There is a particularly complex ritual involved in invoking the tutelary gods on what is a triply eponymous occasion: Patrick McGill, John Hume and Seamus Heaney, and I hope I can do them and the occasion justice. The McGill Summer School, thanks to the tireless efforts of Joe Mulholland and many distinguished contributors over the years has established him in the canon of Irish writing and the school as a fixed point in the Irish cultural landscape
John Hume and Seamus Heaney are more immediate and more personal, both having been friends for many years, giants in their different spheres, but overlapping in so many ways: near contemporaries at St Columbs, both masters of language and rhetoric, with the same broad humanity and compassion, the same innate sense of justice and of the rightness of things, both their own men – but both of them gregarious and solitary.
John Hume, when the politics of the last half-century is seen through the prism of history, will, I believe, be rated as one of the great Irish constitutional politicians – in the mould of O’Connell, with whom he shared a lifelong abhorrence of violence, and Parnell. He is without question the moving and conceptual genius of what has become known (often with bizarre claims to ownership) as the peace process. All the seminal ideas are his. From an early stage he drew out the geometry of a settlement, the three strands which needed to be spun out and then woven together, to be affirmed North and South in simultaneous synchronised referenda. He put together the vital coalitions and networks of interest in USA and Europe, and had the courage and the vision to draw militant republicanism into dialogue and ultimately into engagement in the political process – knowing the potential risk to himself and his party, while all the time maintaining his inflexible commitment to non-violence.
Like Martin Luther King, whom he admired and rivalled in rhetoric, Hume never lost sight of the ultimate goal – of a better and fairer life for all in a settled society marked by the embrace of diversity, toleration of difference and mutual respect. His concept of a united Ireland involved uniting people rather than territory, and his practical common sense came through in his repetition of his father’s mantra that “You can’t eat a flag.” Like all great leaders, he was essentially a teacher, articulating a vision of the way ahead as much by iteration as by passion – hence the “single transferable speech” so often mildly derided by friends and colleagues.
The programme for the week’s discussions (like any respectable bardic school we must have a gairm-scoile, a call to arms which sets out the context and the issues for debate) sends dire signals of impending disaster which, although timely and well directed, are a bit too apocalyptic for my taste: Things fall apart/the centre cannot hold/ mere anarchy is loosed upon the world – who knows what sort of beast is slouching towards Glenties to be born. People might be dissatisfied with government and politicians, bad decisions have been made (or no decisions at all) but the answer to poor governance is not no government at all. Of all the “-archies”, anarchy is the worst in being arbitrary, cruel and unpredictable, and unaccountable. It is what Hannah Arendt in another context called “Government by Nobody”
Nevertheless it cannot be denied that the state of the nation does indeed give cause for concern – or we would not be here discussing it and prepared to spend the best part of a week doing so. There is turbulence in markets, nationally and internationally, in many spheres a period of rapid change with old moulds being broken, and loss of faith in institutions which were the historic pillars of society: the church, the banks, the trade unions, the law, loss of faith too in the ability to run our own affairs without the assistance of the Troika, disillusionment with politicians and their conduct of affairs, and finally the looming danger of loss of faith in politics, apathy, and in the ultimate, complete disengagement. At which stage we might remember that in the original Greek the idiot, “idiotes”, was the solitary person who did not take part in public affairs.
There is, too, a distinct vacuum of leadership in important areas of national life with commanding heights being occupied by lesser, less certain and less articulate people (not much passionate intensity there, even from the worst), with prospective leaders being subjected to corrosive scrutiny, and the concept of leadership itself derided by the new Levellers. Meanwhile, as Milton had it: “The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.”
And all the while governments are faced with the atomisation of society, the break-down of community cohesion, changes in modes of communication and mobilisation and a rapidly secularising society – and with no recognisable set of values apart from consumerist self-interest to put in place of those being jettisoned. It is a time, too, when power is being leached from governments by huge multinational corporations and parastatal organisation and the functioning of poorly regulated markets.
The problem for governments anywhere in economic cycles characterised by boom and bust is that the measures they have to take to balance the books and stabilise the economy essentially make them unelectable next time round. I think it was Jean-Claude Junker (not usually the most quotable of men) who said “We know what to do, but we don’t know how to get elected afterwards”.
The present government, it has to be said, has done a decent job in dealing with economic collapse and a banking crisis and chronic overspending by getting the deficit down and the national finances more nearly into kilter while emerging timorously from the bail-out. Maybe they threw caps in the air to soon after the exit of the Troika, conveying the impression to an electorate which had remained remarkably stoical, that discipline in public spending was no longer an imperative, or the need to tailor the provision of public services more nearly to the capacity to pay for them without borrowing.
They would do well to remember de Toqueville’s dictum, and the revolution of rising expectations – that it is not when things are at their worst that people are most discontented, but when they begin to get better. What is seen to be inevitable is somehow bearable, but the slow pace of change quickly becomes intolerable.
The irony is that the Fianna Fáil/Green coalition was eviscerated at the polls for having got the country into a mess, while Fine Gael/Labour have been thrashed for getting us out of it (more or less).
Commentators have variously explained the recent election results, and current polls, as signifying the impending demise of the party system, or as simply a sort of super by-election in which the stakes being low in proportion to the satisfaction of giving authority a kick in the pants, the electorate indulges itself in protest without actually willing radical change. The signs are that it was more than that – not classic alienation, given the level of participation, not apathy either, but certainly more than gesture politics – if not an expression of complete disgust at the performance of all the current actors.
Sinn Féin certainly profited from a protest vote, from the general dissatisfaction and the feeling of being hard done by in a prolonged period of belt-tightening and austerity, but the level of support across the country also, more substantially, reflects consistent hard work at constituency level on local and national issues, and some stellar parliamentary performances in opposition as the government gave a master class in self-abuse in the weeks before polling. It all goes to show what a trendy political brand can achieve without an economic policy which is endorsed by any serious economist or a fiscal policy in which the sums actually add up.
The emergence of independents in such numbers and so widely distributed is a much more interesting phenomenon as a symptom of the malaise in the body politic. Elected as they are on so many issues, some intensely local, some shared more widely, it is hard to see any pattern of coherence, any signpost to effective collective action. Independents, by definition, are independent even of each other, and it is hard to see how a government, or even a convincing and constructive opposition could be constructed from a Dáil dominated by independents. If they do manage to coalesce to the extent of having agreed policies and programmes, they cease to be independent and begin to look suspiciously like the political parties they contemn.
A more serious danger is that the rise of independents on what is largely an incoherent protest vote, partly a cry of pain, partly an expression of anger at the perceived incompetence of government might be repeated or exceeded in a general election. But the answer to poor administration is not no government at all, and there is a danger that in an atmosphere of despair and confusion a vacuum of power can provide a point of entry for the demagogue who promises certainty and salvation at minimal cost. I am not suggesting, nor am I aware that any such lurks in the wings ready to come on stage, but voices crying in the wilderness can often raise expectations that there is a Messiah round the next corner. It is easy to promise maximum service at minimum cost by way of taxation – but even the Greeks know that Utopia is merely another word for nowhere.
However, out of crisis often comes opportunity.
As one of Koestler’s “active fraternity of pessimists”, sceptical of radical surgery on the body politic, I don’t wish to pre-empt the conclusions of the distinguished experts who will address the school. But it does seem that at the heart of our political difficulties is a lack of engagement, especially by young people and those in the areas which have borne the brunt of austerity, emigration and lack of opportunity. This would seem to require some consideration of the ways in which young people receive and process information and of the various conversations that are maintained on social media, on new methods of communication and their potential to inform and to mobilise support for programmes and policies.
Engagement needs to start at local and community level, which could best be effected by a transfer of substantial powers and responsibilities to a reinvigorated local government. Sadly pending changes in this field are focused on administration and economy in the delivery of services and not on a vibrant and effective local democracy. Ireland suffers from having one of the most centralised systems of administration in western Europe, which reduces all contact with the citizen, where indeed this takes place, to a bureaucratic transaction, devoid of debate and shorn of all power to influence outcomes or to exercise choice. It would also take many of the parish pump issues out of the Dáil and leave room for more serious strategic consideration of issues of national importance.
It is desirable, too, to reduce Executive control of the Oireachtas, exercised through the extent of the pay-roll vote and the whipping system. For government to be credible it needs to be challenged constructively with real accountability achieved through transparency, open and robust debate and strong and well-resourced Oireachtas committees.
There needs to be a reduction in the power of governments to exercise patronage, with public appointments and appointments to the judiciary and senior gardai being made in a way that is independent, transparent, and clearly based on merit rather than political preferment.
There is something wrong with a system in which senior civil servants are said to be reluctant to challenge doubtful policies, or even afraid to show dissent, even in private. There is a need to reinvigorate the senior public service, to improve quality, to redefine roles and responsibilities, to encourage honesty and integrity and to restore an ethic of public service which would invoke the example of Whitaker and Nally, of John Leyden and Peter Berry, and the great McElligot (whose scathing minute to de Valera criticising his draft constitution is a classic of its kind) and even, if necessary, Sir Thomas More.
Developments in the media, with 24-hour rolling news calling constantly for comment and rebuttal, do not help either in encouraging a strategic approach to deep-seated problems of structure and political culture. The emphasis is on the event, on the short-term and the quick fix, with media and politicians feeding off each other and with public debate and policy formulation dominated by whatever item leads the national news on any given day. After a life-cycle of a week or so (or at most two week-ends) the feeding frenzy dies down and the hunting pack moves on to another topic. Respect for the political process is not helped either by what I would call the paxmanisation of political interviewing in which politicians of whatever hue are invariable presented as crooks dodging disclosure in an identity parade..
It would be wise too not to get too hung up on structures and process to the eclipse of product and outcomes. As Pope put it (Alexander rather than Francis) “For forms of government let fools contest/Whate’er is best administered is best.”
Perhaps the best advice the dedicated pessimist can offer government is to quote that great American philosopher Yogi Berra “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” It might even be the only conclusion to emerge from a week’s passionate and informed debate.
It is perhaps late in the proceedings to raise a rather fundamental question about the ambit of the school. The gairm scoile appears to confine the challenge to restore order and good government to a 26-county polity. In this it merely reflects what appears to be a growing tendency in the chattering classes, the media, the establishment and the general public to regard Northern Ireland as indeed a place apart, which has been sorted out by the Good Friday Agreement and the constitutional amendment, left, with a sigh of relief to float off into the sunset under its own steam. There is, for many, a mental map of the country, which, like the explorers’ charts, sees only empty space on the other side of the Border. County Louth is the new north-east. A recent yellow warning broadcast by the Met Office forecast excessive rain in Munster, Leinster and Connaught and the “counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal” – as if the elements switched off at Belleek and Crossmaglen. There is a subliminal message in the publicity extolling the merits of food produced on Irish farms which subtly excludes produce from Northern Ireland. And the final indignity is the disembodied voice on the sat-nav which welcomes the driver to Ireland half-way between Newry and Dundalk.
It is a supreme irony of an armed struggle with the purported aim of securing a united Ireland has made the achievement of that objective substantially more problematic, having alienated more unionists from the project by the brutality of the campaign, while at the same time convincing an increasing number of Southerners that it might not be such a good idea after all, and certainly not a priority if, in straitened times, they are expected to pick up the tab to replace the annual dowry from the British Treasury.
Which brings us back, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, as Joyce might say, to the Good Friday Agreement and the principle of consent enshrined there and in an international treaty. Not for the first time, this has been differentially glossed by the two communities in the North – by unionists as a guarantee against being absorbed against their will into a hostile polity, by republicans as a staging post on the way to their ultimate destination. It is the old contrariness which was the knell of Sunningdale, which Brian Faulkner hailed as a bulwark against unification and Hugh Logue of the SDLP greeted as the tumbril to carry them there. The additional irony is that while Catholics believed Faulkner, the unionists believed the SDLP man.
What then is the import of the principle of consent (which by definition should carry a collateral right to with-hold consent) when is it to kick in, by what majority and on what prospectus? The Act provides for activation of the mechanism by the Secretary of State when there is judged to be sufficient support to ensure that the proposition would be carried in a referendum. But by how much? 50% plus one would merely create a mirror image of the present conflict, with even less prospect of a resolution, and to speculate on what might be the unknown quantity in 50% plus X can only be destabilising. And who in all this is going to talk to the unemployed loyalist youths in East Belfast, the innocent victims of the collapse of a manufacturing economy, ill-prepared by the education system to take advantage of new opportunities in a knowledge-based economy, and having lost all faith in politics?
Republicans too, like the Chinese proverb, should be careful what they wish for. Unity in the traditional form may be neither attainable nor desirable. It is perhaps encouraging that some of the wiser voices are beginning to talk in terms of an “agreed Ireland” rather than the starkly irredentist language of old. The concept of absolute sovereignty has taken a beating since the hey-day of the nation state. The Good Friday Agreement had the emancipatory merit of unhitching the nation from the state, allowing national identity to flow across political boundaries, which become less significant. It could also open the way to more imaginative ways of accommodating the aspirations and the mores of competing cultures on the island.
The Good Friday Agreement is invoked by nationalists, along with sundry human rights documents, as a safeguard for the recognition and public expression of their Irish cultural identity, while all too often, on the slightest whiff of provocation, demanding that Orangemen suppress theirs.
In Seamus Heaney’s last published interview before his untimely and unexpected death, in relation to the loyalist flag protest in Belfast, he says “Let them fly what flags they like” before adding, almost sotto voce, that there wouldn’t be a united Ireland anyhow. Which is an echo of the more strident and acerbic strictures addressed to unionists by Louis MacNeice a generation and a half before; “Put out what flags you will/It is too late to save your souls with bunting.” Echoing too John Hume’s dismissal of flags as a staple item of diet for the working man, and the advice in Cure at Troy to the victorious Greeks “Preserve the shrines – show Gods respect”.
Perhaps a more modest objective, echoing John Hume’s ambition to unite people rather than territory, would be to envisage and then to engineer political and administrative structures on the island within which nationalist and unionist can live together in relative peace and amity, in reasonable security and mutual respect, with a decent standard of living and care for the weak and vulnerable in society, cherishing diversity and protecting difference, and in harmony with our neighbours in the rest of the archipelago. If that could be achieved, it need not matter very much what sort of constitutional envelope it is packaged in. It would certainly bring us to the limen described by Seamus: “The borderline of poetry – between what you/would like to happen and what will.”
Seamus gives us another remarkably prescient insight in Crediting Poetry, his Nobel laureate acceptance speech some years before the Good Friday Agreement, expressing his hopes for a reduction of conflict and the easing of ancient animosities in Northern Ireland:
“Every dweller in the country must hope that the governments involved in its governance can devise institutions which allow partition to become something like a net on a tennis court, a demarcation allowing for agile give and take, for encounter and contending, prefiguring a future where the vitality which flowed in the beginning from those bracing word “enemies” and “allies” might finally derive from a less binary and altogether less binding vocabulary.”
A main barrier to progress in Northern Ireland (and more generally on the island) is an obsession with the past and the clamant pursuit of absolute truth in even the most hopeless cases, which is no more attainable than absolute (or even at times relative) justice. The now hackneyed, misquoted and over quoted “hope and history rhyme “can be read as a desire that hope would lift the burden of history, that society could look forward rather than fixedly back. Hope, all that remained in Pandora’s box when all the demons had been released, should be forward looking and non-recriminatory. The hope for self-healing, too, surely discouraged the endless picking at scabs, which far from producing betterment; keep the wounds of past wars open and bealing.
One has to tread gently, for there are real victims and survivors who need to be treated with sensitivity and respect. They deserve what most of them have not had, the best that society can offer by way of material help, psychological counselling and support, and the chance to tell their individual stories and have them recorded, and to hear the narratives of others. They are entitled to hope for as much information as possible about the circumstances in which their loved ones died, but it is surely an added cruelty to raise hopes of certainty, of absolute justice, and of the successful prosecution and conviction, after so many years, of those thought to have been involved. In this I agree with the Attorney General, John Larkin, in his professional assessment of the unlikelihood of successful prosecutions and the disruptive effect on the body politic of continuing to do so. There is surely a case for drawing a line in the sand and moving on. We cannot mortgage the future to the past.
A further difficulty in interrogating the past is the lack of equity in the search, each side wanting to pursue selectively the perpetrators on the other. Republicans would pillory every offending soldier and policeman while excusing the excesses of their own combatants; unionists seek to expose and punish criminality by republicans while tolerating or denying state involvement in a dirty war. There is also the problem of an inequality of arms in that while the official actors had their deeds recorded in files and records which can be discovered and scrutinised (when they are not arbitrarily with-held or conveniently lost) their paramilitary opponents tended to operate in a paperless society.
The ethical dilemmas relating to victimhood are timeless – and irresolvable. In The Burial at Thebes you will hear Creon’s demand, from the high moral ground that the wrongdoers and the wronged should not fare the same, and Antigone’s anguished response that “The dead do not begrudge the dead”.. In the end, in the North, there are too many like the grieving catholic and protestant widows in O Casey’s play “On either side of a scales of sorrow, weighed down by the bodies of our suffering sons.”
Jonathan Phillips, a former senior official at the Northern Ireland Office who was central to many of the negotiations in the peace process, suggests in a forthcoming book that Northern Ireland might draw inspiration from what happened in Spain after the death of Franco and the end of a regime which had been characterised by murder, torture and imprisonment and extreme brutality and lasting bitterness on all sides. “This required a pact of forgetfulness which would require people to say that while they recognised the pain and difficulty of the past (on all sides) there was a simple imperative for the current generation of building a new society and economy, leaving the detail of what happened to be reviewed with greater historical perspective and less personal animus in years to come.
There is, of course, the difficulty of history being rewritten and of deliberate obfuscation to suit contemporary political positions, and of convenient bouts of historical amnesia, as is very slyly hinted at in Cure at Troy, when Philoctetes, the violent, unpredictable, uncontrollable outcast who happens to carry the armament essential for victory is reassured about his reception among the Greeks. “The very people who go mad at the slightest show of force will be eating from your hand if you take them right…and tell the story so as just to suit them.”
The liturgy of the school requires us, at the end of each day, to turn our faces to the sun and pay homage to the memory and achievements of Seamus Heaney, and I do now follow that rubric gladly and with respect. The best way to recognise a poet is as a lover of language, what Borrow called, using the Romany term, Lavengro, the master of words. We can continue to draw on his insights and his sensitive awareness of the human condition to help us understand and cope with the situation we find ourselves in, and we can keep his voice alive by quotation, as I have done several times in the course of this lecture.
My own favourites are two short poems, The Haw Lantern and The Diviner, both of which exemplify the power of poetry in the search for truth and the vatic role of the poet.
In the first Diogenes searches for one just man, holding up his lamp to scrutinise faces as the poet focuses his beam on the predicament of the common man in search of certainty, or at least reassurance: “A small light for small people/ Wanting no more of them than that they keep/ the wick of self-respect from burning out”. And, with Seamus’ customary restraint and moderation: “Not having to blind them with illumination”.
The Diviner represents the power of the creative artist to plumb the depths, to detect subterranean movements and trends indiscernible to the average consciousness but which the antennae of the poet can pick up, decipher and re-broadcast.
“The pluck came sharp as a sting,
The rod jerked with precise convulsions
Spring water suddenly broadcasting
Through a green hazel its secret stations.
\the bystanders would ask to have a try.
He handed them the rod without a word.
It lay dead in their grasp till, nonchalantly,
He gripped expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.
Seamus was our dowser, with a friendly hand on the elbow and a cheerful nudge giving us new insights into the unknown and stimulating us to use our own imagination.
The programme asks us to consider both the loss and the legacy. The loss, of course is profound, especially for Marie and the children, for his brothers and sisters and a wide circle of friends, but the legacy is enduring, inexhaustible and incapable of being valued. There has been the loss of his wise and gracious presence and of poems now never to be written, but as long as language lives, as long as people care for words, as long as we can quote him, Seamus lives on as guide, philosopher and friend.
I leave almost the last word to Shakespeare, who as well as being universally quotable is conveniently out of copyright. In another context he wrote of his own sonnet: “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see/ So long lives this and this gives life to thee”. So long indeed.
To Seamus I say, in the Doric of the Ulster countryside with which we both grew up: “So long, old friend. So long!”