Many years ago when I was still a pupil, our class had a special day out.
We were taken to an Amnesty International event that featured a Chinese dissident talking about his experiences as a prisoner of conscience. As an aspiring journalist who had started to write bits and bobs for Hot Press, I managed to get one of my first serious pieces published on the back of it.
A crowd of teenage boys would usually be a tough room for any speaker, but we were all moved by the content of the speech. We were also all eager to become members of Amnesty, who had done such a great job of highlighting that case, and many other cases of totalitarian thought-control and the dangers of allowing the establishment to decide what was acceptable speech and what was verboten.
That Amnesty event was simply brilliant. They exposed our minds — minds that were normally preoccupied with The Smiths and girls who wouldn’t even look at us — to the harsh realities of the world.
They exposed us to the fact that in some countries you could be locked up simply for expressing a view that the establishment didn’t like. I was inspired that day in the sense that it gave me the realisation that the expression of independent thought was the most important element of living in a free society.
It propelled me into a brief flurry of activism and political engagement, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this school trip, which was initially just seen as a day out of the class room, was one of the foundational moments of my young life.
That was all thanks to Amnesty, who fought the good fight and broadened our minds and horizons.
So what the hell has happened to Amnesty in recent times? Under the leadership of the almost heroically obnoxious Colm O’Gorman, they have stopped being an organisation which focused on the importance of being allowed to say what you think and have become just another tedious leftie NGO that likes wagging their fingers at people.
Eyebrows were raised when they came out so strongly on the abortion referendum, which lost them many previous members who also happened to be pro-life. That seemed a dodgy decision at the time and still attracts criticism today.
But that decision — which was their own to make, and they were perfectly entitled to do so — pales in comparison to what we have seen this week.
O’Gorman and a bunch of the other usual suspects co-signed an open letter on November 20 which was jaw-dropping. According to them: “We call on the media and politicians to stop giving legitimate representation” to people who hold “bigoted beliefs”.
It will probably come as no surprise that they were referring to trans issues, a matter now as tedious as it is ubiquitous. I have little interest in the trans debate — I was actually writing articles supporting the Irish trans community as far back as 1998 so I certainly won’t take any lectures from people.
But I do have an interest in the idea that supposedly liberal groups are now calling for the censorship and social exclusion of people who hold a traditional view about male and female biology. What the hell happened to the good guys?
I’ve always considered myself a bit of a leftie (flirtations with the Connolly Youth, attending various marches and demos and so forth) but at some point in the last few years, the Left has simply become the New Right.
The values of liberalism, which I still hold dear, were clear: allowing people to express views you didn’t agree with. Supporting the right to express those views as long as they weren’t advocating violence. To defend the very people you disagree with. Undoubtedly, it can sometimes lead to uncomfortable bedfellows but the principle is more important than the people involved.
These are simple and clear ideals which are now portrayed as some sort of rabid right-wing bigotry. But the issue becomes much more clear when you factor in one thing: the weakness of human nature and the desire for control over others.
What the O’Gorman letter, and innumerable other examples we have seen in this country in the last few years, reminds us of is that we have simply replaced one pernicious, power-hungry orthodoxy for another one. Yes, today’s modern liberals may dress a bit better than the intolerant Catholics who made this country a kip for so many years, but ultimately they wear the same clothes.
There is a genuinely frightening move against free speech which, I’m sad to say, now emanates from the very people who once vigorously defended that very right. It’s quite a remarkable 180 from the formerly good guys and it’s one which they seem determined to double-down upon.
The problem with suppressing ideas you don’t like it is that it will never work. Every censor thinks they’re acting in the public good but they never are. Instead, they foster resentment and ridicule and create an environment that is hostile to free debate and the open exchange of ideas.
I was saddened to see Amnesty besmirch their good name by making such an authoritarian demand.
But I was even more saddened by the fact that I wasn’t surprised.
After the now infamous Bobby Storey funeral, I wrote a column on the true nature of Sinn Féin being exposed once again. That piece, as you can imagine, attracted the usual sort of reaction — fury from the Shinnerbots, support from people who understand the reality, and one particularly poignant letter from a mother who was distraught that her 18-year-old daughter had cast her first ever vote for Sinn Féin in February’s election “because they said she would get a free house”.
Many of us who grew up during the Troubles still can’t understand the popularity of a party that condones terrorism, but they have been fiendishly effective in convincing kids who grew up in the post-Good Friday Agreement era that that was all in the past.
It was a successful electoral policy and one which obviously worked in their favour. But they just can’t stop the mask from slipping, can they?
From David Cullinane’s triumphalist squawking of “up the Ra” to the crowds at Storey funeral and, this week, to Brian Stanley’s tweet that celebrated the Warrenpoint massacre in 1979, it seems as if they just can’t help themselves.
For a party that likes to clamber on to the moral high ground and scold everyone else at every opportunity, you’d nearly have to admire their brass neck. Nearly.
But for all the justified condemnation of Stanley’s tweet — which saw him make a non-apology apology on Thursday for his ‘insensitive remarks — I have a different take to most of the other critics.
Rather than suppressing these odious ideas, we should welcome them.
After all, they remind us that it wasn’t “all in the past”.
In fact, it reminds younger people of just who they are, what they are and what they really believe.
Even stranger was the massive amount of support Stanley’s comments received from social media and the rather more guarded “calls for understanding” that came from mainstream journalists who really should know better.
It seemed to provide an opportunity to rehash previous republican grievances — many of them justified, many of them not — and became a handy tool to attack anyone who looked askance at Stanley’s moronic message as just another West Brit.
It seems you don’t have to dig too deep to see a latent, nasty, pro-Provo inclination in many Irish people.
Keep on digging, Shinners — it’s always great to be reminded what you really think.