Establishing The Facts on The State: A Brief Note

What is the difference between the State and the Church in Ireland? This is one of the questions that concerned the Magdalen Laundries investigation that was led by Martin McAleese. The main object of that investigation was ‘to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries’.

The word ‘establish‘, and the word ‘State‘ both have the same origin: the st- root that also appears in ‘institution’ and ‘stability’.

In order to establish the facts, it was first necessary to establish the meaning of “the State”. So the Committee adopted

‘the full meaning of “the State”, to refer to a body, whatever its legal form, which is or was responsible for provision of a public service under the control of the State and with special powers for that purpose. This encompassed not only Government Departments but a whole range of bodies, agencies and organisations, detailed throughout the Report.’

No meaning of any word can be conclusively nailed down, because the meaning of a word depends on the particular context in which it is used, and the purpose for which it is used. In this case, this is the State establishing the meaning of the State, and then applying this State-defined meaning in order to identify State involvement.

We might discern a problem here: in establishing the facts of State involvement, the State -through the body it has commissioned to conduct the investigation- is also establishing -in the strong sense of the word- what the State is, and it is shaping its own conclusions on those terms from the outset.

As a consequence, how the public perceives the State, once the report is completed and reported on, will be shaped by the meaning established by the document.

Is this good enough? You might say, well, you have to start somewhere. But should it be from here?

What we see in this particular occasion is an interpretation of a word that is necessarily and inevitably political, applied to an investigation about the role of institutions that are also political.

In one of his writings, Eduardo Galeano cites an African proverb: until lions have their own historians, the histories of the hunt will go on being written by the hunters.

Should a lion trust the definition of a lion as laid down by a hunter?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Establishing The Facts on The State: A Brief Note

  1. Again an interesting observation from a political theory point of view. I take it that as you see it from the quote the report in question is opting for a definition of ‘State’ as equivalent to the aggregated institutions of government. I always thought that the State was something more like the Roman ‘res publica’, the people, the republic (small ‘r’ used advisedly here). Your observation raises the interesting question as to the ultimately responsible for the social, political, institutional environments which shape systemic neglect and wrong-doing. “We all partied!” Or was it just the State?

    • Hi Donal,

      What I’m trying to get at here is that the particular definition of ‘the State’ used serves the purposes of those who define it as such. The McAleese report -and other kinds of investigations conducted on behalf of the public- inevitably take no account of the configuration of power that commissions the report and sets its boundaries. Rather, they purport to be on behalf of the public, that is, they flow from assumptions about what ‘the State’ is, and what its relation to ‘the public’ is, and these assumptions are not based on objective fact but on political interpretation.

      I think it’s particularly interesting the way we see ‘the State’ used in public political discourse in Ireland in a way we do not see at all in the UK. So the dominant meaning of ‘the State’ in Ireland is shaped by its particular political culture. I am cautious about suggesting that there is an objective definition of ‘the State’ that could be better applied here. There are useful definitions in political theory, but they do not correspond at all to the way ‘the State’ is spoken of here, where there is a slippage between ‘the State’ and ‘the nation’ or ‘the people’ to an extent that you don’t get in other places. Think, for example, of the way politicians and writers will talk about ‘since the foundation of the State’. Such use of ‘the State’ is not analytical but a narrative device.

      In the final instance I would see the State as a social relation generated through the social, political and institutional environments that you talk about. This definition here is quite good, I think: it comes from a book in Spanish by Juan Carlos Monedero titled ‘The Government of Words’, and it draws on both Weber and Marx: ‘a form of political organisation, possessing a stable legal and administrative order, belonging to an identified community with a defined territory, characterised by the successful claim by the administrative body -through rewards and punishments that may be material or symbolic-, to the obedience of the citizenry, in so far as it satisfies its commitment to what social conflicts and consensuses have established as common interests’. But this is a long way from the common use of ‘the State’ in Ireland.

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