News Gene Kerrigan

Friday 21 October 2016

It's fine if we say it, but don't you dare

There's a campaign that aims to delegitimise about a third of those who will vote, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

It was around this time last year that Sinn Fein TD Padraig Mac Lochlainn used Twitter to describe Charlie Flanagan, Minister for Foreign Affairs, as a c*nt. As a result of this, I'm sure you remember, Mac Lochlainn came under sustained attack from Fine Gael, Labour and the media.

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The pressure was such that Mac Lochlainn apologised to Flanagan and then resigned his Dail seat. Today, I understand, Mr Mac Lochlainn is on the dole.

Charlie Flanagan, on the other hand, is still a c... .

Oh, wait now, I think maybe I got something wrong, there. It was the other way around, wasn't it?

Sorry about the mistake, too much sherry in the trifle.

It was, of course, Charlie Flanagan who used Twitter to abuse Mac Lochlainn. And it was Flanagan who used what we in the media elegantly refer to as "the C word".

Despite this, as I was saying above, Charlie Flanagan is still a cabinet member.

The consensus at the time seemed to be that there was no problem about Mr Flanagan using "the C word". No party leader or senior political figure criticised or attacked him. The media seemed largely unconcerned and quickly brushed the incident off its collective desk.

Calling an elected member of parliament a c*nt was, apparently, no big deal.

There are, of course, many for whom the word "c*nt" is indeed a big deal - I'm not entirely comfortable with the word myself.

To those people, I can only apologise for its use in this column and point out that it's not possible to discuss the issues without mentioning the word, albeit with an asterisk.

And there's a direct line between that incident and what's happening now. It concerns the right to dissent from the official line.

Let us imagine that circumstances had been the other way around. Imagine that Mr Mac Lochlainn had called a government minister a c*nt.

He would have been immediately denounced by a stream of political figures.

The media would have spent days on the story, and would have raised it whenever possible in the weeks and months that followed. Attacking a TD or minister in such terms, they would have stressed, was an attack on democracy.

Commentators would have bellowed that this exposed the real face behind the Sinn Fein mask of support for democratic institutions.

Mac Lochlainn's fellow Sinn Fein TDs would have been called on to denounce his behaviour. Had they refused to do so, they too would have been subjected to continuing attack. Mary Lou McDonald would have had an extra question thrown in - a demand that she explain how she felt "as a woman" about Mac Lochlainn's behaviour.

How do we know this would be the reaction? Well, we know because of what happened just days after Charlie Flanagan got away with his swear word.

At some event in Finglas, a loudmouth yelled an insult at President Michael D Higgins - "midget parasite", was the term used.

I doubt if Higgins heard it, I doubt he was upset if he did. He's heard worse. At Labour Party parliamentary party meetings.

The insult didn't require the fig leaf of an asterisk, but it was offensive, crude, petty and unwarranted. And the heavens opened.

This verbal abuse was, we were told, an attack on the office of President, which is Above Politics (strike chest three times).

Various political and media worthies collapsed in a swoon. As soon as they regained consciousness, they launched a galloping charge against the loudmouth, his seed, breed and generation.

It was soon revealed that the loudmouth was a water tax protester. Which meant that anyone who ever expressed doubts about the Irish Water shambles was a spittle-flecked rowdy who must be driven in disgrace from public life.

Both Ryan Tubridy and George Hook challenged Paul Murphy TD on air about the insult. Murphy wasn't present when the loudmouth shouted.

He has no connection with the loudmouth. The loudmouth has referred to Murphy as a "clown" and attacked him in the same terms used by Fine Gael.

Yet Tubridy and Hook behaved as though Murphy had some responsibility in the matter, merely because he shared an opinion with the loudmouth on the issue of Irish Water.

Murphy said he thought the loudmouth had a right to protest but not to hurl personal abuse - which seems to me to be what any reasonable person might say.

Enda Kenny, who remained silent when his Minister for Foreign Affairs called Mr Mac Lochlainn a c*nt, said the loudmouth's remark was "simply deplorable. There is no place for that in this country."

The Taoiseach then attacked Paul Murphy TD for defending the loudmouth's right to protest.

This, he said, "is not in keeping with any essence of democracy".

It appears that what matters is not what's said, but who says it. There is a political context to this.

In this country, as across Europe, the old politics has broken down. Choices made in 2008 have locked the Right into massive state debt and austerity. The right has lost some of the middle ground to the Left.

The right-wing response has been to characterise left-wing opposition as politically illegitimate. Merely to have another point of view, another approach to the problem, is to place oneself outside the norm. This justified, for instance, the European Central Bank coup against the Greek government.

In line with this thinking, Charlie Flanagan greeted 2015 with a Twitter claim that Ireland has a "choice of constitutional politics or cult politics".

Anyone outside the Fine Gael-Fianna Fail-Labour cartel is some kind of cult. Their politics are not "constitutional", not politically legitimate.

Padraig Mac Lochlainn responded by pointing out that the original Fine Gael included a solid fascist cult. He was right. That element gave armed aid to overthrowing an elected Spanish government; it cheered Nazi anti-semitism and wanted the same to happen to Irish Jews.

In response to Mac Lochlainn, Flanagan claimed to have misspelled his original tweet and indicated that he considered Mac Lochlainn and his associates to be c*nts.

Padraig Mac Lochlainn committed the cardinal sin of responding to Charlie Flanagan's taunt in kind - as though his party, and the people who voted for them, have democratic legitimacy.

In the eyes of the government parties and their cheerleaders, that is not so.

And that's not because of the IRA past. It's not because of the gardai murdered or the people shot in front of their families. That past is a handy weapon, but it's not what this is about. It's about the de-legitimisation of any political view from outside the Fine Gael-Fianna Fail-Labour cartel.

The attempt to make political capital out of the loudmouth's insult to the President shows that the de-legitimisation strategy is not limited to Sinn Fein.

About a third of the electorate will vote outside the cartel. The current strategy is to delegitimise that vote. Part of that strategy involves throwing bones for the media to chase.

We can expect a lot of attempts to isolate dissent in the new year. Meanwhile, people who write about politics shouldn't be shy about stating how they vote. I've picked out my first three preferences - John Lyons, Anti-Austerity, Cian O'Callaghan, Social Democrat, and Tommy Broughan, independent.

What I do with subsequent preferences depends on what I hear in the weeks to come.

Sunday Independent

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