Wednesday 11 December 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Is Fine Gael now happy to get votes from racists?'

Some people are going to vote for Verona Murphy next week because they support her comments about migrants

CONTROVERSY: Instead of standing by Verona Murphy, Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael should have condemned her controversial comments
CONTROVERSY: Instead of standing by Verona Murphy, Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael should have condemned her controversial comments
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

When Verona Murphy's votes are counted next week, we will not know how many of those votes she got for her recent disgraceful comments about migrants. We won't know how much of a xenophobia bonus she is getting. But we can be sure that Fine Gael will benefit, in this by-election, by getting votes they might not have otherwise got from people who have ugly attitudes to outsiders. It's quite amazing that Fine Gael is comfortable with this. But they clearly are. Both Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney came out to defend Verona Murphy after her wildly inaccurate and incendiary comments.

Leo Varadkar's initial defence of Murphy was pretty worrying. He said: "Verona is a very outspoken, a very independent person. She's not going to be the kind of person who toes the party line." It sounded almost admiring. She's a maverick. She tells it like it is. You won't catch her tempering her ill-informed xenophobia just because she's in the major party of Government. She's a free-spirited xenophobe, our Verona.

Let's get this straight. There's no doubt we need to be able to have difficult and adult conversations around immigration. But the comments Verona Murphy made, and the mindset they betrayed, is not her being "outspoken" or "independent". It's not displaying a healthy rebellious streak to say dumb things, for which you have no evidence, that feed into the nasty undercurrent of racial hatred that is swirling around trying to gain a foothold in this country. It's just plain ignorance, and dangerous ignorance at that. And at a time like this, when temperatures are running high, a mainstream politician should not get away with bringing this kind of talk into the mainstream.

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In Zagreb last Thursday, Varadkar seemed to be getting almost impatient with people asking him about Verona: "She's apologised twice now for what she said and she's withdrawn her remarks in full. That's good enough for me." Is it really? Is that good enough for him? Is he happy now that she is fit to represent his party in an election? If nothing else, is he not worried about the optics of this? A person makes appalling statements, that are wildly untrue, that basically try to stir up racially based mistrust of three- and four-year-old children, in the course of an election campaign, and the Government is standing by her as their candidate?

A week earlier the Taoiseach had been expressing his disapproval of Fianna Fail's response to Lorraine Clifford-Lee's historic tweets in which she talked about pikeys, knackers, sluts and black Brazilian midgets. He complained that Clifford-Lee's comments were "misogynistic towards women" (can you be misogynistic to men?), racist towards Travellers, and classist. "And also body-shaming." Just describing them as inappropriate wasn't enough, he said. So apparently body-shaming is now a mortal sin, but linking three-year-old children to Isil is OK for an election candidate? Is Leo now so woke that he finds culture-war issues more unforgivable than straight up xenophobia? How many people have died of body-shaming I wonder, versus the number of people who have died from lies being spread about migrants?

And remember, while Lorraine Clifford-Lee's past came back to bite her, it was Verona Murphy's present that came back to bite her. Murphy made her comments in the course of the election campaign. She said these things in a political interview setting, as a candidate. Verona Murphy said those things in an attempt to get people to vote for her. She thought they were acceptable things for a politician to say and she thought they were things that might encourage people to vote for her. And Fine Gael is standing by her. It's actually extraordinary.

Varadkar, who was so exemplary in how he dealt with Noel Grealish, and who seemed to understand the very real danger that can arise from loose talk and lies in this area, is suddenly OK with this. Put Verona through the car wash at a direct provision centre and out she comes, clean as a whistle, not a racist bone in her body.

I actually don't think Verona Murphy is a racist. I also think in general that Murphy seems like a very bright woman - which, in a way, makes her comments more worrying. I also think that people should be allowed to make mistakes, and say stupid things sometimes.

A lot of people missed a very important moment in Ireland's culture wars recently when Lorraine Clifford-Lee visited Pavee Point. After she left, Martin Collins spoke to the media and said he accepted her apology and added something to the effect that people should be allowed redemption. So what Martin Collins was saying, very graciously, as a representative of a minority, is that he does not believe in cancel culture - that people should get a second chance. And in doing so he was taking a bit of a stand against the prevailing left-liberal culture, which dictates that if someone snags themselves on one of the tripwires laid across public discourse, they must be banished for good.

I agree with Collins. And I also agree with Verona Murphy's supporters that there is much more to her than these stupid comments.

I actually suspect what may have happened here is that Murphy might have been suffering a slight cultural hangover from her role as a road haulier and as president of the Irish Road Haulage Association (IRHA).

To many truckers, migrants are a very specific problem. They are people who can jump on your truck when you are about to cross a border and they can land you in deep trouble and with thousands of euros in fines. So you wonder if, in the trucking culture, migrants get talked about in a particular way.

Perhaps Murphy hadn't quite transitioned properly out of that culture and into the political one. Perhaps she hadn't switched her mindset and her language enough. Perhaps she hadn't fully realised that as a politician you have different responsibilities around loose talk. This does not excuse her comments, but it might explain them.

So there should be redemption for Verona Murphy. However, it seems that the necessities of an election campaign meant that redemption had to be fast-tracked on this occasion.

But redemption for Murphy cannot come within the same campaign in which she made the comments. Because no matter what way you look at it, those comments were part of Murphy's campaign, and sadly, they will get her votes. And Fine Gael needs to accept that if Murphy wins this election, she will have got some of her votes for very sinister reasons. Fine Gael will have a TD who was elected, partly at least, on a racist platform.

Instead of standing by Murphy, Fine Gael should have made it very clear that they, and all of us in this country, are better than this.

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