- 18 May 21
Since the coronavirus pandemic struck, our freedoms have been dramatically curtailed, and our fundamental civil rights with them. It is possible to accept fully the need for public health measures, while also recognising the dangerous precedents that have been set. So let’s be clear: the last thing we want in Ireland is the imposition of a new theocracy, when we haven’t yet fully demolished the old one...
Liberation looms! The vaccination programme is closing in on critical mass and we’re starting to think seriously about what follows. Eating out, having a pint, playing football, attending gigs and festivals. Wondering if people will return to offices or ever go back to public transport. And will the dogs in the street still know what’s going on in Donegal?
But there are other issues too. In particular, a vital word of caution: we will have to reclaim our democratic processes, our civil rights and our freedoms from the clutches of an unelected and, many increasingly feel, arrogant elite.
It is uneasily reminiscent of what happened almost exactly a century ago.
Look at the parallels: in 1921, as the Irish plenipotentiaries headed for London to negotiate a withdrawal treaty, the world was coming to terms with the catastrophic consequences of a terrible pandemic, and developments in Ireland were posing an existential threat to the United Kingdom.
The two Irelands that eventually set to work in the 1920s may have begun with very different world-views but, for all that, they turned out to be very similar in many ways.
Both jurisdictions became excessively pious, prejudiced and preoccupied with the notion of ‘salvation’. They were economically and socially conservative, risk and adventure-averse, inward-looking, narrow-minded, mean-spirited, bigoted, exclusionary – and deeply sectarian.
The Orange Order was the key influencer in Northern Ireland. In the Irish Free State it was the Catholic Church – which assumed effective control of education, health and social care.
Was this a quiet, ruthless coup by the Church itself, a pragmatic arrangement by a Government strapped for resources or a miserable and spineless surrender by the democratically elected Government to a sinister and secretive global power-player?
Whichever way you see it, the net effect was an ultra-conservative basket case, a theocracy of the most stifling kind. The Church permeated all aspects of policymaking, administration and the law, and many legal figures had strong Catholic connections.
Ministers routinely knelt before a bishop and kissed his ring, literally and metaphorically. Similar grovelling was seen at sports and cultural events. You can find examples on YouTube.
Risk-aversion was pervasive and little of note could be proposed, much less achieved, without the approval of the bishops. It was all about compliance and dogma. Dissidents were hounded. There was censorship and intimidation. Many chose exile, searching elsewhere for political and cultural asylum as often as economic salvation.
But in recent years we have discovered what the dogs in the street most certainly knew: much evil and misadventure was covered up and closeted, especially – though not exclusively – in relation to sex.
In that Ireland, there was a particular fear of carnal congress of any kind, and a systematic and neurotic emphasis on the avoidance of temptation and occasions of sin. This was despite the fact that many clerics were themselves secretly, and frequently abusively, sexually active, as the dogs in the street could have told you.
The monolith began to crack in the aftermath of the Pope’s visit and the angry opposition to the 8th Amendment, when it was shamefully railroaded through in 1983. It took a further generation to fully uncover the perversity, cruelty and rank hypocrisy of our religious overlords, and to unravel the worst, culminating in the abolition of the 8th Amendment in 2018.
We did well to shake off those dead hands. Much has changed and, despite manifold problems, our health system now features strong secular and egalitarian practice. But it would behove us to be vigilant.
Remember, the control of health and medicine was of enormous importance to the Catholic Church in Ireland – and it still is, to whatever extent they can maintain it. It oversaw, in rigorous detail, the teaching and employment of doctors and nurses and vestiges of the old regime still linger, not only in ownership and personnel but also in self-importance and arrogance. And herein lies another trap.
Consider what happened after the pandemic crashed on our shores.
In the blink of an eye a new hierarchy was installed, christened NPHET and helmed by Dr. Tony Holohan. They took effective command of our lives, our politics, our administration, our business life, our moral codes.
But NPHET was only established in February 2020 and on an ad-hoc basis at that!
Not that you’d have known. Their every word was heard, broadcast and treated with wholly undue reverence. When Holohan spoke, a rapt audience listened – much as happens when the Ayatollah Khamenei speaks in Qom or as once
was the case here with Archbishop This and Cardinal That.
RTE started virtually every news bulletin with The Word from NPHET, a breathless presentation of the doleful message of the day: things are bad, they were bad yesterday too, tomorrow they might be worse.
The Daily Dirge was accompanied by sermons and quasi-scriptural revelations, citations from the prophets (the WHO) and warnings, warnings, warnings to behave yourselves and avoid all temptations or else you’ll suffer, followed by grudging – and deeply condescending – acknowledgements that “We’ve all done very well” followed again by “Ye’ve let yourselves go and now we’re going to have to give you more medicine and if ye want any release ye’ll have to behave yourselves, stick to the parish, don’t be going wandering, you never know who or what ye’ll meet…”
They locked us in, down and out, imposing the most restrictive regime in the world, a kind of public health North Korea. The descent into shaming and blaming was rapid and rabid. There was meanness and pettiness and squinting windows. The old vice of mealy-mouthed caution and fear-riddled risk aversion reappeared, in spades. We were back to compliance and dogma.
Inevitably, as with ye olde time religion, more extreme preachers and zealots emerged as well, like the self-appointed Independent Scientific Advisory Group, fire and brimstone Redemptorist fundamentalists to Holohan’s quasi-secular Church.
Theirs was an even more radical approach: to cut ourselves off from the outside world, to hunker down in our Zoom cave until the world was rid of the virus, deliver us from all evil now and forever and ever, amen.
None of this is to dispute the need for lockdowns, social distancing and wearing masks. Rather it’s to ask how the hell did health become the new (and equally intolerant) religion; how were we saddled with a new hierarchy; and how hard are we going to have to work now, to get them off our backs?
This isn’t fanciful. Every day Tony Holohan contrives to make the headlines with another sermon from the mount, another exhortation. He even wrote an open letter to those who have been vaccinated – basically it was an encyclical or a pastoral letter. And, in case we’d forgotten that he can do bad cop he also made reference to “The kind of things that even the dogs on the street in Donegal know shouldn’t be happening”…
That didn’t go down well in Donegal where, naturally, it was perceived as arrogant and condescending. Even the dogs were annoyed.
So what’s going on? The man is a civil servant! Fine, he’s very senior and very highly paid, but he isn’t a politician. His role has no pastoral or representational dimension. So what’s he doing writing encouraging notes to senior citizens and acting like the Voice of Ireland?
In the 1920s, complacency allowed an arrogant elite to create a theocracy. I’m not sure what the term for a State where policy primacy is ceded to the dictates of public health – a Hippocracy, after Hippocrates, perhaps?
Is that where we’re headed in the 2020s?
Surely not. We want to breathe. We want to have fun. Summer comes.