In his most recent column in the Irish Times, Garret Fitzgerald pointed to ‘a striking absence of any sense of civic responsibility throughout our society’ as the common thread running through all the social and economic failures of recent years.
He then adds this startling contribution,
Protestants, and especially Anglicans, had a strong civic sense, a loyalty to what had been their state. Despite the disproportionate role accorded to them initially in the Senate of the new State, thereafter they opted out of playing a significant role in its governance.
As for the Catholic majority, a society under alien rule cannot be expected to develop a sense of civic responsibility. And a popular church, identifying with its flock, first in opposition to the dominance of a ruling minority of another faith, and then to aspects of an alien government, could not be expected to instil much respect for public authority.
The Catholic Church, he seems to argue, has had a deep ambivalence towards the State and to advocating for civic morality because of successive stand-offs with the early Governments which they lost. He then says,
The consequences of all this have been that a society whose education has been almost exclusively in the hands of the Catholic Church was left with virtually no training in civic morality or civic responsibility. This has been particularly noticeable in the failure of the church to preach about the evils of tax evasion for the additional taxes that have to be imposed to offset this shortfall.
This situation has only recently become fatal to the country because of the rise of a generation of politicians who came to prominence after the deaths of the national revolutionaries. This new generation of politicians lacked a strong sense of civic responsibility or morality.
It’s been interesting in recent days to reflect on different political traditions here and in France. How readily the French have taken to the streets to protest a rise in the retirement age to 62. How remarkable that given the extent of the breakdown here in Ireland that there has not been revolution. There has barely been protest on the streets. The most recent call to protest the austerity measures failed to muster even 1,000 citizens. Is this the legacy of colonialism? Is it collective trauma? Plain apathy? Or guilt that our national chickens have come home to roost?
Fitzgerald is hopeful that the terrible crises of recent years may serve to ‘re-moralise’ our society. I hope he’s right, particularly as we move towards this decade of centenaries from 2012-2021. How appropriate it would be if in the centenary of the 1916 Revolution we had the beginnings of a new tradition that was more life-giving.