Monday 18 November 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: Enda acted like Billy Bunter in a pie shop

Female senators are clearly not the only ones talking out of the wrong orifices.

Eilis O'Hanlon

It's a curious feature of the English language that there are numerous insults derived from the male anatomy, ranging from almost affectionate putdowns like "tool" through to altogether less repeatable ones rhyming with "stick", but using them rarely results in accusations of anti-male bias, whilst using the few insults which are derived from the female anatomy will at once find the user branded as irredeemably sexist – as David Norris can attest after he found himself in the dog house last week for telling fellow senator Regina Doherty that she was "talking through her fanny" during a debate on the proposed abolition of the Seanad.

Is it really sexist, by definition, to tell a woman that she's talking through the most female part of her anatomy, even though it's commonplace to accuse clueless opponents of talking through other parts of the body where the sun don't shine either? On this one, it may be wise to defer to US comedian Chris Rock. In one of his stand-up routines, Rock wonders whether it's ever acceptable to call someone a faggot, and comes to the conclusion: it depends. On who says it; who they say it to; how they say it; and the context in which it's said. Sounds like a sensible rule of thumb.

In this instance – Fannygate, if we must be predictable – it was certainly unpresidential language, suggesting the Joycean scholar had a narrow escape when he didn't make it to the Aras. He also definitely wouldn't have said it to a man, because, well, it would have made as little anatomical sense as Roy Keane's classic retort to Irish manager Mick McCarthy that he should "stick it up your bollix" (whatever "it" was). Insofar as what Norris said could only have been said to a woman, then the perpetually offended could reasonably make a case for it being sexist, if they feel that makes their time on this earth any happier.

However, if this was a criminal case, it would surely have to be dropped quietly on the grounds of insufficient evidence; and if it ever did get as far as the high court of public umbrage, then the defendant would just as surely have to be given the benefit of the doubt for being of previous good character. Norris has never really done much in the past to suggest that he regards women as anything other than his equal. He just didn't happen to consider one woman his equal on this particular occasion, and some might say he had a point. As Chris Rock says: it depends.

The good thing about losing one villain, however, is that there'll always be another one along in a moment. In Irish public life there's an insatiable appetite for cartoon villains who can act as a lightning rod for this inchoate inner fury we feel right now about the dissatisfying messy state of things. Barely had David Norris sat down than his place in the stocks was taken by Fianna Fail senator Jim Walsh, who offended decent-thinking people everywhere – at least that was the script sent round from Cliche Central – by describing, in detail, what actually happens during an abortion.

Ivana Bacik was so outraged that she walked out of the chamber. Twitter went into meltdown. Journalists tut-tutted like Victorian ladies who'd just spotted a pair of exposed piano legs and needed to be urgently brought round with smelling salts.

Walsh's contribution was mad as the proverbial box of frogs. He pulled out every rhetorical trick in the book. After listening to his contribution to the debate, a vision of an Ireland where abortion is legal started to make one of Hieronymus Bosch's hellish landscapes look like an episode of Wanderly Wagon. It was ripe for satire, and practically begging to be smashed apart by the

demolition ball of logic. But dear Lord, at least it was passionate. At least it stirred something other than apathy and indifference. At least it called out for a rousing response rather than a stifled yawn, which is the fate of most political speeches at what should be one of the most vibrant and intellectually fervent times in our history.

Walsh didn't merely cross some lines, he pole vaulted across them with abandon, but only because, like Norris, he actually cared about what he was saying. They're not simply going through the motions, checking their personalities in at the door, clocking their principles on and off like hired hands paid by the hour. If those on the other side of the argument didn't like what they were hearing, then they were perfectly free to be equally passionate in response. It's utterly bizarre that these two episodes should have been leapt upon by opponents of the Seanad to illustrate some imagined need for the abolition of an upper house in the Irish parliament when, if anything, they proved the opposite.

It's hard to recall many days when there was such fierce and involved debate on serious issues of State in the Dail. Passion flares up now and then, but mostly from the fringes, and the dead hand of the new autocracy quickly snuffs it out again when it does. In the Seanad, genuine conflicts of ideology and morality are only ever one intemperate comment away. There are some ludicrous figures there, but no more so than in the Dail, and in a country where democracy has been reduced to a sequence of set pieces by an untouchable government, imposing legislation without resistance, it's almost refreshing to find a place where old-fashioned cut and thrust still clings on and the formal niceties often imposed to stifle debate are not respected in the same timid, career-protecting manner they are in a tamed, emasculated lower house.

There's no hiding place in the Seanad. You can't just keep your head down and hope your colourless mediocrity goes unnoticed. It's a place much more suited to non-conformists and scrappers. It might even be this simmering anarchic spirit which offends the Taoiseach's sensibilities. Enda Kenny never saw a debate that he didn't want to avoid, possibly because he knows that, in any real exchange of ideas, the bones of most of his arguments would soon be littering the floor like gnawed metatarsals in an ogre's cave, chewed up and spat out. He probably couldn't believe his luck when Norris rudely interrupted what, with typically life-affirming wordplay, he dubbed the Fine Gael senator's "Regina Monologue". At a stroke, a Taoiseach, who was glaring down the barrel of a humiliating referendum defeat in the autumn on the issue of abolition of the upper house, had a chance to discredit the Seanad, and he fell on it greedily like Billy Bunter in a pie shop.

But if Kenny really thinks he can exploit this incident as part of some vainglorious campaign to silence the one place that won't shut up and do as it's told, then female senators are clearly not the only ones talking out of the wrong orifices.

No one urges the abolition of the Dail because one TD, late at night, can't keep his hands to himself. Still, that's men for you. Now if only there was a suitably insulting, non-sexist word to describe them ...

Irish Independent

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