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Gene Kerrigan: 'The fight to control the agenda never ends

Marian Finucane, as well as Gay Byrne, created space for debate and change - today, consensus excludes many, writes Gene Kerrigan


Among those who knew Marian Finucane, news of her sudden death was greeted with shock. She was a pillar of the media generation that questioned the old Ireland and, by questioning, helped to change it.

Among younger people, part of the social media generation, it was just another example of the boomers obsessed with the icons of their long-gone day. They saw her death as distressing for her family and friends, of course, but they seemed to find it hard to see what the fuss was about.

One Twitter account asked: "What did she do?" It wasn't necessarily aggressive. More like curiosity.

Marian Finucane interviewed people on radio at weekends, they might have concluded, and she read out headlines from newspapers, and she was paid a fortune to do it. She was seen as part of the comfortable classes.

The same person who was rightly lauded for her broadcasting skills, for her deceptively simple interviewing techniques, for her trailblazing and her feminist achievements, had become irrelevant to many of the radical young.

On the day she died, one self-obsessed tweet lamented that "she wasn't much of a fan of those of us standing up against Irish Water".

The term "end of an era" is overused, but it no doubt applies now.

There was a political era that began with the formation of the State and ended only five or so years ago. We might call it the Catholic era.

Finucane was a giant in the second half of that era.

And as the years pass, those who lived through that time - including those who changed this country vastly for the better - are following the natural course of things.

Gay Byrne was 85, at the end of a long, relentless illness. Marian Finucane might have been expected to have years yet, but 69 was not long ago seen as the outer edge of things.

The new era, the post-Catholic era, is concerned with different issues. And it's an era that displays a shocking lack of perspective.

But, then, maybe that's how Marian Finucane and her generation were seen all those years ago by those angered by their radicalism.

The Catholic era was one in which, with no discussion, doubt or rancour, women were seen as subordinate entities. We paid them less, allowed hardly any of them to move to positions of responsibility. Husbands could legally beat their wives, and many, many did.

It was entirely legal to rape your wife if you considered that necessary.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael took turns governing. They each had a kind of moral confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Catholic hierarchy.

The politicians allowed the bishops control of education and health, and ensured all social legislation complied with the bishops' wishes. The bishops in turn endorsed the moral legitimacy of the parties.

In a passionately Catholic Ireland, few politicians dared risk being denounced by the guardians of the faith.

Unfair pay, lack of promotion opportunities, subordination at work and in the home, bruises and beatings, legal rape, all were tolerated as normal, by both politicians and bishops.

Censorship didn't outlaw just "dirty books" (by the likes of Hemingway, Orwell and Proust, Maura Laverty and Austin Clarke), it also kept out books that encouraged unapproved thinking on social and sexual matters.

The guardians of the faith had dominion over children, with terrible consequences we've come to know too well, in terms of neglect and death, as well as physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

There are some who believe the media have power. If they have, it's a negative power - the power to limit the agenda.

And in the Catholic era the media bowed the knee to the bishops - literally.

Reporters who went to interview a bishop were expected to begin proceedings by going down on one knee and kissing the ring on the hand his majesty held out.

This was not limited to special occasions, or to especially vainglorious bishops, it was standard practice. The reporter then went into stenographer mode and took down the bishop's words of wisdom.

No cheeky questions.

Change was impossible, because demands for change were simply kept off the agenda.

But we were now edging towards becoming part of Europe. Television came, paperback books, news from abroad of social, moral and sexual debates. News from the North of demands for civil rights.

The public was restive, activists organised, held meetings, made demands. In the media the likes of Gay Byrne - and later Marian Finucane - provided the space within which debate could take place.

With debate came changed minds and changed laws. Contraception, divorce, marriage equality, repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

The abuse of children, "illegitimate" and otherwise, was put on the agenda, and we were sickened by what we found.

Gradually, the media not alone stopped kissing the bishop's jewellery - we got around to asking His Grace to explain why he covered up child abuse.

In the middle of all that, in 2008, the economic infrastructure crumbled. Massive amounts of public money were used to prop up the banks and the other private money-changers.

Vultures prospered.

Extraordinary cuts were made in services, and over the following decade there followed deprivation, pain and premature death.

Not much was heard from those who suffered most from this. Vast stretches of working class and lower middle class people had no voice in the media. The trade unions were withered, the forces that demanded change in the past were often now on the other side, preaching austerity from positions of relative comfort.

This time, those who dissented from the consensus didn't have a Gay Byrne or a Marian Finucane to ensure their case was on the media agenda.

At best, Marian questioned the competence of Irish Water, but not its place in the austerity agenda, or the privatisation stroke being pulled.

It was out of this, unpredicted, unexplained, having been allowed little room to explain itself, that the anti-water charges campaign came.

For the water charge activists, the old media had become, at best, peripheral, while the wild west of social media too often preached hate as an answer.

Back in the Catholic era, there were lots of journalists who saw nothing wrong with bowing the knee and kissing the bishop's ring. That, after all, was what society as a whole agreed was what the relationship between the bishop and the public should be.

Similarly today, there's a media consensus on what is valid for discussion - anything outside that consensus is excluded or attacked.

What is today called populism results not just from the machinations of right-wing millionaires, it results from the exclusion from debate of many who have felt the sharp edge of the tools used to save the banks from their own greed.

Much of the social media dissent of today is expressed in the language of heroes and villains. You are with us or you are against us.

In such circumstances, not alone are figures like Gay Byrne and Marian Finucane dismissed from the conversation they helped create, but the conversation itself goes in decreasing circles and everyone ends up talking to themselves.

The lesson of the old era and of the new era is that when dissent is given the space to create debate, it may or may not win the argument, may or may not generate change.

But dissent excluded from the agenda will fester and emerge in other ways, some of them very scary indeed.

Sunday Independent