Monday 9 December 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Did Fine Gael just help to normalise xenophobia?'

It's worrying that so many voters still thought it was OK to vote for Verona Murphy despite the facts undermining her stance

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and candidate Verona Murphy canvass in Wexford
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and candidate Verona Murphy canvass in Wexford
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

These days it often seems you can't get away with anything. While on the other hand it often seems like you can get away with anything.

So if you are a celebrity or a sportsperson or a broadcaster, you can misspeak about something, or express an opinion that does not gel with the massed liberal ranks of social media wokies, and you can be instantly cancelled. You can be destroyed, your career ended; you can become the target of visceral hatred and threats. Even though you are a person who is not in a position of real political power, and even if your actual job is not connected to politics at all, you can be destroyed for saying the wrong thing, for being on the wrong side of a hot-button cultural issue.

But, somehow, if you are a politician, someone who has, or aspires to have, real political power, it sometimes seems you can say whatever you want and not only will you not be cancelled, you might actually do well out of it.

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This whole Verona Murphy saga seems like some kind of alternative universe. This woman makes crazy, ill-informed and incendiary comments - comments which were likely to fuel hate - and while there is a certain amount of lip service and political point-scoring and virtue signalling about it, mostly things just continue as they are. The major change is that the vocal and local candidate is not allowed near too many other microphones for the duration of an election campaign.

Because, of course, she was not the problem, what she said was not the problem, it was the media crucifying her. The media is the problem, so take that out of the frame and everything is fine. It's like if a tree falls in the forest. If someone is spouting racist rhetoric but no one gets to hear it in the media, then that person isn't actually making a sound. Even the normally sensible Charlie Flanagan diminished himself yesterday by playing up the media crucifixion narrative. "She was the focus of much national criticism," he said, as if the criticism was nothing to do with Murphy but some unfair concerted attack on her. He then went on to make the extraordinary claim that Gemma O'Doherty on the other hand, "seemed to get something of a free pass, perhaps maybe from former colleagues in the media". So Flanagan was equating his candidate, a candidate of the party of government, with an extreme far-right candidate who is regarded as little more than a sideshow. Does Flanagan seriously not see why Verona Murphy should be held to higher standards and why her views are more worthy of discussion? That in itself is worrying.

So with the troublesome media out of the picture, Verona was free to go around meeting people one on one, and a kind of disturbing narrative developed around that. In private, it was intimated, everyone was fine with Verona, a nod and a wink. That PC brigade up in Dublin can try to do Verona down, but people "on the doorsteps" agree with her and feel she has been treated unjustly. And they are sick of all this PC nonsense. And in the privacy of the polling booth, people will be honest.

There are a lot of problems with the above narrative. But the most obvious one is that there is no way anyone can agree privately with Verona because what she said simply isn't true. Verona did not present some kind of sophisticated analysis which summed up the fears and the concerns that some people might have around migrants or asylum seekers coming to Ireland. Verona was spouting crazy stuff about brainwashed three-year-old Manchurian candidates and claiming a big part of the immigrant population here is in Isil. It's just not true. It's barmy conspiracy theory stuff.

But then, maybe what people mean when they insinuate that many people privately agree with Verona is that while people do not specifically agree with the things she said, because even Verona accepts they are not true, maybe they agree with her in the sense that they approve of the gist of what she was saying. She may have got her facts mixed up, but her heart was in the right place. She was going against the PC grain and giving voice to those decent, ordinary people out there who are suspicious of immigrants, especially brown ones. And Verona may not have been able to prove what she was saying. But the truckers know the reality of these things. And there's some truth in there somewhere.

It's disturbing enough that some people would vote for Verona Murphy because she made these noises. But there you go - there is a minority of people out there who hate brown migrants. What is perhaps more disturbing is that many, many more people didn't not vote for Verona Murphy because of those comments. You would hope the average decent Fine Gael voter in Wexford would say: "You know, I liked the cut of Verona Murphy's jib and I was going to vote for her, but after she made those really dangerous and ill-informed comments, and after she legitimised racist conspiracy theories and gave them currency, I find now that I can't really vote for her."

But clearly many people didn't. Flanagan and Murphy both pointed out yesterday that she held up and possibly increased the FG vote in Wexford.

Clearly many people thought: "Yeah well, Verona slipped up with those crazy racist comments, but you know what, that's not enough of a reason for me not to vote for her. So she's maybe made racist comments, and she tried to use a bit of dog whistling to get votes. But still, it's not a mortal sin to be a bit suspicious of all these brown strangers, is it? I'll give her the vote anyway. She seems like a good sort."

And this is how the envelope gets pushed. This is how lines get crossed. This is how you boil the frog. Turn up the heat really slowly so it doesn't notice, all the time subtly adjusting what's normal.

If someone had said a year ago that a Fine Gael candidate would spout racist nonsense in the course of an election campaign, and that the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste would step in to defend her, and that the Taoiseach would arrive down just days later to canvass with her, you wouldn't have believed them.

But somehow that happened, and somehow it was normalised to the extent that lots of regular decent Fine Gael voters felt it was OK to vote for this person. Because the top of the party, the leader of this country no less, wrapped its arms around her, and said we are OK with this person. They didn't stand over what Verona said, but they suggested it should be instantly excused. A slip of the tongue, not a slip of the mask.

While Fine Gael will perhaps be relieved that she didn't win this by-election, Verona Murphy says she intends to run for FG in the next election and Charlie Flanagan answered in the affirmative when asked if she is a suitable candidate for the party in the next election.

What Verona Murphy should do now, in representing the people who did vote for her, is to try to be part of a proper adult conversation around migration, one that does not involve brainwashed Isil children.

Clearly, Murphy's erstwhile ignorance on this matter shows there is a lot of dangerous misinformation floating around out there, and that many people, rightly or wrongly, have concerns. So let's talk about it. Let's have an open, fact-based conversation. Let's let people air their fears, let's let them air the conspiracies too, so they can be debunked. Let's talk to communities rather than secretly planning direct provision centres and feeding paranoia. Let's talk too about how we can speed up the asylum process. And about the benefits of diversity. While also being honest about scarce resources.

Let's have the conversation, because right now we are leaving that conversation to other, sinister people. And the result is the ignorance Verona Murphy displayed. And most of all let's try to remember, at all times, that we, the Irish, really are better than that kind of rubbish.

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