On the need to recover a moral compass

Interesting piece from Robin Wilson on Open Democracy, the director of Democratic Dialogue. He maps some of the highly speculative lines of thinking about the Donaldson murder but then suggests that somewhere in the last thirty years

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  • The first thing I’d say to this is that, politicians apart, there’s very little outrage about anything on this island. Few dare to mount the soapbox to criticise and condemn the (Southern) government’s open and flagrant abuse of the elderly in care, or stealing their pension money from them, for that matter. No one gives out about the plight of socially disadvantaged and marginalised. Unless, of course, there is a political gain to be made.

    As a nation, we in the South haven’t lost our moral compass, we’ve abandoned it. This is in part due to the ever declining power of the Church, and in part due to rampant greed.

    The politicisation of morality and religion in the North has undeniably diluted the socio-ethical relevance of the Chruches there, traditionally the conscience sherpas on this island.

    Perhaps more than having lost its moral compass, the people of the North have lost their ideology, retaining an atavistic remnant of ‘right’ that is fast losing its relevance, and needs to be replaced.

  • Pete Baker

    Mick

    Important to note that in the article itself Robin Wilson makes the point that it is the British and Irish Governments’ “lack of a moral compass” that has been damaging to progress towards a normal civil society –

    Yet there seems no real appreciation in either government of the fundamental lack of a moral compass in dealing with paramilitaries, which has alternated over the years between repression and appeasement, in each case at the expense of the rule of law and the emergence of something akin to a normal civil society.[added emphasis]

  • IJP

    A lot of things here, so I’ll go one at a time:

    I’m beginning instinctively to move against this line about “middle-class Prods hiding behind their garden fences”. Indeed, could such a line, much favoured by the liberal literati, not be part of the reason we’ve lost our moral compass?

    I think there’s something in the idea that there were people who deliberately played blind to the conflict going on around them, and that they bear some responsibility for the conflict. But any idea that “middle-class professionals” in Bangor and Carrick had as much to do with the conflict as “working-class terrorists” is unadulterated lunacy.

    Frankly there is nothing particularly profound or difficult about the realization that terrorism solves nothing where democratic options are clearly open. The fact is it suits certain groups to pretend otherwise – until we overthrow such self-interest, we’ll not get very far.

  • IJP

    facing their own responsibilities for sustaining sectarian mindsets and the associated antagonism.

    Do the four largest political parties not need to do this?

    (My codeword below this time is ‘after69’ – I think Mick’s trying to tell me something again 🙂 )

  • IJP

    Most of all, I think the actual piece by Robin Wilson recognizes (even if not in so many words) the debate I’ve been trying to start elsewhere.

    The time for cross-community tokenism is past.

    What we need is cross-community outcome – including a fundamental acceptance that terrorism is wrong, acceptance that segregation/separation/sectarianism leads to the instability which feeds violence, and an acceptance that a political system based on maintaining our divisions rather than overcoming them cannot possibly deliver the stability our people want and deserve.

    With the best will in the world, there are many good, basically anti-sectarian people about who have propped up that system – they need to think again.

  • Pete, first off, I agree that the governments did not exactly lead by example, but the rule of law was compromised some time ago in the North. Talking to ‘terrorists’ was implicitly compromising any remaining vestige of the rule of law, by inherently acknowledging their representative position. However, such is the nature of conflict resolution, it has to be either appeasement or repression.

    However, the Irish and British governments more fundamentally disrespected their own principles (rule of law, democratic principles generally) in some of the more insidious actions over the years, effectively taking sides with the protagonists, either in the case of loyalist collusion or republican facilitation (safe houses, arms trial stuff etc.).

    In extricating all actors from a wholly awful situation, it was necessary to reset the political environment, and in order to do that, governments had to step outside the normal parameters of administration in order to bring organisations like the IRA into the political process.

    While it may be lamentable, I think that the net result has been positive – whatever the present difficulties, no one can argue that the North is at least in the process – finally – of being normalised. With that process of normalisation will come, in time, a respect for politics, authority, and each other.

    IJP – ‘any idea that “middle-class professionals” in Bangor and Carrick had as much to do with the conflict as “working-class terrorists” is unadulterated lunacy’

    I don’t think that’s the point. I think it is that middle class professionals in Bangor and Carrick had as much to do with the ‘losing of the moral compass’ as had the front line ‘working-class terrorists’.

  • Dec

    What we need is cross-community outcome – including a fundamental acceptance that terrorism is wrong, acceptance that segregation/separation/sectarianism leads to the instability which feeds violence, and an acceptance that a political system based on maintaining our divisions rather than overcoming them cannot possibly deliver the stability our people want and deserve.

    All together now: Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea…

  • Pete Baker

    Anthony, first off, it’s Robin Wilson’s argument I’m highlighting, even if I do find merit in the argument.

    That argument is that the chosen manner, by both governments, of resetting the political environment you describe is actively undermining the civil society it supposedly aims to develop.

    You may believe that the net result is positive.. My own view?.. it’s too early to say.

  • Well, Pete, the present position might be stalled (although it may be inappropriate to equate the peace process politically with the normalisation of society more generally) but it’s not (yet) going backwards, and it’s moved forwards quite a bit over the last ten years.

    More jobs, more investment, more optimism generally and less fear generally are good signs.

    I think that had the intervention by the two governments not yielded the cessation of violence, the GFA, the Assembly and Executive while it was sitting, and all the other good stuff, then it would have made the situation worse. But if we have to compromise our ideals (we don’t negotiate with terrorists etc.) for a greater good, where years and years of standing firmly by our ideals (in public at least) has yielded nothing but more bloodshed and violence, then perhaps it is worth doing.

    I think that things are better now, certainly, and that things are more normalised than they were ten years ago. And I think that we are returning to a quasi-principled politics where we are still shaking off the last elements of immoral/anti-rule-of-law stuff from the past, but substantially the standards that are now set are returning to normal.

    One only has to look at the language around the Donaldson thing – there is no fudge. One source close to Downing St said today (front page of Irish Times) that the peace process was at an end if the IRA did the DD thing. Not ‘in trouble’, or ‘difficult’, but at an end. One could argue that that reflected a political rather than a moral reality, but I like to think it was the latter.

  • Kathy_C

    posted by Kathy C

    Hi all,
    there are many that have lost the moral rutter.There was a time back in 97 and for a few years after…Sinn Fein would speak of the moral issue. I remember the famous line, “it might be legal for the orange order to march down garvahy but it is not moral and it is akin to the KKK marching in harlem.” Now Sinn Fein states the orange order’s marching is there heritage and should be allowed…except in contentious areas.

    It would be nice if Sinn Fein returned to the moral outrage of orange order marching.

  • IJP

    I don’t think that’s the point. I think it is that middle class professionals in Bangor and Carrick had as much to do with the ‘losing of the moral compass’ as had the front line ‘working-class terrorists’.

    Fair enough, Anthony.

    I happen to think that is even less the case, in fact.

    The few people who retained the moral compass and the basic understandings behind a democratic society (rule of law, market economy with wealth creation, real choice of government) were within NI.

    Where many of the Bangor/Carrick brigade go wrong is in the basic understanding that majority rule is not democratic. But listening to Good Morning Ulster this morning, I think most people fail to understand ‘majority rule’ is in no one’s interest. Most people here across the class and religious divide believe fundamentally in ‘majority rule’ – so long as they’re the majority…

  • IJP,

    I would argue that focusing on retaining a ‘market economy with wealth creation’ is one of the reasons why the educated middle classes are tarred with the same immoral brush. Understanding what’s right and what’s wrong for civil society is different to understanding what’s right or wrong for my society (in the narrow sense). Actively ensuring that the morality of the society in which one lives (in the broad sense) is just, equal and fair should be an obligation on people. Abdicating one’s opportunity to voice an opinion, keeping the head down and saying ‘nothing to do with me, guv’ is simply not good enough – sins of omission indeed.

    One cannot equate or generalise in situations like this. There were many many people from all sides, from all corners of society, who dared to raise their head above the parapet, who braved the scorn and derision not just of the other side, but of their own. It happens in all societies, in all democracies. Democracy generally is in bad shape globally, and we need more outrage, more people taking ownership of the problems of civil society, more contribution, more voices.

    Anthony.