Monday 20 January 2020

Heard the one about Paddy, the union, and the pay cuts?

Let's hope we're not slipping back into a state of collective victimhood, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Jokes are wasted on me sometimes. Take the gag which got a Tory councillor in England into trouble a little while ago. Here's how it goes: a man walks into a bar in Dublin and sees his friend sitting with an empty glass. "Paddy, can I buy you another?" he asks, to which Paddy replies: "Now what would I be wanting with another empty glass?"

When I first heard that joke, I must admit I thought Paddy's response was rather witty. Ask a silly question, and all that. But apparently the joke is racist, because the listener is supposed to think that Paddy is a stereotypical thick Irishman. (Trust this stereotypically thick Irishwoman to get the wrong end of the stick.) That's certainly how it was taken by Irish-born Brian Kelly, who was in the room with Kent town councillor Ken Bamber at the time.

Despite an apology, Kelly made an official complaint to something called the Standards Board, and last week it was reported that compensation amounting to thousands of pounds had been paid to him, some coming from the council, some from Mr Bamber's own pocket.

Now, context is all. Told under different circumstances, that joke could well be cited as an example of native Dublin wit, whose merits we hear extolled ubiquitously but examples of which are sadly hard to find at closing time outside most bars and clubs in the capital.

But we'll take Brian Kelly's word for it that he felt belittled by the joke, even if his claim to being "deeply offended" sounds a tad over the top. He was in the room when it was told, after all, and we weren't.

There's also a long and ignominious history of crass racist humour being directed against the Irish in Britain, and the apology which the councillor issued was, reportedly, a bit mealy mouthed too. Let's take all that as read.

Even so, do we really want to go back to the days when our skins were so thin that we took umbrage every time some idiot with an English accent told us our brains were thick? All this heightened sensitivity to insult seems so last century. Once we had the edge over the Perfidious Albioners in terms of personal wealth and standards of living, that sort of thing certainly seemed to slip off the radar. Confidence replaced insecurity. Being Irish was a badge of pride. The Irish were everywhere, and they were rich, successful, popular. Paddy didn't have an empty glass anymore. If anything, the joke was turned on the racists.

Perhaps it's going too far to see what happened in Kent as a symbol of another loss of national confidence, but the story does have a gloomy 'end of an era' feel to it. It's as if the money and glamour was all a front, and we never really believed it, and now that it's gone we're just going to let ourselves slip back once more into collective victimhood.

If so, then it does seem depressingly appropriate somehow that the Irishman who complained about this joke told by a town councillor in his 70s in the back end of Nowhereshire should have been a full-time trade unionist employed by the council in question as an official with Unison. We ought to have guessed. This is exactly the bureaucratic, pettifogging way of doing things which the trade unions love.

Just listen to how this case made its way through the system: it started with an official complaint made against the chair of the business support and overview committee, was passed on to an employment tribunal, and finally ended up at the door of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.

Personally, there's not a single word in that sentence -- with the possible exception of "door" -- which does not make my soul ache with dreary misery. Yet this way of dealing with problems is the very lifeblood of trade unionism on these islands. This is where they feel most comfortable, and where they'd drag us all back in their spirit-sapping wake if they could. To the land of committees, tribunals, paperwork, arbitration, complaints, meetings, oh the endless meetings, yadda, yadda, yadda, until finally -- kerching! -- it's compensation time, and another of the enemies of the people is forced to munch dirt in the name of equality.

Here in Ireland, we've seen to our cost where this culture leads. The unions were happy to skim off the gains of prosperity, but the economic climate which bred the wealth was never really their style. Politically, they felt more at home in the Age of Austerity, when their perpetually angry class warfare rhetoric, while about as much practical use as an inflatable dartboard, struck a sympathetic chord with the mood of the times.

The recession has simply accorded them a golden opportunity to slip back into their intellectual comfort zone, leaving them free to live out the fantasy of a period when they could pose as doughty defenders of the working class without fear of challenge, even as we now know they all had their snouts so deep in the trough during the Celtic Tiger years that they made the capitalist fat cats they were always excoriating for their greed look like scrawny kittens by comparison. Economic slowdown has simply meant they had to look for new troughs. As for what will fill the troughs in the future, since the private sector which actually creates prosperity is on its knees, that, insist the unions, isn't their problem. For them, it's more a case of thanks very much for the loot, now it's back to square one.

Exhibit A being Unite's pledge to fight the decision by Bank of Scotland (Ireland) to shut down its Irish Halifax operation with the loss of 750 jobs. Yeah, good luck with that one, lads. Once you're done, how about mounting pickets on the stable door after the horse has bolted, demanding it come back at once?

Meanwhile, over at the Garda Representative Association (GRA), Exhibit B was making an appearance in the form of an announcement by the leaders of the boys in blue that they intend to lead their members up the garden path of industrial action, in protest at the Government's pay and pension levies.

There's an Irish joke that we really should be deeply offended by, because we're all the butt of it; and sadly the cost for this one won't be borne by the gullible rate-payers of Kent, but by each and every one of us. If only we could all find some ruddy-cheeked Tory caricature to hurt our patriotic feelings too. We might be needing the cash very soon.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss