Does Ireland need a civic honours system?

One thing that has struck me, watching the coverage of the (apparently never-ending) Royal Funeral in recent days has been the sheer number of medals on show. And not just military medals.

Look at the crowds lining the streets of London and elsewhere for the funeral of the late Queen, and chances are you’ll find people in everyday civilian clothes with a medal pinned to their chest. OBEs. MBEs. CBEs. All of these medals will have been dispensed, at some point, by a member of the Royal Family. Many of them do honour military service, but many others honour smaller things: A lifetime of charity work, or service to a local town or community, or coaching young people in sport.

Ireland is a republic, and thus does not have a Royal family to dispense honours or knighthoods. But there is nothing stopping us from having a system that recognises contributions made to our people by the extraordinary people who work in every community, often for nothing.

The paradox here is that we have an entire architecture of state supported “service” – NGOs dedicated to solving all sorts of problems, from the real ones like housing to the largely imaginary ones like “inclusion”. But much of the most valuable work in our country is done by people with little state support – the person who takes three nights a week to coach the under 8s in his or her local club. The person who organises and runs community alert in an isolated rural area. The volunteers who man our lifeboats, and the fire service, and the mountain rescue. In the Royal system in Britain, many of these people are recognised and given honours. In Ireland, we have no official way to mark their work.

And there is no reason why we should not.

Honours need not, of necessity, be Royal. The United States, the world’s most famous Republic, has a Presidential Medal of Honour, awarded to people who provide extraordinary civilian contributions to public life. France has the same. Heck, the one thing we do have is the Gaisce President’s award, where young people get a medal of some kind for allegedly meritorious work in the community (I say “allegedly” because I have one somewhere, and I do not recall working especially hard for it, to my shame and that of the system).

There is nothing anti-Republican about honouring and recognising those in our society who serve others, and who serve the country. In fact, I would argue that recognising and honouring such service is an important part of being a country, and a community, and fostering a sense of belonging and of pride.

Queen Elizabeth was the last sovereign, as it happens, of the Order of Saint Patrick, the order of chivalry of the Kingdom of Ireland. That order fell into extinction some time in the 1970s, when the last living member of it died. It would not be wrong, I think, for the Republic to restore the name of the order in some form, and to make the President its patron.

Though, of course, there are downsides here, too. Readers will no doubt point out, and I fear they are right, that we know all too well who would get the medals, and what kind of ideological tests for conformity would be applied to prospective medal holders. That would, of course, be a genuine problem. But it’s an argument against the nature of our society in general, not an argument against rewarding service in the abstract.

Anyway, it might be low down the list of national priorities, but it’s something to think about. The UK’s system does more than simply honour service – it also serves as a glue, binding ordinary people to the Crown in a tangible way. No normal person who’s gotten an invitation to Buckingham Palace to have the King pin a medal on their chest is ever likely, after all, to become a convinced Republican. The Monarchy is not only dispensing honours – it’s also dispensing a sort of national glue, binding people to itself in orders of chivalry and distinction.

All of this might seem silly, but it has a purpose. There’s nothing stopping a Republic from learning from the bits of a Monarchical system that work well. The honours system, in practice if not in theory, works well. We should consider how it might be adapted to our own purposes.

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