Conscience and whistle-blowing are not too far removed in the experience of most ordinary people. It would seem that just an umbilical cord separates one from the other, knowing what is right and what is wrong.
Yet in Irelandâ€™s DÃ¡il last week, the exercise of freedom of conscience, an intrinsic human right, was punished by banishment into the political wilderness.
Coincidentally, legislation is already prepared for passage through the same DÃ¡il for the protection of whistle-blowers, people who bring into the public arena wrong-doing which affects the common good, an action which has to be precipitated by a conscientiously motivated decision.
It sounds contradictory. It doesnâ€™t quite add up.
In another coincidence, in the week when the government did not allow a free vote on an obviously moral issue, RTE re-broadcast a programme on the experiences of an actual whistle-blower.
In the early eighties, a priest, lecturer in Maynooth was approached by a young clerical student who was troubled by the approaches made to him by a senior and distinguished lecturer, also a priest. Other students, individually, later spoke to him, telling the same story. Convinced that there was now some substance in the complaints, he told his immediate superiors. He was received with coldness and incredulity.
Since no obvious action was taken to investigate the complaints, and after some time had elapsed, the priest academic went to what he described as â€œthe top.â€ Shortly afterwards, his best friend came to see him, and told him he was instructed â€œnot to return without my resignation.â€ He was forced to resign from a career which he loved and which, he said, was his â€œlife.â€
He did so, under protest, and was banished into the wilderness of a remote parish in the West of Ireland.
Rumours then circulated that he was suffering from a mental disorder; that he was irrational. His doctor, who knew him very well, issued a counter-statement saying that this priest-academic was in sound mental health and had never suffered from a mental breakdown.
Some years later, the subject of the complaints hurriedly left Ireland. No charges were lodged against him in the courts but it became known that he had made a substantial payment in compensation to a complainant(s).
But the whistle-blower has never received an apology, nor an explanation, for his forced resignation from the church which he continues to serve.
Listening to him recite his experiences on the RTE programme, it was obvious that he had never recovered from his sense of betrayal for doing what he, in conscience, thought was the right thing to do.
And neither has the senior nurse/midwife whose concerns initiated the eventual investigations into a County Louth hospital, and whose story is told by Judge Maureen Harding-Clarke in her report on the inquiry she conducted. The nurse, of long experience as a midwife, returned from Britain to take up an appointment in her own country.
In time, she became concerned about the number of post-delivery hysterectomies performed in the hospital, especially on young women. The incidence in a year was significantly beyond that which she had witnessed in a long career in Britain. She commented on this to her superiors. When her concerns became known to her colleagues, they isolated her and would not be seen in her company. Her persistence led to her identification as a trouble-maker, and depressed, especially by her colleaguesâ€™ attitudes, she eventually left the hospital.
Subsequently, her concerns were vindicated, but only when the women affected by their hospital experiences, conducted a country-wide campaign to have their voices heard. And what has been the fate of the nurse who stood up and was counted?
According to the Judgeâ€™s comments on a radio programme, she never recovered from the misunderstanding and isolation she had experienced, especially from her colleagues. Even when vindicated, she did not want her identity to be publicly revealed.
Perhaps the most notable public whistle-blowing today comes from the efforts of Edward Snowden to obtain political asylum. He has raised the issue of the vast scale and power of the United States in what has been described as â€œthe surveillance industry.â€ While it is acknowledged that security is vitally important in the context of international terrorism, the human right to privacy for the individual, especially ordinary law-abiding citizens, in this digital age, is now open to challenge.
Snowden has opened that debate, and he has said he has done so for reasons of conscience. Though the jury is still out on his motives to the United States with the prospect of certain imprisonment and silencing, or sanctuary in a country from which he can safely pursue his whistle-blowing, which can then be judged on its merits.
We are told legislation for the protection of the whistle-blower is on the way, but, as Lucinda Creighton and her few colleagues discovered last week, the cord that links conscience to whistling is friable, and in competition with political expedience, it can be conveniently fractured.
While the theory may well be admirable in the abstract, do the powers-that-be, and the general public, always wish to hear the tune that is being whistled?
The whistle-blowerâ€™s lot is rarely a happy one!
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