There was an odd side to days in the North back in the 1980s. Direct rule from Westminster meant local politicians had few powers and much of public life was administered by various government departments and statutory bodies; they ran things very well. Schools, health care, housing, roads – the service was very good and was generally in stark contrast with the provision on this side of the border. One never needed a signpost to know the border had been crossed; the state of the road surface was an unmistakable indicator.
Through very dark days, when ordinary life might have collapsed completely, the civil service in Northern Ireland held things together. There was an ethos of public service; there were civil servants who would not be bullied by hardline unionism, who believed the state to belong to them; or by militant nationalism, which, at times, seemed to desire the dismantling of the apparatus of the state. It is only in retrospect that the integrity of those officials becomes apparent; only looking back on what they achieved, can it be seen how important was a civil service free from political appointees.
When the DUP-Sinn Fein power-sharing executive was established, a friend commented on “grey-suited old Instonians” handing over their offices to republicans; yet if it had not been for the old Instonians, and the past pupils of the other Belfast schools he might have mentioned, there would not have been much left to hand over.
The public service ethos, that sustained the North through thirty years of the Troubles, was just as evident in Dublin. Ireland has passed through social and political changes since 1922 that might have provoked revolutionary reactions elsewhere, yet the machinery of government has continued its work, quietly and steadily, through great upheavals. It would have been easy for the civil service to have been drawn into political struggles, Ireland is such an intimate society that personal contacts are inevitable, but independence and integrity were maintained.
Sharing in a liturgy last evening, to remember past members and to give thanks for serving members, at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, here in Dublin, it occurred to me afterwards how blessed Ireland has been in the civil service that has served it. At least one person at the gathering had joined the civil service in the late-1930s, his memories would make fascinating reading, except that such memories would never be shared for publication.
It is only afterwards that one thinks of what one might have said, had one thought the matter through. Should I ever be invited back to such a liturgy, I think I would want to make mention in my few words of the importance of giving thanks for the ethos embraced by the public servants on this island, those who held together the past so that we might have a present.