The trappings of Irish freedom

For the last twenty-five years the Irish Republic, with one scandal after another, has had its dirty linen exposed to the world

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The infamous Magdalene Laundries
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Vincent Cooper
On 12 February 2013 13:54

Yet another report is given to the world on institutional abuse in the Republic of Ireland.

The latest McAleese report on the Irish government’s involvement in the abuse of children at religious-run laundries has found that the Irish state’s involvement was “significant”.

Considering the scandal of Irish clerical child abuse going back to the founding of the state, this latest report is really no surprise. For the last twenty-five years the Irish Republic, with one scandal after another, has had its dirty linen exposed to the world. The truth is now out and nobody now sees Catholic Ireland as the land of saints, an image assiduously promoted by successive generations of Irish cultural nationalists.

It was always a pie-eyed blarney image. Large numbers of Irish children have for years suffered abuse at the hands of religious and state authorities. After each exposure there are the usual perfunctory apologies from politicians and the religious institutions, and a great deal of Irish soul-searching to discover “how we ever allowed such things to happen.”

But this Irish soul-searching has always been highly selective. It doesn’t ask the one question that begs an answer: is the Irish Republic’s exceptional levels of clerical and institutional abuse of children in any way related to the Irish Catholic cultural nationalism that replaced the more secular British state?

Consider some history.

In 1921 the Irish Treaty was signed and in 1922 the Irish Free State was established. Ireland now had its freedom and cruel Britannia was gone. That same year, many of the now infamous Irish slave-labour Magdalene Laundries were established.

Young girls – one nine years old – were dispatched to the Magdalene laundries to work as unpaid labour for the most trivial of “offences” such as not paying a bus fare. Many had committed no offence; indeed were themselves victims of an abusive home life.

A particularly disturbing aspect of all this was the arbitrary power the Irish police exercised in dispatching young girls to the laundry. The McAleese report refers to the ad hoc manner whereby the Irish police could ignore due process. In effect the Irish authorities, both government and police, were contemptuous of the great English common law writ of habeas corpus. They could act with impunity because they knew nobody gave a damn about these unfortunate girls.

Under British rule, such things just did not happen. But with their new-found freedom, the Irish Free State lost no time in denying hard-won legal rights to its citizens, legal rights that were respected throughout the rest of the civilised world. What had happened?

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, most European countries experienced a turbulent period of anti-clericalism. The power of the Catholic clergy had to be curtailed in the struggle to establish secular democratic politics. In this the European peoples had been successful; religious power was curtailed and secular authority established.

But not in Ireland. As soon as the Irish Free State came into being the power of the Catholic clergy increased. Then, in 1937, a period when admissions to the Magdalene laundries intensified, the Irish government produced a new Constitution giving a “special position” to the Catholic hierarchy.

Almost unique in the nations of Europe, with the possible exception of Franco’s Spain, the Irish Catholic clergy now controlled social teaching and policy throughout the country. The Magdalene laundries were an example of that social policy.

Irish cultural nationalism underpinned political nationalism, and both came together to confer a privileged position on the Catholic clergy. At times in the history of the Irish Republic this nationalism, combined with clerical power, took precedence over any wider Western notions of individual rights. The country became a virtual social experiment in medieval Catholic power.

The extensive religious abuse of children in such a fevered hot-house was no accident or surprise. It was a classic example of Lord Acton’s famous saying: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Interestingly, Acton issued his warning specifically in relation to excessive clerical power.

And to think, Irish cultural nationalists attempted, for over thirty years, to bomb Northern Irish Unionists into that Irish Catholic state.

Vincent Cooper is a freelance writer

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