Friday 14 December 2018

Secrets and codes Down Under

Mata Hari: Kirsty's second favourite spy
Mata Hari: Kirsty's second favourite spy
James Corden

The President's security team have assigned us all secret code names.

Or at least that's what they're telling us.

I am now into week two of the President's Australian state visit and have arrived in Sydney - home of model Elle McPherson, actress Rose Byrne, and Summer Bay stalwart Alf Stewart.

The doling out of code names could be for practical reasons - it's much easier than remembering everyone's name. Or it could be because it's fun and adds a heathy dose of intrigue and drama to the trip - and I am all for that.

My code name is short and snappy: Kilo-Kilo.

I like saying it very quickly, in a Spanish accent while pretending to hold some castanets in the air.

Sure, some of the other delegates have been given more elaborate and ostentatious code names with lots of colourful adjectives.

But mine has a hyphen and the same number of syllables as Mata Hari. And that pleases me greatly as she is my second favourite spy.

My all-time favourite spy is, of course, Guy Burgess (code name Madchen) who worked for the Russians, had a voracious sexual appetite, was a terrible gossip, and an even worse drunk. But sounded like fabulous company.

I find the code names so mysterious and glamourous. But according to one of the gardai travelling with the delegation, us Irish aren't as fond of them as our neighbours in the UK or the US.

For them there's a methodology to assigning code names.

Winston Churchill warned against using anything too frivolous like "Bunnyhug" or "Ballyhoo" in military operations as it would undermine the seriousness of the task at hand.

Nowadays, the UK police rely on an official document called The Book.

This is filled with words that are so anodyne they've become a little bamboozling.

For example, police in the Met in London have run Operation Crevice, Operation Barkertown, Operation Zoomania and Operation Bagel.

The US, on the other hand, looks to popular culture and words that seem to embody a sense of foreboding or strength.

The plan to capture or kill Bin Laden, for example, was called Operation Neptune Spear.

I think the key to picking a good code name (if you ever find yourself mulling this over) is to pick a noun or adjective that is either completely forgettable, or confusingly idiotic.

One of the best code names I have ever heard was thought up by the US President Donald Trump.

When Trump was asked in a 2015 live television debate what his Presidential code name should be, he replied 'Humble'.

Which is almost as ironic as the code name the secret service assigned Richard Nixon - Flashlight.

But back to the state visit. We are now coming into the final furlong and it's been a real trip.

I've learnt a lot of important, albeit slightly specialised, life lessons. For example, I have learnt that it's not okay to get in the same lift as the President of Ireland and shout 'Level Six, Please!' or refer to President Higgins as 'The Man Himself'.

I've also learnt a lot about the Department of Foreign Affairs people - mainly that they are obsessed with time and tardiness.

And that their understanding of what constitutes being late is vastly different to a journalist's understanding of being late.

I've also learnt a lot about Australia - that it is very, very big and very, very far away and very, very expensive.

Most importantly, I learned that no matter how many people tell you otherwise, it definitely won't be shorts and T-shirt weather in October. And you should 100pc bring a jumper.

Why tone matters in marriage debate

Since touching down in Oz, pretty much everyone and anyone has been asking the President about same-sex marriage.

"What happened in Ireland in 2015?" "What message do you have for the prime minister?" and "Will the earth actually stop spinning on its axis?"

More than two thirds of Australians have now cast their vote in the Same Sex postal survey so it's understandable why it's playing on reporters minds.

The President's response is always much the same: the public discourse was fair, and it's just about "getting on with it".

"The sun still rises and sets," he told one journalist. Most people seems to agree that the tone surrounding the debate in Australia feels slightly more antagonistic compared to the conversation in Ireland throughout 2015.

There have been Straight Lives Matter rallies, the godson of a former prime minister was punched in the head. And there have been suggestions that same-sex marriage will lead to an increase in sexual perversion.

"It's been rougher at the edges," Tiernan Brady, Australians for Equality director, said. "It would be a disservice to say the majority of people were like that... I think the fringe has got louder... and it's now part of the political discourse to be disrespectful to not just the idea but the person."

Watching it all unfold here, it's hard not to think about the referendum on the Eighth Amendment drawing near.

I reckon many Irish people feel some trepidation about how messy the debate could become.

I think Rory O'Neill was right when he stressed the importance of lightness of touch when dealing with matters this heavy.

"You need to create a space where people are free to express their doubts… It would be lovely to say the tone doesn't matter in a political campaign, but, unfortunately, it does."


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