Pat Leahy: The State is neither failed nor perfect: it is a work in progress

Recent decades have been dizzying and change mostly for the better, we’re going in the right direction

For much of its existence the State – though politically stable – was not good at building a society of comfort or warmth, of opportunity or equality for many of its citizens. Photograph: Getty Images

For much of its existence the State – though politically stable – was not good at building a society of comfort or warmth, of opportunity or equality for many of its citizens. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the famous handover of Dublin Castle by British forces in 1922. The date will be marked at a ceremony attended by President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

There is also a conference which continues today at the castle. The Taoiseach, not averse to advertising his credentials as a historian, will deliver a keynote address.

Actually the iconic spectacle of the “handover” probably owes as much to mythology as the actual history of the time. Rather than a single event, the transfer of power was a process which took place over a period of time in 1922. But the symbolism of Dublin Castle nonetheless meant that this was an epic moment in Ireland’s history.

Ireland is one of the oldest continuous parliamentary democracies in the world, having refused to succumb to the trend for political violence which swept across Europe in the 1930s

In The Handover, published by the Royal Irish Academy to ark the anniversary, John Gibney and Kate O’Malley write that even during the treaty talks in London, British negotiators had told the Irish that “they would hand us over Dublin Castle and withdraw their troops from the country”.

“There was no mention of handing over anything else; the Castle took precedence, for it was shorthand for control of the country,” the authors write.

Insofar as something specific and legal happened on that day, it was the presentation by the ministers of the new provisional government of a signed copy of the treaty, signalling their acceptance of its terms, and the endorsement by the viceroy (as the king’s representative) of them as the legitimate government of Ireland. For the newspapers it was the “surrender” of Dublin Castle. Large crowds celebrated, as you would.

Political camps

Just as public opinion 100 years ago was bifurcating into two political camps that would dominate the State for most of its existence, a lot of the retrospection today falls into one of two schools of thought.

One says, “Look how far we’ve come”; the other tends towards the view that the State has persistently failed to fulfil the promise of independence – indeed, some of its more extreme proponents believe we are living in a “failed state”. From Free Staters to Failed Staters, if you like.

I think most people would judge that the fairest verdict falls somewhere between the two.

To be honest it’s kind of ludicrous to argue that we live in a failed state. Ireland is one of the oldest continuous parliamentary democracies in the world, having refused to succumb to the trend for political violence which swept across Europe in the 1930s.

Moreover, it resisted this trend when the new State was in its infancy, and featured a peaceful transition of power between groups that had been in violent confrontation less than a decade before.

Today it is one of the richest countries in the world; stable, peaceful and prosperous, a place where civil and political rights are guaranteed by law and protected by a vigorously independent legal system, where government is answerable to a free parliament, chivvied by a free press.

It co-operates freely within international organisations, and has bound its sovereignty to like-minded European countries to share markets and act together for the common good.

Under their own political leadership, the Irish people can fairly be said in 2022 to have flourished. I think these are the things that would be noticed by the 1922 generation were they to assess the product of their labours and sacrifices.

Failures

But any fair assessment must also acknowledge that for much of its existence the State – though politically stable – was not good at building a society of comfort or warmth, of opportunity or equality for many of its citizens. It was clerical, poor and, in some respects, brutal.

That its failures were replicated in many of the societies of the time does not mean that they were not failures. Not even its stoutest defenders would now stand over its treatment of women, the marginalised and the vulnerable.

Its economic policies were frequently plain stupid, and resulted in poverty, misery and mass emigration. And we continue to grapple with major social problems that hardly need listing here.

Many people in the north of the island who wished to be part of the new State were not admitted to it, and were condemned instead to live in a polity that repressed them politically and denigrated their nationality, culture and religion.

The new State did nothing for them and while it may be argued that it was powerless to help them - what could it do? invade? - it wasn’t until the 1980s that productive engagement from Dublin became a feature of relations, such as they were, between the two administrations.

It was not until the period of the governments led by Bertie Ahern (whatever the flaws they might have had) that the two great failings of the independent State, its economic underperformance and its relations with the North, were mended.

Velocity

Any fair assessment of 100 years of Irish independence must also acknowledge the essentially kinetic nature of our historical reality: things have changed, and with increasing velocity.

The changes in the last few decades alone have been dizzying, and mostly they have been for the better. At least we’re going in the right direction; one hopes we have begun to learn from our mistakes. The State is neither failed, nor perfect: it is a work in progress.

The false dichotomy of being either a roaring success or a complete failure has a clear echo in the emerging structure of politics in the second century of independence.

As political analyst Kevin Cunningham has identified, two entirely different narratives now dominate. One suggests that the State is corrupt, incomplete, has failed its people and needs to be completely and radically reinvented; the other holds that, all things considered, Ireland is a great success.

Lots of people are in the middle. The side that can reach out to them is more likely to enjoy electoral success.

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