I’ve just emerged exhausted from reading Fintan O’Toole’s magisterial “personal history” “We don’t know ourselves” on life and times in the Republic from his birth in 1958, a good 10 years after my own. I really should have made copious notes. But my snap reaction is that Northern Protestants were surely dead right to want to have nothing to do with the place. Indeed they didn’t know the half of it. O’Toole describes the political identity of a pure Ireland inspired by an ancient holy past. Let in too much information about the present and how it relates to real life, and the whole idea of what it means to be Irish disappears. Yes, they were that insecure, just as bad as the Prods. Certainty was supplied by the Catholic Church. The terrible oppression by the alternative state that was the Church and the monumental hypocrisy that spilled over into the cringing and corruption that was so much of politics could be summed up in two names above all others, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and Charles J Haughey, in the notorious frankly fascist phrase, “una voce, uno duce.” (Though according to O’Toole CJ reacted to his PR man’s coinage by telling him, “For fuck’s sake, Mara, button your lip.”) Haughey’s “mastery of hypocrisy”, O’Toole writes, “was mesmerising, exquisite, magisterial”. But his egregious corruption was part of a system created by Fianna Fail, a near monopoly, “a movement,” and no mere political party. It was continued in much lesser forms by his successors Reynolds and Ahern before the whole pack of cards collapsed in 2011. We are now in an era of transition but to what exactly is far from clear.
Back in the 1940s and 50s my family’s objections were not just political, they were profoundly religious. The Catholic Church was a great international conspiracy that claimed to dominate minds, through selecting rulers from the cleverest boy in every family. “Sure they believe the priests can turn them into a donkey.” Even then blind eyes were turned to a pervasive culture of sexual abuse, the laundries, the industrial schools and dreadful care homes with high mortality and body dumping, the institutional bullying of children at school by the Christian Brothers. How else other than by brainwashing could people anywhere prefer the impoverished south to the North with its welfare state, free education and decent roads? Catholics looked for popular heroes in the land of Irish dreams, America. The night we learned that John F Kennedy had been assassinated, my dear relative rushed into our house to tell us eagerly, “Now they’ll turn him into a wee God.” And so they did, up beside the Sacred Heart, ignoring his compulsive philandering.
But that was then and this is now. The big problem with this Protestant reaction was of course the beam in their own eye, the patronising verging on contempt and the self deception that God revealing Himself to each of us was somehow more real than what priests were dinning into minds as God’s will, provided it came from the Vatican. It produced the assumption in the North that they were governing a subject people. O’Toole the former altar boy and present atheist has no problem with rejecting the lot. Yet here we have the essence of sectarianism, the inevitable by-product not of misunderstanding, but of understanding to the point of caricature without compassion and human respect. Such an environment could only fail to foster a political culture able to sustain the give and take of a mature democracy. It made the recourse to violence more immediate and appealing.
O ‘Toole brilliantly describes the parallel universes of ideal and reality. The novelist Colm Toibin who in some respects is a kindred spirit, quotes him, “Usually with political mendacity, there was a truth out there somewhere waiting to be discovered and the lie is merely the opposite of that truth. But here the lie was a free-floating entity, two opposite signifiers with no real signified.” Of a weird political scandal involving a murder and the resignation of the attorney general, he writes: “The truth itself lacked credibility.”
Is O’Toole too hard on his own side? He has brief praise for the architect of modern Ireland the top civil servant TK Whitaker for the modernisation plan that was slowly to transform the Republic from the sixties, and for Donogh O’Malley the minister for education who declared for free secondary education for all at a stroke without consulting his cabinet colleagues. But there were limits to the reformist zeal of the likes of Whitaker and the brilliantly winsome broadcaster Gay Byrne who seemed to know where society was heading; their job claims O’Toole, was to keep the old show on the road.
For O’ Toole Charles Haughey’s achievements in laying ground for the peace process and Celtic Tiger were dwarfed by his monumental corruption and imperial sense of entitlement. His style veered from the Napoleonic to the scatological in an instant.
At the onset of the Falklands War in 1982 my late lamented friend Barry Cowan called on him to ask for an interview for RTE’s Today Tonight programme. The issues were the difficult politics after the hunger strike and a somewhat ambitious bid by Haughey to mediate between Thatcher and the Argentinians. Had he not presented her with a Georgian silver teapot? He clearly wanted a clear run on the Falklands.
“ Oh very sensitive on the North, you know. I don’t know we can do it.”
“ Well if you can’t we may have to offer the leader of the opposition ( Garret FitzGerald) a right of reply, “ said Barry.
Quick as a flash, Haughey came back. “ You’re a fly wee cunt aren’t you?”
Barry just as quick: “ Well it takes one to know one.”
He was at the apex a system of clientelism that when it came to it, had no answer to the crash of 2008 to 11 but surrender to the terms of austerity imposed by the troika of international financial bodies. A practical alternative however, isn’t offered.
The Troubles of the North are unavoidably if uneasily included as an inevitable overhang but this is an account of the Republic’s experience. Despite the early alarms in August 1969, the Arms Trial of 1970 ad the reaction to Bloody Sunday in 1972 when the British embassy was burnt down, there has been no demand for a new war of liberation.
O’Toole is a prophet, but not in the sense of predicting the future which he carefully avoids. His is a morality tale set against his own life and the society he belongs to. What happened between the Papal visit of 1979 and the gay rights referendum of 2015 – with three referendums trying the ban abortion even more tightly thrown in – has yet to be fully described; or if it has, I haven’t seen it. It can be captured certainly in novels between the period of the 1940s and 50s John McGahern so powerfully describes, and the urban sophistication and wry wit of Anne Enright and now Sally Rooney who dares to take sexual experience among the young for granted. Perhaps the old reactionaries were righter than they knew, when the light came flooding in. Or perhaps the parallel universes converged. McGahern writes that he told a friend he’d still like to attend mass sometimes but couldn’t as he didn’t believe. “Ah sure none of us do,” replied his friend, “why don’t you join the rest of us hypocrites?” (I paraphrase the quote).
Ireland has emphatically survived as a better and more prosperous place. O’Toole cautiously points to a a more diverse but unspecified future, a land of genuine welcomes, provided they are not made compulsory. He leaves that question open for tomorrow.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London