The final word (for now) on Enoch Burke

Over the past several months, the Enoch Burke saga has, based on emails and messages, divided my readers pretty evenly. On one side, those who sympathise with his plight and admired his undoubted personal resilience: Those readers saw a man standing on principle, defending his own right to exercise his conscience, and his free speech. They saw a school that was, in their view, dragging someone through the courts, and even as far as mountjoy prison, simply for refusing (in Burke’s words) “to call a boy a girl”. They cheered what they saw as his resistance to what might be termed “the system”, feeling that his decision to face 100 days in prison was a testament both to his personal courage, and a man who refused to be broken by the power of the state. Even if they did not agree with his conduct, necessarily, they admired the fortitude he displayed.

On the other side, the readers who saw it differently: Many of those people sympathised with Burke on the underlying issue of pronouns but felt that his conduct in openly flouting a court order was something they could not support. You cannot call on a court for aid, they felt, and then simply declare that you would ignore the court when it ruled against you. They found Mr. Burke’s continued insistence on turning up in the school as an uninvited visitor to be inherently unreasonable. They questioned whether there was, in fact, any dispute resolution mechanism with which Mr. Burke would ever honestly engage with in good faith.

As one person – like me sympathetic to Burke on the initial dispute – wrote to me: “If Burke will not play by any rules other than his own, how could he expect any employer or court to live with those terms?”

That question has stuck with me, though it is now over a month since it was asked.

As readers will know, in the matter of the initial dispute with the school over pronouns, my sympathies were and remain entirely and fully with Burke: No employer should have the power to make a person state as fact something that he or she fundamentally believes to be untrue. It might be polite, and good manners, to use the pronouns somebody demands you use, but it is not and should not be mandatory.

But in the succeeding months since the dispute arose, the original question has given way to several others. Is it reasonable to keep attending a place of employment, even after you have been suspended pending disciplinary proceedings? Is it reasonable to flout orders of the courts, even as you seek the protection of the courts? Is it reasonable to loudly disrupt disciplinary proceedings taking place only because the court refused to grant you an injunction on the basis of your own unwillingness to obey the court?

In all honesty, I think the answer to all three of those questions is “no”. Every civilised society in history has had a process for resolving disputes. One may engage with the process and lose – that is a chance that you take – but to refuse to engage in the process entirely, and treat the whole thing as illegitimate, will simply guarantee that you lose.

And that, in the end, you lose a lot of public sympathy. The spectacle of the Burke family chanting “where is John Rogers?” in the lobby of a hotel does not strike me as the kind of scene likely to convince many people that, in the end, Mr. Burke was the victim of unreasonable behaviour. Whether that is just or not is irrelevant, when all is said and done. Richard Nixon’s official biography, after all, was called, based on one of his most famous quotes, “I gave them a sword“. He did not mean it, one assumes, as an example to follow.

But here’s Ruth Coppinger, using the sword she was given:

In the end, I do not know what has been achieved: Perhaps Mr. Burke will appeal his dismissal, and perhaps he will be successful in that appeal. We must account for every possibility – but if I were a gambler, I would not personally invest high stakes in that outcome.

Have the future conscience rights of other teachers been advanced? It’s difficult to say. Perhaps, in the round, schools will be more wary of such controversies and more inclined to avoid them, by employing a little common sense. Or perhaps teachers, having witnessed this dispute play out, will be less inclined to take risks with their careers, and will instead bend as required. Time will tell.

But I confess: I do not see how conscience rights have been advanced by this process. And I suspect that on balance, we might have had a better chance of seeing those rights advanced had the courts at least been given the opportunity to rule on them, with sound legal arguments advanced. Instead, we got a war on the courts themselves. In that situation, in the end, there was only ever going to be one winner.

For some, this whole process has been emotionally satisfying: There is a hunger, in some quarters, to see somebody, at long last, stand up to the Irish establishment and fight. Enoch Burke delivered that in spades. Almost certainly to his own, very high, cost. There’s something to admire in that, but there’s also a time, at least in my opinion, when an admirable willingness to martyr yourself crosses into an unhealthy, and unseemly, thirst to martyr yourself.

Mr. Burke is no longer a teacher in Wilson’s Hospital School. His employment has been terminated. For many people he is indeed, now, a martyr. For many others, a crank.

Whichever side of that divide you come down on, I suspect it is unlikely, now, that your opinion will be changed.

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