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BellaOnline's Irish Culture Editor


When Power Corrupts

Guest Author - Tony King

When Power & Authority Corrupts:
In a personal letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, Lord Acton said "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
History records the reality of this statement and it also brings to mind the words of the Spanish born essayist and poet, George Santayana, best known for the often misquoted remark, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Growing up in the Ulster of the 50’s and 60’s had a profound affect on people’s
attitude to all authority and to the police in particular. The “Special Powers Act” which was re-invoked in the 50’s ,gave unbelievable powers not only to the Royal Ulster Constabulary(RUC en masse , but to individual officers as well.
The problem with this legislation was that any officer could personally interpret the law concerning “illegal” activity, make an arrest solely on the basis of that personal interpretation, and thereby have a “culprit” held in custody incognito for literally any length of time, without the “guilty one” having recourse to family, friends, legal counsel or even a clergyman.
Looking back, it is interesting to see the similarities between the reasons for invoking the “Special Powers Act” and what is happening around the world today in the light of 911 and the whole “Homeland Security” concept that is being developed in almost every Western society.
Here in America, the concept of carrying ID has permeated every facet of our day to day lives. People willingly hand over driving licenses or State ID’s to all and sundry who ask for them, without the slightest thought to the truth that as yet no American citizen or permanent resident is required to carry any form of official ID. If you are driving, yes by law you need to carry a license; if you wish to cash a check somewhere, yes (for that convenience) you need some sort of photo ID. But if you are going about your legal business, the constitution still allows “free assembly” and “free movement” of the citizenry throughout the country. Is that not in fact what our young men and women in the armed services are fighting and dying for?
Now I understand that after 911 we have a greater need for security throughout the whole country and indeed the whole of western society. But does this security have to over-ride the provisions of our nations’ constitutions? Or does it have to be practiced without the benefit of common sense?
I know the vast majority of police officers are good and decent human beings and I surmise they are truly dedicated men and women who fill a dangerous and often thankless job in our society. But at the same time history has shown that there is this need for constant vigilance and all of us should remember Lord Acton’s words, even at times when what is being foisted on to the public is being done “for the general safety of the populace“. Perhaps as we enter again into the “election” season(at least here in the USA),the time has come for the public to remind our politicians and police authorities that they are here to “serve and protect” not to “bully and control”. The horrors of Myanmar that are unfolding before our eyes every day on television, are the direct result of Lord Acton’s words coming to pass. God forbid that it should ever happen in our hometowns and cities or that Ulster should see a return to the “good ole days “ of the 50‘s -----but perhaps we need one more cliched phrase to hammer it all home to us. This is attributed to the English philosopher Edmund Burke: ‘The one thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing.’ In Ulster in the 50’s, much evil was perpetrated under the guise of “protecting the public”. Maybe I’m just reacting from being regularly harassed as a teenager by police officers for carrying a hurling stick to and from the playing fields, but the words of Burke and Lord Acton have been proven true too many times for us to take our freedoms for granted. In the 1930’s, the people of Germany willingly handed over their freedoms “for the public safety” and “for the good of the nation”, only to discover too late, that the loss of freedom for one, is eventually always the loss of freedom for all.

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Content copyright © 2015 by Tony King. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Tony King. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Bee Smith for details.


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