Coming up in the world

THE United Nations’ Quality of Life Index ranks countries based on the life expectancy of citizens, access to education and average incomes. It is a crude measure but a useful one if we are to strive for a fairer world. When the index was created 30 years ago Ireland was a deeply conservative society in the grip of a long and bitter civil war. It was ranked at 16. The latest index shows it has moved up to number two, second only to Norway. It is ahead of the other EU nations and the United Kingdom, which sits at 13 and the United States which languishes at 17. It is welcome confirmation that Ireland at peace has come up in the world and faces a bright future.

My father David was born in 1923 into real poverty, by any measure. His family lived in a company slum in a mill village beside a river which was the only running water. His sisters kept the lids of cocoa tins and nailed them over knot holes in the wooden floor to keep out rats. Sickness was common but there was no money to pay for doctors and only charity for the gravely ill. Tuberculosis carried off many of his generation. My father’s education ended at 14 and he was sent to the mill to learn how to be an electrician. He was a bright boy, an enthusiastic reader with an interest in engineering and communications. He had the ability to make his own radio set from valves and coils and loved to build bridges and machines with Meccano but there was no prospect of him continuing with his education. Advanced learning was not available to the working classes.

Restless and bored he ran away from home and faked his age to join the British Army, when war was declared in 1939, against the express wishes of my grandfather who was a wounded veteran of the Somme. David was proud to wear the uniform of a sapper in the Royal Engineers and like thousands of Irishmen, from both sides of the border, he was prepared to lay down his life in the fight against the evil that is fascism. He was caught in mortar fire at the Battle of the Rhine as his tank crew sought to clear mines from the German side of the river. He was badly wounded and his left leg was amputated above the knee in an effort to save his life. His family were told to expect the worse. Yet he survived and returned to his village as a hero. His name can be found upon the roll of honour inside the Presbyterian Church at nearby Culnady alongside his father’s.

David was part of a generation that made great sacrifices for progress, a generation that supported politicians who would build decent houses, provide affordable healthcare for all and the opportunity for their children to study at university. The North was first to achieve these tremendous advantages, thanks to the tide socialism that swept Clement Atlee and Aneurin Bevin into power in Britain in 1945. Even the six counties returned a socialist to Westminster. The protestant nationalist Jack Beattie was elected in West Belfast. The new Labour government had a clear mandate to tackle the five giants, disease, want, squalor, ignorance and idleness and provide for citizens from cradle to grave, including a deeply divided Northern Ireland. My father, a supporter of the unionist Northern Ireland Labour Party, was given a secure job in the Imperial civil service and his family moved into a modern house in the mill village. When he married, moved to Belfast and raised a family he was able to rent another good house built from public funds. He retired on a modest pension in 1988, bought his home from the state and died in 2000. He would have been extremely proud to see his two grandsons make the best of the education system, graduating from university and becoming a surgeon and a civil engineer.

There would be another two decades of struggle in the South before the newly independent state would begin to introduce significant social reforms. Free secondary education was introduced in 1967 but a single body to oversee the administration of health had to wait until 2005. The dearth of affordable housing is a problem which remains unsolved. The misery suffered by thousands of vulnerable mothers and children at the hands of the Catholic Church, and others, is now recognised and the state which turned a blind eye to these abuses has issued apologies and offered to pay compensation. The report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, published last month, revealed a ‘dark, difficult and shameful’ chapter of Irish history in the twentieth century. Children were stolen from their mothers and sent overseas, many suffered sexual and physical abuse or died of neglect in a system which continued until 1998. Membership of the European Union and the European Single Market in 1973 nurtured economic and social change in both parts of Ireland and played a role in bringing about peace in after 30 years of wasteful conflict in which saw 3,700 killed and thousands and more damaged in mind and body.

The Coronavirus pandemic is a stress test of political and health systems all around the world. The administrations in Ireland have done better than many, notably the UK and the USA, though people are still dying and others have been left with long term illness. Infection rates in Ireland are among the worst and hospitals have at times been overwhelmed, despite the best efforts of politicians to persuade people to stay at home and prevent the spread of the disease.  How our administrations roll out the new vaccines and create effective measures to prevent a disaster recurring will be watched closely. It is the greatest challenge faced in my lifetime which, thanks to my parents’ generation, has been free from disease, want, squalor, ignorance and idleness.


© Maurice Neill 2020

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