This forms the text of a lecture I was invited to give in UCC in 2007.
The Philip Monahan Lecture – University College Cork.
12 March 2007
The Big Issues by Senator David Norris
I am very honoured indeed to have been invited to deliver the Philip Monahan lecture, even though at the time I was approached the only figure called Philip Monahan of whom I knew anything was a property developer. Despite whatever qualities the other Mr. Monahan may have, I would not have been excited by the prospect of delivering a lecture about him. I am therefore particularly pleased that Dr. Aodh Quinlivan very kindly sent me, along with the invitation, a copy of his book ‘Philip Monahan: A Man Apart’. From this book a clear picture of an interesting, stubborn and awkward man emerges. Indeed if I had to select any one word to describe the late Mr. Monahan it would be awkward. I mean however no disrespect to his memory as I like awkward people, and some have even suggested that I am a member of this group myself.
He lived through extremely turbulent times and occupied positions that are unlikely to be repeated in our lifetime, such as being absentee Mayor of the principal town of Co. Louth and a kind of Gauleiter of Kerry in the interests of the Free State authorities. Monahan was a Dubliner who ended up as Mayor of Drogheda, Commissioner for Kerry and subsequently Commissioner for Cork. As a youth in Dublin he lived across the road from the house of David Sheehy MP on Belvedere Place, and is reputed often to have heard the mellifluous tenor voice of James Joyce (whose father had migrated from Cork to Dublin in the 2nd half of the 19th century) wafting through the drawing room windows of the Sheehy residence. Monahan’s father had for a time had a job as Manager of the Catholic Commercial Club on O’Connell Street which is now the only surviving intact 18th century building in the entire street. Philip Monahan left UCD without taking a degree and went into secondary school teaching with the Christian Brothers in Drogheda.
Like many inhabitants of the east coast he missed the initial phase of the Rising by taking himself off to Fairy House races. He was subsequently interned at Frongoch and Lincoln. He appears to have been instrumental in the escape of Eamonn DeValera from Lincoln jail in 1919, an escapade he did not celebrate in subsequent political life. In any case it can’t have been terribly difficult. I say this because I always believed that the tale of baking a cake with a file in it in order to aid a prisoner to escape was either a legend or a joke, more appropriate to the Keystone Cops than the record of political history. Apparently not. However the level of practical intelligence both on the side of the British and of the Irish Republicans seems to have been fairly minimal as it was only after the third cake arrived in a period of two weeks that the correct match was found for the lock and Mr. DeValera was sprung.
Subsequently Philip Monahan became engaged in politics in the Sinn Fein interest He was elected Mayor of Drogheda on the 30th of January 1920. He was a strong nationalist, a position which on occasion led him into cul de sacs, such as his notion that advertisements by the Corporation should be in Irish alone. It is hard to see how this would benefit the commercial life of an English speaking town, although undoubtedly the principal of reviving our native tongue was admirable. He seems to have done a good job, and by 1922 he merited a laudatory editorial in the Drogheda Independent. This was however not enough to prevent him from being shot in the back of the neck in September 1922. He was lucky to escape but in those days life was cheap, a fact emphasised by that dour individual the late Ernest Blythe, who explained his decision to send him to Kerry as Commissioner by saying that while he couldn’t afford to lose a TD, Monahan was merely a Mayor and could be easily replaced. A dead TD would force a bye-election, something no one wanted.
During his relatively brief sojourn in Kerry he displayed some very modern techniques, bypassing elected representatives and announcing the contract of the building of the new County Hall in a press interview. His awkwardness was further shown when he personally blocked the proposal to build a men’s urinal in Killorglin on the basis that they were more bother than they were worth, a sentiment that can hardly have comforted local house owners who regularly had their front doors pissed upon by inebriated cattle dealers.
That this cavalier attitude to public sanitation is widespread in the country is exemplified by a story, perhaps apocryphal, from my own ancestral county of Laois. Riding a tide of public concern about indecent and unhealthy practices one Councillor proposed the building of a public urinal in Portlaoise (then called Maryborough). A fellow Councillor from a rival party stood up and said “I support the Councillor but as usual he and his party colleagues are only capable of half measures. Why leave it at a urinal? Why not go the whole hog and build an arsenal as well.”
The authorities in Dublin now turned their attention to Cork which appears to have been a nest of jobbery, nepotism and corruption, and decided to impose Monahan upon the city and county borough which was done by statutory instrument on the 31st of October 1924. At once Monahan’s valiant defence of public principle was manifest as he told the Corporation
“I want people of all classes to know that the money of the citizens collectively is as sacred, scarce, and as precious as the money of the citizens individually.”
This is a standard from which many local authorities have significantly departed in recent years, as the tribunals all too pathetically show. Moreover like the late Doctor Noel Browne he delighted in raiding the official money box in order to serve the interests of the deprived. On the 10th of December 1924 he sent a letter to Minister Seamus Burke (copied inevitably to the Cork Examiner) in which he made it quite clear that he was appropriating the 58,000 pounds (a very substantial sum of money) that had been designated for the building of a new City Hall in order to build houses for the working classes. He felt this to be a more appropriate use than creating luxurious accommodation for himself and his officials.
One of the other things that emerges from this early period of his career is his partiality for delivering papers and lectures, which he did quite regularly in the mid 1920s at various locations, expanding on subjects such as “Democracy and Local Government, in Cork” “An Examination of Conscience” “The Clean City”, “Poverty and the State” and a plea for the public control of industrial agreements among others. I feel therefore that while it is unlikely that we would agree on all the sentiments I intend to express this evening, still at least the prospect of some one like myself holding forth on the issues of the day in a lecture devoted to his memory would not have displeased him. Part of the purpose of this talk is to remember and celebrate Mr. Monahan, and having familiarized myself with his work and life I am very happy indeed so to do ******
They were however very different days, and Ireland was certainly not a multicultural society. After years of occupying a mostly miserable position as a colony of the neighbouring island, it was inevitable that with the partial independence that came with the Treaty, the cultural and religious values of the majority, so long suppressed, would rise to the surface, which they did in ways that nowadays may appear triumphalist. There was no diffidence whatever for example about spending comparatively enormous sums of money on welcoming the Papal Nuncio to Cork. Even as late as 1931 in a lecture which Monahan entitled “Some Problems of Democracy” in which he acknowledged the role of democracy as a political creed, he went on to say that
“Its disciples must learn that political creeds are second to religion and that on religion their foundations must be laid, and within the limits of religious teaching they must do their work.”
Dr. Quinlivan states that as far as Monahan was concerned Roman Catholicism was – “the only possible creed and he saw nothing unusual in acquiring a set of robes for the Councillors so they could attend High Mass in the North Cathedral on St. Patricks Day or the Corpus Christi procession.”
However this attitude should not be allowed to discount his real interest in social issues and may in fact have been a strengthening factor as he was a dedicated member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a fact that reinforced his passionate commitment to the building of decent housing for the poor of Cork city. This was an immensely humane operation and one for which generations of Cork people have good reason to be grateful to him. However I do think it a pity that it was felt appropriate for the Roman Catholic Bishop of Cork the Most Rev. Dr. Cohalan in blessing the houses on St. Patricks Day 1934 to describe them as “really worthy homes for Catholic working men and women”.
It is probably far too heavy an interpretation to suggest that the good Bishop felt that only Catholic workers deserved good housing, but that is the way it reads from the perspective of the 21st century. Moreover in looking over the recipients of the Freedom of Cork City it is notable that of the six persons listed between 1929 and 1959 no less than four, i.e. two thirds of them were Roman Catholic prelates of various kinds from Cardinals to Bishops or Papal Legates. No doubt this was seen as a necessary corrective balance at the time, as in the 18th and 19th centuries the evidence of the very beautiful silver Freedom boxes of Cork suggest that they were almost exclusively doled out to the Protestant merchant class. What may seem then to some like myself a slight narrowness in his approach, is compensated for by his passionate commitment to the highest standards of service in the public interest
“My purpose in life was to restore the rule of law, to restore public confidence, and to restore respect for honest government. I never sought otherwise. I love every alley and street in Cork, the city of McSweeney.”
Dr. Quinlivan points out that he had three essential qualities to guide him in realising these high ideals – Integrity, Intelligence and Independence. It is opportune in the days that are in it to remind ourselves of what he said in an interview in 1977 with the Cork Examiner
“We have no politics now. Every election is just an auction, bidding for votes, it is nothing more than a scramble for benefits.”
Moreover although most of his concerns were inevitably with local government, he could also be a visionary, as early as 1933 talking up the possibility of Cork having its own airport.
I have lately been dipping into the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius the Roman Emperor. Marcus Aurelius is a man of astonishing modernity. He comes across from his writings as our intellectual and moral contemporary, and although he desperately tried to cling to shreds of the old Roman religious beliefs it was a difficult task for him to convince himself fully. Many people nowadays would find his benevolent agnosticism appealing. A remarkable tribute was paid to him by that acerbic historian Edward Gibbon, who described him as being almost unique among rulers in that his sole motivation was the well being of his people. Sadly there are few his calibre today although we have a greater need than ever for such figures.
Some weeks ago I was asked by Dr. Quinlivan for the title of my talk. Having that afternoon passed by a Romanian woman who was selling a magazine entitled “The Big Issues”, I decided that this was the ideal title for me. I realise of course that there is always the risk involved in such an approach of appearing either pretentious or ludicrous or both. I still recall with a shudder of embarrassment an evening many years ago when the leader of one of the principal undergraduate societies in Trinity delivered a paper on “The Human Condition, a Problem Solved”, whose generalised inanities forced tears of appalled laughter down the hardened cheeks of the diplomatic corps ensconced in front row seats in the Exam Hall. Nevertheless it is a risk worth taking and I have selected what I consider the half dozen or so greatest challenges.
The first and most immediately pressing of these is international relations and the use of military force to achieve political ends, especially irresponsible warfare such as has been recently embarked up in Iraq. Secondly the undermining by financial self interest of humane standards in the context of international diplomacy such as, to give one example, in our relations with the People’s Republic of China. This is expressed by our insidious diplomatic acceptance that Tibet is an integral part of China, a marked undermining of our original position. In another area of foreign policy we also face the a very regrettable situation in which the human rights protocols attached to the External Association Agreement between the European Union and the State of Israel are not alone never implemented, but not even monitored so as not to give offence to the Israelis and their American allies. This makes a farce of the very notion of human rights, and is worse than if no such protocols existed at all. Related to these issues are the problems of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
We also face major issues in areas – such as drugs, climate change and of course the elephant in the room – the grotesque explosion of population on the planet over the last hundred years. This disastrous expansion of humanity underlies every other major difficulty from the depletion of fossil fuels, the threat posed by inadequate water resources, climate change itself, pollution, various forms of international tension and the extinction of animal and plant species.
These “Big Issues” are not necessarily out of the reach or the comprehension of ordinary people. Many of them are interrelated and many of them have domestic as well as international aspects. I am glad to say that among the modest number of things that I have achieved in public life I count the fact that I did play a role in the establishment for the first time of an Irish Foreign Affairs Committee. I took this matter on three successive occasions as the subject of my Private Members Time Debate. On the third occasion I was able to point out that having scrutinised the record I could demonstrate that every single current member of Seanad Eireann had at one time or another voted for the establishment of such a committee. The Government being apparently impeded in implementing the wish of parliament I proposed to establish such a committee myself. I did so with Michael D. Higgins as Chair and myself as Secretary. To the alarm of the Government, prominent members of all parties including the then Government parties were drawn to take an active part in the committee. The nightmare of having a Foreign Affairs Committee led by Michael D. Higgins and myself was sufficient catalyst to prompt the Government into establishing an official instead of a de facto committee.
The newly established Foreign Affairs Committee was very early on to prove its worth. Ireland had stayed neutral at the UN with regard to the imposition of sanctions on Cuba by the United States of America. An attempt was made to slide us unobtrusively into the American camp and change our neutral position to a yes vote. This was spotted by our committee, a fairly tense exchange of messages occurred as I recall between the committee, and New York and I think at least partly as a result we did not, on that occasion at least, become yes men.
I visited Cuba with a parliamentary delegation some years ago and was naturally and immediately impressed, especially by the medical service, which was quite wonderful, and the education system despite the barbaric deprivations imposed by the West. However at the same time I did raise human rights issues concerning the imprisonment of journalists and the treatment of persons with Aids. Nevertheless it is worth remembering that Cuba despite its poverty supplied to deprived nations around the globe nearly 30,000 qualified doctors to assist in medical and hygiene programmes. I think this contrasts very favourably with the establishment (ironically under the Kennedys) of the College of the Americas within the United States, a place of infamy where political thugs selected from among right wing political elements throughout Latin America were trained in techniques of infiltration, espionage, assassination, torture and the forced disappearance of civilians. Every year and for the past many years a brave Roman Catholic priest gets sent to jail for his lone protest outside this institution.
I am sorry to say that even our country of Ireland has only rarely shown an interest in aligning ethics and foreign policy. Indeed I remember well being told by the Government’s spokesman, when I was almost the sole voice opposing the beef deals between the Irish government and Saddam Hussein’s army, that what I proposed (i.e. the cancellation of the deals) might very well be the moral thing to do but, I was asked, “could Ireland afford it?” I found this a very interesting and appropriate question and one to which we may return. Can Ireland afford a moral or ethical foreign policy? Pace the late Robin Cook MPI am not aware of a single Government either in Ireland or elsewhere that has honestly tried to bring this desirable state of affairs about. There has never been any attempt to produce for example in Ireland a Christian Foreign Policy based on the humane values of the religion of the over whelming majority of the people and this is despite what one might have thought to be a legal requirement so to do. I recall very clearly losing a human rights case largely on the grounds argued by the Government that it was constrained by the Christian elements of the Constitution. This suggests that at least when it suits the Irish Government it does maintain the notion that Christianity is an essential litmus test that must be passed by both general policy and legislation. It is curious that this apparently overriding principal of the Constitution has not been allowed to have any noticeable affect whatever on foreign policy.
However God is not mocked. Having done the immoral but apparently profitable thing in flogging beef to Saddam, the Iraqi dictator managed to get himself attacked by the Americans in the first Gulf War, became internationally bankrupt and welched on the financial aspects of the beef deal leaving the Irish tax payer to pick up a bill of over 100 million Euros. On top of that in what to me seemed an absurd legal nicety we were obliged to shell out a lot more money in export credit guaranteed defaults to that well known philanthropist Larry Goodman.
Having opposed the beef deals, some people affected surprise when I also opposed U.N. sanctions because of their impact on the civilian population of Iraq and because of the squalid dishonesties involved which eventually caused the resignation of two remarkable UN civilian servants Hans Von Sponeck and our own Douglas Halliday.
Some years ago I travelled to Baghdad in a parliamentary delegation led by David Andrews T.D. These matters are usually highly choreographed and polite exchanges. However Mr. Andrews inadvertently roused the ire of the Foreign Minister Dr. Tariq Aziz by using the word humanitarian in his introductory remarks. Dr. Aziz expostulated that Iraq was not a third world country to be patronised by the so called humanitarian ideas of a country like Ireland. When it came to my turn I used the freedom that comes with being an Independent to return to the idea of humanitarian values. I said I made no apology for so doing. I had come to assess the impact of UN sanctions on the lives of ordinary people and I had also come with the intention of inquiring into the impact of the Iraqi Government policies on its own citizens. Dr. Aziz wished to know what I meant by this. I said how about arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, torture and murder. He told me it was a lie. I countered this by saying it was true. I had met some of the victims in Ireland. He demanded their names. I asked him if he thought I was a bloody fool, that it was not enough that he should visit these injustices upon the individuals I met but he now sought information so that he could do the same to their families. He then said it was all lies and that these people were CIA agents. I lost my temper completely and shouted at him he must immediately withdraw this appalling lie and slur.
There followed a “free and frank exchange of views”. As he left the room the former Foreign Minister said to me out of the side of his mouth I sincerely hope Norris we get out of this fucking place alive after what you just said to him. It was a curious sequence. Months later I was appearing in the theatre in Houston Texas where my post was faxed to me from Dublin. It included an invitation to the 60th birthday party of Saddam Hussein and an offer to fly me to Baghdad. I didn’t know whether this was a salute to my bravery or a ploy to get me to Baghdad so that I could be assassinated with the prod of a poisoned umbrella in my behind. I told my secretary to reply “Mr. Norris regrets he is unable to dine tonight”.
The real crunch in every way, however came with the series of corrupt elections orchestrated by a right wing cabal in the US which led to the Presidency of George W. Bush upon whose competence alas no great reliance could be placed. More a buffoon than a crook he was merely a puppet in the hands of far more sinister forces. This walked us directly into the Iraq War.
So what are the other big issues for Ireland and the World? The last quarter of a century has seen changes in this country so wide ranging that they can no longer be really merely regarded as changes in scale but of category. We have moved within my life time from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to being the richest country in Europe and the second richest country in the world. If one uses certain indicators despite the misery recently caused by certain factory closures we are still a country of historically low unemployment, low tax rates and low interest charges although on all these levels we may be more vulnerable than we suspect. Mr. De Valera’s parsimonious Puritanism has been replaced however by a vulgar and ostentatious consumerism.
Interestingly this extraordinary rise in prosperity has also been accompanied by a collapse in respect for traditional forms of authority. The deference once automatically commanded by institutions such as the Church, politics, the law and the banks has been dispelled by the glare of scandal and the tribunals, and like Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz we are now confronted, not with a malign giant, but with a series of moral pygmies attempting to manipulate circumstances with a combination of smoke machines and mirrors. No where is the truth being faced up to.
I remember being warned thirty years ago of the penalties I would inevitably face for attacking the church.
But my purpose was not to attack the Church. Instead I challenged the hypocrisy of certain of its policies. It was perfectly obvious to me that no Christian Church, indeed no religious institution with the possible exception of the Quakers, has ever told the truth about human sexuality. (As an aside, I recently caught sight of an historic film clip on some tv archive programme in which I was being denounced for promoting gay rights by an unctuous and self righteous priest. That man was Fr. Sean Fortune now known himself as a serial child molester). Sermons were delivered against adultery and indeed any kind of extramarital sexual activity by those who were enthusiastically engaging in such antics themselves, such as the popular Bishop Eamonn Casey of Kerry or the media darling Fr. Michael Cleary. Some in the Church did try to tell the truth, but for their trouble they were expelled and humiliated or down graded. The result is that both nationally and internationally the church has dross at the top. This constitutes a massive betrayal of the faithful and of the many good valiant honourable and Christ like religious lower down the scale.
Politicians are not immune. When I was younger there would occasionally be rumours of scandal, political influence – of “pull” as we have seen even in the story of Phil Monahan. It has come however (certainly to myself) as a horrible shock over the last few years to discover how widespread this culture of nod, wink, and brown envelope had become. In one of the stories in Dubliners James Joyce has a character say that there are people in Ireland who will not only sell their country for thruppence, but get down on their knees and thank the almighty God that they had a country to sell. I am horrified not just at the scale nature and extent of the corruption, but at the fact that people value themselves so meanly that they are prepared to sell their integrity in return for “trousering” (a wonderful word coined at the tribunal by one of the accused, also a former colleague in the Senate) a few thousand quid. This might just be venial were it not for the impact on the social structures of our country in terms of poor housing policy, planning and necessary facilities for those for the already deprived, all the values espoused in fact by Philip Monahan.
Then we may look at the banking institutions. Here we find that they have also had their hands in our pockets, knowingly siphoning off money illegally from private accounts, and assisting wealthy individuals to squirrel money away off shore so that they do not have to pay the appropriate amount of tax, a revenue stream that could have supported services for the less advantaged. Even the gardai are not immune as the McBrearty tribunal has so clearly indicated, while the legal profession has been a delighted cuckoo in the public hedgerow, not only feathering its nest at the State’s expense, but as in the case of the victims of institutional abuse, taking financial advantage in many instances of the abused.
This has all been exposed and this exposure is perhaps the first stage in clearing out the Aegean stables of Irish life. But in reality little has happened. The Church, which stands condemned by the Ferns Report, is clearly demonstrated to have collaborated in child abuse and concealed the perpetrators, yet is still allowed exemption from the operation of the equality legislation. This exemption potentially allows it to fire teachers, paid for out of public money on the grounds of their sexual orientation. This means that while it is known that 80 % of bullying instances in school contain homophobic references, in 80% of those cases no action is taken because the teachers are afraid.
In terms of the banks no real restitution has been made, there have been no criminal prosecutions merely cosy agreements with the Government. The malpractice continues as the ordinary customer finds his or her rights daily dwindling. As far as lawyers are concerned we cannot of course condemn an entire profession but I defy any person in this audience to produce an itemised bill of work done presented by a lawyer to his or her client. I have never seen one, and I have certainly never received one, even though I am one of the most litigious people in the state and am constantly enmeshed with lawyers.
Moreover as we discover daily the big boys pay no tax because they can afford to hire clever accountants. The headline in one of the papers some months ago (which I hope was inaccurate) indicated that the eight wealthiest people in Ireland paid no tax at all. Such patriotism, such humanity! and yet you will see them and their leathery old wives dancing around at extravagant charity balls both here and abroad as if they were the souls of benelovence.
We have also seen a change from the mass emigration of the 1950s to the mass immigration of the 21st century. And this, if and when the inevitable economic downturn arrives, will produce new and perhaps unanticipated problems.
The exchequer appears awash with cash, and as a result the old values of prudence and responsible stewardship of the public purse appear to have evaporated. Millions can be wasted. Unusable electronic voting machines, computerised systems in the civil service, unused and unusable office space that is still paid for by the taxpayer. We are lucky in that one of the most active committees of the Oireachtas is the Public Accounts Committee has shown effectiveness in exposing some of these areas. Nevertheless we still hear frightful stories of waste in public expenditure. Big commercial interests have a disproportionate say in the framing and application of legislation because of their powerful political lobby. Construction is one classic example and another is the drinks industry. As the Roman Catholic hierarchy has very appropriately pointed out this country is facing a serious crisis in terms of alcohol consumption and yet the safeguards are steadingly weakening any attempt to prevent this is strongly resisted.
This is compounded by the fact that the distilling and brewing business used to be a relatively friendly Irish industry. Irish Distillers Middleton, Paddy, Jameson, have all been gobbled up by multinational concerns and even Guinness is no longer Uncle Arthur. Decisions are made not in Dublin or Cork, but in the board rooms of London and New York by reference to a graph rather than to the human impact of commercial policy. Profit is the only God and must be achieved at all costs including that of human misery. Young people are specifically targeted by the drinks industry. Look at the super pubs. Look at the fact that in Dublin where pub conversation was once one of the attractions of the city, it is now impossible to hear even a shouted order. This is the result not of youthful exuberance, but of research conducted on behalf of the drinks industry which showed the benefit of switching the music up as loud as possible so that the mouth could be used only for the consumption of their product and not for human conservation. After 11 o’clock every weekend the streets of our cities are dangerous and littered with human waste of all kinds.
As an Irishman I find it extremely insulting to be told that drink is an essential part of our Irish culture, because what is really meant here is not the civilised drinking of the continent but the drunkenness we appear happy to exhibit to friends, neighbours and foreigners alike. It gave me no pleasure at all a year or two ago to hear on RTE young people from all over Europe interviewed about why they had come to Ireland, specifically to Temple Bar, on St. Patricks Day. These sentiments which I dislike, partly because of their accuracy, were well represented by a young Dutch man who said he came here because in Dublin “one could get rat arsed drunk” as he charmingly described it every day of the week and nobody seemed to pay any attention.
Even more seriously we have the problem of drugs. I have seen the tragedy visited upon the north inner city in Dublin and this is now replicated across Ireland. However there is no doubt what ever that Gay Byrne is right – the war on drugs is nonsense, a waste of time and as well as being lost in any case. The amounts of drugs seized by the gardai, although apparently large, are in fact minimal and represent a mere fractional percentage of the true movement of drugs through this country. There is only one way to cope and that is to legalise, regulate and monitor. However I acknowledge that this is not a problem that can be solved by Ireland alone. It has to be done at a global level. The one thing that will destroy the drug trade is to attack it at its root which is financial reward. All that our policies have done in the 20th century have been to see enormous profits accrue to criminals. Global experience tells us that even the severest measures are no deterrent. If you go through Singapore airport you will see that there are notices everywhere there warning of the most extreme penalties including death. Yet these penalties are risked every day because the sums of money involved.
The United States authorities in particular are completely hypocritical about this. On the one hand over many decades they have knowingly used drugs and the profits from drugs to advance their foreign policy objectives. The Contras for example, an illegal army used to subvert a neighbouring democracy were funded by drugs money secretly funnelled to them by the U.S. Goverment. There is also a callous disregard for the environment. The US encourages and engages in the dusting of the coca harvest with noxious chemicals just as they once dusted the jungles of Kampuchea and Vietnam with agent orange. The dreadful proxy war in Afghanistan has led to a massive increase in the production of the opium poppy which has reached record levels this year and yet efforts even at local level, like that of a brave priest in Rotterdam who made heroin freely available in his church basement, thereby cutting the crime level in his locality by 80% have been derided and attacked by US Drug Enforcement Agencies. Similar experiments in Britain were actually stopped at the behest of Washington. Moreover there is virtually no treatment whatever available to addicts. There are a mere 56 places for fully detoxing in Dublin, a city with a known 15,000 addict population. Is it any wonder that young people some times feel the temptation to be cynical. What surprises me is that so many actually keep their ideals. When ever I hear the word “war” combined with an abstract I feel hypocrisy some where in the air. The “war on crime”, the “war on poverty”, the “war on terror”, the “war on drugs”, each of them conceals an inability to face the real situation honestly and deal with the consequences.
We are lucky in this country in our tradition, our new found if fragile prosperity and certainly in our environment. But here too we are profligate. We have signed up to the Kyoto Agreement and despite the mouthings of the Minister for the Environment we are going to break every single one of the Kyoto targets to which we signed up. We apparently think that this is perfectly all right because we can buy our way out of our carbon emission problem by taking up carbon credits. This is just like saying – I may have been convicted for drunken driving, speeding, no insurance, no licence and bald tyres, but I paid the fine, took my lumps and even though I have no intention of mending my ways I am now exonerated.
Here again I have seen an enormous change at a very humble level. When I was younger things got repaired. Now they get thrown out. We have entered the disposable society. This is not necessary, but it is the deliberate policy of industry all over the world. It is called planned obsolescence. Everything has to be replaced within an increasingly frequent cycle. Nassau Street in Dublin used proudly to sport a fashionable umbrella shop which would also as a side line recover umbrellas and repair their handles, spokes etc. Now it is gone.
Has anybody recently seen a radio or tv repair shop? Cars go out of date almost as soon as they are produced. The average life span of a tv is two years. I was horrified the other day when my washing machine flooded the kitchen and had to be replaced. When asked how old the machine was I said I only had it twenty years. The repair man nearly fainted. He told me people are lucky to get five. But then I am lucky. Even though high rents have driven virtually all the old cobblers and jobbing tailors out of the centre of Dublin I still know where to get my shoes resoled, a new bum put in my trousers when they wear out from cycling, or even to get the frayed collar and cuffs of my shirt turned. I hope forlornly that these very human services will, as an old cousin used to say, “last my time”.
Although these may seem small things, the waste of materials involved, the lack of recycling, the lack of urgency all mean that we are dissipating the resources of the planet.
The other vast change we have seen in global politics is the collapse of communism. This was made inevitable by the criminality of those who espoused the leadership of the communist cause, mass murderers like Stalin and Mao. But that does not mean either that all the ideas of communism were wrong or that capitalism is utterly right. What has happened is that the balance in the world has altered and that the values of consumerism appear to be prevailing at least temporarily. Indeed it will have to be temporarily for capitalism too is a busted flush. Stock markets, the futures markets, global economy etc. under capitalism are under pinned by notions that are essentially fallible.
With regard to economic and financial matters generally one needs to ask apparently simple but essentially fundamental questions. What exactly for example is money. Money is the symbolic representation of energy. In earlier times one worked perhaps for a farmer and was rewarded with a sack of potatoes – satisfactorily tangible, and with almost nothing of the symbol about it, except perhaps the longing for reward during the hours of toil. One could take it home, feed the family and provide ones self with the energy for the next days work. Move on a step and the reward becomes a gold ducat. This still has intrinsic value but is moving in the direction of the “symbolic”. The next state is the introduction of a piece of paper, worthless in itself but bearing the message that the Governor of the Bank of Ireland promises to pay the bearer on demand the equivalent of such and such a weight of gold. Well, as we all know now, it requires confidence to live on a promise, as I remember well from 60 years ago, when I received a ten shilling note from a glamorous uncle. When I asked my grandmother to take me into town to present this promise to the Bank of Ireland, and carry home my Infinitiesitmal sable hoard of gold, she laughed and said “That’s only a story darling”. And was she right!
Capitalism is founded upon the notion of an infinitely expanding market and its corollary endlessly increasing profit. That idea might have been sustainable in the 19th century but we now know the limit of the planet’s resources and it is patently absurd for us today to continue to endorse such ideas, apart altogether from the damage moral and material that such an attitude inflicts on the environment. Indeed it seems to me that one of the fundamentals underlying the tension between so called western ideas and the Islamic world is that they at least have retained some sense of spirituality in opposition to the grossly material values we in the west seem to promote.
Things may of course be changing and I certainly hope they are. In terms of the environment it is instructive that it took Sir Nicholas Stern’s report with its warning of a down turn of 20% in global productivity as a result of climate change to get world political leaders really to take notice. Money it seems talks, and talks much louder than any sense of loyalty to the other life forms with which we share this planet be they animal, bird, fish or plant.
I hope and believe that we are beginning to wake up. There was an excellent programme last Thursday evening presented by Cork’s own Sean Og O’hAlpin about the destruction of the off shore fishing trade of the traditional people of Senegal. It showed very clearly how modern technology is applied in terms of the global tracking of fish stocks, lack of conservation, ruthless and unselective fishing practices and most importantly the use of factory trawlers, all combining to destroy traditional life. Displaced Senegalese are despatched by financial forces to Europe where they are callously labelled economic migrants. If they are so what? We have helped to cause their migration.
One single and disastrous failure of the programme was the omission of any mention of Ireland’s culpability. I have many times raised this issue in Seanad Eireann. I raised it when we were giving grants to build some of these super trawlers. I raised it when praise was being lavished upon the late Kevin McHugh for the construction of the Celtic Dawn. This marine death factory which hoovered up life from the ocean was actually banned from European waters. It then travelled to places like Senegal where regulation was less stringent and astonishgly our Government subsequently attempted to negotiate its reintroduction to European Union waters. It should have been sent to the breakers yard and smashed to pieces. No mention of this was made among the encomia on the recent death of Kevin McHugh. We are always ready to point the finger in every direction except that of our own responsibility, yet in terms of the environment as well as the economy we are all in the same boat. No man is an island indeed, and there is escape for no one no matter how many billions they have salted away in their Swiss banks. Unless we learn to respect this fragile planet we have no future upon it. To quote words of Chief Seattle:
“Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves. This we know, the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which units one family all things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. “
The theme of Chief Seattle is that all our actions are interrelated. Let me give you an example from one of my particular interests in political life, foreign affairs. I would like to take a further quick look at the thorny subject of the Iraq War. I was not alone in warning against this coming disaster before the Americans took the fatal step, but I did manage to orchestrate opposition in the Senate and was very glad to be able to persuade the leader of the principal Government party in the House to say publicly that war was indeed immoral, illegal and unjustifiable. It had very obviously been prepared well in advance of the pretext provided by the events of 911, just as Edward Olmert has this week acknowledged that the criminal folly of his invasion of Lebanon was not triggered by the seizure of the two Israeli soldiers but was a preordained strategy.
The war in Iraq was fought clearly for logistical and economic advantage in the Middle East, and especially in the interests of multi national corporations such as Bechtel and Halliburton, with whom the eminence grise of the American administration Dick Cheney has had close and extremely unhealthy ties. This has happened before. But what was novel about the Bush administration’s ill advised and barbarous attack was not just its hypocrisy but the fact that it came as part of a package which included the deliberate undermining of international humanitarian protections such as the Geneva Convention and indeed the Constitution of the United Nations itself. Led by its extreme right wing, the United States Government deliberately undermined every standard of decency and legality for which the west has stood. Habeus Corpus flies out the window. Torture is justified, an indecent attempt made to legislate for the legitimation of techniques not officially supported by any western government since the demise of the Gestapo. And instead of flinging back in their faces the lies propounded by the stumbling and inadequate Bush and his side kick the unspeakable automaton Ms. Condoleezza Rice, the Aherns, Bertie and Dermot, grovellingly accepted every humiliating fiction with the alacrity one would expect of a flea ridden poodle with piles accepting a rubber cushion from the hands of its master.
Does this sound a little harsh? Consider the facts. Bertie Ahern (Taoiseach) and Dermot Ahern (Foreign Minister) both assured the Oireachtas that the Americans had not engaged and would not in future engage in torture. They both knew perfectly well of a significant case (that of the Castlerea Interrogation Centre) in which the state of Ireland had sued the United Kingdom on the question of the torture of Irish detainees in Northern Ireland. The acts complained of consisted of the use of white noise, hooding and sleep deprivation. Ms. Rice denied torture while simultaneously acknowledging the existence in US detention centres of these practices which were in fact at the milder end of the spectrum of the practices engaged in in Guantanamo Bay. Bertie’s problems with language are well known but I doubt if even his political dyslexia reaches to the level at which he could not understand what he was being told very clearly by Condoleezza Rice. i.e. that in terms of what the Irish knew and had themselves demonstrated to be torture, this was practised as a matter of course in Guantanamo and if he didn’t like it he could stuff it. Naturally of course he did stuff it and pretended that he liked the experience because of what he saw as our economic dependence on the perceived imperial money – flow from the US.
To the undying shame of this Government we have involved the Irish people in the process known as Extraordinary Rendition. Brave people like Tim Hourican and Ed Horgan who have been taking notes of the identification numbers of aeroplanes and the secret movements of aircraft at Shannon airport made me aware of the possibility of this practice early on, and I was among the very first to raise it in either house. I also passed on the information as widely as I could to other members in both houses but when we eventually got a special committee of inquiry established in the Senate this was collapsed at the instigation at the Government under pressure from local Shannon based Councillors. In my opinion this is a very good argument for severing the unhealthy connection between the panel system of election to Seanad Eireann and local councillors.
This is one area where our media has served us well. There has been a reasoned and balanced critique of the disastrous and cruel war in Iraq in the Irish media and indeed also of the noxious practice of extraordinary rendition. The Government however has never ceased to lie, evade and equivocate. Two reports have been presented, one by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from Senator Marty of Switzerland which unequivocally condemned the action of the involvement of the Irish government. The second more serious report is that adopted by the European Parliament. The cooperation of the Irish Government on both occasions was sporadic, evasive and dishonest. They did not answer some questions they were asked, but they went out of their way to supply answers which were inappropriate and addressed in any case to altogether other questions, while ignoring the actual point of the examination. In doing so they have very badly let down the Irish people and betrayed the sense of decency and justice that we would all like to think characterises the Irish nation.
For example although one of the leading opponents and exposers of rendition I never at any time claimed, nor was it claimed in any of the various debates I initiated in Seanad Eireann, that US torture planes had actually brought kidnap victims in shackles through Shannon airport. What we said, and what I placed on the record by giving detailed instances and analyses of the flight patterns of various aircraft, was that the Irish Government facilitated these flights by permitting them to land and refuel at Shannon airport. From the earliest moment I made the Government aware of my suspicions. They had every reason to stop and search these planes but they were afraid to do so being gutless in the extreme.
Let me give you but one example of what happened as a result. On the 17th of February 2003 an Egyptian citizen who had been granted asylum in Italy, by name Abu Omar was violently abducted in broad daylight in the Via Guerzoni in Milan. The incident was witnessed by various civilians including a woman called Merfetrezk who saw the terrified Abu Omar jumped on by strangers, struggling and crying for help but then forced into a van. Abu Omar was taken to the American air base at Aviano where he was flown a short distance, put into another plane with United States markings which delivered him to Cairo. This according to legal documents is what happened to him.
“The first measure was to leave him in a room where incredibly loud and unbearable noise was made. He has experienced damage to his hearing. The second kind of torture was to place him in a sauna of tremendous temperature and straight afterwards to put him in a cold store room. It caused terrible pain to his bones – as if they were wracking. The third was to hang him upside down and apply live wires to give electric shocks to sensitive parts of his body including his genitals. He received damage to his motor and urinary systems and became incontinent.”
He was tortured for a further seven months. He has never been charged with any offence. However on the return journey from Cairo as part of the torture circuit on the next day the 18th of February, the Gulf Stream jet returned to the United States stopping off to be refuelled at Shannon. No protest has ever been made at this gross violation of international law and of the law of Ireland by a so called friendly government.
Under the Bush Administration the west has descended to values not seen since Adolf Hitler and people are afraid to squeak. However even under Hitler there were brave individuals doing important work. I think in particular of the late Victor Klemperer a Jewish academic and cousin of the great conductor. He used his time in seclusion during the Nazi tyranny to compile an academic analysis of the linguistic systems employed by the Third Reich. Language is important. It is the first political sign of a moral slide such as the catastrophic descent in humane values that has taken place in the United States. I invite you to look just for a moment at some of the language employed. “Shock and Awe”, the description of the initial barrage of bombing against the civilian population of Baghdad which could easily be translated as Blitzkrieg. “Shake and Bake” the euphemism to conceal the illegal use of white phosphorus against personnel by the United States Army in Fallujah. “Extraordinary Rendition”, a euphemism to cover kidnap and torture.
In the neck of the woods I come from the word “academic” is generally used to mean something of no great value and virtually no practical application. However the work upon which Victor Klemperer was engaged was both academic in the proper sense and remains immensely practical and relevant. Today we need a Victor Klemperer in our universities to conduct an analysis of the way in which the Bush administration has abused language in order to perpetuate tyranny. I hope this may be done and I believe that it will, for although it has taken a long time, there are signs that a corrective is being applied even within the American system itself. 70% of the American people are now against the war, making those of us who consistently opposed the war, and were accused of anti Americanism for our pains, stand out as in fact the most pro American of all.
Perhaps I sound a little pessimistic in what I have said, but it is important to appreciate the dangers which face us and to take measures which try to ameliorate them. I would have to say finally that for me perhaps the biggest underlying danger is the astonishing explosion in population that has taken place within my life time. I did my leaving certificate in 1962. Between then and now the population of the planet has doubled. Such increases are absolutely unsustainable. It is pure wickness for political and religious leaders to pretend this is not the case. And it is must be faced on a global basis. Far from being distressed I am thoroughly delighted when I hear of a decrease in population of Italy or France and I hope for the same in Ireland fairly soon. To bemoan a decline in population in advanced western states is but to perpetuate the second class citizenship of those in the Third World, the southern hemisphere, the deprived nations whatever category or label you wish to put on those who occupy the position of peons in order to provide us with luxury. The experiment of Dr. Skinner with his rats should have alerted us to the fact that when population levels approach certain critical points, aberrant and ultimately destructive behaviour manifests itself in any animal population and that includes humans.
There is hope. This hope lies not in Governments or spiritual leaders among whom I see virtually none of any moral standing and I include the current and previous Pope in this. But we do have remarkable figures, like Raoul Wallenberg in the Second World War who at the risk of his own life went unarmed onto the cattle trains taking the despised Jews to Auschwitz and rescued them by issuing Swedish passports. Shamefully after the way he was abandoned to his fate, subsequently to linger and die in a Soviet camp. Equally shamefully the Dalai Lama was excluded a few years ago from a meeting in New York of “World Spiritual Leaders for Peace” at the behest of the atheistic Communist Regime of China. We have our own Noel Browne and Mary Robinson. At the United Nations we can be proud also of our representative Noel Dorr whose quiet professionalism and honesty continues to urge the voice of reason. On the international religious field the Dalai Lama is joined by Archbishop Tutu of South Africa and the Roman Catholic Primate of Zimbabwe Dr. Pius Ncube. There are groups such as Amnesty International, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Green Peace, An Taisce, Trocaire, Concern, Afri, Medecins sans Frontieres, Frontliners and even the fragile, imperfect and sometimes corrupt United Nations.
Perhaps these all sound like figures already celebrated and internationally distinguished. But what can the ordinary person do? One can for example, like Tom Hyland, take up the cudgel in what ever small way and watch these small deeds grow, until due to the power of the decency of the ordinary person a great change can be made.
Tom, who I have known for over 30 years, was an unemployed bus driver in Ballyfermot a marginalised working class suburb of Dublin. One evening he and some friends were watching on television a programme made by John Pilger about the massacre by Indonesian forces of members of a civilian protest in a graveyard at Dili the capital of East Timor. Horrified by the images Tom and his friends had difficulty in sleeping. The next day they made their way into Dublin and collected rudimentary office supplies such as pens, pencils, paper, simple electronic gadgets by directly approaching businesses in the heart of Dublin. As a result the embryo East Timor Ireland Solidarity Campaign was born in Tom Hyland’s council house in Ballyfermot. I helped from the sideline organising debates in the Senate and introducing Tom to the Foreign Affairs Committee.
As an Irish man, as a Dubliner and as a human being I swelled with pride when I heard at the time of the down fall of the Suharto Regime in Indonesia Professor Peter Carey, Professor of Oriental Studies in the University of Oxford say on BBC Radio in his clipped voice “Of course in the down fall of Suharto one must acknowledge the significant role played by Tom Hyland of Ballyfermot in Dublin.” If ever there was a David and Goliath story this was it.
In my opening I indicated the dangers of taking on themes that are too portentous, and yet I seem to have struck some fairly large items myself. But I do know that humility is necessary and that no one can know the meaning of life. No one, not the Pope, the Grand Ayatollah, the Chief Rabbi, the Archbishop of Canterbury or the proprietor of a psychic chat line can resolve the divine enigma. When matters come to a conclusion all we know with certainty is that “we are such things as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep”. But at least we may sleep easier if we have not denied our humanity, if we have recognised what Mahatma Gandhi described as the seven sins of the modern world, and I list them, (1) politics without principle (2) pleasure without conscience (3) wealth without work (4) knowledge without character (5) business without humanity (6) science without humility and (7) worship without sacrifice.
Many world leaders today seem to have no sense of either shame or irony. Raoul Wallenberg and the Dalai Lama can be sidelined, humiliated and left to wither and perish, while persons like Henry Kissinger the man responsible for the slaughter of so many thousands of soldiers and civilians in Vietnam and Kampuchea are given the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Well, there is no doubt that we are living through a period of considerable turbulence. I sometimes marvel at the mess my generation is handing on to yours. But in addition to all the turmoil and difficulty this is also a time of opportunity and challenge. And so my dear young friends it’s over to you. The path won’t be easy but if it’s any consolation I have every confidence in you the young people of Ireland, Europe and of the world.