This is the opening sentence of the audiotape supplied by the Limerick Leader and played repeatedly on Newstalk's Lunchtime with Eamon Keane, on George Hook and on RTE radio.
Willie O'Dea: "While occasionally we send out letters to planning applicants . . . we have never been involved with anybody who shot anybody, or robbed banks, or kidnapped people. I suppose I'm going a bit far when I say this, but I'd like to ask Mr Quinlivan is the brothel still closed?"
Compare the above with the audiotape as used on RTE television news last Thursday. O'Dea: "I suppose I'm going a bit far when I say this, but I'd like to ask Mr Quinlivan is the brothel still closed?"
Notice the difference? RTE television news took out the first sentence. The one in italics in the first version. In doing so they downgraded O'Dea's defence of himself.
In that first sentence, O'Dea diminishes the sanctimonious Sinn Fein complaints about him abusing departmental notepaper by comparing the petty charges made against him by Sinn Fein councillor Maurice Quinlivan with the murder, kidnapping and bank robberies carried out by the Provisional IRA, the military wing of Sinn Fein.
Cui bono? Who benefited by the RTE television news cut? Sinn Fein, for three reasons. First, the cut weakens any empathy we might have for O'Dea. Second, it weakens any antipathy we might have against Sinn Fein. Third, it assists the growing amnesia about the appalling crimes of the IRA
So why was it cut? Especially since it was not an easy cut. Experienced radio producers tell me that it was an extremely tight cut. And no such cut was made by RTE radio.
This is not a petty detail. By cutting that sentence, RTE television news changed the context in which we consumed the O'Dea story. Context is crucial in coming to a balanced conclusion.
If I tell you that an Edward Kelly sighed "such is life", took a step and died, you might think it was an easy death. But if I tell you he was also called Ned Kelly, and that he stepped off the scaffold to his death, you might change your mind.
What O'Dea did was wrong. But in waxing angry about him, the opposition parties, and most of the media, cut out crucial contexts. They painted Maurice Quinlivan as a political paragon who was contrasted favourably with the ward-heeling portrait they painted of O'Dea.
O'Dea was wrong to say that Quinlivan was the co-owner of a brothel. But he would not have been wrong had he asked whether Quinlivan was co-owner of a politically schizophrenic state of mind. Councillor Quinlivan holds high office in Sinn Fein, but never felt any need to condemn the activities of his brother, Nessan, who was a prominent member of Sinn Fein's military arm, the Provisional IRA.
Like all Sinn Fein councillors and TDs, Maurice Quinlivan has failed to publicly condemn the past activities of the IRA. In particular, I can find no public condemnation by Maurice Quinlivan of the murder of local Limerick man, Garda Jerry McCabe, by an IRA gang led by Piaras McAuley.
Nessan Quinlivan had nothing to do with the McCabe killing -- but he was a close associate of Piaras McAuley, with whom, in an earlier escapade, he had shot his way out of Brixton Prison.
Eamon Delaney, writing in the Irish Independent, was the only commentator with the courage to point out that a democratic politician like O'Dea is dealing with a city with a particular Provisional paramilitary and criminal climate: "Indeed, often the public like to know that their representatives can cut up rough, especially if, like Willie O'Dea, you are down in Limerick fighting gangland crime, and the IRA element that killed Garda Jerry McCabe."
The increasing media amnesia about IRA activities helped to make O'Dea look merely spiteful. But in fact his intemperate outburst was caused by a perfectly understandable anger about Councillor Quinlivan's allegations that O'Dea misused departmental notepaper. Naturally O'Dea felt this was a bit rich coming from a Sinn Fein stalwart who had never publically said boo to his brother Nessan.
The media was not always so prissy about the Quinlivan family. On January 15, 2009, Tom Brady and Barry Duggan in the Irish Independent bylined a story entitled 'Brazilian women ran brothel from top Provo's apartment'. The story acknowledged that Nessan Quinlivan claimed no knowledge of these activities, but it also noted that his brother Maurice was seeking a political career in Sinn Fein.
In his Irish Times chronicle of the O'Dea story, Harry McGee had this to say about the brothel affair: "Nessan Quinlivan said that he had no knowledge that the apartment was being used as a brothel, an assertion that has never been questioned." (My italics). Call me stupid, but I am baffled that this assertion did not get more media attention. How could a top Provo, who had himself been convicted of crimes, be so blind to the Brazilian coming and goings in his rented property? Absentee landlord?
The opposition and the Greens too were economical with the context. All of them are now so anxious to do business with Sinn Fein that they are willing to aid the Provo amnesia campaign. Labour led the charge to the bottom by doing deals with Sinn Fein for the Seanad. Fine Gael followed Frank Flannery down the same path. At least Fianna Fail, thanks to Bertie Ahern, preferred to do business with another kind of Green.
But Fianna Fail still have not learned a simple lesson. Nationalism is noxious. And ambivalence about nationalism, by politicians and the media, played its own small but perfectly formed part in destroying the political career of Willie O'Dea
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Lest you think I missed out on the lighter side, let me bring you this little gem from last Thursday's Tonight with Vincent Browne. Browne is nagging Alan English of the Limerick Leader and Fionnan Sheahan of the Irish Independent about the media's alleged failure to follow up the O'Dea story, first published in the Irish Mail on Sunday on November 1, 2009.
Browne: "It's extraordinary how long it took for this story to get legs . . . Three-and-a-half months and none of the other newspapers picked it up. Why is that Fionnan?"
Fionnan Sheahan: "I don't know. You work for two newspapers. Why didn't either of those pick it up? (This is followed by a bout of verbal scuffling until Browne gets bored.)
Browne: (Sigh) "All right, I think it takes a while sometimes for the media to get around . . ."
Fionnan: "What are the media? My God, what are you? You work for two different newspapers. You are the media!"
Indeed he is. God help us. But I doubt even if he could console the little Charlie Chaplin figure who wanders the streets of Limerick, mourning his lost ministry.