Monthly Archives: September 2018

Power without Authority in Ireland, II: Church, State and Vested Interests

When in 1940 de Valera pondered the lack of governmental authority, he did not have far to look for one of the underlying causes.  It’s actually embedded in his radio broadcast; his invocation of Catholic ethos the better to sell his argument that society is founded on a surrender of authority to government.  The dominant alternative source of national authority, one that pre-existed the establishment of the state, was of course the Catholic Church.

Since de Valera could not extricate Christianity and ‘right way of living’ from his conception of the state and man’s place in it, he was not going to challenge the Church’s authority.  From God, to the individual, to the family to the state was a progression unified by the divine will and man’s ethical response to it.  So not only was de Valera not going to challenge this powerful rival for authority, he facilitated its continued authority and embedded its role in his Constitution.

For de Valera, Catholicism was inseparable from Irish identity.  Or to put it another way, he saw the Irish people’s devotion to Catholicism, contrary to all the social and economic advantages of conversion to Protestantism and a comfortable place in the British Empire, as confirming his conviction that being Catholic and being Irish were inextricable. De Valera saw in Ireland’s centuries’ long struggle a sign of divine providence that the Irish were meant to be Catholic.

Moreover, like many people, de Valera believed that early Irish Christianity had saved civilisation during the Dark Ages. There is a strong historical case to back this up of course.  However, de Valera believed further that the Irish needed to replay this mission as a new Dark Age beckoned – one of materialism, fascism, and war.  Independent Ireland would be beacon of spirituality, frugality, and the right of living.  On this thesis, de Valera had little company but there was widespread support for the identification of Catholicism with Irish identity. The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 gave expression to this strong public belief.

How had this come about?  How had Catholicism and its institutional expression in the Catholic Church acquired such an authoritative position?

I’d propose four key factors behind it.

The first was that in the 19th century the British Government devolved responsibility to the Catholic Church for much of Ireland’s health and education services.  It was a good deal for both.  London found it cheap and a relief of responsibility, not to mention avoiding endless battles with the Church over ethical issues likely to arise from a largely Catholic country being ruled by a Protestant one.  For the Church it conferred on it responsibility for its flock from the cradle to the grave and gave it unique secular as well as spiritual authority over the Catholic population.

Try dissenting from an institution that blessed your birth, educated you, restored you to health, married you, did the same for your children and then buried you.  Additional benefits accrued if you were male; the system bulwarked the patriarchy and kept woman in highly confined roles and subservient in relationships.

Secondly, the Catholic Church, in cooperation with society, policed sexuality and more particularly fertility.  This was an exceptionally important role in post-Famine Ireland where the inheritance of the undivided farm by one son was such an overriding desideratum.  Fertility, even female beauty, was seen as a subversive of th is social order.  An unwanted pregnancy threatened ordered inheritance, a vital social and economic imperative that was seared into the collective by the Great Famine.  When a pregnancy outside marriage did happen, the Church had the institutional responses to deal with it, from Magdalene laundries and reformatory schools to orphanages and adoption systems.

Inheritance, marriage, and fertility shaped our emigration patterns too.   In contrast to the Litvak Jews arriving in New York who were married young and had children, the Irish were young and single.  They were shipped off before any inheritance complications arose from passion and pregnancies.

The third factor was that nationalist identity became increasingly synonymous with being Catholic, a process that intensified as Home Rule moved centre stage and unionists hewed ever closer to their British identity in resistance.  On the nationalist side, the process intensified particularly from 1916 onwards as the nationalist struggle stripped away the complexities of Irish identity.

This brings us to the fourth factor, namely partition.  Partition enabled the new Irish state to identify as a Catholic one and avoid any tricky questions about how to embrace alternative non-Catholic forms of nationalist identity.  It was a particularly bitter blow to those from Protestant backgrounds and who had been prominent in the nationalist revival from the fall of Parnell onwards, not to mention the Protestant community generally living in the south.

Had a government of a non-partitioned Ireland to create a polity that embraced a large Protestant community, it is clear that the Catholic Church could not have had a virtual monopoly in health, education and public moral discourse.  Aside from the economic damage, this was one of the great wounds inflicted in Ireland by partition socially and politically.

So the Catholic Church had been a nationalist institution long before there was a national government. The newly independent state had to establish itself in the spaces not already occupied by the Catholic Church.  And where government did chose to act it had to contend with the countervailing interests and authority of the Church and those who found it convenient to ally with it.

The key to being influencial in Ireland, to shaping outcomes to suit particular vested interests, was understanding where authority lay and how to manipulate it to your own ends.

There was no clearer public example of this than the controversial Mother-and-Child Scheme, generally misinterpreted as a prime instance of church authority being wielded over government, in short a clash of church and state.

The Mother and Child Scheme had been conceived and developed by the Department of Health as a response to the fact that Ireland had one of the highest levels of infant mortality in Western Europe and much of this was caused by gastro-enteritis: unhygienic practices that could be put right, at least in part, by state support for and education in maternal care.

This idea of such a clash struck me as odd in a society where in fact church and state were in a happy alliance. It prompted me (back in 1986) to dig deeper into it, the results of which were published in the journal of the Irish Historical Society.

My interpretation was that it was really a clash between the state and the vested interests not of the church but of the private medical practitioner.  The notion that this episode represented a clash of church and state obscured what was really at stake: the defence of private practice and associated incomes on the part of doctors against state medical services.

The Irish Medical Organisation quietly organised against the scheme.  Its members feared that it was the thin edge of the wedge as the state took over family practices.  ‘Whoever gets the mother and child gets the family’ was darkly whispered.  The development of the NHS in Britain seemed to point the way to a new future of state provided health services.  Behind the scenes, the IMO astutely used fears that state medicine would led to the provision of godless services.  It mobilised the bishops against the scheme.  It was no contest and the Inter-Party Government backed down.

The doctors weren’t the only ones to see opportunities in the role of the church.  The fantastic career of Joe McGrath and the wealth that he accrued was tied up intimately in the church’s role in health care provision.  IRA bank robber and bodyguard to Collins during the Treaty negotiations, this was a man who knew how the system worked.  Ostensibly to help fund the health services, he and his buddies created the Hospital Sweepstake and made themselves fabulously wealthy.

It would have taken a far more powerful central government, a more determinedly secular generation of revolutionaries, to disrupt the distribution of authority in Ireland vis-a-vis church state relations.  Though he grasped the point about authority, and understood that the government had less than it needed, de Valera was the last man in Ireland prepared to tackle the government’s primary competitor for authority.

Yet I think this is not really the whole story.  The emergence of the Catholic Church as such a force in Ireland from the mid-19th century onwards had to have a conducive environment.  Or to put it another way, its success suggests that it did not have a competitor for authority, at least in those arenas of social and personal life that concerned it.

For an explanation, in the next blog we’ll look deeper into Ireland’s history, back in fact to 1800 when Britain abolished our national parliament.

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Power without Authority in Ireland, I: The Paradox of Government in Independent Ireland

The distinction between power and authority is an important one.  Power is what you are entitled to do.  For a duly elected leader, power means passing laws, signing treaties and promulgating policies.  Authority is the degree to which others comply with your directions.

Getting the degree of compliance with authority right is a tricky business for any society because it involves balancing freedom against effectiveness.  Too much in either direction can threaten a society’s future.

For newly emergent states that have struggled for independence it is a particularly challenging issue because heightened expectations about imminent economic or social transformation sit uneasily with countervailing expectations of personal and corporate autonomy.

This is a narrative in Ireland’s post-independent history but it’s a ghostly one, lost behind sacred assumptions, jealously guarded fiefdoms, blatant corporate territoriality, monopolistic defence of professions and their inflated incomes, social conservatism, and ultimately a failure to define the issue and discuss it.

De Valera seemed to grasp the issue, indeed struggle with it; but ultimately in frustration he retreated from it, keeping a strange and ultimately tragic silence from his simulacrum of power, the Áras.

We can with some accuracy identify the moment when de Valera realised that he had achieved power but not authority.  It was Easter 1940.

With the challenges of war facing Ireland on his mind, de Valera took to the airwaves and used the anniversary of the Easter Rising to lecture his people on the virtues and purpose of authority.

“Authority can, and does, restrict us, but it is a restriction of guidance productive of innumerable blessings for the community so guided.  The sole purpose of public authority is the welfare of those who are governed.  Man, by his nature, is meant to live in society.”  De Valera argued that Irish people had to adjust “our individual wills to the decisions of those whom we have chosen to lead.  Without such discipline we must inevitably degenerate into a rabble.  That is true of all peoples, and we cannot hope to be an exception.”  He went on:

The social group of [man’s] family begets and nurtures, and, to a certain extent, educates him.  But it is obvious that he cannot find within himself nor within his family the means adequate to develop fully his powers as a person, or, normally, even to support his physical life.  A wider organisation is necessary, a durable grouping of others with him, where each collaborates with all his fellows to provide those general conditions wherein it may be possible to live a fully human life.  Among those conditions are the reign of peace and order, the provision of sufficient economic or material goods, and the fostering of the higher spiritual or cultural qualities by which human life is made truly human.  This permanent union of men united for the general good is what we know as ‘society’.

Reading it now, it is an awkward sermonising address, a strange mixture of de Valera’s typical pedantic style but heavily reliant on an oddly ecclesiastical note. “It would, indeed, help much to intelligent obedience if we reflected more often on the helpfulness of the sovereign public authority.  We should see in it a blessing, truly a gift of God, an instrument of His willing, whereby our lives are protected and developed.  Obedience then would not prove a grudging submission, but a willing acceptance, of the Creator’s Sovereignty, as it is exercised by men.  There would be less reason for the State to use force, which it has, undoubtedly, the right and duty to use for the maintenance of the essential peace and order of the community.”  (Quotes from The Irish Times, 25 March 1940)

Certainly de Valera invoked the challenges of war as a rationale for authority but his concerns about the lack of central authority in Ireland were, I believe, much deeper than the exigencies of the immediate crisis.

Actually from the outset of taking office in 1932 de Valera had been on the receiving end of quite a few lessons in the limitations to the authority of central government, even to the authority of his own office within government.

The first lesson was not long in coming and involved a standoff between his own executive office of the President and the Department of Finance.  De Valera devoted his primary attention for his first seven years in office to unpicking the 1921 Treaty and replacing it with his own vision of Anglo-Irish relations and a constitution.  In this the Land Annuities loomed large.  It was an arena in which one would have thought he reigned supreme.  J.J. McElligott, Secretary of the Department of Finance, had other ideas.

In an exchange of letters with J.H. Thomas, the Secretary of the Dominions Office, de Valera set out his three chief grievances, namely the Treaty, the ports and the ‘financial tribute’ arising from the Land Annuities i.e. payments of £3m per annum collected by the Irish Government from Irish farmers and paid to Britain against loans used to purchase and distribute land under the 1891 and 1909 Land Acts.

As McMahon recounts in Republicans and Imperialists, Anglo-Irish Relations in the 1930s, Thomas reminded de Valera of the obligation to pay the annuities under the financial agreements of 1923 and 1926: “When de Valera received Thomas’s despatch he ordered a search for the 1923 agreement, but his assistant secretary noted on 11 April that the Department of Finance were refusing to hand it over to the President’s Department, despite a ruling from the Attorney General.”  J.J. McElligott was obdurate and the matter continued to be pursued up to 1937, notes McMahon.

It was really an astonishing episode.  De Valera, as President of the Executive Council, was looking a key document in a dispute with the British Government that threatened and in fact delivered an economic war highly damaging to the Irish economy.  Yet an official refused him sight of it. De Valera manifestly didn’t push the point and just got on with the negotiations.  After the damaging economic war, negotiations resumed to a successful conclusion in 1938.  With the promulgation of the 1937 Constitution, the ending of the economic war, and the handover of the Treaty ports, Anglo-Irish relations were satisfactorily reset to de Valera’s dictates.

De Valera’s opportunity to realise his vision of Ireland in economic and social terms however had to be done in the radically new and challenging context of growing global conflict and very real fears that Britain was about to be overrun by Germany.  The Germans in blockading Britain were blockading Ireland.  The Cabinet greatly feared that mass unemployment, even starvation, would bring social upheaval.  Great social discipline would be required, de Valera repeatedly warned in speeches and radio addresses, if Ireland were to survive.

Yet a whole series of incidents demonstrated painfully the absence of social discipline, that inclination to abide by the Government’s directions and accept its authority.  The following instances illustrate just how fragile was the government’s hold.

De Valera’s Minister for Finance, Seán MacEntee, got a sharp lesson himself in the limits to his authority.  As war threatened in late 1938 and early 1939, he was deeply concerned that Britain would not convert Ireland’s sterling assets into US dollars for essential imports like oil, coal, grains, and tea.  He approached the Irish Banks Standing Committee – the nearest thing we had to a Central Bank – to ask them to start building up reserves of dollars.  They refused him point blank.  They were not going to upset the perfectly established relationship with London.  As a concession they had acquire “a moderate amount of gold”.  They went on to advise MacEntee, with some condescension it must be said and rather beside the point, that a few well edited and inspired articles in the press could help allay public anxiety.

This rejection would spur the Government to create the Central Bank a few years later but not to take any immediate actions to force the point.  And, of course, during the war Britain highly constrained Ireland’s access to dollars, partly to punish it for neutrality (like cutting Ireland’s tea ration below even that in Britain) and partly because it was short of them itself in the opening years.

In the autumn of 1939, just as the U-boat menace began sinking merchant ships around the archipelago, the Country Dublin Farmers Association went about blockading Dublin.  It set pickets on the approach roads to intercept lorries carrying pigs to let the pigs loose, trailers full of turnips to send them rolling down the road, and cart loads of milk to overturn them.  They wanted higher prices to compensate for the rise in the price of inputs.  Some eighty farmers were arrested and convicted in November.  It was not the kind of civil action that inspired confidence that the country was coming together in solidarity against a hostile external environment.

The outbreak of foot and mouth disease was another example of government’s lack of authority.  Despite intensive efforts by the Department of Agriculture and its inspectors to contain the outbreak, the disease spread alarmingly as regulations were ignored and cattle moved about regardless.  Aside from the restriction on Ireland’s most important export commodity, The Irish Times reported in October 1941, when the outbreak was finally contained, that the 556 outbreaks across thirteen counties had cost the government £451,021 in compensation and involved the slaughter of 27,895 cattle, 9,797 sheep, 708 goats and 3,201 swine.

In his new role as Minister for Industry and Commerce in the reshuffle of 1939, MacEntee was a central figure in trying to resolve a strike by Dublin’s municipal workers.  This had brought services to a standstill and generated very heated public opposition because it seemed as if the unions went on strike annually and the latest wage demands – which would push up the rates significantly – were unjustified.  MacEntee did much scampering around trying to end the strike, calling for a summit in Dublin Castle, all to no avail.  Yet all it took was a word from the auxiliary Bishop of Dublin and the strike was called off, to much public relief and no little embarrassment to MacEntee. If ever there was an example of who, between church and state, spoke with greater authority, it was this episode.

Perhaps most alarmingly of all, the National Arsenal, the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix, was raided in December 1939 in a well-executed operation and a million rounds of ammunition stolen, just as the Christmas period was beginning no less.  Most of the ammunition was recovered but it was a sharp reminder to the Government of republican elements at large determined to use the emergency of international conflict for their own ends and the subversion of the state.

Small wonder then if de Valera began to contemplate this anarchic state of affairs as Ireland faced its toughest challenge since the foundation of the state a mere seventeen years earlier.  It appeared that authority was diffused among a whole range of sectors and special interests, leaving little if any to central Government.  Institutions, associations, unions, sectoral interests, subversive elements, even Government Departments all cherished their claims to unique autonomy and authority.

It was as if when the British left in 1922, Irish society decided it had had enough of central authority, even if it was a central authority of their own making after 1921; even if that central authority was composed of men like de Valera, MacEntee, Lemass and Aiken, all of whom were members of the “revolutionary elite”.

World War seemed an irrelevance compared to special interests,  even as Ireland sough to preserve its neurality while being highly dependent for essential supplies on a neighbour that was a prime target.

How had this come about? We’ll look at that in Part II.

 

Eamonn

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