No more us and them: restoring trust in public life


OPINION:We have forgotten, to our cost, that public service is a fundamental human value based on generosity and vision

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT and the pursuit of peace have been the two inspiring projects of the past half century in Ireland.

Peace has been secured and there is no danger of it being taken for granted – thanks to a violent few.

Our recently acquired prosperity, by contrast, hangs precariously in the balance, because of a small privileged group who thought themselves invincible and unaccountable.

Peace is an end in itself. It appeals directly to a heartfelt sense of human fellowship. Economic development, even if it has been inspired by that same sense of fellowship, is a lot more complicated and, when we talk about it, two narratives sit uneasily side by side.

First, there is the narrative of personal thriving. No economic development is possible unless individuals are able to use their initiative and talent.

Second, there is the narrative of social justice. Economic development must include everyone if we are not to end up with a divided and fearful society.

These two narratives are not necessarily in conflict, but they do reflect differing points of view, both of which, however, share the same basic flaw: neither has any place for the powerful motivation of public service on which every society depends.

In recent times the term “public service” has been used as an unflattering label for the chaotic mushrooming of the modern state. As a fundamental human value, however, it has been airbrushed out of consciousness. As a result, we have no way of understanding society except in terms of the self-interest of individuals and groups.

Public service and politics are seen in terms of the pursuit of power for personal or factional advantage.

Public service is a particular form of generosity, but there is more to generosity than simply being “nice”. Truly generous people are inspired by a vision of the world that makes them unable to think about their own interest in isolation from others. They don’t just “give” – they do so with a spontaneity that inspires in others a similar sense of human fellowship.

The power of generosity lies in this capacity to inspire and, in that way, to replicate itself. The meaning of the saying “without vision the people perish” is that without vision there can be no generosity and no sense of public service.

In Ireland the symbol of the nation has inspired dedicated public service for generations. We insist on the right of this nation to independent statehood, on the need to end the partition of the national territory and on the need to cherish all the children of the nation equally.

There was a time when this vision had a powerful resonance. We were among the first to throw off the yoke of colonialism. Yet, today, when most sovereign states have won their independence a lot later than we did, we in Ireland are sharing our sovereignty with others in the European Union. The happy pride of newfound independence is long gone.

The partition of this island was a genuine source of grievance, but the Belfast Agreement has endorsed new structures of government for Northern Ireland. We need to ask, what now? Is partition still harmful and, if so, what should we do about it?

Half a century ago, Ireland began its embrace of free trade as a means of raising all the nation’s children out of poverty. For a long while, especially after we joined the EU, things seemed to be going according to plan. But something has gone badly wrong. Do we pull back from free trade? Or from Europe? Or is the problem closer to home?

Many of our current difficulties are the result of living in a State that started life as a ghetto. Its boundaries were deliberately drawn to exclude and confine. Even if it is now described as post-Catholic – a term that speaks of discontent, not much else – an internal breakdown of ghetto identity is no substitute for healthy diversity.

In this small Republic, even with its newfound ethnic diversity, issues are too easily personalised. We oscillate between spiteful hostility and an unquestioning loyalty that is too ready to overlook the blatant wrongdoing of neighbours, friends and relations. We lack the healthy sense of shame that comes from being too well connected with each other. There are not enough relative strangers to whom we need to explain ourselves.

National unification has, traditionally, been seen as “us” in the South conferring freedom on “them” in the North. Southerners seldom stop and ask, Do “we” need “them”? Nationhood can certainly be its own kind of tribalism, but it should offer some healthy diversity, the kind we don’t have in this 26-county Republic.

When the Berlin Wall fell, the structures were already in place under the federal constitution to receive the five eastern Länderinto a united Germany. We have no such structures in the Irish Constitution, though we have a declaration of the rights of “the Irish nation” and of its territory. If the forthcoming constitutional review were to consider giving the people of Northern Ireland a power of initiative with regard to the future of this Republic, that would be an implicit acknowledgment that this Republic is the poorer for their absence. Such a gesture would be generous to them and beneficial for us.

Meanwhile, in this State we face challenges including, high on the agenda, public service reform. There is more at stake here than the efficient delivery of services.

Our recently elected Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, in a rare joint statement with four other party leaders in 2007, referred to state bureaucracy as “a barrier between elected leaders and ordinary citizens”. This statement continues: “but within that perceived barrier lie the means of restoring popular trust in public life”.

In other words, the political leadership of this State has acknowledged that trust in public life has been damaged and that it cannot reverse this damage without help. If it were to be more specific about the nature of the help it seeks, its request would command attention and respect.

Generosity transcends both ethnic and institutional loyalties and, in that regard, there is something to learn from the third crisis we face.

If the ability of the Catholic Church to mobilise people of all nations is unsurpassed, its institutional failures are now all too shamefully evident. The worldwide network of trust built up by the church is a valuable counter-balance to the emerging global oligarchy.

Nurturing that network with intelligent political insight is not just in the interest of Catholics; it is a global political challenge. If we in Ireland do not engage with this challenge – be it because of Catholic defensiveness or post-Catholic resentment – we will do ourselves and our world a disservice. We have a unique experience of both Catholicism and democracy.

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