Enoch Burke, attention-seeker: what the judges said

I don’t know to what extent the tedious case of Enoch Burke has been covered outside Ireland, or Irish circles. He is currently at the centre of a series of court cases surrounding his misconduct as a teacher at a school in central Ireland. Last May a pupil at the school came out as trans and requested the school to use a new name and they/them pronouns. Burke – who did not actually teach any classes including the child in question – wrote to the principal of the school saying that he was not prepared to do so, spoke angrily about the issue at a staff meeting and then disrupted a school religious service by heckling the principal and the local bishop in front of the pupils.

The school suspended him as a teacher and and then fired him, on the grounds of misconduct, but he continued to turn up to the school demanding to be allowed inside to continue teaching. The police and court system got involved; he continued to defy court orders to tell him to stay away from the school and ended up in prison for contempt of court for several weeks before Christmas. After he was formally fired in January, he continued turning up at the school, and was arrested when he went inside. The court has now imposed a fine of €700 per day for each day he turns up at the school premises; he now owes the school over €24,000.

The usual suspects are trying to make a case that this crazy bigot who refuses to give assurances that he will not harass a child who is going through a difficult phase of their life, disrupted a religious service, attempted to intimidate his colleagues and their pupils and has repeatedly defied the law, is in fact a heroic martyr for the cause of free speech and standing up for the principle that biological sex is real. Although it should be noted that Fred Phelps Jr of the Westboro Baptist Church thinks he has ‘gone too far’, which is a line you won’t see often.

I read with interest the rulings of three judges on the Court of Appeal who threw out Burke’s attempt to overturn the previous judgements against him on 7 March. (The Burke family disrupted the Court of Appeal session and had to be removed by police. Since then, Burke lost another case last week.) The three judges take somewhat different routes to arrive at the same conclusion.

The most interesting judgement is from Justice John A. Edwards. You can read it in full here. He goes in some detail into the history of Irish legislation on recognising gender transition, particularly the Foy case, which I wasn’t really aware of. He then looks at cases of people taking controversial stances of conscience, including (rather to my delight) Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire. He makes this important point:

Conscientious objections are to be taken seriously. Beliefs sincerely held are to be respected, whether they be on social or religious or other principled grounds. All the more so, where the beliefs on which the objection is founded, and the right to express them, are supported by personal rights guaranteed to the citizen under the Constitution, and perhaps also under international instruments. However, nobody has a monopoly on rights and rights such as freedom of conscience, the right to free profession and practice of religious belief, and freedom of expression are not wholly unqualified rights. Further, those rights may intersect with the same or other rights, arising under the Constitution or otherwise, of others who do not share their beliefs.

If you are in the mood for it, the two other rulings bear reading too. The President of the Court of Appeal, George Birmingham (who in a previous life was Ireland’s first ever Minister of State for EU Affairs, back in 1986), mainly looks at the legal technicalities (because the Court was looking at alleged failures of procedure, according to the Burkes, in the previous court rulings). You can read his judgement here. But he too makes some very important points of wider application. I was struck by this at the end:

It seems to me that the approach of the school is very much in accordance with wider public policy as articulated in legislation such as the Gender Recognition Act 2015. That Act is not directly applicable in the circumstances of this case, as the pupil involved, being under 18 years of age, has not applied for and is not in a position to apply for a gender recognition certificate. However, it is part of the statute law of the State, and is, to a degree, I believe, declaratory of public policy. The long title of the Act is that it is “An Act to recognise change of gender; to provide for gender recognition certificates; to amend the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, the Civil Registration Act 2004, the Passports Act 2008 and the Adoption Act 2010; and to provide for matters connected therewith.” Against the background of the statute law of the State, it seems clear to me that the decision of the principal and of the school is in no sense an outlier.

Isn’t it interesting that Ireland has come to the stage where recognising transgender people for who they are is seen by a 68-year-old senior judge as the default, and the behaviour of the Burkes is in every sense an outlier?

Finally, Justice Maire Whelan, formerly the second longest-serving attorney-general in the history of the Irish state, whose own appointment to the court in 2017 was somewhat controversial, weighs in on the school’s ethos and duties to its pupils, and Burke’s failure to respect either. One of the points of interest of the case is that the school is actually a Protestant school by background, run by the Church of Ireland. The village where the school is located has a total population of less than 200, and only 2% of the 95,000 population of the whole of County Westmeath identify as Church of Ireland, so it seems likely that the school takes in pupils of other faiths and none. (My research, not Justice Whelan’s.) Justice Whelan looks at the role and responsibilities of the school and of Enoch Burke, and comes down very firmly on the side of the school.

Contrary to Mr. Burke’s contentions the safety, health and welfare of the individual student is of central importance in this case. In was incumbent upon the school to ensure that a parental request that respect be afforded by the school for the diversity arising should be accommodated in accordance with the school’s own Admission Statement and characteristic spirit.  As stated above, both the school and Mr. Burke stood in loco parentis to the student. It was incumbent upon the school to ensure that no conduct, by act or omission, as might cause harm or be potentially discriminatory or that could impact detrimentally upon the student in question or the student body would be engaged in…

Leaving aside all legislation, the school and its Board had continuing and significant common law obligations towards children in respect of which it stood in loco parentis.  Mr. Burke himself had – and continues to have – like obligations at law… 

Further parents and students were entitled to expect that no individual student would be at risk of less favourable treatment than their peers, of being left vulnerable to discrimination, of not being accorded or treated equally with other students in terms of their human dignity by virtue of the potential conduct of a teacher in the school.  The school having adopted its mission statement and statement of ethos as it was required to do by statute was bound by its terms.  Not alone was it not open to the school, by omission, to resile from its obligations but, in my view, it had a positive duty to defend and vindicate the school policy in circumstances where a clear risk had been identified in the conduct of Mr Burke which was capable of visiting discrimination and/or impacting detrimentally on the welfare of the student body in general and the individual student in particular. That was particularly important where the school was one which in the very words of Mr Burke “ all teachers have interaction with all pupils”.

It is powerful stuff. Apparently several St Patrick’s Day parades yesterday featured floats mocking Burke’s removal from the school and the High Court by Gardaí, to cheers from the crowds. Ireland has changed.

(Though I hope that the student is getting the necessary support from their family and community. They did not pick this fight, and just want to live life as their own self.)

Faith in Politics, by John Bruton

Second paragraph of third essay:

As he approached the end of his life, Ian Paisley really wanted to be the man who was seen to have brought an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

In the last few years I’ve become friendly with John Bruton, former Taoiseach and former EU ambassador to the United States, and he kindly gave me this volume of his collected writings a few years back. Most of the pieces first saw the light of day as blog posts, newspaper articles or lectures, so it is all very digestible. Little will come as any surprise to readers who have followed Bruton’s career; he’s defensive of Ireland’s record as a nation (especially when he was in office, starting in 1973); he’s a convinced European, but troubled at the difficulty of herding cats (he has been at both ends of this dynamic, as a national leader and a senior EU representative); he takes economics seriously but is not obsessed by it.

A couple of points jumped out at me. First, his controversial but well-argued point that if there had been no Easter Rising, by 1930 or so Ireland would probably have ended up in the same place as in our time-line – a Home Rule government would have pushed for full independence and London would have been compelled to concede in the context of Canada, Australia and New Zealand getting similar powers.

I’m not so sure; part of the motivation for 1916 was the Nationalist perception that the UK had consistently failed to keep its promises to Ireland and the known risk that a post-war Conservative and Unionist government might revoke Home Rule before it was implemented, and this perception has some basis in reality. But Bruton makes a fair point that the achievement of Redmond in getting Home Rule onto the statute book in the first place deserves greater recognition.

Secondly, I was struck by the essays in his last section about Christianity and politics. It’s all fairly sensible stuff, arguing the need for an ethical framework to politics and government, and advocating the virtues of a faith background. He does not mention abortion or same-sex marriage. If church leaders were to follow his example and talk more about ethics in the broadest sense, they would have more credibility.

You can get it here. This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. (Sorry, John!) Next on that list is The Ahtisaari Legacy, edited by Nina Suomalainen.

My grandfather and Irish decimalisation

Three men, Ken Whitaker, Sean Murray and George Colley, pose with the new Irish decimal currency in February 1971

It’s a photograph that I have long been familiar with; legendary Irish economist and public servant T.K. Whitaker on the left, Minister for Finance George Colley on the right, and in the middle my grandfather, Sean F. Murray, previously Whitaker’s deputy at the Department of Finance, inspecting the new decimal Irish currency, switching from the old system of 20 shillings and 240 pennies to the pound, to the new 100 pence which endured until the arrival of the euro. My grandfather chaired the internal government committee that brought in the new system.

The new Irish decimal coins exactly matched the British, as the old coins had done since they were introduced in 1928; there was later some divergence, as the Irish 50p coin did not downsize when the British did, and the Irish 20p coin was larger and rounder than the British one, but for most of the period from 1971 to 2002, most British and Irish coins were physically interchangeable, and certainly in Northern Ireland you would normally find some Irish coinage mixed in with your sterling change. This could occasionally lead to problems after the Irish pound aligned with the European Monetary System in 1979; I remember well Black Wednesday in 1992, when the exchange rate shifted from £1.05 Irish to £1 sterling, to vice versa in the course of a few days.

In hindsight, the decision to continue the alignment of the Irish and British currencies after decimalisation in 1971 looks like a no-brainer, and I must say I had vaguely wondered what my grandfather’s committee actually did other than accept the inevitable. I was completely wrong. A 2020 Ph D thesis by Andrew John Cook at the University of Huddersfield looks in depth at the decimalisation process, not only in the United Kingdom, but also in the Commonwealth (much of which had inherited the pounds, shillings and pence of the colonisers) and Ireland. The story is much more complicated than I had realised, and in fact all three of the men in the photograph – Whitaker, Murray and Colley – had initially opposed the decision that they ended up implementing.

From the early days of independence, occasional voices had floated ideas that Ireland should decimalise its currency – but by adopting the ten-shilling unit and shillings as the core of the new system, abolishing the pound and changing from 12 pennies to 10 cents in each shilling. This was not a fringe idea. The first such proposal was from T.A. Smiddy, Michael Collins’ economic advisor and later the Irish Free State’s first ambassador (to the United States). The surviving memo from him to Collins is dated April 1923 in the archives – which must be incorrect, because Smiddy was already in Washington by then and Collins had been dead for eight months. If he received it during his lifetime, Collins would have had other things on his mind anyway.

A cabinet committee in 1959, and another in 1965, endorsed the ten-shilling scheme, though a sizeable minority in both cases preferred to move in tandem with the UK. Another proposal floated at the time was to move to florins, worth two old shillings, as the base unit; each florin would have 100 cents (so 10 florins and 1000 cents to the old pound). The argument was that for a country much poorer than the UK, the fundamental unit need not be as valuable as the British pound.

But with the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement in 1965, and the 1966 British announcement that they would move to a pound with 100 pence in 1971, the situation became urgent. Cook quotes from several government memos written by my grandfather, from which it becomes clear that he ended up as the key mover, along with Finance Minister and then Taoiseach Jack Lynch and also Charles Haughey, Lynch’s successor in Finance, to ensure that Irish decimalisation would match the British process.

My grandfather was in charge from an early stage. In January 1967, three months before I was born, he wrote a memo to the Cabinet on behalf of the Department of Finance recommending the florin-cent system. This was also supported by his boss, T.K. Whitaker, and by the Ministers for Foreign Affairs, Frank Aiken, and for Industry and Commerce, George Colley. However, the 85-year-old President De Valera supported the ten-shilling scheme (advocated 45 years earlier by Smiddy) in an October 1967 letter to the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, in which he also foresaw the ultimate role of a single European currency:

I would adopt half the pound sterling, that is the ten-shilling note as the Irish fundamental note. It would have to be given a name. For want of a better one I use Réalt here. One tenth of a Réalt would be a scilling and one tenth of a scilling a pingin.

If I were asked, why not keep exactly to the British unit, I would say that the ten shilling one is a better one on its merits. Moreover, it is desirable that Dublin is not considered a mere suburb of London, or Ireland as a piece of West Britain. There are, possibly, amongst us some who desire this but we should not aid them. There is no better way of making visitors feel they have come to a different nation than by having a different currency …

We will never get a chance like this again for a quiet assertion of our nationality. The decision to be made here is, in my opinion not a mere economic one. It is, also, a national one, and were the decision to be mine I would not hesitate a moment. The British might, sometime in the future change the basis again, we would surely look ridiculous if we were always accommodating ourselves to them. The position would be different of course if the nations of Europe were all to go over to a common unit and Britain were to join them. We could then, without any loss of dignity, accept the common unit.

But the Minister of Finance, Jack Lynch, had been in favour of simply following the British lead since at least 1966, and when he became Taoiseach in October of that year, the new Minister of Finance, Charles Haughey, ruthlessly implemented Lynch’s policy. (Which is rather ironic, given later events.) Haughey commissioned a public consultation, and put my grandfather in charge of managing it and ensuring that it came up with the right answer (thus neutralising one of the internal voices in favour of the florin system).

The banks were particularly strong supporters of the Haughey/Lynch plan, and that carried a lot of weight. On 23 April 1968, Haughey, backed by his deputy, Jim Gibbons, and by Lynch as Taoiseach, announced the shift to pounds and new pence with the same value as sterling, to take place on 15 February 1971, the same day as the UK, based on the results of the public consultation and the conclusions of the committee that my grandfather had been running.

By February 1971, Haughey had been dramatically fired by Lynch, and tried and acquitted of shipping arms to the IRA, with Gibbons (who had meanwhile become Minister of Defence) the chief witness against him. His replacement as Minister of Finance was George Colley, meaning that he and my grandfather, who had both been early supporters of the florin scheme, were now in charge of implementing a completely different proposal.

The RTÉ coverage of Decimalisation Day starts with Colley in a Dublin bank, my grandfather beside him looking at the camera to see if it is rolling, and ends with my grandfather in a brief interview saying that it all seems to have gone well. (And it had.) It must have been one of the biggest days of his career, and one can sense his glee. (I wasn’t able to embed the video directly, so this is it captured via my iPad; there are some silent parts, including at the beginning.)

Today is in fact the 113rd anniversary of my grandfather’s birth, on 16 October 1909. (His sister-in-law, now aged 106, is still with us.) He died in 1976 when I was nine, and the last thing I remember talking to him about was Gulliver’s Travels. I am the oldest of his 22 grandchildren; here I am with the first of his great-great-grandchildren, my half-first-cousin-twice-removed, born last year.

Meanwhile Andrew Cook’s thesis looks like a rollicking good read of what might at first sound like a very dry corner of administrative history, and for the time being at least, you can get it here.

That Damn’d Thing Called “Honour”: Duelling in Ireland, 1570-1860, by James Kelly

Second paragraph of third chapter, with table:

Many factors contributed to the growth in enthusiasm for duelling in Ireland in the late 1760s and 1770s. The social and attitudinal effects of economic prosperity, already referred to,’ were at work a fortiori by the end of the 1760s; while the disinclination of the authorities to use the law to confine the enthusiasm for duelling meant that there was little by way of legal obstacles in their path. Table 2.6, which summarises the response of the law to the recorded duelling incidents that constitute our sample for the years 1716-70, indicates that there was an identifiable decline in the proportion of duellists taken to court in the mid-eighteenth century. By the 1760s the authorities no longer prosecuted duellists as a matter of course, even in cases in which there were fatalities, if the duel was deemed to have been conducted within the code of honour, because judges and juries routinely returned verdicts of manslaughter in self-defence which ensured the defendant’s prompt release.

I got this because I remain very intrigued by the reported incident of about 1723 when one of my 5x great-grandfathers, John Ryan Glas of Inch, Co Tipperary, was killed in a duel in Dublin by another of my 5x great-grandfathers, John White of Leixlip, Co Kildare, in a property dispute that escalated. Kelly doesn’t refer to that in his book, but it’s still a very interesting analysis of socially sanctioned extrajudicial violence in a society which was going through many transitions.

Although the dates given are 1570 to 1860, most of the recorded duels are from the eighteenth century. I do have a family connection with one of the earliest of them, however, the 1583 trial by combat between two of the O’Conors of Uí Failge (Offaly, as we now call it), held in the yard of Dublin castle at the command of my ancestor Sir Nicholas White, Master of the Rolls.

But basically the formal duel came into its own in the aftermath of the Williamite settlement, when the rule of law was weak but the concept of honour remained strong, and intensified in the later part of the century as political change began to build. Indeed it’s striking just how many of the leading politicians of the day were involved with duelling, right up to Grattan and Flood, and the young Daniel O’Connell.

I also realised that I had forgotten whatever I once knew about the complexity of eighteenth-century Irish politics, with the corrupt but stable “undertaker” system during the mid-century upset by the Castle v Patriot dynamic towards the end, which led to autonomy from 1782, failed rebellion in 1798 and Union in 1801. These political struggles were not only carried out verbally. But at the same time, quite a lot of duels were resolved without either combatant being killed, and no major figure lost his life in that way (unlike Alexander Hamilton).

So, plenty to chew on. You can get it here.

The Limbless Landlord, by Brian Igoe

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Thence they had a long (over 200 miles) journey by road to Chalon-sur-Saône, whence they took a steamer down the River Rhone to Avignon, which should have been much more comfortable. The swift flowing Rhone can be quite exciting to sail down, and this trip reportedly took thirteen hours. That would be an average of 16.8 knots!

Way way back in 2008, I read and reviewed four biographies of the fascinating Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh, an important Irish political figure of the third quarter of the nineteenth century, who notably was born with only stumps at his shoulders and hips instead of arms and legs. A bit more recently in 2012 I wrote a shorter piece about him for the BBC. I’ve also written up the one book that he wrote, and a novel based on his life. Brian Igoe sent me his own biography of Kavanagh to look at back in 2015, and I’m sorry to say that it took me until now to actually read it.

Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh

I complained of the four previous biographies that 1) none of them is particularly good, 2) none of them looked at Kavanagh’s political career in much detail (he ended up leader of the Irish Unionist MPs in the House of Commons) and 3) none of them looked at his religious beliefs. Igoe’s biography is certainly better than the other four, and looks at Kavanagh’s politics in detail, and at least gives more than passing notice to his religious practice, so I think I’d recommend it as a starting point to anyone wanting to explore Kavanagh’s life.

I felt that Igoe is particularly good also at looking at Kavanagh’s family circumstances, a younger son of a landlord family, a class that was already dying out, doing his best to stand up for his ideal of an old-fashioned, conservative Ireland in changing times. And to be honest, Ireland was a pretty conservative country until quite recently; had he lived to see Irish independence (he would have been 91 in 1922) he would probably have accommodated himself to it as he accommodated himself to other inconveniences in his life.

Igoe’s style is a bit breathless, and there are one or two moments where I winced at a truncation of the historical record. But he sticks close to the historical facts, as far as they can be determined from the record, where other recent biographers have taken the truncated figure of Kavanagh as a canvas to project their own fantasies onto. Really, the truth is extraordinary enough. You can get it here.