“We all partied”: Fianna Fáil Finance Minister Brian Lenihan’s infamous phrase, in the early years of the financial crisis, encapsulated the drive, on the part of Ireland’s political and media establishment, to broaden collective responsibility for social and economic calamity as far as possible. The objective in mind was the socialisation of private banking debt, racked up by property speculators, and the corresponding cuts to public spending and services.
In recent days, following the confirmation that eight hundred dead babies were interred in a septic tank at a former ‘Mother-and-Baby’ home in Tuam, there has been a similar dynamic in operation.
In the characteristically overwrought tones that Ireland’s current Taoiseach reserves for moments of national outrage, Enda Kenny told the national parliament that “as a society”, “we” “hid away the dead bodies of tiny human beings”, that “buried our compassion, our mercy and our humanity itself”, and that “we” had “a morbid relationship with…respectability”.
Referring to the unmarried mothers who wound up at the doors of the Mother-and-Baby home, Kenny said that “we” “took their babies and gifted them, sold them, trafficked them, starved them, neglected them or denied them”. There has been a lot of media comment to the same effect. Radio discussions dwelt on how no-one in wider society spoke out, and approvingly referred to Edmund Burke’s maxim that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
In the cases of both Lenihan and Kenny, none of it is true. Their claims can be easily demonstrated as false, through simple logic, and through citing simple easily accessible economic and historical facts. In fact, only a small minority of people racked up gargantuan debts through investment in hotel construction. In fact, a majority of Ireland’s present population was not even alive when the punitive regime inflicted on unmarried mothers and their children was at its height.
So it’s worth asking whether such claims are intended to be believed to be true. I don’t believe they are. In both cases mentioned above, the claims are a way of shifting blame, and of keeping a certain sense of order intact. Moreover, when this kind of gesture is made, I believe the speaker is happy enough for people to counter, with logic, with facts, with protestations, that it isn’t true.
This way of invoking a guilty “we” -coming from the people it comes from- operates to a way of forestall the emergence of any other “we”, of any other collective subject of a different character. In moments of political crisis, there can be no question, from these quarters of there being an “us” and a “them” in which the speaker winds up on the side of “them”. Neither Lenihan nor Kenny could afford to appear as the frontman for elite groupings who might be held as particularly culpable. There can only be an all-encompassing “we” who are collectively guilty. Hence no-one is really guilty.
If anyone does dissent, they set themselves apart from the collective, but this is fine: from the perspective of the person invoking the “we”, people denying that they had anything to do with it does little to undermine them. This is because this proposed collective guilt is fake anyway. It is a way of creating space to proceed unimpeded with their political projects. In the case of Lenihan, this entailed ploughing ahead with austerity. In the case of Kenny, this entails continuing along the path laid by Lenihan’s government, and continuing to promote the privatisation of healthcare and other public services whilst leaving existing power structures untouched and unquestioned. This supposed collective guilt is not a real demand that others should act on some set of social and ethical obligations.
“Not I,” said the cow.
This declaration of collective responsibility, or guilt, is intended to reproduce individualised responses, not actions taken in common. The responses can be it in terms of “everyone was at it” (in which case, if everyone is equally responsible, then nothing can be done) or “it wasn’t me” (I had nothing to do with this then, consequently I have nothing to do with this now either).
If it is accepted that “everyone was at it”, then one also assents to the proposal that everyone must shoulder their share of the punishment -even though the punishment, in practice, is delivered only to those least culpable and least capable of bearing it. If the response is “it wasn’t me”, one can absolve oneself of any ethical obligation to challenge the verdict, put the head down, and get on with things as usual.
Crucially, the effect of this “we did this” is to blur the line between responsibility on the one hand, and culpability or guilt on the other. If everyone is deemed guilty, it turns out that no-one need be prosecuted or pursued. In the case of the Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home, which was run by the Bon Secours religious order, such an outcome is quite convenient: the religious order now manages ‘the largest private healthcare provider in Ireland’, according to its own website.
If the verdict is “we did this”, then no inquiry need be made into how certain people did certain things, and who assisted them in doing so. If pressure to do something should become too much of an annoyance, then the inquiry should be conducted in the vaguest of terms -for instance, an inquiry ‘the role of the State’, without ‘the State’ ever being open to question in terms of its function, or the presence of class rule. So it is best to get an expert banker, or an expert judge, to preside over proceedings. In the case of the Magdalene Laundries, the main investigation was led by a man whose credentials, apart from the fact that he was the spouse of the previous head of state, and had apparently liaised behind the scenes with loyalist paramilitaries on golf outings in the interests of ‘peace’, were tenuous enough.
When it all boils down to the conclusion that “we did this”, what gets blotted out is any sense of real collective responsibility stemming from an ethical obligation to mutual care, aid, and responsibility. Indeed, if “we” are irredeemably given to such laxity and cruelty, how could any such thing be possible?
In his appearance before the national parliament, it was no slip of the tongue when Enda Kenny defended Bon Secours hospitals from People Before Profit TD Brid Smith’s observation that a ‘hospital empire’ had been built from the oppression and incarceration of women and children, and that the present Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, had, at the very moment when the matter of the Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home was the centre of public debate, made an official appearance in Limerick at the inauguration of a new Bon Secours hospital.
For all the calls for ‘mercy’ and ‘compassion’, the ruling party has a long-running commitment to continued privatisation of the health system. Only last year, Kenny himself ‘turned the sod’ (as per the Bon Secours website) at a cardiology unit in Bon Secours private hospital in Galway.
The entire premise of private healthcare is that there are some whose lives deserve to be saved -the rich- and there are others that do not, others who deserve to be deprived (the root of ‘private’ and ‘deprive’ is the same) of such health care. It is on such foundations that the sentimental claptrap of compassion, of ‘mercy’ and ‘charity’ thrives. In this regard we might consider the ‘Sisters of Mercy’, the owners of the Mater Hospital, a major hospital in Ireland with a ‘Mater Private’ facility, who owned and ran Magdalene Laundries and who refused to contribute to a compensation fund for the survivors. Then there are the ‘Religious Sisters of Charity’, the owners of St Vincent’s Hospital, who also ran Magdalene Laundries, and who also refused to make such a contribution. In such a scenario, it becomes all the more difficult to ask why “we’” do not have our own hospitals to begin with, since this ‘we’ – a democratic, egalitarian, socialist ‘we’- has to be killed before it is born.
‘Kenny speaks for the nation on the ‘horrors’ of Tuam’ was the approving headline of an editorial in the Irish Independent, one of Ireland’s main broadsheets, following Kenny’s speech in parliament. The paper is largely owned by billionaire Denis O’Brien, also a major investor in private health care. On the board of O’Brien’s Beacon Hospital sits the former Taoiseach, Minister for Finance, and Minister for Health, Brian Cowen. Cowen was Taoiseach during the first years of the financial crisis. For some, at least, the party continues.