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?