Sunday 16 December 2018

Nothing compares to being your own woman, Sinead

Joining a political party isn't worth it if silence is the price of entry

Unstilled Voice: How could Sinead O’Connor have ever acccepted the strict party discipline of Sinn Fein?
Unstilled Voice: How could Sinead O’Connor have ever acccepted the strict party discipline of Sinn Fein?

Eilis O'Hanlon

It worked, lads. She actually fell for it. That must have been the mood around Sinn Fein headquarters last week after Sinead O'Connor abandoned her plans to join the party.

Or was persuaded to put her application on the long finger. Or decided her talents were best deployed elsewhere. Or whatever the real story is, because no one seems to know for sure.

Sinead herself insists that "at no stage" did she give up plans to join Sinn Fein, despite being told she'd be "bored sh**less" by the mundanity of political life; and she has even said that she considers some of the reports which said she had done so to be "libellous". She said it in capital letters too. Never underestimate the anger of a woman who writes entire paragraphs in capital letters. So who knows? The story remains unfinished.

But how they must wish that the arguments which were - according to the singer's version of events - put forward by the Sinn Fein representatives with whom she met last week, had worked on Gerry Adams when the idea was first mooted of him switching the initials after his name from MP to TD.

"Ah no, Gerry, lookit, you'll be bored sh**less, there's really not that much to do, we don't even talk about partition that much down here, you wouldn't like it, no, you stay up there and keep up the good work, we're right behind you."

Unfortunately for them, they also had republicans in the North pushing their party leader in the other direction. "Sure, we'll all miss you, but they need you down in Dublin, you'll do a great job, see you now, don't forget to write."

Rumour has it that the issue was eventually decided with a coin toss between Mary Lou McDonald and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and Mary Lou lost.

It must have crossed Sinead O'Connor's mind to wonder what exactly she has done or not done, said or not said, that made her application about as welcome in Sinn Fein circles as an unexpected U2 album in your iTunes library.

Is not having killed anyone holding her back? Is not playing dumb about the cover-up of sexual abuse by people who are wearing the right sort of balaclavas being held against her? Because quite a few Sinn Fein cumainn contain scores of extremely dodgy individuals who a girl really wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley late at night, and their applications do not seem to encounter the slightest resistance. Most new members just fill out a form on the website and are admitted immediately into the ranks. Thirty seconds. Job done. Welcome to the jungle, baby.

It's certainly the first time in living memory that an application to join a political party has received such intense international attention. It's not as if the world's media is ringing up Niall Horan of One Direction to get his verdict on the Irish Collective Asset-management Vehicles Bill 2014, which is currently going through the Dail. O'Connor's interactions with Sinn Fein have made the pages of Billboard magazine and the Guardian and newspapers as far afield as Mexico and Venezuela. That's what comes of living in a culture which deems the thoughts and actions of celebrities to be newsworthy in themselves, regardless of whether the megastars in question know what they're talking about or not.

And it's usually not.

In Sinead's case, the attention is justified because she's manifestly not your run-of-the-mill C-lister seeking to make a name for herself, but a fiercely intelligent, demonstrative, and - when she doesn't make the mistake of forgetting it - a genuinely funny woman whose opinion is always worth hearing, even if it is sometimes a little off the wall.

If Sinn Fein can't find a role for her, there's an argument to be made that it's their loss. Even if, from her own point of view, she may be relieved one day that it didn't work out.

Sinead Ni Bhroin, one of the Sinn Fein members whom O'Connor met last week, writes a blog under the title 'Sinead's Flying Column'. In one recent entry, she described her own experience of working as a press officer for Sinn Fein inside Leinster House following the 2007 general election, and being dismayed by how much contempt she and others faced both from rival party members and political correspondents.

She was particularly irked that Sinn Fein was criticised for its "closed and secretive" military-style discipline, with one TD complaining that they wouldn't have coffee with her and journalists lamenting the fact that SF representatives didn't engage in ordinary gossip after party meetings like members of other parties.

Ni Bhroin saw this unity as a virtue. "Bitching about your organisation to a competitor or the general public would never have been acceptable to me or the people I worked for and with." Which is fair enough, but it doesn't really address the issue. Every other party contains people who are willing to chat off the record about what's going on; they're only human. But not Sinn Fein. They're entitled to see that as a virtue, but it's hardly unfair for others on the outside to regard it as strange. Creepy, even.

Such a culture would be anathema to someone as candid as Sinead O'Connor. There is no way that she would keep silent, for the sake of party unity, on an issue which mattered deeply to her. She certainly doesn't keep schtum to help her career, as she demonstrated again recently when speaking out about young female performers being prostituted by an industry which "overly sexualised" them and the influence this has on an audience of impressionable minors.

"It concerns me that an entire generation is being groomed and silenced. It's very deliberate. The music industry can be a sinister place."

"I think it comes with being Irish," she recently explained. "We are opinionated people and not the kind to keep our mouths shut."

This cast of mind is alien to political party animals; and to be fair, it would be impossible to do business without a measure of discipline. But it has to be balanced with an appreciation that matters of conscience are precisely that. They're instances where the inner voice needs to win out over the public mouthpiece.

That's what makes Sinead's enthusiasm for Sinn Fein right now so mystifying. No one can have made more of a stand on child sexual abuse; at the same time, Sinn Fein has not exactly covered itself with glory on this issue. The republican movement has many questions to answer on how it handled allegations of rape and paedophilia against its own elite, and it has barely scratched the surface when it comes to answering them.

Whilst still rejecting Mairia Cahill's account of having been forced before a kangaroo court after she was abused as a teenager, Gerry Adams lately admitted on RTE's This Week that the party has not even carried out an inquiry into her claims. Perhaps because it doesn't have to. It already knows she's telling the truth.

But to not even make the pretence of investigating a claim before dismissing it out of hand destroys any assertion to have moral credibility on the issue of sexual abuse.

Those are matters on which O'Connor's intervention would have been hugely authoritative, but instead she didn't mention it in her statement last week, merely saying (in capital letters, though there's no need to replicate them): "I have the greatest of admiration for Sinn Fein and entirely support them, and will continue to do so."

As a writer, she knows the importance of precision, and "entirely" brooks little nuance. There is no way Sinead would have used it if she wasn't genuinely satisfied about its bona fides, but it would be interesting to hear what assurances she's been given beyond the soundbites which Sinn Fein has offered up for public consumption since this story broke, because their collective behaviour falls far short of acceptable practice.

The singer's main focus right now seems very much on partition, which, in the current economic mess, is a bit like putting the cart so far before the horse that the horse can't even see the cart anymore. She's entitled to her view, but poet Ezra Pound's view is equally valid. "There is no topic," he once declared, "more soporific and generally boring than the topic of Ireland as Ireland, as a nation".

Sinead O'Connor thinks we need a new Ireland. Maybe we do. But does it really matter where, geographically, its borders lie? It's only a piece of land.

Far better to have two, or four, or even 32, separate states on the island which put the protection of children first than to have one which leaves it on the back burner.

Sunday Independent

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