful scrutiny of its attitude of deference to power and privilege, writes ELAINE BYRNE.

A PASSAGE from the Book of Proverbs reads: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.”

The Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abusereveals an uncomfortable history of Ireland in its five volumes. It is a history of how power was defined since the foundation of the State. The absolute authority of the Catholic Church rested on the assumption that it is was above reproach, without question and beyond criticism.

Sr Carmella, teacher and principal from the Mercy order at St Joseph’s Industrial School in Clifden “just did what the Reverend Mother told me to do” because she “was that kind of person that her word was law, she was in authority and that was it”. Part of this authority included beating children whose crime it was that lice had infested their heads.

The Christian Brothers at St Joseph’s in Artane “were obliged by their vows of obedience to carry out instructions without question”. Such instructions consisted of “frequent and severe punishment” where sexual abuse “was a chronic problem”.

The Sisters of Mercy at St Vincent’s in Goldenbridge numbered among them “very powerless people” who had “enormous and immediate power over troubled and troublesome children. The abuse of the power and powerlessness was almost inevitable. Almost any kind of abusive incidents could have occurred.”

And they did.

Hunger forced children to fight for scraps thrown into the playground. Thirst coerced children to drink from toilet bowls.

This was an infallible divine authority based on a premise of respectability and hierarchy. Buttressed by a culture of secrecy, this righteous and wicked authority brutally punished poverty. This was an entrenched yet anonymous authority more powerful than the supposed accountable authority of the State.

The Ryan report found that the Department of Education “had considerable powers, but it lacked the initiative and authority to do anything more than maintain the status quo”. The intense trust and “deferential and submissive attitude” by the department toward the religious orders endorsed a culture that rejected complaints and vilified complainants as “troublemakers”.

A deliberately contradictory mindset became normalised through blind loyalty and apathetic conformity. John Banville described this choice in last week’s New York Times as one where “we knew, and did not know”.

This was an Ireland hypnotised by a superficial veneer of values – the Ireland of James Joyce’s Dubliners characterised by spiritual paralysis, where Irishness was expressed through the prisms of suffocating nationalism and oppressive Catholicism.

One by one, the traditional pillars that have held our institutional life together have been torn down. Our generation is bearing intimate witness to a painful process of self-scrutiny.

For example, the final instalment of the Morris tribunal report on Garda corruption was published this time last year. The Moriarty and Mahon reports into political corruption are due shortly. The most popular and successful taoiseach of the modern era, Bertie Ahern, resigned last year following allegations of impropriety.

Last week’s resignation of the Bank of Ireland governor, Richard Burrows, now means that only two of the 12 chief executives and chairmen in situ since the September Government guarantee of the six main financial institutions remain.

Financial Regulator Patrick Neary resigned in January. The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, the Garda fraud squad and the Irish Stock Exchange are among the bodies investigating irregularities at Anglo Irish Bank. The director general of Fás, Rody Molloy, resigned in November following allegations of excessive expenses incurred by the semi-state body.

And the list goes on.

Ireland had preached ethical self-regulation since independence and it has failed. Instead we gave birth to a morally corrupted definition of authority, complemented by accomplices in our Civil Service and judicial system. Our individual indifference embraced the luxury of believing in what we were told by authority. We ignored our responsibility to constructively challenge such orthodoxies.

But is there something particular to Ireland which facilitates a hierarchical ethos? Where the philosophy of authority is moulded by absolute deference to those with monarchical tendencies? A divine right to clandestine privileges from golden circles?

Have we been pretending to live in a Republic? This place where we pay lip service to the memory of men that stood on the steps of the GPO proclaiming that all children of the nation should be cherished equally?

The traditional character of authority in Ireland had consequences – 2,600 ugly pages of it.

“The beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.” This is how the Book of Revelations in the New Testament depicts debased authority.

An epiphany of malevolence.