Priory Hall is not an exception

Published in Village magazine, May 2012 Priory Hall is no exception — a history of poor regulation and enforcement has left many of us living in shoddy homes, argues Lenny Antonelli

The government has launched a public consultation on building control following the high profile evacuation of the Priory Hall development in north Dublin due to fire safety defects.

But the proposed changes are nothing more than a paper exercise that will do little to boost the number of on site building inspections.

The new rules demand the submission of "certificates of compliance" confirming a project meets the legal requirements of the building regulations. Drawings showing how a building complies will also have to be lodged. But it speaks volumes that such basic measures aren't already in place.

Following Priory Hall, environment minister Phil Hogan said the fact Dublin City Council took the case to court "is a clear indication the Building Control Act is robust" (1). But if the act was robust, 240 people wouldn't have moved into a faulty building. And the government wouldn't be fixing the act six months later.

Priory Hall highlighted the lack of on-site building inspection in Ireland. The government requires local authorities to inspect just 12-15% of buildings. In 2010 — the last year for which figures are available — the average local authority inspected just a quarter of buildings. Four local authorities failed to meet their target, and two —Wexford County and Waterford City Councils — inspected no buildings at all.(2)

But the Irish Home Builders Association — a division of the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) — defended Irish builders in the wake of Priory Hall, and said the system of self-certifying buildings had worked well.

"Priory Hall is an exceptional case," director Hubert Fitzpatrick told Construction, the CIF magazine last October. But is it really? (3)

None of the houses examined for a study of 52 homes built between 1997 and 2002 complied fully with building regulations. The study was commissioned by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland but never published. Green building magazine Construct Ireland, which I'm deputy editor of, obtained it last year.

The study examined the homes for compliance with regulations on energy efficiency, ventilation and "heat producing appliances". Just one complied with energy efficiency rules in full, almost half failed to meet the rules for heat producing appliances, and over 40% failed to minimum ventilation standards. (5)

In a 2005 study, the National Disability Authority found housing had a "poor level of compliance" with Part M of the building regulations, which deals with access for people with disability.

These are the only two known studies that have looked at whether Irish housing complies with any parts of building regulations, according to the Department of Environment.

Other stories undermine the idea the Priory Hall is an exception. Up to 20,000 homes may now be infected with pyrite, a mineral that can cause some construction materials to expand and crack if exposed to air and water (7). Socialist TD Joe Higgins described these homes as "exploding in slow motion".

Meanwhile in Balgaddy, West Dublin, up to 400 local authority houses built at the height of the boom are plagued by dampness, mold, cracking, leaks, and electrical and sewage faults. (8)

And earlier this year, it was reported that up to 300 homes and apartments at Balmayne, north Dublin require expensive repairs due to fire safety faults.(9)

Though it's little comfort to the people living in there, these cases are the natural outcome of decades of under-regulation, lack of enforcement and lobbying against better building standards.

Though the first draft was written in 1967, building regulations weren't made law until more than 20 years later.(10)

As far back as 1978, Construction Industry Federation managing director Thomas Reynolds said making any insulation mandatory in new homes would be "entirely unrealistic and bureaucratic". (11)

That same year, the Building Industry Council urged the Department of Environment to scrap its draft building regulations and re-write it "with a greater understanding of the impact such regulations will have on industry." (12)

Then in 1982, the Irish Times reported that Aidan McDonald, a Department of Environment official, told the Stardust disaster tribunal that the building industry had lobbied against a system of building inspection and approval. The department accepted the industy's arguments and decided to move towards self certification, the Times reported. (13)

Building regulations finally came into force in the early nineties, along with the self certification system that gave us Priory Hall.

In 1998, an internal Department of Environment memo acknowledged energy efficiency standards were inadequate and needed updating. "We don't want to signal this to the outside world yet because the next leap in building standard insulation will probably involve making it difficult for 'hollow block' construction, used widely in Dublin, to survive," the memo read. This was revealed in a freedom of information request to Century Homes founder Gerry McCaughey. (14)

But the department didn't update the rules for another four years, during which hundreds of thousands of homes were built.

Then in 2007, the Construction Industry Federation warned that plans to boost minimum energy efficiency standards by 40% would add €15,000 to the price of new homes. The price rise never materialised. (15)

The Irish Homes Builders Association objected to plans the same year by Dun Laoghaire - Rathdown County Council to introduce its own tough energy efficiency rules, arguing the target was unachievable. (16) But a similar standard is now in effect nationwide.

Insulating a house properly is about more than just it keeping warm.  Over 300,000 households in Ireland experience energy poverty (17). Excess winter mortality — the surplus number of people that die in winter —in Ireland was found to be double that of Norway in a 2000 study by UCD researchers Peter Clinch and Jonathan Healy. Poor building standards could be one of the main causes, the authors said (18). Clinch and Healy also found that over half of elderly households in Ireland endured "inadequate" winter temperatures in a separate study that year. (19)

Countries with the highest winter mortality — Portugal, Spain, Ireland and UK —are also those with the poorest building standards, another study  concluded the following year. (20)

The number of excess winter deaths has fallen since, and insulation standards have improved, but Ireland still experiences more excess winter deaths than the most of Europe, according to the Institute of Public Health. (21)

Upgrading and insulating our building stock could form the core of a green economic programme that would reduce fuel poverty, cut carbon emissions and save construction jobs.

But the government has slashed home energy grants in successive budgets, even though SEAI research found every euro spent delivers a net benefit of €5 to society (22). The uptake of grants has plummeted this year.(23)

Yet in some ways Ireland is actually pushing the boundary of cutting edge, low energy construction. We built the first passive house —the leading standard of ultra low energy building —in the English speaking world, and we've become a world leader in this standard. But this is down to the ambition of our best architects, designers and builders, rather than government initiatives.

On paper, our minimum standards for energy efficiency are strong, but there's little enforcement. At Construct Ireland, we frequently encounter buildings that fail to meet energy efficiency standards — either because the builder or architect doesn't understand how to comply, or because they have little fear of inspection.

In 2009, a spokesperson for the Irish Homes Builders Association said the last government's plan that all new homes be zero carbon by 2013 was "extremely costly and difficult to achieve", and said new insulation rules were "overly prescriptive".(24)

Now the Fine Gael - Labour programme for government only commits to "moving towards zero carbon homes in the longer term." The Department of Environment failed to reply to a question I sent its press office asking if the 2013 target had been dropped.

The construction industry pushed against a higher standard, and now the government is delaying it. On paper our regulations might be good, but there's still barely any enforcement. We've been here before.

Lenny Antonelli is deputy editor of Construct Ireland magazine ( His personal website is

1. Priory Hall debacle shows need for decisive action, Irish Times, 25 October 2011

2. Local Government Management Services Board, Service Indicators Report 2010

3. IHBA ethos to improve standards says director, Construction magazine, p29 October/November 2011

4. Unpublished SEAI report: key findings revealed, Construct Ireland, p65, Issue 9 Volume 5

5. Homes failed to meet energy and building regulations, Irish Times, 29 November 2011

6. Review of the Effectiveness of Part M of the Building Regulations, National Disability Authority, 2005

7. Presentation of the Pyrite Action Group to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Transport, Culture and Gaeltacht, 11 October 2011

8. Council estate rife with mould and damp, Irish Times, 3 March 2011

9. Fire safety problems found in 300 homes on Dublin estate, 23 February 2012

10. Building code to take effect in June, Irish Times, 6 December 1991

11. Question of minimum levels of insulation generates some heat, Irish Times, 18 August 1978

12. Building Industry Council rejects draft rules, Irish Times, 5 May 1978

13. Opposition by builders held up regulations, Irish Times, 6 July 1982

14. Caveat Emptor, Construct Ireland, Issue 8 Volume 2, February 2005

15. Greens unveil plans for more energy efficient homes, Irish Times, 22 September 2007

16. Architect objects to energy standards for new homes, Irish Times, 2 March 2007

17. Warmer Homes, A Strategy for Affordable Energy in Ireland, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources

18.Housing Standards and Excess Winter Mortality, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Volume 54 Issue 9, September 2000

19. Fuel poverty, thermal comfort and occupancy: results of a national household survey in Ireland, Applied Energy, Volume 73 Issues 3-4, Nov-Dec 2002

20. Excess winter mortality in Europe: a cross country analysis identifying key risk factors, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Volume 57 Issue 10, October 2003

21. Fuel poverty and how does it contribute to health inequalities?

22. Economic Analysis of Residential and Small-Business Energy Efficiency Improvements, SEAI, September 2011

23. Insulation group says jobs at risk as level of activity collapses, Construct Ireland, Issue 10 Volume 5, May 2012

24. Costs proving prohibitive for housing market, Construction magazine, p8, May 2009


Being more civic

Published in Village magazine, September 2010. Note: this is my edit of the article, not Village's. Giving young people a basic understanding of politics and democracy is surely as important as any other activity in school — but civic education has a tumultuous history in Ireland, and is rarely taken seriously. Lenny Antonelli reports

Young people in Ireland are more politically aware than those in at least 30 other countries, according to new international research. The International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) surveyed 140,000 students across 38 countries, and found that more Irish students intend to vote in future than the international average too.

But its initial findings have been largely ignored. The OECD’s conclusion in January that the mediocre standard of maths and science among Irish pupils stunts our economy generated headlines, but there’s been little focus on how the quality of our civic education effects the nation’s political and social health.

The ICCS findings provide a cautious thumbs up, but we’re still far from boasting an education system that ensures every student is politically engaged. “It's encouraging but it shouldn't be a cause for any complacency,” says Gerry Jeffers of the education department at NUI Maynooth.

There may even be quite subtle reasons for Ireland’s high placing, such our good literacy rate or similarities between topics in the survey and the Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE) curriculum, explains Jude Cosgrove of the Educational Research Centre (ERC), which ran the ICCS survey in Ireland. The full ICCS report will be released in late September, and in November the ERC will publish a detailed national report [Update: now released, see].

Promoting “active participation” may be one of CSPE’s main goals, but the ICCS survey — given to 3,400 second year students in Ireland — found students here have fairly average levels of involvement in civic activities outside school.

Sixty per cent of CSPE’s marks go towards a student’s report on their action project — some activity that involves civic engagement — but ‘soft’ projects are common. Teacher and campaigner Mark Conroy says many teachers invite the same guest speaker in year after year to discuss an uncontroversial issue, with students only given menial tasks such as finding the speaker’s phone number or welcoming him to the school. “It's meaningless. The students are certainly no better off in terms of civic attitudes at the end of it. If they did a project that had a component of proper community action, they'd learn something.”

“Civic and political education is a very pedestrian affair in Irish education,” he says. “It, to all intents and purposes, is an information source, rather than a call to arms. It does not have as its purpose the function of creating genuinely politically-conscious individuals.” No qualification in politics or sociology is needed to teach CSPE, and Conroy believes this hinders the subject. “The first thing I think that is needed is teachers who are genuinely fired up by the issues that should be raised in a CSPE class. All too often it is seen as a subject that fills up the gaps in a teacher's timetable.”

But important progress has still been made. Ireland is one of just 19 countries in the ICCS study that has a dedicated civics subject, while Gerry Jeffers says the fact 60% of CSPE’s marks are awarded for civic action — no matter how modest —  is a big step forward. And while some schools let the subject rot, it thrives in others where principals and teachers take it seriously. But Jeffers says the subject needs more than 40 minutes a week to flourish.

One CSPE student I spoke — my 15 year old sister — said she has no absolutely no interest in politics, but that CSPE nonetheless taught her the basics about voting and government. But she also said the subject is considered easy, and that many of the exam questions just require common sense.

Internationally there’s strong evidence that good civic education leads to greater participation and political awareness, but the subject has a turbulent history in Ireland. The Church of Ireland sought its introduction at the birth of Irish state but the Catholic Church objected, fearing it would encroach on religious education. In 1967 civics was introduced as an unexamined subject. The syllabus focused on the “accumulation of facts about public organisations”, and the importance of patriotism, morality and obeying the law. Civics and religion were often taught as one subject.

By the early 1970s the subject was dying. The Curriculum  and Examinations Board (CEB)developed a new social and political studies syllabus in the 1980s, but it faced opposition — during the 1987 election the group Family Solidarity claimed the CEB was subversive and anti-Catholic. Fine Gael lost the election and the subject lay dormant until education minister Mary O'Rourke introduced a CSPE pilot project in 1993. In 1997, it became a Junior Cert subject.

Six years later Garret Fitzgerald criticised the lack of political education at senior cycle, arguing that, “when students are reaching the stage at which they would begin to have questions to ask and would want to probe and challenge, their interest is damped down by removing them from contact with political, social and civic issues”. The government proposed the introduction of a senior cycle civics subject in 2006, and the NCCA published a draft syllabus last year.

It’s an impressive document, emphasising human rights and democratic learning. And students will take it seriously — it’s designed as a full-time subject and the draft syllabus is rich in political philosophy, referring to Marx and Locke, to Plato and Hobbes.

But it’s future is uncertain. In response to a query I submitted asking when the subject would be introduced, the Department of Education said that no date had been set, and that its introduction would “ be considered in the context of the overall priorities and resources available in the system” when the syllabus is finalised.

And what about primary schools? There, civics is principally taught through Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE), and primary school teacher and Labour Party councillor Dermot Looney says the political elements focus mainly on the roles of different government positions and institutions. But he says that "it's not so important to learn about institutions of democracy but about democracy itself.” SPHE is typically taught for just half an hour per week as a standalone subject, and Looney believes it should get more time — at the expense of religious education, he suggests, which is allotted two and a half hours weekly.

Civic education is about more than just teaching the subject though. It’s about the entire school — after all, how can students be expected to become active democrats if they’re taught under an authoritarian school system?

“There are some who are happy to have education run in an authoritarian way,” Michael D Higgins said in 1992. “Theirs is a most unusual view: to be content to have education function as an autocratic, undemocratic institutional structure within a formal democracy.”

The ICCS study is less kind to Ireland on this front —  just 38% of students say they have taken part in decision-making at school. Student councils are a lot more common than a decade ago, but NUIM’s Gerry Jeffers stresses they’re just one example of student participation. “Student councils can contribute a lot but they have to be supported by a whole lot of other things,” he says. “How the school is run, how the teachers relate to the students — how much students rights are genuinely respected is the big issue.”

He says transition year offers vital lessons for making schools more democratic — the more relaxed atmosphere and reduced exam pressure means teachers have more time to listen to students. “Classes become much more democratic, more participative,” he says.

Mark Conroy believes that for civic education to flourish we must look outside schools, to cultivating a wider culture of dissent in society. “Our state was founded because of dissent and genuine political engagement, but since then each government has been a very conservative one, and none have encouraged dissent and civic engagement, or at least not in any meaningful way,” he says.

He says the media has “major responsibilities” in fostering dissent. It’s two sides of the same coin:  while the media must help create such a culture, students also need a curriculum that teaches them how to critically analyse endless messages from the media, politicians and special interests.

They need a curriculum that gets them asking questions. “The whole notion of power isn’t on the curriculum,” Jude Cosgrove says of CSPE. “I’m thinking the concept would be — why do some people have more power than others? How is power mediated, how is it perpetuated? Are there any working examples of power struggles that have resulted in new power structures? If you look at the curriculum a lot of it is sort of fact-based, kids maybe aren't maybe being taught to question… Why are some people in society less well off than others? Is that just? How could that be improved?”

Ireland bailout: Young Irish flee 'Celtic Tiger' for a better life

CS Monitor, 21 November 2010 Young Irish, in particular, hope that the economic cycle makes just one more click – and that emigration isn't their only option. But amid news of the Ireland bailout, some aren't waiting around.

By Jason Walsh, with additional reporting by Lenny Antonelli

Dublin, Ireland

While top European officials and Ireland’s beleaguered politicians work out the details of an Ireland bailout package meant to save the country from collapse, the Irish Main Street is reeling, desperate for some sense of stability and a glimmer of hope that some semblance of the roaring “Celtic Tiger” will return.

The boom years that began here in the mid-1990s and made Ireland the envy of Europe for its rapid growth and virtual full employment are over. Today, unemployment, personal debt, and a lack of optimism dominate the country. The Irish have come to terms with accepting a life preserver in the form of European Union and International Monetary Fund aid, which may reach $120 billion. Still, many are bracing themselves for a wave of austerity cuts that have already swept Europe.

public services, including the unemployment benefits and, according to some sources, retirement pensions that many are now relying on.

Young Irish adults in particular are expressing deep concerns about their futures. Andrew Murphy, a recent university graduate, has taken an internship at the European Commission in Brussels and doubts he will find permanent work at home.

“I’d like to come back to Dublin; I’d like to get a job in Ireland. I like living there. I still think it’s a good country. It’s kind of a strange feeling having left Ireland and knowing that even if I wanted to go back perhaps I couldn’t, perhaps I couldn’t find a job,” he says.

Ruth McNally, another recent graduate, is living on unemployment benefits. “My friends thought they definitely weren’t going to get jobs, but I was more positive and I thought, ‘We’ll be fine, we’ll get something.’ But then there didn’t seem to be anything. I couldn’t find anything.”

Ms. McNally says her friends are all “pretty much” in the same position. “Two of my friends are going to teach English in Korea.”

Despair and humiliation

Indeed, there is a sense of despair that has taken hold here and a feeling of humiliation among many as Ireland seeks help from the rest of Europe.

“There is a very real sense of shame at the failures of government and the business class,” says novelist Gerry Feehily, a native of County Donegal who now lives and works in Paris. During good times, Ireland, for the first time in its history, was a destination for migrants seeking to make their fortune. Now, Ireland is again supplying labor to the rest of the world.

According to government statistics, unemployment is now above 13 percent and 27,700 people left the country in the first four months of this year, more than anytime since 1989. An estimated 5,000 Irish people leave every month, an increase of 81 percent on figures from 2009.

Things are so tough that even labor unions are telling members about prospects abroad. “As a result of the downturn we’re finding that a lot of members are finding it hard to get work and many are considering immigrating to the United States, Canada, and Australia,” says Sean Heading, spokesman for TEEU, a union for engineers and technicians.

‘Ghost estates’

The most striking aspect of the bust is the collapse of the housing market. Not only are houses not being sold, the Irish landscape is now littered with so-called “ghost estates,” housing complexes that are sparsely inhabited and often unfinished.

Architect Dominic Stevens says government policy fueled a boom in house building that could never be kept going. “As late as 2008 the average new house price was €375,000; €120,000 of that went straight into the government’s pockets in taxes and levies,” he says.

“These were being built for reasons that had nothing to do with making homes for people. In [rural County] Leitrim you had estates that were populated entirely by people working on building other estates,” he said.

An estimated 280,000 homes are unoccupied in the country, 23,000 of which are new homes that have never been lived in.

For homeowners who bought before the real estate bubble burst, foreclosure is a growing concern. In early November, the government reported that 1 in 10 Irish mortgage holders is failing to keep up with payments.

Michael Culloty, a spokesperson for the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, an Irish charity that provides independent advice to people with financial problems, says that people are seeking advice but that widespread foreclosures have not yet begun.

“We’re currently experiencing an increase in the volume of people we see,” he says. “People are getting into difficulty with consumer debt in particular.”

Mr. Culloty says the banks have not yet begun to force people out of their homes in large numbers: “Most people are hanging in there.”

Not all commentators paint the same picture. Economist Morgan Kelly wrote that mass home repossessions were on the horizon. “If you thought the bank bailout was bad, wait until the mortgage defaults hit home,” he wrote in the Irish Times.



Tragedy and comedy — an interview with Robert Fisk

I wrote this in 2005, when I was just a young pup editing Sin, the student newspaper in NUI Galway. The university invited Robert Fisk to give a speech, and three or four journalists (myself included) got the chance to chat with him. It may have been a foolish mistake, but I decided there was little I could get out of him on politics or foreign affairs that he hadn't already said, so I tried to focus on his personality instead. Here's the piece that resulted — apologies for some of my clichéd and youthful use of language (and for foolishly overstating the importance of the Independent of London).

Published in Sin, 2005.

Waiting for Robert Fisk is rather unnerving. You expect him to arrive looking forlorn, with a furrowed brow and an air of sobriety that you might think comes with living in the most tragic place on earth for almost 30 years. But the Bob Fisk you expect never shows up.

Instead, a genial and pleasant Englishmen bumbles into the room apologetically, putting everyone at ease. He refuses to take the designated seat behind the front table at a makeshift mini-press conference in the Irish Centre for Human Rights, declaring it to be foreign territory for a journalist, and opts instead to sit with the assembled reporters.

Fisk, middle east correspondent for the Indpendent of London, a paper which has wrestled the crown of the great British liberal newspaper from the Guardian, is in the middle of a worldwide tour to promote his latest book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, which charts his experience reporting on every major event in the region over the last thirty years. In that time, he has reported from both Gulf wars, the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the conflict in Algeria, the Lebaneese civil war, and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and has interviewed Osama bin Laden three times. He is scheduled to return to Baghdad in December.

In truth, Fisk is an enigma. An outspoken opponent of American and British foreign policy, he has spent more than half of his lifetime reporting on some of the bloodiest affairs in modern history, and has essentially done so alone, without wife or children to soften the effects of the tragedies he has witnessed. And yet remarkably, he is still able to smile and joke freely, in spite of the grizzly nature of some of his discourse.

“I go to a mortuary every trip to Baghdad, and I stand there all morning counting the corpses in. The last Monday I was there, four weeks ago, there was a woman with her hands tied behind her back shot three times in the head, and a baby that had been shot in the face. Others are clearly blown up by suicide bombers, in which case they come in in bits, and they try to fit the bits together.”

Such sights and comments come naturally to Fisk, who reckons that the estimate of 100,000 Iraqi dead since the war began “may be conservative”. But perhaps it is the ability to laugh in the face of human tragedy that molds the kind of character needed for Fisk’s profession.

He firmly believes that the western public should also be witness to the kind of devastation that he has spent his life reporting on. He recalls traveling on the Baghdad to Basra road in 1991, following two days of sustained US bombing. “We came across these large numbers of Iraqi soldiers who had been blown to bits, and the dogs had arrived – it was lunchtime you see. And they were tearing bits of bodies off and racing off across the desert with arms and legs to eat.”

An ITV television crew was with Fisk at the time, and began filming the scene. “Why are you wasting your time, they’ll never show this?” Fisk questioned. “And I remember thinking they ought to show it – this what the war is about, this is what happens, every time. If you go and see Saving Private Ryan, you can see it. But when it’s real you’re not allowed to. They clean up the war.”

Of course, Fisk’s stoicism has not endeared him to all. His persistent and scathing attacks on US and British foreign policy have led many to question the veracity of his reporting. Fisk is clear in his thoughts on the role of the journalist. “If you go down into Galway and there’s been a bomb, and lets hope there never is, and there are people all over the road dead, you get angry about it, furious about it. Well I’m allowed to get angry too. And I’m allowed to name the people who did it if I think I can find out. I was just down the road when this guy blew up in Jerusalem and killed lots of Israeli kids. There was a child with his eyes blown out. Do you think I’m going to give equal time to Hamas? No, I write stories about the victims.”

Later that evening, Fisk, who has the odd habit of referring to himself in the third person occasionally, addressed a packed out university theatre. He described the process of writing The Great War for Civilisation as being “very distressing. I was endlessly writing about gas and torture and death.” He was saved, he said, from total immersion in horrid memories by a friend who insisted he stop writing and “ walk by the sea and drink a pint of Guinness and think of other things.”

The book, Fisk says, is essentially about this father, who served in the first world war. “I didn’t go to see him when he was dying, and the chapter about him is an apology.” He was, Fisk says, “very right-wing”, but he earned his son’s eternal respect by refusing to command a military firing party during the war.

After his speech and the somewhat docile question and answers session that followed, Fisk received a standing ovation, which despite his apparent taste for the glitz of the book tour, appeared to genuinely humble him.

He is scheduled to return to Baghdad in December, and one must wonder how someone can shift so seamlessly between a world of packed-out speeches, flashing cameras and book signings and one as morbid as Baghdad. But such is the level of bloodshed at the moment that Fisk, one of the world’s most experienced war correspondents, has “serious doubts” about returning to Iraq. “Free reporting is finishing there. It’s so dangerous now in Iraq, it’s the most dangerous story I’ve ever covered. The state of Iraqi anarchy needs to be seen to be believed. Iraq is moving into deeper and darker phases. The project is over. Iraq is gone.”

But such morbid predictions haven’t dampened the spirit of Bob Fisk. Before, during and after his speech, he is brimful of humour. He is also refreshingly humble, carrying his own plastic chair down the steps of the theatre, and sitting on the steps of the theatre for a while too. But behind the joviality of the occasion, there is a deep sense of conviction based upon thirty years of being immersed in human tragedy. “If you saw what we saw,” he says, “you would never support a war.”

Moral dilemma: what will replace the church as our moral compass?

Irish Times, 19 January 2010,

Interviews by Jason Walsh and Lenny Antonelli

GERARD CASEY Professor of philosophy, University College Dublin

“I can’t understand people losing faith because of scandals. I’m not making light of what happened, but for me it’s not where faith comes from. Religion and morality are not the same thing, but for most Irish Catholics the two are one and the same. When you tell them the moral code associated with Catholicism is pretty much the same as in any religion, they find it hard to believe. “You have to get morality from reason – morals are either a set of conventions in a utilitarian way or a real code to live by. The problem with utilitarianism is that morality only survives when the going is good, otherwise it’s every man for himself. There is nothing specifically Catholic about natural law. When you look at what human beings are, you see they have needs and that means we know the kind of actions that are [morally] destructive.

“A classic way of looking at morality is from Confucian philosophy. “There are four concentric circles. The innermost circle is the basic, natural state where we individually are the centre of the universe. We understand this in children and find it quite cute, but it would be sinister in an adult. The next circle is the utilitarian level: we still want things for ourselves, but have to at least simulate an interest in others.

“The breakthrough comes at the next moral level – this is when you recognise that other human beings are exactly like you: each has hopes, dreams and fears. There can be a sense of shock when we realise this.

“The final circle is the transcendent, where the human world is understood in a larger context. Traditionally this has been religious, but it can be other things, such as politics, for example – anything that says there is a dimension above us.

“The key for us as individuals is to match up the emotional and the intellectual sides of our lives. It’s a developmental process and, to some degree, a pattern of habituation.”

ANN JAMES Secretary, Humanist Association of Ireland

“People are beginning to see that morality can’t be institutionalised, and to give power to an institution that claims the moral high ground is a mistake. Morality should be discussed and argued, otherwise society becomes closed. We’re seeing the whole of Irish society opening up to other views.

“I think there’s a basic morality aligned to empathy. The law is there to protect everybody, and quite clearly it has failed – nobody should be above the law, but also nobody should be beneath it.

“There are certain things that are pretty universal, such as measuring harm: if something does no harm, that’s a simple ‘good’. I want life to be good, so the best way to do is to make the lives around me better.

“Even on the issues that are the source of disagreement, such as abortion, there has to be an openness to discussing the morality of it. I just want a morality that respects people’s right to think for themselves, and doesn’t place one value system in law above one another.

“I regard it as unethical to try and take away freedom of speech, as the Government is doing with its blasphemy legislation.”

AILEEN FYFE Historian of science, NUI Galway

“In the 19th century, the time of evolutionary theory and thermodynamics, people like the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley were arguing strongly for science’s role in society. In Huxley’s time, it was widely accepted that morality stemmed from religion, but he was an agnostic – he actually invented the term – and wanted to show people that it was possible to say no to religion but still be an upstanding, respectable citizen.

“Today, morality and religion can be separated, and Huxley’s fears might seem paranoid. One reason for this is that as soon as Europeans discovered more about the rest of the world’s population, they started asking questions about what moral code people outside Europe had.

“The early missionaries sought to ‘convert the heathens’, but those who stayed abroad began to realise that while other cultures might not be Christian, most still look after their families, take care of older members of the community, and have restrictions on killing.

“This got early anthropologists thinking that morality might be a human construct rather than something that comes from a universal religious truth.

“Huxley believed in the idea of a non-religious moral code for society – and he believed that such a code would probably look quite similar to Christianity. One reason Christianity has been successful is that it helped meet the needs of human society. But, for him, ideally you wouldn’t base such a code on stone tablets, but rather look around and ask what is the best way to live.”

DAVID McCONNELL Professor of genetics, Trinity College Dublin

“Isn’t it remarkable that so many different societies have similar morals? What we call Judaeo-Christian morality is effectively universal. As a humanist, this says to me that it’s not that God created man but that man created God.

“Science has a lot to teach us about morality, but it has to be thought about. You can now construct a family tree of all life on Earth, for instance, and all people have a common human relative just 200,000 years ago. We do have a lot of information that says genetics affects behaviour, [but] I don’t know of a direct genetic explanation for ethical principles, and any that are found are unlikely to be predictive.

“Ireland has been dominated by Catholic ethics and, for the most part, they’re good ethics. The problems arise when we try to prescribe ethics in too much detail and exclude personal responsibility.

“The most difficult, and interesting, areas are when good people disagree. For example, there are two archbishops of Dublin, and one would allow for abortion in certain circumstances and the other would never allow for it.

“My thinking on this is that you must allow for substantial personal discretion – you can place various constraints on things, but each situation is actually different and must be analysed and thought about by the people most involved.”

MARTIN DOWNES Professor emeritus of biology, NUI Maynooth

“In many ways the church has been effective at giving guidance on specific issues, but not so good at encouraging people to develop their own sense of right and wrong. There’s been a lack of emphasis on the notion that in the end it’s the individual who’s responsible. I’m inclined to think individual conscience has to replace the church as our moral authority, though it seems an awfully big job to ask a nation to suddenly engage with questions of ethics that it hasn’t before.

“Is there some way that a country trying to underpin its economic, social and political development with clear principles could go about it? What would happen if the Government tried to get general agreement on how we are to proceed in terms of morality? Science changes our choices by producing more information, and the hope would be that by doing that it can enable us to make better ethical decisions. I don’t think science can provide much with regard to how you go about making decisions, though it may be that science has something to contribute, in terms of psychology, on where we get our sense of right and wrong from.