Prof Dermot Keogh, Emeritus Professor of History, University College Cork

As a citizen of this Irish republic, I feel that today the country is facing one of the greatest democratic challenges since it first came into existence over 90 years ago. There is a danger that the economic ‘solution’ of austerity being adopted to deal with the crisis is changing the relationship between the citizen and the state.  Will the crisis place a far greater concentration of power in the hands of a state that has already one of the most centralised systems of government among the older members of the European Union?  The new technocratic form of governance – being imposed on Ireland and many struggling members of the EU – may deflect the EU from its original objective to build an integrated, united Europe based on the humanistic, anti-fascist, anti-Nazi and anti-authoritarian philosophies of the Second World War resistance movements.  Where has that social idealism of the 1950s gone which was to found a united Europe based on progressive social democratic and Christian social ideals?

What is likely to emerge from this period of crises is unclear?  The worst possible outcome for Ireland will be a two speed Europe with a core and a periphery, destroying the very philosophical foundations on which the European project was originally based.  But as the European Union seeks to guide its way out of crises, the oxygen of hope may be drained from Ireland and other countries – Greece, Spain and Portugal – which have closed the door to employment for many young people due to recruitment embargoes in the state sector – a sector which is seriously in need of new thinking and new ideas, the kind of thinking which might be supplied by new generations of recruits who are currently excluded.

How stands the Republic?  Well, casting an eye back to the revolutionary period between 1916 and 1921 – the mood today is very much more sombre than in those heady years immediately after the 1916 Rising when hope of independence moved closer to being a reality.  The words of the proclamation appeared to be about to be turned into a political reality: ‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.’ The Republic, according to the Proclamation, ‘guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens….cherishing all the children of the nation equally.’  The Democratic Programme, adopted by Dáil Éireann in January 1919, affirmed ‘the duty of every man and woman to give allegiance and service to the Commonwealth,’ and, in return, ‘we, in the name of the Republic, declare the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation’s labour.’ Both founding documents of the Irish state established a binding contract between citizen and the Republic protecting the rights and the well-being of each citizen.

The Irish state was founded in 1922 with high hopes and high expectation of a new social order.  However, the national unity which drove the struggle for independence, fragmented with the signing of the Treaty and by the summer of 1922, Irish men and women were engaged in a destructive civil war with long-reaching consequences for the nature of Irish democracy.  Allegiance to the Irish state became a contested allegiance.  The state was not coterminous with the ‘nation.’ That contested nature of the new state initially resulted in de Valera and his followers placing a greater loyalty to party than to state.  The sens de l’etat, spoken of so eloquently during World war Two by General de Gaulle, did not bind the parties as had been the case when Sinn Féin was a united movement. Fianna Fáil refashioned the state through the de Valera constitutional revolution in the early 1930s, which culminated in the adoption of a new constitution in 1937. The unified all-party support for neutrality and the threat to survival during World War Two did help all sides develop a sens de l’etat.

What separated the two major parties formed as a consequence of the conflict that provoked civil war? It was the basis on which this country developed, what Brian Farrell so memorably called, a two and a half party system – the half being the Labour Party. (Here I would like to ask in parenthesis the following: Why, 90 years after the ending of the civil war, should the concept of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil entering into a coalition in the national interest not be a theme worth exploring?)

Besides creating the two-party system, or a two and a half party system, the civil war left the state in a very weak financial situation.  While that meant that the state had to abandon the social reform programme of the pre-Treaty era, it also made the Irish Free State, as it was called, heavily dependent upon large institutions like the Catholic Church and many powerful interest groups in that society.  The Catholic hierarchy gave political support to the government in the 1920s and, in part, transferred that support to Fianna Fáil from the 1930s. Clashes between church and state were uncommon – with the exception of the mother and child crisis in 1950/1 – until the 1970s or even might one say until 1983.

The intimate relationship between church and state had serious consequences for the workings of the state – as successive governments continued the British system of franchising out, for example, institutional child care to the respective churches and religious communities.  Although the state had statutory responsibility for the financing and oversight of, for example, industrial schools, orphanages and Magdalene laundries, we now know that a weak Irish state failed to exercise the mandate to cherish all the children of the nation equally. The state had statutory responsibilities which it failed to implement and must accept today the financial implications of that sustained failure. The Catholic Church, under the prescripts of the Gospel, fell very far short of the ethical standards with which it had been entrusted to fulfil as far back as the 1870s.  It, too, must face the consequences of that lamentable failure.

There were a number of factors which, in my view, helped preserve sens de l’etat during the early decades of the state among the leadership in Dáil Éireann:

1) A shared historical experience in the struggle for independence and a commitment to a nationalist ideology which all the major parties supported.

2)  A strong semi-state sector had been built up.

3) The civil and public service, from the foundation of the state, sought to impose high standards of governance and of probity.

But other factors worked to give the Irish state a very conservative character: it

  • operated under a virtual permanent state of emergency since the civil war;
  • confronted recurring threats of subversion from the IRA;
  • faced threats of invasion during the Second World War;
  • confronted the threat of communism during the cold war;
  • And the recurring revolutionary activities of the IRA from the 1950s to 1998.

There was no wish by any party in power until the 1980s to challenge the practice of a system of closed government.

Membership of the European Economic Community in 1973 offered a great opportunity to reform and to modernise government structures and decision-making processes.  Unfortunately, membership of the EEC reinforced the centralised nature of Irish government decision-making and local government had little opportunity to benefit from the disbursement of funds from Brussels.  The abolition of rates on domestic dwellings in 1977 left local authorities in Ireland in a poverty-stricken state.  Why, at that point, did Ireland go the opposite way to other member states of the EEC which had rates on domestic properties, property and water taxes and even a wealth tax? Some of those essential reforms in the Irish system were only delivered under the directives of the Troika.

What went wrong in Ireland and when did it go wrong? How did the country drift towards a period of complete laissez aller in the 1990s and early part of the twenty first century?

1)  The Northern situation since the late 1960s presented the Irish government with a permanent challenge which drained resources.

2) The political will to reform the aging Irish government system was weak and ineffectual.

3) There were counter-veiling forces at work in the 1980s which, probably for the first time in the history of the state, revealed that there was corruption in Irish society at the very top – the political career of Charles Haughey as Taoiseach has been well documented by tribunals.  The temptations were great and the rewards were lucrative for politicians in a position to influence planning decisions and weak enough to accept a bribe. The nationwide scale of that problem has yet to be calibrated.

But credit for exposing the workings of the Irish state must go, firstly, to the setting up of the office of Ombudsman, first occupied by Michael Mills in 1984.  That office has done a great deal to make the workings of the Irish state more transparent and full credit must reside with Mills and his two successors, the late Kevin Murphy and the outgoing incumbent, Emily O’Reilly.  Secondly, the Freedom of Information Act (1997) was of inestimable value in providing citizens with access to information held by public bodies and government departments etc.  In an act of civic vandalism, the Fianna Fáil/PD government in 2003 amended and constricted that act – a serious reversal for those in favour of open government.  Happily, new legislation in autumn 2013 will restore and extend the workings of the act. Thirdly, the National Archives Act (1986) opened up the files of government archives under a 30-year rule.  Finally, the use of tribunals and inquiries have helped shed light on hidden areas of public life and state institutions as have also the expanded workings of Oireachtas committees.

I don’t know how and why the checks and balances in the Irish political system and in other sober and conservative sections of Irish politics disappeared so swiftly, paving the way for the so called Celtic Tiger.  Why did the traditional Irish banks, as conservative as one might find anywhere, allow their fundamental philosophy to change and thus expose Irish tax-payers to catastrophic losses?  Why was that disastrous change in philosophy not pre-empted at an early stage before the damage could be done?  Why was regulation of the banking sector so ineffectual during those critical years? Why did an Irish government sign away billions in 2008 which the tax-payers are now required to pay back?  This will result in a form of inter-generational debt-peonage for decades to come.

In the delirium of the world of the Celtic Tiger – what a vulgarism – values were certainly different for those who helped create the banking crisis.  We have read and heard the Anglo-Irish tapes in all their crassness and crudity. Where was their sens de l’etat?  It did not exist.  I found the following example which illustrates the point that I want to emphasise about a culture that had become so mercenary that it did not care about people or, indeed, the welfare of the country.  In the book, The Fitzpatrick Tapes, the authors, Tom Lyons and Brian Carey, describe Fitzpatrick speaking about a meeting in London to consider taking over a number of hotels, including, I think, Claridge’s.  The consortium of developers was very enthusiastic about what they could do to modernise the hotel.  Fitzpatrick paraphrased a member of the group bubbling over with enthusiasm for change. He wanted to convert a hotel car park into a gym or a bar, continuing:  “And then you know we have Joe Bloggs in there cutting hair, f**** him out and we get in Fabiola.  There is a jeweller down there called John Doe.  F*** him out and we will get in Cartier.” The guys were bang, bang, bang.’ [p.50]  In the ‘bang, bang, bang’ culture of the Celtic Tiger, citizens obviously had no rights.

How stands the Republic in 2013?  There is a crisis of the Irish state.  But there is no mobilization of civic society to confront the crisis.  There is no sense of outrage. Why embargo jobs in the public sector?  Why deny young people the chance of a career and a livelihood?  Why has government not mobilized the third level education institution in this country to develop a national strategy to get qualified people on the dole to develop new skills or simply–and this is a revolutionary idea–to become better educated?  The alternative is to lose a few generations to emigration. Why, at this critical juncture, tinker around with a bicameral system which was one of the jewels in the crown of William T. Cosgrave in the 1920s? Will this not make young people even more cynical about politics?

In conclusion, I will draw your attention to the ideas of Stéphane Hessel, a resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor, who wrote a best-selling pamphlet a few years ago directed towards the young people of France, entitled ‘Time for Outrage.’ His final words were:

 ‘To you who will create the twenty-first century, we say, with affection:



Can one think of better advice to give young Irish people who will have the responsibility for creating a new Ireland in the 21st century?  They, all of us, need to realise that now is a ‘time for outrage.’

Book your Tickets