A note on impartiality in reporting on the 8th Amendment

A referendum on the repeal of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland is to be held this year. It is likely, as with previous referendum campaigns, that a great deal of attention will be devoted to the matters of ‘fairness’, ‘impartiality’, ‘objectivity’, and that broadcasters, particularly the State broadcaster RTÉ, will devote equal airtime to voices for and against.

If an article in the constitution is the subject of a referendum, it follows, in the interests of the ‘impartiality’ regularly cited to ensure that both sides are given equal hearing, that the assertions of that article should not be reported as valid.

Some people will argue that the article is valid and others will argue that it is not. So, having regard for the declared need to ensure ‘impartiality’, it follows that a broadcaster should not do anything to give the impression, from its own coverage, that the article is valid. Or not valid, for that matter.

Yesterday afternoon RTÉ Radio 1 ran a news report during its Drivetime programme on Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s speech in support of repealing the 8th Amendment.

Introducing the speech, household name Eileen Dunne referred to “the 8th Amendment that recognises the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child”. This is a paraphrasing of the wording of the amendment. It is also -perhaps coincidentally- the exact wording used on the Wikipedia article on the 8th Amendment (as of today).

Given that the amendment in question will be under consideration for removal through a referendum, you might conclude that impartiality means not taking a stance on whether the right mentioned by the text, or the categories associated to that right, exist in fact. Some people think the right exists, others do not.

If we say “the 8th Amendment recognises the equal right to life”, which is what RTÉ News says, then we are tacitly proposing that this equal right to life actually exists, and that the 8th Amendment recognises it. Hence its removal would not remove this right from existence: it would simply remove it from the constitution.

If we refer to “mothers” in this way,, we are tacitly proposing that anyone who is pregnant is a mother, regardless of whether they want to be or not.

If we refer to the “unborn child” in this way we are tacitly proposing that anyone who is pregnant ought to be considered as carrying an unborn child, regardless of whether they wish to give birth to a child. Or in other words, the question of whether they are going to give birth to a child is not a matter for whoever is pregnant.

The point is that the validity of what the constitutional amendment says is being contested by a referendum, but RTÉ in this instance (and I would venture that this happens regularly, not only with RTÉ) has effectively reported that what the constitutional amendment says is valid, and in so doing has conveyed the political perspective that informs this constitutional amendment as simple fact. Such reporting cannot be considered impartial.

Later on in the Drivetime programme, RTÉ played a 42-second recording of Micheál Martin’s speech, and a one minute long recording of Fine Gael anti-choice TD Peter Fitzpatrick’s malign drivel.


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Both Sides, Then and Now

One of the striking things that about Miriam O’Callaghan’s interview with Kingsmills massacre survivor Alan Black was the presenter’s emphasis given to atrocities being committed on ‘both sides’ -and also humanity on ‘both sides’.

I was never part of a ‘side’. So many people I know did not consider themselves part of a ‘side’, least of all a side from which people perpetrated atrocities on their behalf. Like many others I never supported any kind of killing. I was very much aware, however, that there were others who were very much inclined to kill me, and others like me, because they deemed that I was on an opposite ‘side’.

My religious denomination meant I was automatically part of the ‘pan-nationalist front’. This was a common phrase used by the DUP at the time. and an entity that the Mid-Ulster UVF in its Portadown murals proclaimed it would smash.

The effect of the commonplace rhetoric of ‘both sides’ -or, on occasion, ‘both tribes’, is to present the Northern conflict as borne primarily out of sectarianism. Sectarianism viewed in this light has little to do with the character of institutions in Northern Ireland, or how life is organised by and large. Rather, it is considered more of a mindset: it reflects a poverty of vision among those who fall prey to it, in contrast to those who observe it.

In describing the Northern conflict in terms of ‘both sides’, or the ‘two sides’, the role of the British State in prolonging that conflict is effaced. Its sponsorship of loyalist death squads is ignored. Instead, the British State is elevated it to its desired status as an honest broker seeking to keep a lid on warring sectarian ‘tribes’, just as it has claimed to do in a whole swathe of territories around the globe.


A frequent self-satisfied diagnosis is whataboutery. This is supposedly an inability of members of one side to recognise their side’s own crimes and misdeeds while decrying the crimes and shortcomings and blindspots of the other side. Diagnosticians of whataboutery, of course, have neither crimes nor shortcomings nor blindspots of their own. 

If the role of the British State is left out of consideration, massacres appear as savagery emerging from the dark side of human nature, manifestations of pure evil. The Kingsmills massacre, a brutal sectarian atrocity, was preceded immediately by the Reavey and O’Dowd killings. These were carried out by the Glenanne Gang, a group of loyalists, British solidiers, and RUC and UDR members responsible for dozens of murders. John Weir, one of the members of the Glenanne Gang, said that the purpose of their activities was to provoke a “civil war” in which the IRA would eventually be crushed.

Kingsmills did not emerge out of some unfathomable tribal savagery, or that strange apparently natural phenomenon known as the ‘cycle of violence’. It was a retaliation, just as the Greysteel massacre was a retaliation for the Shankill bomb. To describe it as a retaliation is not to justify it. It does not render the perpetrators any less culpable for the sectarian bloodbath. It is simply to point out that the role of the British State in inciting the event should be considered important, if one is interested in the truth of these matters, and in ending the possibility of future violent conflict.

To categorise this and other such questions as the ‘whataboutery’ of ‘one side’ is to acquiesce in the preferred logic of forces that have blood on their hands, and no inclination to come clean. It takes no small amount of gall to polish one’s halo about the depravity of IRA violence and simultaneously let the British State off the hook, in effect conceding to the latter its right to murder whoever -including Irish citizens- in defence of the realm.

The idea that I, or anyone else, Catholic, Protestant, nationalist, unionist or otherwise, are automatically part of a ‘tribe’ or a ‘side’, whereas people in Dublin or London sit in splendid Olympian detachment from the whole thing, borne by higher ideals and more civilised inclinations, is one of the main factors in prolonging the prospect of sectarian barbarism.


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The Inquest of Bread

Unintended faux pas do happen

Some quiz questions:

Which date is the anniversary of the McGurk’s Bar bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of Bloody Friday?

Which date is the anniversary of the La Mon restaurant bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings?

Which date is the anniversary of the Droppin Well bombings?

Which date is the anniversary of the Teebane bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of the Shankill Road bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of the Omagh bomb?

Which date is the anniversary of the Loughinisland massacre?

Which date is the anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings?

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know the exact answer to any of these questions. The year and the month of some, at a stretch.

Barry McElduff, the Sinn Féin MP suspended from the party for three months, is supposed to have known the date of the Kingsmills massacre. He is supposed to have known that it was a very bad day to put a Kingsmill loaf on top of his head. He is supposed to have known, at the very least, the brand names of the products he puts on top of his head for videos shared online have potentially damaging connotations for people who might watch those videos.

Some people think Barry McElduff was deliberately making a joke at the expense of the victims of the Kingsmills massacre. They think that he knew very well it was the anniversary of the Kingsmills massacre, and that he went down to the local shop, picked up a Kingsmill brand loaf, and placed it on his head. They think the MP then posted it on his Facebook page for the world to see, maybe because he thought some of the viewers would find it funny, or maybe because he thought, with calculated malevolence, that other viewers would find it desperately hurtful.

Some people say they do not know if Barry McElduff was deliberately making a joke at the expense of the victims of the Kingsmills massacre. However, they say, he should have known what date it was. Or he should have made the association between the brand of the loaf he picked up, and the massacre.

I guess it is easier to say that he should have known the date when you know all the dates of all the atrocities conducted in the Northern conflict over 30 years. Maybe there are lots of people who keep a close watch on such dates, but I don’t think I’ve ever met any.

I guess it is easier to say that he should have known the association between the brand name of the loaf and the massacre when this is what you yourself think whenever you pick up a Kingsmill loaf in the supermarket. Or maybe you do not pick up such products, because of what they connote for you.

But Kingsmill is one of the most common bakery brand names in Northern Ireland. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland eat these branded products every day. They lift the packet from the bread bin or wherever, take out a couple of slices, and put them in the toaster, or maybe they make a sandwich. I have done this many times myself.

How many people, would you say, are put off eating the sandwich when the association with the massacre comes to mind, as it is supposed to? If it’s a common association, which is what people appear to think, then there are tens of thousands of people who are regularly reminded of the massacre by the food in front of them, but they carry on eating regardless, their appetite undimmed. What kind of person does something like that? I cannot help think of the regular scenes from House of Cards, with the monstrous Frank Underwood preparing himself a white bread sandwich in his kitchen late at night, unmoved by the carnage that surrounds him. Would it not be a society of monsters, if so many people have the stomach for that?

Is Northern Ireland a society filled with monsters? Some would have you think that is, and that there are significant numbers of people whose fuel for living is the purest hate. One of the most horrible images in my mind -it seems no less horrible even though I wasn’t even there when it happened- is of one group of teenagers passing through a schoolyard, crying and bewildered because two of their classmates had been shot, and another group, from inside a classroom, banging on the windows, laughing and shaking their fists at those outside in taunting celebration. What do you do with images like that? You could give in to them, let them take hold of you. You could build an entire outlook on the idea that there is an enemy out there, ever present, hiding perhaps, but ever willing to seize the opportunity to humiliate and annihilate. You would find it easy to find others who have the same enemy as you. There are plenty of Facebook groups devoted to that kind of thing. And one of the attractions -for want of a better word- for this outlook is that you can never know, for sure, that some other person isn’t secretly harbouring some pure hate towards you under an outwardly friendly disposition.

It seems sensible to me, though, to try and avoid making out that there is some malign force at work when there might be good grounds for believing that there may not be, to try and avoid stocking up on fuel for nightmares. In the response to Barry McElduff’s video what is striking is how seemingly few people are open to the possibility of pure coincidence. As if pure coincidence were some sort of logical impossibility, let alone a likely explanation. If it is right and proper that people should do nothing that adds to the pain of victims of atrocities -and of course it is- then we can’t confine this to the initial circulation of an image, but also to the act of lending it a significance and weight that it may not have. In this regard I don’t know what good purpose anyone thinks they are serving by calling upon a victim of an atrocity and asking them to weigh up whether or not such and such a thing relates to that atrocity or not. Or worse, presenting them once again with their painful memories, and asking them to relive it once more. It seems sensible to me, as well, to try and distinguish between ghoulish opportunism on the one hand, and, on the other, a disinterested effort to prevent a flare-up of sectarian paranoia.

For what it’s worth, which is very, very little, I believe Barry McElduff is telling the truth when he says he did not intend any hurt with his silly video. Believing it doesn’t mean I know for certain what he intended, because I can’t. I just choose to live in a world where I’m not fetching up monsters at every turn. And maybe you should too.

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Men from Nazareth, Officials from Hell


The other day, the head of the Housing Agency Conor Skehan made widely reported remarks that homelessness ought to be considered as a normal thing and that it was wrong to consider the current situation in Ireland as a crisis.

The idea of a ‘normal’ rate of homelessness is not all that different from the idea of a ‘natural’ rate of unemployment, a conventional enough concept in economics. Both will occur in the best of all possible worlds. The ‘natural’ rate of unemployment hold that even when there are more than enough jobs to go round, there will still, at any given moment, be people who are unemployed, because people will still lose jobs due to the dynamism of the economy, and it will take time for them to find other jobs. Similarly, with a ‘normal’ rate of homelessness, there will always, as Conor Skehan himself said, be people who find themselves on the streets as a result of events in their lives.

One major problem with both ideas is that there can never be a best of all worlds under a capitalist system. Ultimately, the only possible world worth having, as far as capitalism is concerned, is one in which profit rates are on the up. Since profits are little more than the appropriation of a surplus produced by labour power, a world of rising profits entails a world in which labour power -the ‘hand and brain’ exertions of human beings- is increasingly subjected to the rule of capital.

The Housing Agency headed by Conor Skehan claims it is concerned with ‘sustainable communities’ and ‘affordability’ in housing. Yet the rule of capital requires the elimination of collective solidarities that make communities truly sustainable. Moreover, the concept of ‘affordability’ in housing, by definition, treats housing as a commodity, rather than a right. ‘Affordability’ here is little more than the counterpart to profitability in the production and provision of housing.

This evening on RTÉ’s Drivetime, in an interview with Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger, the presenter described current levels of homelessness as arising from the failure of the state to build sufficient levels of public housing to cater for people’s needs. This description was true, as far as it went. What it omitted, and what is omitted by and large from media coverage of this issue, is any questioning as to why the amount of public housing built has been so paltry for so long.

From the dominant point of view, it is inconceivable that the best of all worlds could be one in which a home is not a commodity, but a right. It is also inconceivable from the point of view of many in the general public too. If a salaried worker is accustomed to looking upon their home as an asset that ought to appreciate in value -a habit that is strengthened by a sense of poor prospects for one’s wages and pension- they are less likely to take a positive view of the idea that a decent home should be a matter of right.
At best, they are likely to look upon public housing schemes as a form of charity. This predicament can breed a stew of reactionary resentment: why should they get anything laid on for nothing when I have had to toil for all that I have? A ‘sustainable community’, from this point of view, is one in which the price of one’s house continues to rise and the riff-raff are given the bare minimum to be kept out of sight and out of mind.

In the Drivetime interview, Ruth Coppinger rightly questioned the wider implications of the remarks of another public official, Eileen Gleason, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, who said that homelessness arose, in many instances, from a longstanding pattern of ‘bad behaviour’, from people who were ‘not like you and me’. If this is what such people said in public, Coppinger asked, what do they say behind closed doors? In other words, how much is the real view of public officials, who are charged with dealing with housing and homelessness, a view founded upon on reactionary resentment?

The idea that everyone has the right to a decent home is fundamentally at odds with the idea that housing ought to be a commodity. Yet the latter idea is the outlook of Fine Gael and the broader political establishment, along with the media establishment. But it is also an outlook shared widely among the better-off sections of Irish society. This tension is addressed through a resort to charity. It is charities who should deal with the matter of homelessness, since those who are homeless, if housing is to be considered a commodity, are best thought of as unfortunate supplicants at best, and feckless miscreants at worst. The prominence given to charity -institutionally and rhetorically- also has the nice effect of dignifying the people shown to be providing it.

To give his view of homelessness as normality some moral ballast, Conor Skehan quoted “the man from Nazareth”. Assuming this was Jesus of Nazareth and not Hayek or Friedman of Nazareth, Jesus, according to Skehan, said “the poor will always be with us”. This is not what Jesus of Nazareth said, at least not according to biblical sources. He said that ‘you will always have the poor with you’. The remark had a specific context. They were made in the house of a leper, not a radio studio. A woman broke open an expensive flask of ointment and poured it over Jesus’s head, and his disciples had given out to her, since they calculated that such ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to help the poor.

When Jesus says to his disciples that ‘you always have the poor with you’ it is not an observation on some eternal feature of the economy. It is a reference to the way in which his disciples are already supposed to be living in solidarity among the poor, and, foreseeing his death at the hands of the authorities for standing with the poor, Jesus welcomes the woman’s gesture, since he will not always be around. Considered in their entirety, the remarks of ‘the man from Nazareth’ are not a doleful recognition that all societies will have some degree of poverty or exclusion, but rather the expression of an idea that Skehan and the rest, institutionally and ideologically, reject altogether, and that is far closer in meaning to a popular expression from more recent times: that nothing is too good for the working class.

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Translation of an article by Manuel Castells, published in La Vanguardia, 21st October 2017, on the Spanish government’s planned suspension of autonomy for Catalonia.

“Spaniards: We Catalans love you. It is the State that we hate”

While you are reading this, the Council of Ministers is finalising details on the intervention on the autonomy of Catalonia via article 155 of the Constitution, prior to passing through the Senate. It is possible that the Parlament will respond with its Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Thus a period of uncertainty opens, the consequences of which are unforeseeable but undoubtedly harmful for public coexistence. The calls for dialogue have come to nothing, because what is at stake is whether or not to accept the possibility of a legal referendum through which Catalans may decide where their institutions ought to belong.

It is useless to invoke constitutional legality when the issue is that a substantial part of the Catalan public does not recognise said constitution. Constitutions cannot nail down social reality. The text that in 1978 obtained a consensus conditioned by de facto powers inherited from the dictatorship has proven incapable of containing the consciousness of new generations of Catalans who grew up in a climate of freedom in which disagreements are resolved democratically. In other democratic places, among them Quebec and Scotland, referendums serve to reconcile law and reality. Three-quarters of Catalans wanted to vote. According to surveys, the No vote against independence would have won. But Spanish nationalist essentialism blocked off democratic exits from a conflict that has been gradually poisoned.

Legally sanctioned police repression has become more problematic for the State since the 1st of October. The images of police violence have scandalised international opinion and have driven European leaders to recommend dialogue, behind the facade of supporting their partner. Tusk views the situation as ‘worrying’, but the EU cannot intervene in the intervention. Even so, the image of Europe as an example of democracy could be affected by its support for authoritarian decisions that have no regard for the political substance of the conflict. There is, moreover, another important limit to the intervention on autonomy: the stance of conditional support adopted by the PSOE. Though in Catalonia the socialists are being reviled for backing the application of article 155, this backing is constrained by their recognition of Catalonia’s reality as a nation. For Rajoy, the support of the PSOE is indispensable due to a strategic concern of Spanish politics that goes beyond the Catalan question. The political project of Spain’s financial and political elites remains a grand coalition that stabilises its domination, that is, the alliance of PP/Ciudadanos with the PSOE. This project was weakened by the reaction of the Socialist grassroots and the re-election of Pedro Sánchez. This opened up the possibility of a left alternative to the Partido Popular government once the PSOE, Podemos and its confluences accepted that their alliance was the indispensable condition for this alternative.

The crisis with Catalonia has allowed Rajoy to drive an almost unbreakable wedge between the PSOE on the one hand, and Podemos, its confluences and the Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalists on the other. Because although Podemos and Els Comuns are not in favour of independence, they are in favour of a legal referendum to resolve the conflict -democratically. A referendum in which Pablo Iglesias says he would campaign for a No vote. This is a starting point that the PSOE cannot accept because it is weighed down by the Spanish nationalism of its past leaders and the resistance of socialist-ruled autonomous regions who fear losing resources if there are concessions to Catalonia. The move works out sweetly for Rajoy: he presents himself as the champion of Spain, isolates Podemos, and rebuilds a constitutional front dominated by the right.

The Government’s dilemma is how to defeat the independence movement in the most bloodless way possible. In one area, it has prosecutors and judges who, by simply applying the constitutional framework in a strict manner, are closing in and punishing what is already being classed as sedition, a grave accusation. Elsewhere, the relocation en masse of business headquarters (nearly a thousand and counting), in reaction to the institutional uncertainty, is gravely damaging the economic credibility of an independent Catalonia. In this context the objective of the Spanish government, and the PSOE, is to force new regional elections, whether by the hand of Puigdemont or the route of article 155. They hope that enough fear and uncertainty has been created for an electoral defeat of the independence movement, which will allow for a Catalan government with which a new arrangement on autonomy can be negotiated, including a future decaffeinated constitutional reform. Thus everything would be restored to normal.

This strategy of gradually wearing down the independence movement, through exhaustion, isolation and repression, has serious obstacles. It continues to ignore that it is a social movement that can become active and spread without leaders and without institutions. On the contrary, the more intervention there is in the institutions, the greater the role played by civil society and the more diverse the forms of resistance. And the more there is perceived repression, the greater the outrage generated and mobilisation activated. Elsewhere, the Parlament assumes itself legitimate and representative, and as such Puigdemont cannot call elections unless it is with the understanding that if a pro-independence majority wins it is to organise a legal referendum. Square one. And even if the Spanish government were to intervene on autonomy and call elections, the fact that they were imposed would mean they would not have the participation of the parties opposed to intervention, that is, Junts pel Sí, the CUP, and Els Comuns, which represent the majority of the electorate. Article 155 is not an exit from the crisis, but rather its deepening and its extension in time, as Catalonia and Spain fracture and neo-falangism resurges. The alternatives are simple: either permanent state of exception in Catalonia, albeit an undeclared one, or dialogue, without preconditions, between Catalan nationalism and Spanish nationalism.

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Gernika: Legacy of a massacre

A version of this article appeared in the Gernika 80 Then & Now – 80 Years of Basque-Irish anti-fascist struggles magazine, published in April of this year, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Gernika.



“Did you do this?” This is the question a Nazi officer is supposed to have asked Pablo Picasso in occupied Paris during the war, regarding Picasso’s famous Guernica. Picasso supposedly replied “no, you did.”

Readers of literature on the Spanish Civil War will know something about the carnage that inspired Picasso’s painting, and who was responsible for it. But the event it depicts, and its authors, may not be as widely known as such people might imagine.

Visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1970s, where Guernica was on display, social scientist and political activist Vicenç Navarro noticed that the accompanying description of the painting contained no reference to the Spanish Civil War, nor to the Nazi and Italian fascist forces that carried out the bombing. For many, Picasso’s painting stands out a sublime representation of the horrors of war, but no war in particular.

Picasso himself, however, as noted by Navarro, was painting for a particular time, a fact reflected in his broader political commitments: Manuel Azaña, Prime Minister of the Second Spanish Republic, named him director of the Prado Museum in 1936 following Franco’s putsch, and Picasso paid for the museum’s artworks to be transported to Valencia and later to Geneva. He refused to allow Guernica to be moved to Spain until the dictatorship had fallen and democracy was restored, but died before Franco did.

Even when its original context has been forgotten, Guernica carries a powerful symbolic weight. When Colin Powell visited the United Nations to present the case for war in Iraq, the tapestry reproduction of Guernica was covered up. As the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd mordantly noted, ‘Mr Powell can’t very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses’.

The memory of the bombing of Guernica, captured in Picasso’s painting, the “rain of fire, shrapnel, and death”, in the words of one of the survivors, still has the capacity to prick consciences as to the human cost of war. Nonetheless, the mechanised slaughter, the raining of ‘fire, shrapnel and death’ on civilian populations, in the decades that followed the bombing of Gernika, became standard operating procedure, conducted by forces in the habit of identifying Nazism as the ultimate evil. When high altitude bombs were dropped on civilian populations in Baghdad or Fallujah or Gaza, the perpetrators cast themselves as the righteous defenders of a civilisation facing a threat from the latest incarnation of Hitler.

In the Spanish State, there are many who refuse to countenance the commemoration of these atrocities, and how they have shaped the present. The transition back to formal democratic rule, from the dictatorship established through the bombing of Gernika and countless other atrocities, did not involve any process of making amends or coming to terms with the destruction and repression that had been wrought. What prevailed, instead, was a so-called ‘pact of forgetting’, according to which the ruling elites of the dictatorship held the upper hand in shaping what would be acceptable under ‘democracy’, with many of the repressive institutional elements of the dictatorship kept in place. Those who had suffered the repression were expected to forget about the crimes committed against them and their families.

Neither the scale of the Francoist repression nor the collaboration with Nazism and Italian fascism have been taken seriously by the current rulers of the Spanish State, not least because it was Franco and his dictatorship that laid the basis for their rule, even if it does occasionally classify enemies as ‘Nazis’ for such offences as protesting eviction from their homes. At best, there is an equivalence established between those who fought to defend democracy and those who fought to demolish it. To illustrate: on 12th October 2004, the then Socialist Party Defence Minister in the Spanish State, José Bono, staged an Armed Forces parade, for the day known as ‘Spanishness Day’ –Dia de la Hispanidad. There was participation from both ex-soldiers who had remained loyal to the legally constituted Republic, and from a veteran who had fought in the Blue Division, that is, who had gone off to fight for Hitler on the Russian front.

José Bono said at the time that “What happened has been written about, but from my ideological position of struggle against Franco, which is on record, I say that there is greater strength in the symbolism of an embrace between two Spanish men, whatever their biography, than in the seed of hatred of those whose finger hurts from pointing it at their opponent”. Pointing the finger at Nazi collaborators, by the lights of the Socialist Party grandee, amounted to planting the seed of hatred perhaps in the same way that Picasso displayed hatred towards the Nazi officer.

Bono was speaking as member of a government that had withdrawn Spanish troops from the war following an election earlier that year. The direct political heirs of those who gave the orders to bomb Gernika, members of the Francoist Partido Popular, foremost among them the then Prime Minister José María Aznar, had lost. Aznar had given enthusiastic support to the invasion of Iraq, despite overwhelming public opposition to Spain’s participation in the war. Not surprisingly, the public was more attuned to the consequences of war than those pushing for it.

Aznar had cast the so-called War On Terror as a conflict between the West and the Muslim world, with the latter poised to recover Andalusia. “No Muslim ever apologised to me for Andalusia”, Aznar later remarked haltingly to an English-speaking audience, referring to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims in 1492. The fact it had been his chosen side that had carried out the ethnic cleansing did not, of course, trouble him.

Aznar’s party, re-elected last year to the central government with 33% of the vote, has refused to show any kind of condemnation, let alone remorse, for atrocities either during the Civil War or in the decades of dictatorship that followed it. In 2010, the municipal government of the Partido Popular in Madrid vehemently refused the removal of headstones commemorating the ‘German Aviators’ of the Condor Legion who ‘died for God and for Spain ¡Presentes!’. A spokesperson for the municipal government in Madrid argued that “the dead must be allowed to rest in peace”, and that the wartime bravery of the Blue Division -Spanish troops who fought alongside the Nazis needed to be recognised.

No such peaceful rest can be admitted, from the same quarters, however, for the estimated 150,000 victims of the dictatorship who lie unidentified in mass graves across the Spanish State. Such is the fate of those who were viewed through the lens of prevailing Spanish nationalism as the arrayed forces of ‘anti-Spain’: among them republicans, socialists, Basque and Catalan nationalists.

Nor, for that matter, can Gernika be left in peace, given its symbolic importance both to the Basque Country and to the wider world. In 2014, the Museum for Peace in Gernika awarded its Prize for Peace and Reconciliation to Arnaldo Otegi, the Secretary-General of Sortu (then imprisoned by the Spanish State for ‘glorifying terrorism’) and to Jesús Eguiguren, the President of the PSE-EE (affiliate of the PSOE in the Basque Country), for their participation in peace negotiations. Otegi and Eguiguren received the award along with the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento Sem Terra). In response, the National Court in Madrid heard a prosecution case brought against for the mayor of Gernika by a civil society association with close links to the Partido Popular. The allegation was that the award, for which the mayor was responsible, amounted to a ‘glorification of terrorism’.

There is a savage irony in a political regime, established through high altitude bombing, mass civilian slaughter and brutal repression and torture, becoming concerned with the ‘glorification of terrorism’ in the town where its murderous feats gained global notoriety. It is also important to recall, in this regard, that during the repression in the Basque Country following the fascist putsch of 1936, 29 elected mayors were executed by Francoist forces, and that the mayor of Gernika was in this case under investigation from a judicial organ, the National Court, established by Francoists in order to exercise jurisdiction throughout the whole of the Spanish State.

For the Spanish nationalist forces controlling the state, people seeking independence for the Basque Country have long constituted an enemy within, subjected to political repression, vilification, and torture. Each and every political enemy -Basque or not- is routinely presented by ruling politicians and media outlets as either in cahoots with ETA, or the same thing as ETA. This is reflected in the reasoning of the National Court. It has maintained in its sentencing that ETA is not simply an armed paramilitary organisation, but a broad array of cultural, social and political organisations. As philosopher Juan Domingo Sánchez points out, ‘even if these organisations were to condemn ETA and to pronounce every curse from every holy book upon them, they would still not cease ‘being ETA’’.

Former Amaiur deputy in the Spanish Congress, Sabino Cuadra, says that the attitude of the ruling powers in Madrid to ETA’s cessation of activities is that ‘rather than a peace and democratic normalisation based on dialogue, negotiation and agreement, they seek to impose another peace, like the one in 1936, that speaks only of the victors and the vanquished’. It is ‘a false peace that our people rejects’.

The intransigent contempt -at best- demonstrated by the Partido Popular and the Spanish right towards the campaign for Basque independence cannot be separated from the history of brutal repression most vividly captured in the memory of Gernika. Nor can it be separated from its reactionary and anti-democratic character of its social and economic policies and its approach to the rule of law more generally. Jaume Asens and Gerardo Pissarello characterise the Partido Popular approach to the law as:

‘The law that criminalises whoever raises her voice. The one that expels the indignados from public squares, that treats striking workers as ‘rats’ and evictees as ‘Nazis’. And alongside it, the penal law of one’s friends. The law that is placed in the service of power and that looks the other way whenever there is tax fraud, the one that pardons big bankers and promotes or absolves police violence. This is nothing original. The punitive violence of the State has always found its enemies. And when it hasn’t, it has invented them. The inquisition persecuted peasants driven from their lands by accusing them of being witches. The propertied classes persecuted workers by accusing them of being degenerates, scum, vagrants. Seen in a historical dimension, names such as perro-flautas or ‘terrorists’ are often variations of a long-standing hatred. A hatred that implicitly carries demophobia, the classist (and even racist) hatred that the powerful feel towards those who might endanger their privileges.’

The full force of this law has been brought to bear on people fleeing their countries of origin in the same way as hundreds of thousands once fled Spain fearing persecution and death. In October 2015, 15 West African migrants died as they tried to swim to the Tarajal beach in Ceuta, Spain’s outpost in North Africa. Spain’s Civil Guard fired 145 rubber bullets at them, and later claimed this was justified on account of the “attitude” of the swimmers. The action was deemed lawful by the courts. Prisoners in the country’s Foreigner Internment Centres have staged revolts against the brutal treatment received at the hands of the authorities. At the end of one revolt, in October 2016, in which prisoners agreed to come down from the roof on the word that there would be no reprisals, a prisoner told a newspaper that “we came down off the roof and they gave us a tremendous beating. I have huge pain in my sides. Some of us are barely able to breathe. We have bruises everywhere”.

Spain presents itself to the world as an outward-looking democracy. Its ruling political party is in the same parliamentary grouping as Fine Gael in the European Parliament, an expression of a common outlook that can be traced back to the era of Blueshirts setting off to aid Franco in crushing the Republic.  Though the Partido Popular is at one with other ‘moderate’ forces in the European Union in pronouncing on the dangers of ‘populism’, its roots in 20th century anti-democratic revanchism, and its fidelity to those roots, cannot be ignored.

But the Spanish State, with its history of anti-democratic repression on one hand and subterranean struggles for democratic equality and solidarity on the other, is only one part of the picture. It is important to recall that whereas the indiscriminate bombing of places in such places as Bilbao, Durango and Gernika during the Spanish Civil War appeared to the wider world as exceptional and unprecedented brutal events. That is how they still appear in our imagination. However, the percentage of civilians killed in wars in the 21st century is far higher. What is more, these bombing massacres are carried out by regimes that present themselves as democratic whilst systematically undermining the material basis for genuine democratic equality. They frequently justify these atrocities in terms of protecting against the threat from new kinds of fascism.  Faced with this, and the brutal indifference and contempt that greets people fleeing war zones in search of a better life, perhaps the best question to ask is: did we do this? Assuming, of course, that we do not wish to be like the Nazi perusing Picasso’s studio.

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The Story With Paddy

Content note: this post contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence and rape.

By Estelle Birdy

Waiting outside the doctor’s surgery for your mother, you are in the car with your Dad. Bored and with a liking for churches when they’re quiet, you ask can you get out of the car and go into the nearby cathedral. You are 8, maybe 9.  It is early evening, winter, damp and dark. Your breath shows in the air. You get to the church porch. There is a man. A squashy-faced bald old man, with a shine on the corners of his suit and a coat that smells of back-of-church. He has tiny badges and pins stuck all over his lapels. They have things like bleeding hearts and doves on them. There is a table. There are leaflets and things for sale, like medals and bottles of holy water. There is noise from inside the church. There’s something happening inside. It’s not mass but something else with voices and too many people. So, you stay in the porch. You look at leaflets and the man starts to talk to you. He asks what your name is and what age you are. He asks about your school. He asks do you know Paddy Murphy. You do know Paddy Murphy. He’s in the other class in your year in your school.  His family live on the poshest road. He grins at you. He has fat fingers and unclean nails but you feel that he is a nice man because he smiles and he just wants to talk. You like to talk too. You feel grown-up, unencumbered by parents, in the church, talking to an adult about the things he is selling. Holy things. He says he is Paddy Murphy’s Dad.  He keeps you talking. People walk by in the street outside the open door. It is dimly lit. You say, eventually, that you have to go, your Dad is waiting. He is disappointed but very smiley. He asks can he have a little kiss. You are unsure. He leans down and you go to give him a kiss on the cheek because he is a nice man and you are a nice girl child. At the last second, he turns his head.  He kisses you hard on the mouth and holds your head. His fat tongue forces its way into your small mouth and probes around. You pull away and stand back. His smile is back. You smile too. You feel like getting sick. You don’t know what has happened. You search his face for clues. He just smiles back but now his eyes glitter. You are frightened but you know you can’t show it. He must have just accidentally done it. He is disappointed that you have to go. You continue to smile. You are afraid to turn your back to him. So you keep smiling and say you really have to go, your Dad is waiting. Once outside you skip –run, the 100 metres to your waiting Dad. You don’t tear away because you know that Paddy Murphy’s Dad is watching you. You get through the gates of the car park in front of the cathedral and then you run. You get into the car and you say nothing. Your Dad chats to you and you tell him nothing. Later you say you met Paddy Murphy’s Dad. You describe him. Your Mom says that he’s not his Dad, that it’s his Grandad but don’t say that at school. You tell what happened once it’s safely in the past. Years and years afterwards. Once you can’t get into trouble for being so silly, for going to kiss a stranger on the cheek, for talking too much, for being alone, for thinking you were safe in a public place. Your parents are horrified. Your Dad’s eyes look like the eyes of a killer. The man is dead now.

Your teenage friend, Mary Murphy, tells you that she was sexually abused for many years by her adult neighbour. You nearly die for her. Your stomach feels like it is tumbling into the earth. She tells you what he did. He put his penis in Mary’s mouth, on a regular basis, when Mary was between the ages of about 6 and 9. The discussions about this revelation go on for a long time. This is just about the time that child sex abuse started in Ireland. Before this, there was none. She tells another friend. You both persuade her to go for counselling. It doesn’t help much. It’s known that there’s no point in going to the Guards. You are angry beyond belief. You discuss what could be done. You discuss going to the Ra. The women of the neighbourhood know well that he is a danger to their children. He goes on community based trips. The women won’t let their children go with him. He then joins Sinn Fein. He was never interested before.  There is no way out. There probably never was. You hear afterwards that he raped an adult woman. He got off ‘on a technicality’.  Years later, he sues the County Council. He got off a bus, tripped and banged his head on a County Council Men- at- Work sign or something. In court, he’s looking for compensation, because that bang on his head caused a brain injury and since then, he has unnatural sexual thoughts about women and children, he says. You seethe. Years later again, he is murdered. The rumour is, by the Ra. When Mary Murphy told you this, your other friend, just another Mary Murphy, revealed that she too had been sexually abused by a relation for years. She never got over it. Later again, your other mutual friend, Mary Murphy tells how she was staying with her uncle as a young teenager. He plied her with drink, put her to bed and got in on top of her. He raped her and gave her breakfast the next morning. She was 14. No one ever told the authorities because what was the point, said the Mary Murphys.

Your friend, Mary Murphy, an adult, is raped. Driven to a secluded spot, after a night out, thinking she’s in a taxi because she has been told that this is the case. A bottle is broken and laid beside her face. She is raped in the dirt and the dark. The other man watches and keeps guard. Mary goes to the Guards. She gets swabbed. The Guards take statements. They are helpful. They prosecute. There is CCTV footage. Mary is seen walking, with her arm linked through the arm of her soon-to-be rapist. He was walking her to his friend’s taxi.  He gets off.  She wants to take a civil case. She is warned to drop the matter. Her rapist has paramilitary links. She is never the same again.

You go to the Tralee Festival with your friends, because you all think it will be like Feile. It is not like Feile. You walk through jammed streets. You are groped by countless male hands. You have to fight your way through. They grab your tits, your gee. They laugh at you when you push them away. They call you hoor and prostitute and dyke. On a windowsill, you and your girl friends are horrified to see a girl child, complete with frilly ankle socks, astride the leg of a middle-aged fat man. They are locked in a gruesome embrace. He pulls her up and down his leg. Her toes barely tip the ground on either side of the pavement. You try hard to get out of Tralee the next morning. You can’t. You meet a group of decent fellas on the campsite. A few of them are English, of Irish descent. Your two girl friends leave to go down the town with the other lads. You’re so sad and fed up and disgusted you stay on the campsite, with Paddy Murphy, one of the Plastic Paddies. Eventually, he says, “Do you want to go for walk?”. You walk through and away from Tralee, up into the hills. You can hear curlews. It’s very peaceful. On the way back, he takes your hand. Later on you kiss and it is lovely. You get back to the campsite to find the tent, your tent, occupied and ‘in use’ by one of your friends and a new -found partner. Being a decent sort, you stay out all night, in your sleeping bag, in the rain with Plastic Paddy Murphy. The next morning, you throw your friend Mary Murphy out and you and Paddy Murphy climb in, and mess around and snooze in the tent until he has to leave. You would be surprised to be raped by Plastic Paddy Murphy. You stay in touch for years afterwards. Your friends, the Mary Murphys, would also have been surprised to be raped, by their beaus.

You are at college. You go out a lot, to pubs, to clubs, to parties. You live with a rake of friends. Sometimes, you bring home fellas, Paddy Murphys. Sometimes they are Paddies you’ve just met that night. You sometimes just have a cup of tea, listen to music. You sometimes sleep in the same bed as them. You snog and have a laugh. You have sometimes (nearly always) been drinking. You do not have sex with any of them. You sometimes spend the next day with them too. You don’t have sex with these fellas because you don’t want to.  It never enters your head that they might rape you. You don’t want these particular Paddies putting bits of them inside your vagina. None of the Paddy Murphys rape you or even give it a go. You would be very surprised if they had. You would very much expect someone to ask permission to walk into your home. So, you’d definitely expect someone to ask to come into your vagina.  Your friend, Mary Murphy tells you about her friend, Mary Murphy, who was raped by her friend, Paddy Murphy. Paddy didn’t think it was rape because they were in bed, they were friends and she only said no in a weak way. She said she stiffened with fear and he went ahead with breaking and entering into her body. It made things awkward. Paddy and Mary couldn’t be friends anymore. Paddy was sad about this, apparently. You talk to your other friend, Mary Murphy, about this. You are shocked by this story.  You hadn’t ever felt pressurised into having sex. You are scared because your luck would surely run out. You couldn’t keep meeting Paddy Murphys who didn’t rape you, could you? What if you were attacked and none of your friends in the house heard? If you went to the Guards, they would say, “You were in bed, you had been drinking, are you surprised you were raped”.  You say no one would believe you. Your friend Mary said, “I would believe you”

You work in a tough factory, in a deprived, drug ridden suburb of Dublin. You are the only woman working on the factory floor. You work in a small team. You have a laugh. The manager of the team, Paddy Murphy, takes the piss out of you and your Culchie friends. He rarely says Culchie though. He calls them and you, Woolahs. He talks about every Sunday seeing all the Woolahs with their little heads bobbling around on the buses coming up from the country. He says he sees them with their packages of sandwiches on their knees, all delighted to be back in the Capital. He says he’s going to win the Lotto and he’ll build a huge wall round Dublin to keep us out. He also says students brought drugs to Ireland, no one else. Students destroyed the working class people with their drugs.  He is funny and he is kind and he brings you the stores to order your own special chain-mail glove (because your hands are smaller than everyone else’s) and your own special boning knife because “she’s pretty handy with a knife, so she needs her own”.  After a while a man, Paddy Murphy Scumbag, from another team altogether, starts shouting at you as you pass by. He tells you what he would like to do to you. It involves tying you up and putting a gag in your mouth and he says you would like it. He says he’d like to whip you. He says you’d like that. He talks about what you would look like naked. What PVC and leather clothes you’d like to wear when you’re not in your white overalls, wellies and hard-hat. He talks about spanking you and how you’d like that. He calls you whore. He eventually is happy enough to do this in front of other men. You say nothing. You half smile. You hope he will just stop. You know your shoulders slouch now whenever you see him. It is relentless. Paddy, your manager, takes you aside one day. He has never witnessed this talk. He has been told by the other men on your team. He says you do not have to put up with that. He says it is disgusting and that the other fellas think it is disgusting and it is sexual harassment and you don’t have to tolerate it. He says you need to go to the officey-type management and tell them. You say, you don’t want to cause trouble. The man will lose his job and he is known to be violent. He walked out of a pub in town, beat and mugged a woman, took her money and walked back in to spend it in the pub. You don’t want any trouble. You’d just like him to stop. Paddy says he wants to do something. He is annoyed and he is sad for you. A few days later, Paddy Murphy Scumbag’s Manager takes you aside. He apologises to you. He says he was unaware of what had been happening. He has docked Paddy Murphy Scumbag’s wages. He has been warned not to go near you. The Manager says he is really, really sorry. Paddy Murphy Scumbag stares at you. He glares at you and lets you know that he would kill you if he got you alone. Your teammates never leave you alone though. They flank you whenever you go anywhere outside of your area of the factory. They studiously ignore his dagger looks and tell you to do the same.  He ends up in jail for something. You are telling this story 25 years after the fact and your best friend, Mary Murphy, says, “You never told me that at the time!” You probably didn’t and you’re not sure why.

You are walking home through town on a sunny afternoon. A man is walking alongside you, grinning. You do not catch his eye. You speed up. You slow down. He is still there. You walk for 10 minutes like this. You are getting closer to home but you know you can’t walk near your home or into an uncrowded area. You can’t lead him. You stop at a critical junction. You will have to walk away from your home to lead him away. You know there is a Garda Station nearby. There are loads of people around. All of this you assess in milliseconds, before you turn, finally to look at him. He tells you you are really beautiful. You smile the I’m-not-getting-raped–and-murdered-today smile at him. He asks you to go for dinner, a coffee. You politely decline. He persists, calls you madam. You say no but by now you know it is time. You invoke your husband. “No, my husband really wouldn’t like it.” He looks unsure but you raise your left hand and display your markings. That’s enough for him. He turns and leaves. You wait to see that he has gone a good distance in the opposite direction before you walk in the direction of home again. You tell the story to your Spanish friend, Maria Murphia. She tells you of the exact same experience she had one day walking home. She described her prospective suitor. It sounded like the same man. He persisted for longer with her because she waited too long to invoke a boyfriend. Invoke the boyfriend. Always just get it over with, because it won’t end until you do.

This much you know about George Hook’s comments.


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