ITV 3 began screening ‘Monsignor Renard’ late last night. The drama set in France in 1940 casts John Thaw as an ageing Catholic priest returning to minister in a town overrun in the Nazi invasion of the country. There is an uncertainty and ambivalence amongst the people as hostilities come to an end: they cheer Marechal Petain as he makes his radio announcement that an armistice has been agreed, but there is then a dawning realization that, for their community, the armistice amounts to a surrender, that the invaders are the new masters. Renard must provide pastoral care to a town where attitudes to the invaders range in a spectrum from active resistance to open collaboration.
It is a situation explored in various novels over the years – Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Troubled Sleep’ and Irene Nemirovsky’s ‘Suite Francaise’ provide French perspectives on a bleakly unhappy period, one that led to possibly 10,000 vengeance killings when the Nazis were expelled in 1944.
The programme had a symbolic appropriateness on a night when Ireland sat and waited for the arrival of the representatives of the International Monetary Fund. An altogether benign presence when compared with the heinous evil of the Nazis, the arrival of the IMF did bring out a range of reactions – from militant opposition to voices welcoming these outsiders who would correct the errors made by the national government. A telephone caller to a phone-in on RTE Radio 1 called for the suspension of Dail Eireann on the basis that we were no longer a sovereign nation and therefore had no need of a national parliament.
There is a dawning realization that we have surrendered; that whatever Petain-like protestations may come from the Taoiseach about us reaching agreements, the fact is that there is no choice. A caller on this afternoon’s radio programme pointed out that the old maxim that the one who pays the piper calls the tune described the situation in which we find ourselves.
International rescue packages are not built around the needs of the old and the sick and the vulnerable, they are about reducing deficits and balancing budgets; they are about the bottom line, about numbers on pages, about money markets, about the perceptions of slick young men in sharp suits who play the financial markets with the levity that country people would play a hand of whist. For years to come, our country will march to orders spoken quietly by anonymous officials in far off places.
Brian Cowen sits in his office with not much more freedom of manouvre than the mayor of a town in occupied France, reduced to being an administrator for foreign powers. Even a General Election now seems pointless; a replacement of one puppet by another, at great cost to the public: what is the point of having a government with responsibility, but no power? If the budgets for the coming years are pre-determined by our new masters, what is the point of going to vote?
Hopefully there is a Sartre out there who will describe the last days of Irish independence; little else can come from these days.