My first duty is to plead ignorance. I can perhaps legitimately claim that having lived abroad for so long my knowledge and sharpness of interest in Irish history had waned. So I had to revert to a rather superficial crash course to refresh my mind on the events of August 1798 and the arrival of General Humbert and his troops in Ballina and their interaction with Bishop Joseph Stock.
In reading the fascinating” “Narrative” one could perhaps be deceived by the rather colourful but fundamentally human figures, Humbert and Stock, who play the leading roles in a tension which was in the end managed within a framework of chivalry and correctness.
Deceived, because today war has taken on new dimensions of brutality, where it is hard to think in terms of chivalry and correctness. In modern warfare you are more likely to be a victim if you are a civilian than enrolled in an army. True, in 1798 the principal victims were also the ordinary people, those who proclaimed themselves as nationalists and who were considered rebels and who had to face the consequences of armed engagement and later of court martial. They suffered because of the rejection of their legitimate aspirations for economic and political advancement.
The twentieth century, a century of unprecedented progress, was also the century of the cruelest wars. They were not wars of religion, but of ideologues who set out to manipulate legitimate aspirations – perhaps even religious aspirations – for their own ideology. The horrendous wars of the twentieth century were wars between States. What most of the leaders had in common was naked lust for power. It spread to every aspect of their lives. I was reading a review the other day of a book on the architecture of the homes of twentieth century dictators, from Franco to Milosevic, but covering Marcos and Mobutu and many others, incapable of distinguishing between the wealth of the nation and their own private wealth.
Yet the twentieth century also saw the beginnings of new aspirations for security which attempted to rise above solely national interest. When I was serving in Geneva I was particularly interested in the archives of the League of Nations. The horrors of the First World War led enlightened leaders – in particular President Wilson of the United States – to see the value of a system of collective security. The League of Nations was not a success in the end, but this was due not to the organization as such but to the unwillingness of major powers to allow it to work. Despite Wilson’s commitment, the United States never entered the League.
One of the most striking and sobering pieces of documentation in the Archives of the League of Nations is a simple half-folio sheet of paper with no more than eight type-written lines announcing the withdrawal of Germany from the League. It serves to remind us just how little it can take to dismantle the working of the “international community”.
One of the important aspects of the League of Nations was the establishment of the first truly international civil service. Rather than have staff seconded by their home governments and remaining on their payroll and obviously on their loyalty list, the League of Nations far-sightedly established an independent body of international public servants whose loyalty was to the institution even if this was not well looked on by their own government. We are fortunate in today’s world to have people of such high calibre following in these early footsteps. They do not get the recognition they deserve.
Indeed, it is interesting to note that Irishman Sean Lester, an Ulster Protestant and Irish Nationalist, who had been High Commissioner of the League of Nations administered “Free State of Danzig” and who became the last General Secretary of the League, when he returned to Ireland was briskly reminded by the Department for External Affairs he had become an international civil servant and that the Department felt it had no responsibility to give him another job. Never underestimate the devious skills of an Irish bureaucracy!
Another aspect of my work in Geneva which became very important in my thought was that of the Geneva Conventions on what one at times calls the “laws of war” and especially on the protection of civilian populations and civilian institutions. I am not sure if these norms regarding civilian institutions would have applied to Bishops Stock’s well provided larder and cellar which were appropriated by Humbert’s men.
These Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols govern both international and non-international conflicts and bind governments and non-State actors. Signatories are obliged to make violations of the Geneva Conventions criminal offences in domestic law. The Conventions address issues like torture and reprisals, both of which are sadly topics of interest to this day.
The Geneva Conventions are those which established what is known as “international humanitarian law”, not just about humanitarian assistance, but setting out recognised practices for the protection of combatants and non-combatants in conflicts. It is sad to see efforts afoot to weaken the effects of these Conventions. Some important Western Countries still maintain reservations which permit them to use reprisals against civilian populations. There are attempts to create different categories of combatants who could be excluded from international jurisdiction and there are even extraordinary efforts to justify the use of torture as a means of interrogation.
Similarly there are many breaches of the rights of civilian populations through the disproportionate use of force in reprisal or through the use of terrorist tactics by non-State actors. Sadly international humanitarian agents – UN peace keepers and others with responsibility for the protection of civilians – have also been repeatedly involved in the breach of humanitarian law.
Humbert and Bishop Stock acted as I said “within a framework of chivalry and correctness” at a moment of local tension. Our world of today needs to guarantee that its norms for conflict, great and small, are conducted in the spirit within which they have been instituted. We have made progress but we can never say that that progress has been fully stabilised and could not be the object of a roll back at any moment. I believe that one can legitimately interpret Ireland’s neutrality as placing a special responsibility on it to be in the forefront of defending international humanitarian law.
Let me come back to General Humbert and his men. The French came to bring liberty and Humbert even apologised to Bishop Stock saying that it was not his intention to “force anyone to be free”. An interesting construction of words! One can only become free from within. “Freedom bringers” do not always realise what this means and there are times when we might have to beware of the “freedom bringers”.
If we look back at the history of Ireland we can see that it was the object of many invasions and embarkations of which that of General Humbert was only one. In the poplar history I learned in school, these invasions were generally bad, except, of course, those which brought “wine from the royal Pope”.
Within that popular vision of Irish nationalism the Norman Invasion was probably the mother of all invasions. Today there is a growing realisation that the Norman invasion was by invitation and that as most other invasions or occupations it also brought with it benefits of what was the “modernisation” of the day. Even the dreaded Vikings brought with them elements of high civilizations, in art and in the making of artefacts, not to overlook such an important example of high civilization as the founding of the City of Dublin. Invaders and invading ideas can be positive if what emerges is a genuine engagement in mutual respect and a mutual enrichment of culture. This is what happened in a small way in the forced dialogue between Stock and Humbert.
But each of these interventions, Vikings and Normans, Settlers and French Liberators, was a mixed blessing, bringing good and bad, merging to form a new synthesis of what it is to be Irish. But all of them, even those with a benign appearance, were also effectively attempts to dominate and always remained so.
General Humbert was ready to establish here in the West of Ireland the political mechanisms of his French vision of liberty and Bishop Stock noted Humbert’s intention to establish a free and independent Ireland “under French protection”, whatever that might mean. Invading reformers are never just agents of humanitarian benevolence. All invasions, even those with the most generous intent, are never free from a strong dose of self interest. I am afraid that even the wine from the royal popes while bringing its own joys would have been used to deaden the senses to suit the interests of papal politics.
What are the invasions of today? For me, the real invasion of Ireland today is a cultural one. It is that of a crusading secularisation determined that it has it right, rather than entering into, what I have earlier called, a genuine engagement in mutual respect and a mutual enrichment of cultures.
Before declaring such a widespread war on secularisation, like the clever diplomat I am often purported to be, I should perhaps have clarified my terms.
Pope Benedict XVI speaking to journalists a few weeks ago spoke of “the western world today… experiencing a wave of new and drastic enlightenment or secularization”. He said that “it has become more difficult to believe because the world in which we find ourselves is completely constructed by ourselves and God, so to speak, does not appear directly anymore”
Without a doubt secularisation has a positive meaning and is in its own way a desirable thing. Indeed, to add insult to injury, I would say to my secularist friends, that perhaps the most significant factor in driving a secularisation of Irish society was the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II brought secularisation out of the enclaves of a small elite into the mainstream of Irish life, through a Church which reaffirmed its specific mission but with a different model of presence in society.
But I still see that there is a form of secularization in Irish culture which like another invading force has its desire to dominate and to take over, to completely replace what went before it. There are those who would wish to reduce religion to the private sphere, to the sole domain of individual conscience, and to keep religion out of public life.
One of the important side developments that emerged in the discussions on the Draft Constitution for the European Union was precisely that recognition by the secular European Union of the fact that Churches and religious bodies have a particular contribution to make to society and that this can best be fostered by a process of mature, open, transparent dialogue between religious groups and the institutions. The Draft Constitution recognises the role not just of individual believers but also of Churches and religious institutions.
Proposals have been introduced concerning an analogous structured dialogue here in Ireland but as yet no finalised formula had been proposed. I believe that such dialogue would be a positive step forward towards a new mature relationship between Church and State in Ireland which would accord true recognition by each and would delineate the rights of each within what I would call a “cooperative regime of separation between Church and State”. Separation of Church and State means that the Church does not interfere in the role of the State but also that politicians respect the legitimate autonomy of the Church.
Let me go even farther in my culture battle with the invading secularisation. One of the fallacies of the cult of secularisation is its tendency to believe that religion has had its day, and that enlightenment and prosperity bring with them the definitive instrument for the reduction of people’s interest in religion.
This is a theory that needs to be looked at more closely, because there are good scientific indications to show that it is not the case. Some of you may know the work of the – secular – United States research think tank The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, perhaps the most prestigious think-tank of religion and public life. It is well worth looking at it website and publications. The overall thrust of the research, which is of course very nuanced, is the feeling that, as one expert noted, “God is winning”. Religion is booming in many countries and indeed democracy has offered new opportunities to religion as also have new means of communication. “God is winning” in that the role of religion in world politics is increasing, as is the percentage of the world’s population which looks on religion as important in their lives and society.
Some of you will have noticed for example in this week’s The Economist an article about the dialogue between the World Bank and religious groups. It is a dialogue which in an earlier incarnation I was very much involved and which had a very stormy start with some governments being very wary of any contact with religious leaders on grounds of secularist principles. The conclusion of the equally secular The Economist is today more pragmatic, implying that without that dialogue, sustained by the then World Bank President Jim Wolfenson, the Bank’s work would be less effective. The Economist’s pragmatic approach would seem to be another example of the policy I propose of genuine engagement in mutual respect and a mutual enrichment of culture.
The recent G8 meeting in Saint Petersburg was preceded by an unprecedented gathering of religious leaders sponsored jointly by President Putin and the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow Alexei II of Moscow and a statement approved by Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist and other groups was read to the G8 meeting.
Religion is not in any way exhausted and God is not dead in international public life, either in the East or in the West, in developing countries or in the United States. One the non-scientific basis I enjoy telling young people of a comment by the Beatles back in 1965 saying: “We are now more popular than Jesus”, and then noting how my Google search finds on any particular day about thirty nine million sites dedicated to the Beatles, while Jesus has one hundred and ninety nine million, five times as many.
We need a modern, mature and transparent relationship between Church and State, between religion and life. This requires that both sides abandon their domination tendencies and come to realise that our world needs “genuine engagement in mutual respect”. Religious viewpoints and those who hold them dear do not for that reason loose citizenship or should in any way be excluded from shaping the democratic process.
Christians must learn to live in an increasingly secularised society but never in a resigned or passive way. Christians cannot accept retiring from the public domain or accept a vision of the political sphere as somehow absolute. Giving to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s means not just separation of Church and State, but also that Caesar is not God and should not be playing God.
Freedom of religion means that religion has a certain sphere of its own not granted to it as a concession by the Sate and where politicians should fear to tread. It also means that religious institutions have the right to be involved in various aspects where they can bring benefit to social life. The State does not necessarily do things better, as various current crises of the functioning of State institutions shows.
Pope Benedict in his recent interview notes that secular world in which we live must be helped understand “that the Christian faith is not an impediment but a bridge for dialogue with other worlds. It is not right to think that a purely rational culture has an easier approach to other religions just because it is tolerant. Rather, the Pope notes, “because of the new intercultural environment in which we live, pure rationality separated from God is insufficient.”
The principal contribution of Church institutions in an increasingly secular society is, as Pope Benedict noted in his recent interview, “to witness to God in a world that has problems finding Him… and to make God visible in the human face of Jesus Christ, to offer people access to the source without which our morale becomes sterile and loses its point of reference”.
Let me conclude by referring to one area where I feel that Church is bringing a new and important contribution to Irish society. Ireland is changing demographically with the arrival of large numbers of immigrants. I am convinced that this factor will be of long- term great benefit culturally and economically, if it is managed correctly.
I have seen time and again how much the Catholic school system in Dublin – and I am sure in other parts of Ireland – is doing extraordinary work in finding ways of ensuring that children of at times up to one hundred nationalities can get along together and see their future as a common future for Ireland.
There is a delicate mix to be found between integration and multiculturalism and I believe that so far we have been doing well in our schools, which enhance the cultural identity of children of different ethnic background, but who prepare also a new sense of Irish identity of which all can be proud to share. I had tended to use the title “new Irish” regarding our new immigrants, but what I see now is that all of us have to become “new Irish”, with a different understanding of what it will mean in the future to be Irish.
In the traditional history books, as if in a happy ending story, the good invaders became “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. That of course was not true. The Irish became part-Vikings and part-Norman and part-Planters in their own way and something new yet something distinctively Irish emerged.
But that something new can be good or bad. Our reflections today on the forced encounter between General Humbert and Bishop Stock indicate the only way forward is that of “a genuine engagement in mutual respect and a mutual enrichment of culture”.
My door is open in that sense also to the troops of invading secularisation, hoping that they will of course not make off as Humbert’s men did with my larder and cellar.