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|From: Church & State: Editorials|
|Date: July, 2011|
Irish State In The Dock
|The Irish State has been brought before the Torture Committee of the United Nations on a charge of engaging in torture in the conduct of the Magdalene Laundries where unmarried mothers were given refuge from society in an era when marriage was generally regarded as an important social institution. It has been ordered to investigate the torture it practised in the Laundries, prosecute itself, punish itself, and make redress to its victims. The possibility that it might not have engaged in torture is not seriously entertained.
A curious point about this is that the State is required to investigate its torture practices from 1922 onwards. Why 1922? Why not 1919, for example? Both dates are so long ago that nobody subjected to torture in Ireland on either date is likely to be around to give evidence, and torture is certainly not less likely to have been inflicted in 1920 than in 1922.
It might be said that 1922 was when the State was founded, so it would be silly to press the investigation beyond 1922.
But what State was founded in 1922? We do not recall any 1922 Declaration of Independence.
Was 1922 not the year when the democratic Declaration of Independence of 1919 was set aside by the 'Treaty', and a Government that was not independent set up in its place by the Treaty War?
But, it is said, virtual independence was established under the regime set up by the Treaty War, and the assertion that it was not formal independence is a metaphysical quibble.
Did British democracy then insist on war in Ireland over a quibble, and indicate that it would fight that war itself if the Irish did not fight it among themselves?
If the British democracy was conceding Irish independence in substance, why did it not do it properly in consultation with the Dail? What did it gain by insisting that the Irish should disown the Republic they had declared and replace it with a Free State which was independent in fact though making a submission to the authority of the Crown which was subsequently declared to be of no consequence, and to be merely token?
It gained two things. It weakened the Government set up under the Treaty, by insisting that it should make war on those who opposed the Treaty. Both sides to the Treaty dispute did their best to remain united during the first six months of 1922 and it is probable that they would have succeeded if Whitehall had not delivered a series of ultimatums to the Treatyite leaders which prevented them from making a workable compromise with the Anti-Treatyites. And if, finally, it had not insisted that the Treatyites should start shooting the Anti-Treatyites after a British General was assassinated in London, even though it was the Treatyite leader, Collins, who had ordered the assassination.
The breaking up of the Sinn Fein was a very solid political gain achieved by the British democracy when it was obliged to let go of the greater part of Ireland.
The other gain was that the Treaty party was set up in government in the 26 Counties on condition of accepting the position of a Successor-State within the British Empire.
The thing about a successor State, as distinct from an independent State, is that it takes on the obligations of the State which it succeeds.
There is no real doubt that Britain ran slave-labour camps and engaged in wholesale torture in Kenya in the 1950s. Some torture survivors have tried to get the British Government prosecuted for what it did to them. This British Government of today says, piously and legally, that this has nothing to do with them. The responsible body from which redress should be sought is the Successor-State in Kenya.
The Free State submission to Crown authority was far from token. It meant that the Free State took on legal responsibility for what its authorising body, the UK Parliament, had done in Ireland. It was in that very substantial sense a continuation of the British State. It could not have taken legal action against Britain for anything Britain had done in 1919-21 because that would have meant taking legal action against itself.
The Free State accepted the role of British scapegoat as the price of warding off yet another British re-conquest of the country.
(At the moment when the Free State was being formally installed, in the Autumn of 1922, Britain was being humiliated by defeat in its attempt to impose a humiliating 'Treaty' on Turkey. The British Empire was never the same again after that event. Imperial demoralisation, combined with failure to scotch the Anti-Treaty element in Ireland, led Britain not to press its rights too hard in Ireland. But by then the serious damage done to the Irish body politic by the Treaty affair was an accomplished fact.)
The Free State was a British State—a state existing by virtue of British authority. And the Magdalen laundries were British institutions established in Ireland long before 1922. And the Catholic Church was accorded a special position under the British Protestant State in Ireland for a British political purpose, and that special position was greatly enhanced by the way the British Successor-State was set up in 1922.
The elected Government of 1919-21 was not recognised by the Catholic Hierarchy as the legitimate Government. The Treaty Government was recognised as legitimate by the Bishops even before it was actually established. The Anti-Treatyites who resisted the imposition of the Treaty Government were excommunicated by the Bishops. But the Anti-Treatyites at their lowest ebb, when subjected to crushing defeat by British armaments, were never reduced to a negligible proportion of the population. The active support of the Church was indispensable to the Treatyites for securing internal consent to their regime, and therefore the Church established a very special position for itself in the Successor-State. The excommunications removed from the internal life of the Treatyites regime all those independent spirits who backed their own judgment against the decrees of the Church, and shepherded into the Free State regime the large body of 'ordinary decent citizens' who are essentially unpolitical and are guided by the Authority that is nearest to them.
It was a standard Protestant catch-cry during the long era of the Penal Laws that Catholics could not be admitted to the body politic of the state because they could not be bound by Oaths. The alleged reason why they could not be Oath-bound was that they recognised their Bishops as having the power to dissolve Oaths. In 1922 a substantial number of the soldiers of the Army that had defended the Republic against the British Government in 1919-21 felt bound still in 1922 by the Oath they had taken to the Republic. The Bishops dissolved that Oath—and there was not a whisper of criticism by the Protestant body.
The Protestant body in the 26 Counties, which had not recognised the elected Governments of 1919 and 1921 as having any legitimate authority, immediately recognised the 'Treaty' as conferring legitimacy on whatever Government was set up under it by whatever means. It recognised British power as the only legitimate power in Ireland and it recognised the Free State as being constituted by British power. This is evident in the Church Of Ireland Gazette and in The Irish Times.
The Free State was actively supported by the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland. The Catholic Church acted very much as a Roman Church in this instance—much more so than at any earlier time—but the Church of Ireland did not object.
Protestantism enjoyed greater representation in the Legislature in 1922 than it has ever had since. As Garret FitzGerald pointed out in his last book, Protestants were accorded almost half the representation in the Senate. Of course they could not have had anything like that representation in the elected chamber because they were a very small part of the electorate and they had pitted themselves against the Irish electorate during the preceding ten years (over Home Rule and Independence). Nevertheless, one senior member of the Free State Government was a Protestant, Ernest Blythe.
Hubert Butler complained that there was discrimination against Protestants in the South because they did not have communal representation in the Dail—in other words, because it was not a confessional State. The present Protestant Bishop of Cork, Bishop Paul Colton, seems to be trying to make good that defect by organising the Protestants into a distinct political body. But it would not have made a blind bit of difference to the women who fell foul of the morals of the time and found refuge in the Magdalene laundries how many Protestants were involved in the running of the state. The Magdalen institutions were British and Protestant in origin and in ongoing inspiration.
On many issues the ethos of the Free State is inadequately described as Roman Catholic. It was Roman Catholic/British Protestant. The Church of Ireland approved of many things the Free State did when they were being done, even though generations later an attempt was made to suggest otherwise.
When Yeats exalted the licentious humanism of the late mediaeval Papacy, and expressed regret that the Catholicism guiding the Free State was altogether different, he was not speaking for his people. His people were happy not to have Continental Catholicism in Ireland. And of course it was his people who, as active agents of the British Protestant State in Ireland, had helped to browbeat the disrupted and demoralised Irish Catholics into apeing their Puritan ways as they became respectable.
When Britain bribed the Irish Parliament into dissolving itself in 1800, Protestant Ireland lost its impregnable Legislative bastion, and it tried to secure its position under the Union by means of Protestant Crusades against Catholicism. Under the security of their Irish Parliament in the 18th century, they were relaxed about converting Catholics, to put it mildly. Converted Catholics would have been secure in their property while the property of those who persisted in living in Papist superstition could be "discovered" and seized. But the loss of the Parliament and its laws changed the situation and determined religious converting forays were made on Papism. All the loose and enjoyable ways of Irish Catholic life were sought out and publicised with a view to working up a sense of shame about them, i.e. Well Days and Stations. There were few lasting conversions, but some effect was had on the mores of Catholics. And this was consolidated and enhanced when Cardinal Cullen's regime got to work after the 'Famine'.
In recent years certain people have been discovering that the Ireland that separated itself from England was really very like England—so like, indeed, that it was hardly there at all. In the Magdalen institutions it was not just like England. It was a piece of England. At least as English as Dalkey.
There were parts of Ireland where the Protestant Crusades made no impression and where Cardinal Cullen failed to reach. This journal has its source in those backward regions. In the mid 1960s we found out about the Magdalen institution in Cork City and were astonished. We tried to make an issue of it but failed. The Magdalen institutions were not secret. They were part of city life. They were known about. They provided services that were widely availed of in cities shaped in the English mould, where amenities were not laid on by municipalities run by a socially-minded bourgeoisie, as was often the case on the Continent.
Women entered them voluntarily as the least worst option in the circumstances of the time. They were free to leave, but in institutions people tend to become institutionalised. If women who have been through them and feel aggrieved against them—really against the world—can screw compensation out of the State, good luck to them. Better them than the bankers and the judges.
But the torture referral is absurd. The fact that it could happen shows that in many ways the Irish state is still not a State. It is all on the surface. It is lacking in depth and resourcefulness.
In 1922 an indisputable war-crime was committed in Ireland. Prisoners who had been held in jail were taken out and killed by the Government as an act of public policy. One of the great atrocities of the French Revolution, held up to horrify us, was the killing of prisoners for political reasons.
Should we not have a War Crimes Trial to clear the air and let us know where the State came from?