Words matter. Naming something or someone is a way of exercising power. If you look at a map of the towns and cities of Ireland, you see a load of Anglicised names that make no sense. ‘Belfast‘ in English makes no sense, unlike ‘Beal Feirste‘ in Irish. The Department of Social Protection -protection from what?- has decided to call its new offices ‘Intreo‘. I don’t know what ‘Intreo’ means. I bet most people who will have to attend the Intreo offices popping up in towns up and down the country don’t know what it means either. Do you think they’re supposed to?
In Ireland, Alan Shatter is Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence. This fact has an important bearing on how people at large understand the word ‘justice‘. Personally, I don’t think you can have a State institution that can administer true justice. I don’t think justice is the kind of thing that a State institution can administer. All it can do is enforce its own sense of things, and call this ‘justice’. What shape this ‘justice’ takes depends on whoever exercises control over the State.
What happens when a population thinks justice is whatever the State says it is? Or, to put a finer point on it, when a population’s sense of justice is decisively shaped by the State? Many people believe that the State’s protection of private property rights is justice in operation. This allows them to believe that people who lack access to the resources that would allow them to live a dignified life are, in fact, in receipt of their just deserts. They look at prisons and sub-machine guns and high-visibility jackets, all intended to keep the poor at bay, and see instruments of justice. The original name for the US war in Afghanistan was Operation Infinite Justice.
Perhaps we’re off to a bad start, then, if we expect the Ministry of Justice to administer justice. Especially so if the Minister for Justice thinks your country can be a Partner for Peace...with NATO. And that is before we reach the facts of Alan Shatter’s present activities. What does it mean for a population’s sense of justice when the Minister for Justice has people saying about him: “If Shatter thinks you’re screwing him, you’re finished.” Not just anyone, but a Garda Confidential Recipient who contributed €1000 to Alan Shatter’s election campaign – who has subsequently been sacked by Alan Shatter? According to Crime Correspondent Extraordure Paul Williams, “even his most vocal critics agree Alan Shatter is a man of unflinching integrity.” But even if we are to accept Paul Williams is telling the truth (I know), perhaps Alan Shatter’s biggest critics have good reason not to be vocal.
Let me go back to that speech by Peter Mair that I quoted yesterday: “We don’t respect our State“. As I suggested yesterday, the kind of respect this entails, for Ireland’s political class, is the same thing as obedience. But there is another kind of respect, which is more the respect one might have for a large and dangerous animal who, if given the chance, would tear you to shreds. It is this kind of respect, I think, that the Ministry of Justice deserves. And if it is controlled by an embodiment of flagrant arrogance and injustice and contempt for the public, and if the public does nothing to remove someone like Alan Shatter, then it is not just leaving the meaning of justice uncontested: it is sharpening the bayonets of its oppressors.