Monday 19 August 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'Johnson's jibe: why we should take offence'

We do offend easily but Boris's 'Murphy' trope followed Donald Trump plumbing further depths

CARBON COPIES? Boris Johnson and Donald Trump at UN headquarters in New York in 2017
CARBON COPIES? Boris Johnson and Donald Trump at UN headquarters in New York in 2017
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Sometimes it is too easy to take offence. "Why isn't he called Murphy like all the rest of them?" Boris Johnson is alleged to have said of Leo Varadkar, Ireland's leader of Indian descent.

The disclosure came courtesy of the Financial Times last week, as an example of Boris Johnson's questionable record at the Foreign Office, or as the FT put it, his "long record of mendacity and an infantile habit of comparing the EU to Nazi Germany".

Over many years, some would say 800, the Irish have become attuned to such insults, real or imagined, intended or otherwise, from political and civic leaders in the UK, and, of course, less so when the jibes go in the opposite direction, as they have also done.

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Most times it is best to ignore such hoary old jibes and tropes and move on, but not this time, not in these times.

To quote Mr Johnson, according to the FT article: "At the Foreign Office, he was heard to muse as to whether Chancellor Angela Merkel had served in East Germany's Stasi secret police. French president Emmanuel Macron was a 'jumped-up Napoleon'.

"As for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, 'Why isn't he called Murphy like all the rest of them?'"

In a week when the Presidency of Donald J Trump descended to further depths, however, it was proper that Johnson's alleged jibe was not allowed to pass.

In fact, in this era of a neo-nationalist backlash against globalisation, especially immigration policy, such jibes and tropes should never be allowed to pass.

The most appropriate response came from the Social Protection Minister, Regina Doherty: "Yes, Mr Johnson, we are called Murphy and Kelly, O'Sullivan, Smith, O'Brien, Byrne, O'Connor, O'Neill, O'Reilly, McCarthy, Doherty and more recently Patel, Reddy, Lyer, Bakshi, Mohammed, Eze, Adebayo, Adeguna, Van Zanten, Jones, Taylor and Nowak, Kowalski and so many more.

"We are a welcoming rich multicultural county that recognises how our new Irish citizens enhance and enrich our society, our nation for the better both socially and economically."

And also from Billy Kelleher, the new MEP for Ireland South: "Just to help you @BorisJohnson Ireland has had a Cosgrave, De Valera, Costello, Lemass, Lynch, Cosgrave, Haughey, Fitzgerald, Reynolds, Bruton, Ahern, Cowen, Kenny and now a Varadkar as our Taoisigh (Prime Ministers) since independence and we never had a Murphy."

As advised at the outset, it is sensible to not always take offence, or express too much outrage, so hat tip to those who weighed in with relevant views as to this country's direct provision policy of dealing with asylum seekers and this - an amusing favourite - "And the Murphy we do have in Government, we could do without."

But coming in the wake of President Trump's outrageous racist trope against four congresswomen of colour in the US, whom he suggested should "go back" to their country of origin, and the subsequent racist chants of Trump supporters at one of his grotesque political rallies - "Send Her Back" - in reference to one of the four, a Somali-born US national Muslim, then it becomes essential to call out such comments, whatever the intent they later claim to have expressed.

It should be not lost on anybody that Johnson, who last year was accused of Islamophobia after saying Muslim women wearing burkas "look like letter boxes", is himself of Circassian-Turkish descent on his paternal side - indeed his great grandfather was a secular Muslim - and Russian-Jewish on his mother's side: Hence the name "Boris".

Or that Trump's ancestors on his father's side came from Germany and on his mother's side from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland; or that his first wife is Czech and his second Slovenian.

The editorial in this newspaper today, in the context of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, quotes from the 1969 inauguration speech of another US President, Richard Nixon, admittedly himself no paragon of virtue, in which he said: "We have found ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the Moon, but falling into raucous discord on Earth."

While the 1960s and the decade now drawing to a close were different in many ways, there are similarities too related to the scale and speed of cultural change and political trends, which manifests itself in the "raucous discord" which now abounds

The Times They Are a-Changin', and all that…

The change has come on the back of a global financial crisis and international recession and in an era of substantial growth in internet connectivity, with an array of other issues and concerns, such as economic and social inequality feeding into the toxic mix.

As a result, much of the Western world has become engulfed in bitter debate about, for one thing, immigration.

There can be deeply troubling political capital to be mined in this dubious space, as we have also seen, although thankfully to a lesser extent, in this country.

But if the more profound lessons of history have taught us anything, it is that no quarter should ever be given to the scavengers of such spurious capital.

What has become most troubling of all, though, is that it is now the leaders of the free world, the President of the United States of America and the soon-to-be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who are trading to varying extents in such bankrupt ideas.

In such unprecedented circumstances, it falls to the rest of us to call out racism, in its various, sometimes insidious guises, tolerances and appeasements, whenever and wherever it arises, be that in the home, on the street, in the workplace and ultimately at the ballot box.

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