June 24, 2021
Boston Irish Essay/Timothy Kirk
Ireland and Boston: Fairness vs. Excellence
“In fairness”… “In all fairness” … “To be fair” … “Let’s be fair” … “Be fair now, lads!” … “Fair play” … “Fair play to you” (or to her, to him, to them et al).
All are common phrases referring to the concept of fairness that is invoked in everyday conversation in Ireland. They are used so frequently in the banter that their meaning is hidden in plain sight, but the importance of fairness in Irish culture runs deep.
Last year’s general election in Ireland was defined by how the competing parties would make Ireland a more fair society. Immediately after the election, the Covid crisis tsunami de-prioritized everything else. The inspiring message of solidarity – that everyone in Ireland was in the same Covid boat and that together the country would overcome the challenge – united the people. Ireland imposed and has endured the longest lockdown of any country in the world. The government has supported the shuttered businesses and the unemployed by massive subsidies. The performance of the government’s response to the pandemic will take years to analyze but on the total Covid death count, Ireland compares well to Massachusetts, which has approximately the same population as the island of Ireland (North and South: 6.8 million). As of this writing, the total of Covid deaths on the island of Ireland are 10,600. In Massachusetts, deaths are put at 17,852, per the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent global health research center at the University of Washington.
As the pandemic tide recedes, the issues that were facing the country at the outset of 2020 and that defined the general election – affordable housing, equitable and equal access to education and health care, ending of the scourge of homelessness – will become visible again like large boulders resurfacing as the tide rolls out. The common granite of all of these boulder issues is fairness.
Perhaps it is the cultural memory of being the victims of the extreme and prolonged injustice of conquest, dispossession, and landlordism/tenant farming, a form of serfdom akin to slavery. The scars of that history, endured by the ancestors of most living Irish people, heighten the Irish sensitivity to unfairness whether it occurs at home or around the world.
In the images of Syrians driven from their homes by famine and war, the Irish see themselves “but for the grace of God.” Similarly, the Irish instinctively identify with the Palestinians whose homes have been stolen and bulldozed by Israeli settlers and who were pulverized yet again this May, by Israeli airstrikes, with high tech weapon systems provided by American taxpayers. Ireland condemned Israeli aggression and became the only member of the United Nations to define Israeli policy explicitly as annexation.
Fairness during the Pandemic
Unfairness, or the appearance of it, is deeply offensive to Irish society. When political leaders or other powerful people in Ireland appear to be profiting from their privileged positions, or to be somehow above the law, the backlash can be swift and ferocious. Several incidents during the pandemic illustrate that the positive message of solidarity and equality can morph into anger and retribution.
“It was like this that all terrible things happen to a man, casually.”
– Patrick Kavanagh
In August 2020 during a temporary partial easing of Covid restrictions on movement and in-person gatherings, Phil Hogan, then the EU Trade Commissioner, attended a golf dinner sponsored by the Oireachtas (Irish for Government) Golf Society.
The dinner was held in a hotel in two adjoining dining rooms. Had the partition between the rooms been fully closed, the gathering would have been within the Covid regulations of the time, but because the partition was not complete, the dinner exceeded the recommended capacity. Subsequent reports also indicated a laxity of mask wearing. Even so, in terms of scandals, this seemed small potatoes to me, particularly in the Trump era, barely worthy of a news story at all. Not so in Ireland.
The backlash was immediate: wall-to-wall coverage in print, radio, and on TV. The new Minister of Agriculture, who was also in attendance, was forced to resign, and a Supreme Court justice’s position was imperiled.
The most shocking outcome was for Phil Hogan. Each EU member country has one commissioner assigned to head various committees and Hogan’s role as the Commissioner for Trade is considered one of the most prestigious in the EU. He was universally respected in Ireland and in the EU for his competence, experience, and integrity. Even more important was the fact that last summer when the EU was in the throes of painful and consequential Brexit negotiations with Boris Johnson’s government, Hogan’s steady hand and knowledge were considered irreplaceable to the EU and Ireland.
At the beginning of the scandal, his position seemed secure and the offense minor, but as public outrage mounted, Hogan made a series of public apologies, to no avail. With each passing day, his position became less and less tenable. When the prime minister himself recommended that Hogan “consider his position” (an Irish euphemism for resigning), he did so.
Hogan’s transgressions seemed trivial and his resignation a disproportionate and counter-productive reaction. Public outrage was fueled by the frustration of everyday citizens who had been unable to meet their grandchildren, attend wakes, funerals, and weddings during the Covid crisis. The image of the rich and powerful attending what became known as ‘Golfgate’ seemed outrageously unfair and enraged the people.
Jumping the Vaccine Queue
When the vaccination program finally began in earnest in Ireland (later and slower than in most countries), reports emerged of several instances of hospitals like the Coomb, Mater, and The Beacon where “extra” vaccines were left over at the end of a shift. In the early days of the vaccination program, the recommendation was that vaccines be administered right away as they could not be preserved for long periods of time. In each of these cases, a dozen or so vaccine doses were given to either family members of staff, or in the case of the Beacon, to teachers at a nearby school attended by The Beacon CEO’s children.
These stories of jumping the queue based on connections would simply not have made the news in Boston, but were national scandals here. Calls for resignations of the heads of the hospitals or other punishments were widespread. In response, the government shut down The Beacon Hospital’s free vaccine center which had been part of the Health Service’s vaccination rollout.
The retribution for perceived unfairness had adverse consequences for the country. Hogan was replaced on the commission by a very capable leader but at a less senior level and on a less powerful committee. Most close observers think that had Hogan still been in his position, he would not have allowed the EU’s misstep on invoking article 16 of the NI protocol for several hours in late January, which raised concerns about the imposition of a land border on the island of Ireland. At a basic level, shutting down The Beacon Hospital’s vaccination center reduced the country’s capacity to administer vaccines. After the hospital scandals, there have been no further reports of extra vaccines being given to family and friends but common sense would suggest that hospitals have “binned” (thrown in the trash) subsequent extra doses rather than risk negative press. All examples of Ireland’s cutting off its nose to spite its face.
Fairness vs. Excellence
While Ireland is obsessed with fairness, Boston's culture is defined by the pursuit of excellence. Boston prides itself on being the “city on a hill” that is home to the finest schools, universities, medical schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, and the greatest sports teams. The list of Boston superlatives is long, as my colleagues from other parts of the country who have endured my effusive praise of Boston as the Athens of America – probably to their annoyance and, hopefully, to their amusement – could attest. Boston is all about being the best.
It obviously has amazing hospitals. When Adele needed her vocal cords fixed, when Ted Kennedy required experimental medical care, or when the Shah of Iran sought cancer treatment, they came to Boston. Our schools, colleges, and universities attract some of the best students and professors in the world. But the pursuit and achievement of excellence leaves some behind. The healthcare and educational excellence in Massachusetts is too often available only to the wealthy and powerful.
Massachusetts’s striving for excellence can also result in a type of fairness as a byproduct. The state executed a world-class vaccine rollout, achieving the highest percentage of people vaccinated in the shortest time frame. Most residents are pleased with the efficiency of the rollout and ignore its inequity. Put another way, most people would agree that getting everyone vaccinated quickly, even if unfairly, is better than getting everyone vaccinated slowly but fairly.
In Ireland the pursuit of fairness has delivered excellence as a byproduct. John Hume began his career as a teacher and entered the public realm by starting a credit union in Derry to give fair access to banking services to the Catholic community across the six counties. This led to a decades-long career pursuing equality for his people and his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, the ultimate symbol of excellence, and an award he did not seek.
Reading the foundational documents of Ireland and the US provides some clues as to attitudes toward fairness and equality. The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal” as a “self-evident truth” although, in fairness, (there it is again!) it did also enshrine slavery and ignore women. The Constitution mentions equality only once, in the 14th amendment in 1868, and then only in reference to equality before the law.
The Irish Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916 goes a little further:
“The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”
In the 1937 deValera-revised Irish Constitution, “equality” is mentioned only once and, like the US Constitution, in regard to equality before the law.
The cultural attitudes toward fairness are deeper than the founding documents of either country portray. Discussing fairness sounds to American ears like participation trophies or namby-pamby socialist talk to be written off as unrealistic, utopian gibberish. Americans are more likely to accept the reality that there are winners and losers in life. As JFK himself said in 1962:
''There is always inequity in life. Some men are killed in a war, and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic, and some are stationed in San Francisco. It's very hard, in military or in personal life, to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.''
It is dangerous to attempt to speak for the dead, but I suspect that JFK might have wanted to add to his oft-quoted remark that while life is obviously unfair, we should endeavor to make life as fair as possible for all people.
This leaves us with the question: Is it possible to create a society that strives for both the fairness to which Ireland aspires and the excellence Boston demands?