Thursday 24 January 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Not just stale, pale and male - but MacGill Summer School is way out of touch

Come in, Mr MacGill, your time is up, sir. Complacent establishment bodies deserve what they get, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

There are people who got quite worked up about the failure of the MacGill Summer School to include more than a handful of token women in its list of speakers.

Frankly, there's no microscope powerful enough to see the size of the damn I don't give about the MacGill Summer School.

On the other hand, the ease with which the legendary festival of chatter has been brought to its knees is very much of interest.

The MacGill Summer School has been around for almost 40 years. In that time it has attracted the loyalty of some of the brightest minds and the most compelling speakers in our midst.

It has, on the other hand, also attracted regiments of the most stunning bores and the most vacant intellects this nation of yappers and wailers has inflicted on its stressed-out populace.

Despite this abundance of tedious deadheads - maybe because of it - MacGill has retained the loyalty of the officer corps of the Irish ruling class. If you had ambition to secure a place of influence in Irish public life, whether in politics, media or culture, it helped to curtsy to the oul' MacGill.

Yet, for all its status and its influential fans, it collapsed quickly last week.

When MacGill released the names of this year's male-dominated panels, there was a Twitter-gasp at the brazenness of the sexism. A wave of ridicule followed. Peter Reid, a graphic designer and Social Democrat in Galway, stitched together pictures of the speakers and put the striking graphic on Twitter. Speakers already announced began jumping overboard; topics and speakers apparently not thought of until then were magicked into new sessions.

The panic emphasised, rather than covered up, MacGill's old, tired, clapped-out reality. MacGill will probably survive, but its credibility is shot.

These summer schools aren't just chatter festivals. They are establishment accessories, wherein the less brutish elements of the Irish ruling class gather to Discuss Issues of Substance.

They signal that these people are not just holders of office and position, but intellectuals, whose policies and projects are based on carefully tended thought. This bolsters the confidence and self-belief of the establishment. The result is often a kind of parish hall version of Marian Finucane's radio show. Same cast, same topics, same views.

A dash of respectful dissent is allowed, to add spice, but these outfits are unmistakably props of the establishment, asking open, soggy questions designed to accommodate endless self-applauding waffle. And ignoring much that is awkward.

Although attracting fewer practitioners than, say, pigeon racing, the summer schools get generous media coverage. They take care to invite more than a sprinkling of media people (not just the chatterers but the more important backroom folk).

Yet, overnight, the leading summer school achieved a status only slightly below that of the op-ed page of the Ballymagash Gazette.

How did this happen?

There are young forces, stretching their muscles. Social media is no longer a novelty, it has settled into patterns. It can alert masses of people in an instant. This creates a discussion and a backlash in the time it used to take someone to wonder if they should maybe write a letter to the newspaper about something that upset them.

The technology alone isn't enough to produce change.

Notoriously, social media can produce mindless recreational outrage. But it can also channel and focus real concerns about things that can and should be changed.

Whether it came in the backwash of the Weinstein scandal, the #MeToo movement, or just a spreading scream of NO! NO! NO! - the current wave of feminism isn't looking for minor concessions.

I'm afraid, gents, they want it all. Equality. The possession of one tool of reproduction rather than another is no longer enough to get away with grabbing the largest share of everything except the crap-work.

And it's no longer enough to say, Oh, OK, we'll move up a bit in the pew and let in another woman or two.

There really isn't any reason to crawl through incremental stages over decades - only 50/50 makes sense.

And there are an awful lot of angry people, predominantly female, confident and unforgiving, and above all young. When the appropriate spark hits, any institution, no matter how apparently respected, might turn out to be tired and dry and ready to go up in flames.

In recent years, Irish institutions of State, from the HSE to the Garda, from the Cabinet to the criminal justice system, have been relentlessly exposed.

We have an establishment that can't house its population and can't provide reliable medical care.

We have a political class that cowered before bankers and remained stunned when EU officials threatened us with economic bombing.

A class that shamefully joined in the sneering when the Greek people were being mugged, instead of showing solidarity. A class that knows its financial system is out of control, that dare not tax its rich at an appropriate rate, that kowtows to global corporations and provides them with a legalised form of tax evasion.

And then struts up and down in front of the GPO, spouting nonsense about independence and comparing itself to revolutionaries.

A class that never took a step unless it was on ground that others with courage had trodden heavily, at great cost.

MacGill is the most eminent of that political class's intellectual accessories. The significance of it losing its credibility in an instant is that it can happen as quickly, as humiliatingly, to any other complacent institution.

The gender discrepancy isn't the only glaring problem.

Some take their class dominance so much for granted that they don't even notice it. It's just the way things are meant to be, they imagine.

Just as the males took it for granted there was no need for more than a token chick or two in the room.

We are governed by a very narrow layer, reared and schooled and acclimatised to power.

We who don't like that need to learn from the feminists. They put in the hours. Building issue upon issue, forging contacts, building strength over years.

Meanwhile, I was wondering if maybe I should go to this year's MacGill. What do you think?

I've just had a gander at the programme. What a cast list.

It opens on Sunday, July 22, with a documentary about John Hume. Fair enough, could be enjoyable.

Then, at 8.30, the keynote address, by Bertie Ahern.

No, really, lads. No.

Ahern had his achievements, but no. Leave aside the crash, think of the sterling and the dollars...

No, I'm not even going to bother. If you can't understand why, well - no.

But, dare I miss the Brexit speech by that great intellectual Phil Hogan?

Then there's Brendan Halligan, described as "former General Secretary of the Labour Party". Lads, lads, Brendan got that gig in ... 1967.

But, of course, Brendan was also an MEP, they remind us. For a year or so. And that year was... 1984.

Then, they've got a session on whether the next general election will "provide us with the government and governance we need".

Like they would know.

It features Frank Flannery, who ran FG in the 1980s.

Let's not mention some of Frank's more recent media appearances.

Second thoughts, no, I won't bother taking the road to Donegal. Even as a stale, pale male myself, I couldn't stomach it.

Sunday Independent

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

Don't Miss