Irish State means little to many of its citizens


The Quinn affair shows significant numbers of Irish people are in literal contempt of the courts, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

SOMETIMES, YOU forget how tenuous and fragile a thing is the Irish State, how little it means to so many of its citizens. By the State, I don’t mean the nation, the flag, pride in being Irish – all that visceral emotion. I mean, rather, two rational things, one tangible, the other abstract.

The State is a set of institutions – the Government, the Oireachtas, the Civil Service, public services, the law, the courts. It is also a broad but crucial sense of mutual dependence – the idea that there’s a collective self that goes beyond the narrow realms of family and locality.

To function at all, we have to make the working assumption that those institutions and that idea are part of what we are, that, however vehemently we disagree with each other about however many things, there is this common ground on which we stand. Even when we rail against the institutions (for loyalty is not the same thing as passive obedience), we do so because we identify with them – they are ours to criticise. And even when we are angry at our fellow citizens, we recognise that what affects them affects us too, that there such a thing as a common good.

Everyone knows, of course, that there are subgroups – criminals, subversives – who have no loyalty to the State at all, who have contempt for its institutions and who don’t recognise the notion of the common good. But the working assumption is that these groups are small, marginal and outside the mainstream of society. They are, indeed, defined by the very fact that they transgress against what we take to be a norm that enjoys overwhelming acceptance. They don’t threaten the basic assumptions about the State – they actually reinforce them.

And then, every so often, there’s a moment when those assumptions crumble. The idea that the vast majority of people are loyal to the State is suddenly exposed for what it is: a useful fiction. What happens is that very large numbers of people who would never think of themselves as criminals or subversives reveal the truth that they don’t really have much time for key State institutions such as the law and the courts and that they simply don’t believe that there is an over-arching common good that means anything when you set it against more potent local loyalties.

This is what we’ve seen over the last fortnight in the Quinn affair. Very significant numbers of decent, respectable Irish people – not a majority but not a tiny minority either – are in literal contempt of the courts. They really don’t give a damn what the courts find – if those findings come into conflict with their own deeper loyalties. They know that two separate High Court judges – Judge Dunne and Judge Kelly, both used to dealing with very bad stuff – have used language of rare vehemence about the actions of the Quinns in stripping €455 million worth of assets from public ownership: “dishonesty and sharp practice”, “blatant, dishonest and deceitful”, “as far removed from the concept of honour and respectability as it is possible to be”. Some idiots among them truly believe that the judges are part of a giant conspiracy against the Quinns. Most know damn well that this is nonsense, but they simply don’t care.

Nor do these decent, respectable people believe that there is a common good that operates at the level of the State and that could possibly outweigh an almost feudal loyalty to a local hero. The State, for them, is a vague, hazy and distant thing – too nebulous to command any real fidelity. The idea that encouraging the Quinns to siphon off €455 million of public assets might harm their fellow citizens has no meaning for them because, deep down, they don’t actually believe that there are such creatures as fellow citizens. There are good GAA people, good Cavan people, good Fermanagh people – those are the “imagined communities” that command respect and allegiance. A larger citizenship signifies nothing. The people who might be harmed by the Quinns’ actions are not Us but Them.

There are reasons for all of this. Many of the most vocal Quinn supporters do not, of course, have the option of belonging to the State – they live and pay their taxes across the Border and they grew up with contempt for the “Free State” as a given. The entire political culture of clientilism encourages people to think about the good of the locality, not of the State as a collective entity. Large parts of the Irish elite have demonstrated, with impunity, their own contempt for the law and the common good by evading and avoiding taxes. And of course the State itself is now a sad and tattered thing, stripped of the sovereignty that gives it life.

Even so, it is shocking to be brought face-to-face with the reality that ours is a State to which many of its decent, respectable inhabitants feel no attachment whatsoever. Here is a reminder, if another were needed, of the stark choice that faces us: watch the State dwindle away or get serious about building a real republic.

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