Society and the State

“The Seventies will be Socialist”, a famous Labour Party election slogan proclaimed in 1969. Labour did enter a Coalition Government as a junior partner in 1973 but that government lost power at the following election. The disappointment of youthful socialist dreams led to a rueful joke that the Socialists would be 70 rather than the Seventies being Socialist!

Labour is currently at a low ebb while parties to its Left receive more votes than they did a generation ago but, in overall terms, socialism since the 1970s has continued to enjoy somewhat limited electoral support in Ireland. Nevertheless, socialist ideas and perspectives have been remarkably influential in our media and in public discussion.

This is reflected in a variety of ways. There is considerable emphasis on the State’s prerogatives and on the need for accountability to the State but considerably less discussion about the social importance and contribution of other bodies such as voluntary or non-profit organizations. During the recent controversy about the proposed move of the National Maternity Hospital to the St Vincent’s site, the overwhelming emphasis in media discussion was on the need for full State control of the new facility while the contribution of the Sisters of Charity, in building up the St Vincent’s service over generations, seemed to count for nothing.

Those who advocate ever-greater State control, such as various Left-wing TDs, also get remarkably “soft” interviews on the airwaves, the default assumption appearing to be that they are, by definition, committed to justice and that their ideas and proposals – on public spending or religion in schools or the Eighth Amendment or prayer in the Dáil – need not therefore be subject to detailed scrutiny.

A time warp?

Some of the Irish discussion about the glories of State control and State accountability also seems curiously dated, as if stuck in a 1970s time warp. There has been growing recognition in many other countries in recent decades that the State on its own hasn’t all the answers and that partnership between the State and other actors is necessary for effective welfare. While State monopolies like the UK’s NHS have strong popular support, they face constant crises and re-organizations. In many countries, there is widespread acceptance of the need for active non-profit involvement in welfare and particularly in areas of great challenge and complexity like addiction or long-term care. Politicians from both the Labour and Conservative traditions in Britain have shown strong interest in Catholic social thought as an alternative to narrow “statist” and free-market positions. Movements like the “Third Way” within social democracy, or the “Big Society” within Conservatism, were two attempts to come to terms with the limitations of State welfare and to develop a partnership between the State and civil society.

Moreover, the emphasis in Ireland on State accountability is happening at a time when, for better or worse, the State has ceded many powers to, or “shared sovereignty” with, the European Union.

There has also been limited discussion in Ireland about how accountable State bodies themselves actually are. Thus, the regional health boards, which delivered healthcare between 1971 and 2005, received a lot of criticism, some of it justified, for “parish-pump” politics, and were abolished in the interests of a more uniform national service, but were arguably a good deal more accountable than the HSE which replaced them. For example, their decision-making board meetings were open to the media and the public and their boards had a good mixture of political and professional expertise with local politicians being in the majority. While the HSE does report to the Minister and the Oireachtas and has regional consultative mechanisms, its board meetings are held in private and it is not responsive to the population across the regions in the way that the health boards were.

A lot of the Irish discussion about the rights of the State also has a strong anti-clerical edge. There are some distinctions to be made here, for example, between secularism and socialism. Not all secularists are socialists and there is a very honourable tradition of Christian socialism in Ireland and elsewhere.  Nevertheless, the dominant secularist argument in academic discussion and the media is that the Church and the religious orders “muscled into” the welfare area in Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and that an emphasis on Catholic charity hindered or delayed the development of a comprehensive welfare state – an ungenerous narrative which fails to acknowledge the enormous and often heroic contribution of the religious orders to Irish healthcare and education during this period.

The State’s debt to the Church

One could also point out, in opposition to this “statist” narrative, that the modern State across Europe built on, and hugely benefited from, services originally developed by charitable bodies, often linked to the Church.  One thinks, in this context, to give just a few examples, of major hospitals all across Europe with Catholic/charitable origins like St Thomas’s Hospital in London, the Hotel-Dieu in Paris or the Ca’ Granda in Milan. In countries like Italy, the Church built up welfare services over many centuries and it was arguably an anti-clerical State which “muscled in” to this welfare area in the late nineteenth century.

In Ireland, the Church was unable to contribute to welfare in Penal times but any fair analysis should take account of the very considerable Church contributions to Irish education and healthcare after Catholic Emancipation, and right down to the pioneering work done in our own day, for example, by the Sisters of Charity in hospice care – while also acknowledging the grave scandals and governance issues that have been documented in institutional child care.

Clearly, it would be wrong to dismiss socialist idealism or to argue that socialist ideas don’t have a legitimate place in our national conversation or to deny that there can be troubling differentials in Ireland between public and private healthcare and education.

Nor does one have to be a socialist to affirm the importance of the State in our national life. The State clearly does have a key role in guaranteeing human rights, including the rights of the unborn, in guaranteeing standards and access to services, in leading campaigns against homelessness and so on.

Need for balanced discussion

However, there is a need in Ireland today for a more balanced and nuanced discussion on the role and prerogatives of the State and on the relationship between State and society. Within the Catholic tradition, an excellent resource for such reflection is to be found in the encyclicals. Thus, Benedict XVI’s 2005 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, offers a very illuminating and balanced discussion of charity and justice and of State and society. Benedict stresses that the State has a critical role in promoting justice, argues that justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics and quotes St Augustine to the effect that a State that was not focused on justice would be just a bunch of thieves.

The document also reflects on the relationship between charity and justice, notes that there will always be suffering and loneliness and the need for concrete love of neighbour and points out that charity or love will always therefore be necessary, even in the most just society: “There is no ordering of the State so just that it will eliminate the need for a service of love.

And, while highlighting the importance of the State’s role in the promotion of justice, the document also makes useful reference to the State’s limitations: “The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy, incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person – every person – needs: namely  loving, personal concern” (DCE, 28).

Tim O’Sullivan has degrees in arts and social policy is a former public servant. He is a regular contributor to Position Papers.