The real dilemma of the Quinn affair: The invisibility of the Irish state to its own people

Ireland is going through an extraordinary times recently… It finds itself in the midst of a flux and change much greater and scarier than anything wished for in those far off days when Gay Byrne’s prodigious talent used to come at the nation on TV (weekly) and Radio (daily) upbraiding the nation for its illiberality and failure to get outside its own conservative Catholic box.

The Celtic bubble (as might now feel free to call it) did float some boats (some much higher than others), but the hangover is throwing up some very strange phenomena…

Father Brian Darcy, a liberal churchman hero of the 80s and 90s finds himself curiously on the wrong side of what ought to be an argument over lawfulness or rather the lack of it in the Quinn case).. Thanks to Broadsheet for the transcription of this RTE interview of poet Theo Dorgan by Charlie Bird:

I think probably media study classes of the future will listen to that interview with Brian Darcy as the most extraordinary example of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds that I’ve heard in years.

I find it very difficult to follow him in his equivalence of a march for victims of abuse in Dublin and a march in support of a man who took the 5,000 jobs he created – for which he is to be praised – and gambled them on the property market and lost and now feels sorry for himself. I can’t see why Brian couldn’t offer pastoral care in a personal capacity to the Quinns if they’re feeling distressed.

But quite honestly the courts of the land found that €500 million of money, owed not to Anglo but to the Irish Bank Recovery [sic] Corporation, the IBRC – our money, money we need for schools, hospitals, guards, road repairs, all of those things that make a civil society – the Quinns have decided it’s not our money, it’s theirs, in defiance of the courts, and any public figure who supports them in that is standing against the rule of law.

As if that was not bad enough, Fermanagh District Council is throwing in with local boy, who is up against the fiduciary interests of the people of the Irish Republic by asking their Chief Executive to send a letter “acknowledging that this was a very difficult time for the family”.

Fintan O’Toole is close to the mark when he notes that the concept of the state (and the collective national self interest it was intended to persue) barely exists in large parts of the state:

To function at all, we have to make the working assumption that those institutions and that idea are part of what we are, that, however vehemently we disagree with each other about however many things, there is this common ground on which we stand. Even when we rail against the institutions (for loyalty is not the same thing as passive obedience), we do so because we identify with them – they are ours to criticise. And even when we are angry at our fellow citizens, we recognise that what affects them affects us too, that there such a thing as a common good.

Everyone knows, of course, that there are subgroups – criminals, subversives – who have no loyalty to the State at all, who have contempt for its institutions and who don’t recognise the notion of the common good. But the working assumption is that these groups are small, marginal and outside the mainstream of society. They are, indeed, defined by the very fact that they transgress against what we take to be a norm that enjoys overwhelming acceptance. They don’t threaten the basic assumptions about the State – they actually reinforce them.

And then, every so often, there’s a moment when those assumptions crumble. The idea that the vast majority of people are loyal to the State is suddenly exposed for what it is: a useful fiction. What happens is that very large numbers of people who would never think of themselves as criminals or subversives reveal the truth that they don’t really have much time for key State institutions such as the law and the courts and that they simply don’t believe that there is an over-arching common good that means anything when you set it against more potent local loyalties.


The State, for them, is a vague, hazy and distant thing – too nebulous to command any real fidelity. The idea that encouraging the Quinns to siphon off €455 million of public assets might harm their fellow citizens has no meaning for them because, deep down, they don’t actually believe that there are such creatures as fellow citizens. There are good GAA people, good Cavan people, good Fermanagh people – those are the “imagined communities” that command respect and allegiance. A larger citizenship signifies nothing. The people who might be harmed by the Quinns’ actions are not Us but Them.

Even Gay Byrne in his heyday would have struggled to articulate the deep, deep trouble this ‘know nothing’ dilemma spells for a country that is struggling manfully to dig its way out of a very shady corporate past, where nods and winks were all the same for the proverbial blind Irish horse…