Monday, 1 June 2015

The German Conference

I dream I am at a conference in Germany. Delegations from many  countries sit around a vast conference table.

The Chairman calls the meeting to  order and invites the Secretary to give a report.

The Secretary says that at the previous meeting, the conference had been informed that the Cathedrals and Basilicas had become too expensive to maintain and there was a proposal to sell them off. "However," she said, "a member of the Irish Delegation, Mr Proinnsias O'Cillin (that's me) proposed, instead, that stakeholders should be found to make investments in cultural, artistic and economic aspects of the churches and their economic value exploited."

"How many Passions of Christ are there?" asked the Secretary. Nobody could answer that (I guess she was referring to musical compositions of that title). "Well," she said, with a nod towards me acknowledging that I had volunteered this information previously, although I did not recall that, "there are fifteen."

With this information, (as to the truth of which in reality I have no idea) the organisers had engaged stakeholders to hold fifteen Passion of Christ concerts, each by a different composer, this year alone before Easter, one of a series of series that had turned the fortunes of the Churches right around. Other engagements had been with Museum Trusts to exploit the economic value of the Sacred Vessels and Vestments of the Churches, Architectural Colleges to set up study courses in their architecture, Tourist Agencies to organise guided tours, Art Colleges to study the artefacts, and so on. Dormant assets had been brought back to life.

Besides reflecting on the beautiful churches I saw recently in Malta, I would say this dream is a reminder to myself of my participation in committees in the past and a tribute to (my understanding of) German correctness and efficiency, where my contribution to committee discussion would be acknowledged and considered, if the same could not be said of committees in the Irish Civil Service.

From my school days (with Ogra Eirann and, later, Dáil na nÓg, I had always taken the view that every meeting should have some purpose and objective. Whenever attending a committee, I have, therefore, always prepared something to contribute. Contrast that to many public-service committees, where people attend to fill seats and glorify themselves. An informant once told me of an interdepartmental committee that he attended as a young civil servant. His superior, whom he accompanied to the meeting, briefing him in advance said, "We are going to say nothing at this meeting, except to introduce ourselves and emphasise that it is important that our department be represented on this committee." In this briefing, two important rules were embodied:

1, Be there;
2, Say nothing.

To these a few extra rules could be added

3, Observe and learn what is behind this project;
4, Learn where the powers that be stand;
5, Align with the powers that be.

An empty vessel rises to the surface, while a laden vessel is easily sunk. Interdepartmental
Committees are established to take the wind out of the sail of over-enthusiastic Government Ministers. After such committees meet for a few years, the Minister is changed and the project is forgotten. Those who advocated the project are left in the lurch and the empty vessels progress to the high ranks.

Civil Servants remain faceless. They take no credit for their contributions. Liam O'Rinn, for example, who wrote the Irish words of the Irish National Anthem, received no royalties for this widely-utilised song: he did it in the course of his duty, and is never acknowledged as author, except when historians dig into the matter.

Nevertheless, we would all like some acknowledgment of our contribution. Instead our submissions go into a black hole, and we never know if they have ever influenced outcomes. So my dream conjures up a committee situation where I am given credit and my soul is elevated as a result.