A few years ago, an American who had reason to stay in Ireland for four months and observe the culture noted to me that the dominant value in Irish society could essentially be described as “authoritarian liberalism”. That is to say, the basic outlook of our political class is to tell people that they live in a free and open society that values diversity and inclusivity, but may the lord have mercy on them if they do not conform to collectively agreed expectations about what to think, say, do, and write. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Ireland’s Covid 19 vaccination policy.
The official policy of the Irish Government is that vaccination against Covid 19 is a right, and a choice. In other words, that people have every right, if they so wish, to decline a vaccine. Indeed, this has been the policy of every western country, in relation to almost every vaccine and medical treatment, in living memory.
But of course, the official policy is not the real policy. The real policy is that you will get vaccinated, or we will make your life a hollow shell of the life you could lead, once you get your jab. Exhibit A:
Other maternity hospitals across the country are now also expected to follow suit and ask for a covid cert on entry.https://t.co/Y8RoHx7MFb
— Today FM 💛 (@TodayFM) November 4, 2021
You can refuse a vaccine, but you cannot be with your wife or partner as she gives birth, if you do. You cannot go to a restaurant. You cannot go to a bar. Or a nightclub. You cannot attend, according to at least one school Gript is aware of, a parent teacher meeting to see how your children’s education is progressing. In some cases, in the public service, you cannot work without a vaccine.
The state’s authoritarianism on this does not exist in a vacuum. In many, if not most, cases, the mandatory vaccination policy is being embraced with ill-disguised glee by that element in Irish society, which has always existed, which loves nothing more than enforcing ruthless conformity on social mores and expected behaviour. In many instances, we now see private entities which do not actually have a legal right to ask for vaccine passports asking for them anyway.
In terms of the merits of the policy, what is telling is that a majority of the public simply will not agree to see what is in front of their faces: That, in terms of “protecting” people, the vaccine does not effectively or convincingly prevent the transmission or spread of Covid 19, except perhaps at the margins. It works to reduce the severity of the illness, and that is it. As such, the idea that the unvaccinated are a threat to the vaccinated is imaginary, and false. It is, in fact, probably the other way around.
But none of this really matters. Because what is driving the majority in Ireland is not, as always, anything particularly evidence based. Instead, there is a palpable sense of that old myth in Ireland that a minority are ruining things for the country, and that said minority must be brought to heel.
The bottom line, in plain English, is this: The vaccines were supposed to eliminate covid. They have not. The hopes and dreams of the population, on this metric, have been crushed. And so, the public and politicians need somebody to blame. Even though Ireland has one of the highest vaccine uptake rates in the western world (crushing, for example, the United States, or the UK) the public have embraced the evidence free myth that responsibility for the recent modest surge in cases lies with 5% of the population. What will happen when we reach 100% vaccinated, and covid endures, is anybody’s guess. Most likely, somebody else will be blamed.
Respectability in Ireland has always been our most important social value. Consider, for example, that to this day, “taking the soup” is an insult, because during the famine, it was, bizarrely, considered more respectable to die of starvation than to accept the help offered by protestant churchmen. My own grandparents told stories of families who bought homes or farms that were vacant as a result of an eviction and found themselves in a community who proudly shunned them. The twentieth century was the century in Ireland when it was more respectable to send your own daughter to a mother and baby home than to care for her yourself, for fear of what the neighbours might think. It is not enough, and never has been, in Ireland, for the ordinary citizen to conform. They must be seen to enforce conformity on others as well. Even, in extremis, their own children. Shortly, that expectation to enforce conformity on your own will extend to vaccinating children, even though there is genuine medical disagreement over whether such a course of action is necessary. Having three vaccines yourself will not be sufficient to prove yourself a member of society in good standing. Like Abraham in the old testament, parents will be expected to prove their loyalty to the country and the community by offering up their sons and daughters as an expression of almost blind trust, and faith.
Our society has not really changed in truth, even as Ireland has shifted from an extreme conservatism to being a vanguard country for social liberalism. We have changed our values, but not our culture. The establishment might preach diversity and choice, but society ruthlessly limits the number of acceptable choices, beliefs, and ideas. In many ways the old conservatism, which was at least open about its intentions in that regard, was a truer reflection of our ethos as a society than today’s largely illusionary freedom.
So yes, vaccines are effectively mandatory. We have given ourselves the right, from here on out, to enforce medical conformity on the population. We have accepted the idea that the individual matters much less than the perceived safety of the collective. Other societies, throughout history, have gone down that road. It has rarely led to a freer, more diverse, happier country.
In this case, it won’t accomplish what it is intended to do either. Covid is here to stay, vaccine or no vaccine. We just haven’t come to terms with that yet, and are, in the absence of any better plan, deciding to blame and punish the small number of dissenters.
It’s all exceedingly Irish.