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Declan Lynch: 'Manuel' moment a turning point in comedy of errors

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IT IS quite possible that Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein is the only person in the Western world who appears to be in some doubt about the famous character known as Manuel.

I could specify that the Manuel in question is a TV character, but most of you wouldn't even need to know that much. I could go the whole way and call him Manuel-Of-Fawlty-Towers, but at that point you might think I was insulting your intelligence.

No, "Manuel" should be enough for anyone.

And when I say that Mary Lou McDonald is the only person in the Western world who appears to struggle with the whole Manuel issue, again I am understating the problem. Because they probably know him just as well in the Eastern world, and perhaps in other worlds that are as yet undiscovered.

Indeed, if you were to pick three icons of our time which are instantly recognisable across the globe and throughout the known universe, you could safely plump for Manchester United, U2, and Manuel.

And it was by her own hand that McDonald revealed her singular, almost supernatural level of estrangement from our culture, our way of life.

It was the week before last in the Dail chamber and she was reading out a speech in the accepted Dail style of a primary school debater, a speech which contained a slice of "humour".

Nothing that was actually funny, of course, just a bit of "light relief" for the deputies, one of those joke things. She told Eamon Gilmore that watching the antics of his Government in recent times reminded her a bit of Fawlty Towers, with Gilmore and the Taoiseach cast in the roles of "Manolos", claiming that they know nothing.

As the chamber rocked with laughter, she corrected herself, responding to prompts of "Manuel" by getting the man's name right at the second attempt.

But the damage had been done. Clearly there was only one course open to her at this stage. Clearly she would have to tender her resignation forthwith.

There is no question about this -- a person who doesn't know about Manuel, instantly and unambiguously, is unfit for public life. And is arguably unfit for private life, if it comes to that.

There was also the minor issue of whether a TD representing a constituency which contains a lot of poor people should appear to be more familiar with Manolos, a fantastically expensive brand of shoes, than the universally known and loved Manuel.

But ultimately this is about levels of ignorance on the part of public representatives which are utterly unacceptable -- we allow them crazy amounts of leeway in this regard, but finally McDonald had crossed the line here.

So I waited... and I waited... and I waited in vain. Not only did McDonald refuse to tender her resignation, it seemed that by their chilling silence the political class in general, including the broadcasters and journalists, felt that there was no case to answer here.

It seems that they really do not know any better. Which is at the very least a failure of the imagination, at worst a truly terrifying thing. It tells us that these people who are in charge of our affairs in this time of torment have a level of basic general knowledge which would be embarrassing in your average inhabitant of North Korea -- and even there, with the little bit of forbidden culture that gets through, the majority would probably know Manuel and would not confuse him with any other person, let alone with a pair of designer shoes.

And still I waited... I waited even for that strange dead thing, RTE's The Week in Politics, which had McDonald as a guest.

Now surely the presenter Aine Lawlor would deal with this matter, if necessary doing it in the style of Jeremy Paxman asking the same question 27 times: are you going to leave public life immediately?

Again, I waited in vain.

Unbelievably, there was instead a celebration of Sinn Fein comedy in general, with a replay of Dessie Ellis, also in the Dail, working the room about the new gender quotas for political parties, and then landing the punchline: "Will that also apply to

Independents, and how will that be done?"

Well... such uproar ensued in the chamber, such helpless laughter, such scenes of raucous hilarity, it was what we call a "test card" moment -- one of those rare occasions in television when everything descends into such chaos, the broadcast must be temporarily halted and a test card put up on the screen until order can be restored.

This is what Dessie Ellis can do, with his jokes.

Now clearly Mr Ellis didn't rise through the ranks of the IRA due to his ability to make people laugh. So when you take his contribution along with that of McDonald, garbled though that was, it may suggest something of a policy shift on the part of Sinn Fein. It is starting to show us more of the human face.

Unfortunately, like all fundamentalists, it doesn't really have a human face, as such. Or at least not the sort of face you could trust.

And if Sinn Fein is going down the comedy route, it should be aware that even the darkest humour relies on a certain empathy. And it is hard to be associated with a 30-year war of killing if you're overdosing on empathy.

Not that RTE seems to notice any of this, as it shows us highlights from the Sinn Fein stand-up collection, like it was Syl Fox at the Braemor Rooms.

And still they claim there was no need for Section 31?

Sunday Independent