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Iolanthe, Certainty and Knowledge

It’s official; fingerprint evidence is a matter of opinion and not a matter of fact. This is a very interesting subject because the subject is not just fingerprints, (an interesting subject) but the things that we know and the basis for our knowing them.

For instance, Mrs. Quinn contested her liability to repay €3,000,000 to Anglo Irish Bank on the grounds that she did not know that she was borrowing the money and, in fact, never received it.

(I hope this characterisation of her position is correct. If the High Court decided to enter the modern world, it would assign to junior barristers the job of posting pleadings and affidavits, opened in court, on the internet. That would achieve two ends; to conduct its business in public and give employment to junior barristers.)

The court, reportedly, accepted the truth of her contentions but termed her negligent. By that the court meant, negligent in her own interest.

This was wise; neither Anglo Irish Bank nor the court was in a position to conclusively establish Mrs. Quinn’s state of mind in 2006 when she signed the loan documentation.

It was also unnecessary. The burden of proof on Anglo Irish Bank was on the balance of probability. Undoubtedly its loan documentation unequivocally showed that Mrs. Quinn signed up to a loan transaction. (We can know this because of what we know about lawyers; her lawyers would have pointed out any deficiencies. From reports, they did not, therefore there were none).

Consequently it was more probable that she knew what the documentation represented than not and should be held to its terms.

Of course she has a current exemplar in her view of the unreliability of her knowledge of the world. Bertie Ahern has attributed his blamelessness for Ireland’s financial disaster to the fact that nobody told him what was going on in the banks.

“If I had seen the banking crisis coming. Nobody advised me, no economist, all those people now writing books saying ‘I told you so’ – none of them.

This presumes that we believe him. It also suggests that we can know things and that in the absence of that certain knowledge we are blameless if we are mistaken.

This writer remembers (he thinks) hearing of “culpable ignorance” , a Thomistic concept, at school.

This writer also knows, from experience, how easily people are misled by their mistaken certainties; about what they saw and whom they saw. Being correct in making an identification of persons is so fraught with error that courts must issue warnings about the unreliability of such evidence to juries where prosecutors rely on that evidence.

Notwithstanding we, all of us, can, in principle at least, be radically totally and serenely wrong, like the character in Iolanthe who

“Bound on that journey you find your attorney

Who started that morning from Devon.

He’s a bit undersized and you don’t feel surprised

When he tells you he’s only eleven”

neither Mrs. Quinn nor Bertie Ahern could plausibly sing those lines.

They each of them have lived full active lives in business and politics respectively and in the case of Bertie Ahern, he was the leader of the country, the leader of his party and memorialised by a predecessor as “… the most skilful, the most devious, the most cunning of them all”.

The singer in Iolanthe had an excuse; he was dreaming. Neither Mrs. Quinn nor Bertie Ahern can pass off their mess like that.