- 28 Mar 14
Recent revelations about rehab make a disturbing contrast to the active citizenship of the UK Labour politician Tony Benn and the Irish campaigner for justice for abused children, Christine Buckley
Issues raised in the last Whole Hog were brought into sharp focus by the publication of the report by the Garda Siochana Inspectorate into the operation of the penalty points system or, to be more precise, into the Fixed Charge Processing System. Where much of the hot pursuit of the Gardai derived from an assumption of corruption, the truth seems rather more prosaic: sloppiness, waste, complacency, poor management and little supervision.
The deficit in these areas is significant and supports the views of whistleblowers – but from a journalistic perspective it’s a bit of a let-down. Other than the questionable pleasure to be derived from hounding Alan Shatter, there isn’t much left in this story for the moment.
The same isn’t true of the drama unfolding around political insider and lobbyist Frank Flannery nor his erstwhile employers in Rehab. One acknowledges that what a person is paid is private and may be commercially sensitive – but the sums of money being bandied about are startling to say the least.
They also raise the issue of what we might mean by the term ‘public service’. At face value, work in the voluntary or charitable sector is by definition a service to society and to the public good. But if it’s a vehicle whereby any one individual earns multiples of the average industrial wage, well that’s a different matter entirely.
In contrast, and as an example of the correct definition of public service, consider the life of Tony Benn, who died last week. As Anthony Wedgewood Benn, he was born into Britain’s industrial royalty. Josiah Wedgewood established his pottery in the mid-18th century and it prospered with his great great grandson, also Josiah, becoming Baron Wedgewood in 1942. Curiously, they were also related to the Darwins.
In time, Anthony Wedgewood Benn became the fifth Baron Wedgewood but eschewed the peerage in 1973. He was a socialist and a member of the Labour Party. But, in the family tradition, he was also a non-conformist, a maverick and a radical. The Guardian called him ‘the establishment insider turned leftwing outsider’.
Not everything Benn espoused was right, and quite probably if you were a member of the British Labour Party at the same time, you’d probably have wanted to strangle him on occasion: like many maverick radicals, he had his blind spots. But he had principles and he stuck to them.
He wasn’t afraid to annoy people with his views, set out in a sometimes grumpy potter’s form of plain speaking. There was a price: he might well have been leader of the British Labour Party until he found that he couldn’t stomach the thought; and realised too that the centrists in the party couldn’t stomach him.
Yet, you have to tip your hat to someone who deserted the upper class and made statements like this: “When you think of the number of men in the world who hate each other, why, when two men love each other, does the church split?”; or “there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber – both kill innocent people for political reasons”; or “normally, people give up parliament because they want to do more business or spend more time with family. My wife said ‘why don’t you say you’re giving up to devote more time to politics?’ And it is what I have done.”
Inevitably his death will spark the usual chorus of cheers on the left and boos on the right. Let ‘em at it. For me he’s of special interest for two things in particular. First, his decision to dump his peerage stands in brilliant contrast to the obsessions of present-day celebrity society. Some halfwits would sell their granny for such a title. He, recognising it for the anti-social anachronism that it was, abandoned it. Second, there’s how he kept his fire (and his pipe) burning into his late 80s.
Christine Buckley, who also died last week, came from a rather less privileged background than Tony Benn and her struggle was of an entirely different order. Where Benn was born with a silver spoon on his Wedgewood plate, she was the daughter of a Nigerian medical student and a married Dublin woman. She was abandoned at three weeks of age and grew up in Goldenbridge industrial school.
Yet one fancies that had they met they would have found much in common.
Christine Buckley clearly had an inner core of enormous strength. Unlike most industrial school internees, she went beyond primary school and secondary school to qualify as a nurse. But it was her experience of abuse in Goldenbridge that drove her to campaign against the wrongs done to children in this State – and it’s for her work in highlighting child abuse and alleviating its effects that she will be remembered.
There have been many tributes paid to this brave and formidable woman. Of course she did not undertake the struggle alone. But it took great courage, for her as an individual, to challenge the religious and social service oligarchy, to confront the miserable and lazy conformism, compliance and collusion that allowed the vast criminal conspiracy of child abuse to flourish in Ireland.
Maybe we can’t all be political mavericks with a national impact, or rights campaigners whose work changes the course of history and the national legislative and care environment. But we can all play our part. We can all challenge injustice and conformity and stupidity and collusion wherever we find them. We can all choose to be active rather than passive. And if we did that, then many of the things we complain about would be less likely to happen – or to persist.
It would be a fitting tribute to Christine Buckley and all the other active citizen campaigners too. A far greater tribute, let me say, than sitting on our arses at our computers lazily abusing people who at least have the guts to get out there and do something…
Over to us.