Sunday 26 January 2020

What Gerry said -- and what he really meant by 'special'

Brendan O'Connor responds to a letter from Gerry Adams concerning his remarks in the Dail

WHEN debating Ireland's banking deal and our "special status" as agreed by Germany recently in the Dail, Gerry Adams said, after a long answer by the Taoiseach, "I can see, after that answer, why they think the Taoiseach is special".

I wrote in this paper last week that "It is clear to anyone that this was a little dig at Enda Kenny having an intellectual disability. 'Special' is one of those little jokes that people used to make sometimes about people who do something stupid or who are a bit stupid, and it refers to someone being 'special' in the sense of them having special needs."

Gerry Adams wrote to us on Friday morning saying I knew that is not what he meant and that my piece was a product of my imagination and my prejudice against Sinn Fein. We asked him to expand and to explain what he actually meant by the comment.

His letter and my response to it were too long to go in our letters page by Friday afternoon when he got back to us so here they are:

'November 2, 2012,

Letters Editor,



A chara,

I suspect that Brendan O'Connor knows that my remarks in the Dail chamber had nothing at all to do with citizens with special needs.

I used the word 'special' in its political context and in a situation in which it had been used by the Taoiseach and German Chancellor to try and disguise the Government's failure to secure a clear commitment in the June EU summit, and the summit two weeks ago, on the important matter of legacy debt.

Nor did I take offence nor read into their remarks any abuse of the word 'special' when it was applied to me in the same debate by Deputy Bernard J Durkan, who said, "Deputy Adams is very special himself"; nor by Deputy Timmy Dooley: who said, "Deputy Adams was special 20 years ago".

The following day, Wednesday, [October] 24, we returned to this issue of 'special'.

In the course of statements on the European Council meeting, and following a further explanation from the Taoiseach about why 'Ireland is a special case', I said: "I wish to make a few remarks about this word 'special.' The joint communique with Angela Merkel was a very necessary piece of damage limitation, required because of what she had said and the interpretation thereof.

"Let us not over-egg that though, because it was full of the language of diplomacy, of constructive ambiguity, of fudge. I may be able to help Teachta Boyd Barret with his question. I was, a number of times in my life, treated in a very special way. I had special status. Now, the problem for me was that I was in a prison ship in Belfast Lough, without charge or trial, held below deck with other internees for a very long time.

"In another period of my life, I was in the H-Blocks and cages of Long Kesh and in Belfast Prison and again, I had what was defined as special category status, but I was incarcerated without proper charge or trial. I just offer that up as a little light relief in these straitened times."

Finally, and for the record. Throughout my 50 years of political activism, I have worked closely with special needs groups, consistently promoted the rights of citizens with special needs, and sought to represent their interests.

That Brendan O'Connor could ignore all of this and write 800 words alleging that my private position is different from my public is a testament to his imagination and his prejudice against Sinn Fein.

Is mise,

Gerry Adams TD'

In response, I think Gerry Adams knows that he is lying. None of this goes anyway towards explaining Gerry Adams saying, "I can see, after that answer, why they think the Taoiseach is special", clearly using the word special as a derogatory term.

I don't know one person who knows, and I have asked many, what other possible meaning Gerry Adams's comment could have had.

No one can see any other meaning other than that it was a play on 'special' the way it used to be offensively used by schoolyard bullies to suggest someone was no better than a handicapped person. It was a term of casual abuse that is demeaning to people with intellectual disabilities.

If Gerry Adams was, as he now claims, using the word in a political context, what did he mean precisely by it in that context? "I can see, after that answer, why they think the Taoiseach is special."

To point to a totally different discussion the next day where he applied a different, very specific, meaning to the word 'special' makes no sense. Is he asking us to believe that his comments the previous day were referring to that meaning, an obscure meaning he conjured up the following day? To his own special status as a prisoner in the past? And is he suggesting that is how people would have taken his comment the previous day?

Ah, come on now, a chara.

I am glad Gerry Adams did not take any offence when the word 'special' was applied to him in the same debate. Maybe Gerry doesn't get this but the offence was not his to take.

The offence when words like 'special' are bandied around in a derogatory and sniggering way like this, is towards the many people in this country with special needs and indeed their loved ones.

I am glad to hear of Gerry Adams's work with people with special needs. He will appreciate then that outdated and unfortunate attitudes towards people with disabilities can be as limiting as the actual disabilities, and he will understand that careless and ignorant use of language does not help to change those attitudes.

I did not imagine what Gerry Adams said and I did not imagine that it was an unfortunate slip for him.

And neither do I prejudge Sinn Fein. I judge them on what I see. While I would be at one with many of Gerry Adams's younger colleagues on most of the economic issues of the day, I don't like terrorism, I don't like violence and I don't like lies and evasion.

That's not a prejudice, just a judgement on Gerry Adams and his ilk.

I would say to Gerry Adams that he should not beat himself up unduly about his unfortunate slip last week.

Like everyone of his generation, he is of a time when language and attitudes that would shock the current generation were casually bandied about. It is only by gently pointing out to people of Gerry's vintage what you might kindly call their "old fashioned" attitudes and use of language that we can help them not to cause offence.

I was happy to do so on this occasion.

Sunday Independent

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