Time of the Snakes


Over the weekend, as I was thinking about events relating to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, I started to feel as if the whole thing had been concocted as some sort of personal insult. This felt strange: an Irish government perpetrates social outrages all the time, and my expectations of Ireland’s justice system could scarcely be lower.

I think it was the vehemence of Enda Kenny’s initial statement, the one broadcast as the headline news on RTE Radio 1’s 6.01pm bulletin, that gave things a different quality. My expectations of Enda Kenny could scarcely have been any lower to begin with. Unlike many, I don’t consider him to be ‘my’ Taoiseach. The personalised soft-soap treatment afforded to senior political figures, their boiling down to first name terms, such as ‘Enda’, or ‘Lucinda’, or ‘Bertie’, is something that makes my skin creep.

If Enda Kenny comes across as dim-witted in his public interventions, I don’t think he is stupid. On the contrary, I think he is instinctively cunning and committed on behalf of the constituency he serves: Ireland’s capitalist class.

You can see these qualities in his feigned outrage about the victims of violence in the North of Ireland whenever he is put on the spot by Sinn Féin in the Dáil about some entirely unrelated matter. You can see them in the way he was an enthusiastic early adopter of plans to constitutionalise the repayment of banker debt over hospitals and schools, long before the Fiscal Treaty Referendum, presenting such things as good sense, as if Ireland was, in the frame imposed by the austerian imperative, a household living beyond its means. You can see them in his dogged public insistence that “Ireland”, which is to say, Ireland’s working class, will pay “its debts”, which is to say, the debts racked up by Ireland’s financial and property speculating elites. All these things illustrate the reality of a figure who cultivates a public image as a bluff, Bruce Springsteen-loving man of the people.

But for all that, his vehemence in that statement, in which he turned the focus onto the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, and falsely quoting legislation in order to divert from the primary question of precisely who had been bugging a statutory body, took me by surprise.

In an Irish Times opinion piece on Saturday, former ombudsman commissioner Conor Brady rightly described Kenny’s ‘proprietorial, almost dictatorial tone’ in delivering his remarks. Brady also noted that the ‘Taoiseach seemed to have no understanding that GSOC is not answerable to Government (in the same way as the Garda Commissioner) but to the Houses of the Oireachtas’. This is far too generous by half. I believe Brady’s judgment in this matter is clouded by the intimacy of Ireland’s political and media establishment circles, in which Kenny figures as an amiable, jovial character respected for personal decency.

In a democratic State, what would be the consequences, if the State’s highest public official were suspected of misleading the public on basic matters of legislation and regulatory institutions? Such an act would be treated with the utmost gravity, and some kind of formal process of inquiry would be initiated.

What has happened here, however, is that Kenny has escaped largely unharmed, and his weasel words about ‘excessive meaning’ ascribed to his statement have been consigned by opinion formers to the annals of Curious And Diverting Things Our Leaders Said That Enrich The National Political Spectacle.

I should admit to a little rhetorical sleight of hand. I don’t think there is, strictly speaking, such a thing as a democratic State. I think there are States that are democratised to a greater or lesser extent. I don’t think Ireland is a democratic State, but I do think, on the whole, that it’s a bit better than North Korea. But that isn’t saying much. We might say there is a citizen body in Ireland -a demos– that exists within a complex set of rights and freedoms: expression, assembly, opinions, minimum working conditions, access to health and education, and so on. But what does it do, exactly?

I’ve written quite critically in the past about the MacGill Summer School. But there is one address from it, from a few years back, that sticks in my mind. It was from political scientist Peter Mair, now deceased.

It won quite a lot of acclaim in the organs of respectable opinion when it came out. It sticks in my mind because there were things about it I found quite objectionable, but at the same time, there was a core of truth to it. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the text, though it is behind an Irish Times paywall for those of you inclined to pay for such things. In it, he says: this is ‘our’ fault. “We don’t respect our State. We have never respected our State. We have never had a sense of belonging for our State. If anything we have viewed the State as the enemy, as an oppressor, as something not to be trusted but to be taken advantage of”. He went on to say that he agreed with Michael D. Higgins that Ireland’s political system of “local amoralism” “disaggregates the poor”, but  “it doesn’t just disaggregate the poor, it disaggregates everybody except the special interests”.

As I said, this address won a lot of acclaim. Last year, the MacGill Summer School held a debate in his memory. The debate asked: ‘Where Are Loyalty To, And Respect For, Our State’. If you look at the website, you will see the way the debate -which included Michael McDowell and Joan Burton as participants- was framed in terms of ‘citizens being encouraged to refuse to pay legitimate taxes imposed by the State to pay for services provided by the State.’ What this indicates, I think, is the way the operative ‘we’ is, in Irish politics, something of a floating signifier. The words “We do not respect our State”, can, in the right mouth and the right microphone, mean “the great unwashed do not respect their betters”.

When I read Mair’s ‘It’s our fault’ speech, my reaction was: “who, me”? And not just in a “Not I, said the fly” way. Neither I nor any of my immediate family living in Ireland going back two generations had anything to do with the politics of the Irish State, because we lived outside its boundaries. Who else is excluded from this ‘we’? My partner, for instance. Round about the time Cardinal MacRory was organising collections for Franco, her grandmother, who was several months pregnant, was fleeing Málaga on foot with thousands of other refugees, terrorised by aerial bombardment from Franco’s fascist forces, forced to walk hundreds of miles, her husband dead after the bombing of the military base where he was stationed as a soldier in the army of the Republic. How is it her fault? Or any migrant’s fault? And even within the boundaries of the Irish State, how is it the fault of those incarcerated or cowed by its disciplinary institutions – industrial schools, laundries and psychiatric hospitals?

Elsewhere, Peter Mair writes about a democracy without a demos: sets of institutions that are formally democratic, but operating on behalf of a passive and disengaged citizenry. This is where the core truth of “it’s our fault” lies: if Enda Kenny makes dictatorial declarations that are intended to deceive, it is because he has no fear of a public holding him to acccount, no public that takes the words ‘Ireland is a democratic State’ seriously, or knows how to.

Over the past week, it has been Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan who have been to the fore of public suspicion, and it is no wonder, since their activities have been suspicious. I have seen people complain that in other countries with higher standards, Shatter would already be gone. I am that sort of person. The fact that these people still hold public office is what gives weight to my feeling of a personal insult. But what is the point of saying these things, unless you’re going to do something about it? And, what is the effect of saying these things and then not doing anything about it? It is the absence of an active public, not the contemptuous attitude for democracy that pervades the Irish establishment, that is the crucial factor here. What is clear to me is that the ‘we’ through which we are led to understand and think about public affairs and politics draws us into the circles of clammy intimacy and personalised informality that sustains the likes of Enda and Alan and Martin in the present regime. If we are interested in democracy, then a different ‘we’ has to be born. You and me, and not them.

A final thought: in the drawing above, El País cartoonist El Roto shows a snake who is saying: we have a bad reputation because we bite back when they step on us. According to myth, St Patrick cast the snakes out of Ireland. On occasion, I have seen protesters carry placards depicting politicians and bankers as snakes. This kind of imagery identifies St Patrick and all that is good with the people of Ireland, and the snakes with the unwelcome individuals who speak with a forked tongue and disrupt the community with all their sexual suggestiveness and encouragement to eat forbidden fruit. I think we should revise our opinion of the snakes. What if the snakes are really the figures of dispute and dissent and resistance and liberation and knowledge that the ruling powers constantly strive to expel and trample underfoot?


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3 responses to “Time of the Snakes

  1. patricia barry

    This is just a great piece.

  2. JPJJ

    Great piece, amazing that there is so little traction in the meeja about Citizen no.1 misleading the Dáil. It was depressing to see O’Brien’s cowing last week after his on-the-mat chat with Shatter.

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