Joe McCarthy was the US Senator who famously set up a committee to question prominent Americans about their real or imagined membership of the American communist party with a view to driving them out of public life. It is a chapter of American history that is now looked back on in horror, especially by the left, as an appalling attack on basic civil liberties, an example of paranoia unbound.
In particular, McCarthy was concerned about communist infiltration of the US State Department. It was the time of the ‘red scare’, when there was a ‘red under every bed’.
This week in Ireland we have been treated to our own version of incipient McCarthyism in the form of politicians hinting darkly that certain civil servants might be members of ‘nefarious’ organisations such as Opus Dei or the Knights of St Columbanus.
Labour’s Ruairi Quinn wondered in the Dail whether some members of the Department of Education might be in one or other of those organisations, because only that or ‘incompetence’ could explain their ‘deferential attitude towards the Church, he felt. For the Department of Education and the Knights, read the US State Department and communism.
For his part Senator David Norris demanded that members of the Oireachtas declare their membership of such organisations. Again, insert the US communist party in place of the Knights and Opus Dei.
When last I checked, neither the Knights nor Opus Dei were illegal organisations intent on subverting the Irish State, or engaged in ‘un-Irish activities’. (On the other hand, the communists were indeed intent on subversion).
In response to this secular McCarthyism we can only ask, where oh where is the Irish Council for Civil Liberties when you need them?