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Sunday 20 December 2009

We all have to make amends now for our sins of the past

The guilty could not have got away with their crimes without our support, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

'ONE down; 15 to go," chuckled my most anti-clerical friend on Thursday, as the news came through about Bishop Murray's resignation. And though I am less hardline than him, I didn't argue. For truly it is good to see the mighty humbled, if only to serve as a warning to the wannabes and a consolation to those whom the mighty push around.

Although I didn't want Ceausescu shot in 1989 and Saddam Hussein hanged in 2006, I was triumphant at their downfall, as I was when in the late Nineties Charles Haughey was un-masked in all his vanity and greed; 2009 has been a bumper year for mighty-humbling, and we are all the better for it.

Remember Shelley's hubristic Ozymandias, of whose achievements nothing was left but a desert, his colossal wrecked statue and a pedestal with the inscription:'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!' It's a poem every school child should learn by heart, followed up perhaps by a study of Samuel Johnson's The Vanity of Human Wishes.

Only two years ago, wannabes would have been reading about the property developers, money-men and ministers whooping it up in the Fianna Fail tent at Galway Races under the indulgent eye of a smirking Bertie Ahern (whose self-justifying autobiography, I'm glad to see, is selling disappointingly) and wondering what they had to do to share in the spoils.

Now, as they see skulking bankers, developers fighting desperately to hang on to the family home, politicians having to face up to the consequences of their own mismanagement, and well-heeled trade union leaders who put sectional interest before country panicking as the public turn on them, they are seeing writ large Johnson's message that worldliness does not bring happiness.

And the Roman Catholic Church, which should have been challenging the materialism, hypocrisy and abuse of power that disfigured Irish society, was fixated on trying to regulate the sex lives of their flock and preserve the power of the Roman Catholic Church. It was fitting that the institution was hoist with those particular petards.

At this time of national self-examination, I'd recommend a look at the writings of the great John B Keane, particularly the letters of that crafty peasant Tull McAdoo TD, who epitomises that sickening cute-hoorism that has always been one of our most repellent characteristics -- along with an inability to admit our faults or tell the truth.

We are better than we were in the days of our stifling insularity. We matured as a nation and became a less cruel and more open, cosmopolitan and liberal society, but we still admired the Micks-on-the-Make, voted for corrupt politicians and colluded in the cosy catastrophe that was called the social partnership. The Celtic Tiger exacerbated our complacent 'Aren't-we-great' mentality, and we flaunted our wealth and slavered over celebrities with the worst kind of nouveau-riche vulgarity.

The shocks of this year, culminating in the bleak honesty of Judge Yvonne Murphy and her colleagues, have given us no wriggle room. Although we point accusing fingers at particular individuals, there's no denying they couldn't have got away with crimes and sharp practices unless we, the people, gave them our support and kept our mouths shut, in just the same way as so many ostensibly upright citizens allowed the IRA to use the Republic as a safe haven.

The Murphy report took away our last scapegoats, for it showed essentially that the abusing priests and the bishops who covered up their crimes were protected by secular society, including gardai, politicians, civil servants and teachers. Those poor frightened children had no one to go to.

Mao, tyrant and mass murderer, famously spoke of guerrilla fighters swimming in the sea of the peasants who supported them. The sea that was Ireland gave sustenance to our political, financial and religious criminals and bullies and little to the weak.

There are signs that coming to terms as a people with uncomfortable truths that we all need to face are making us more realistic and humble. The spiritual hunger that was embarrassingly manifested in the nonsense at Knock is to be welcomed in a society that had been worshipping the gold calf. The sound of idols crashing off pedestals is teaching us that uncritical admiration for the mighty ends in tears -- theirs and ours.

I don't think we should be ending 2009 gloomy. We are a clever, kind-hearted, creative people who can construct a better future if we learn from the bitter lessons we've been taught recently. And, by the way, even my friend who wanted the cull of the episcopacy made an exception for Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has shown the moral courage and honesty that a better Ireland should henceforward demand from its leaders.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards