Monthly Archives: April 2014

Before it gets too hot: censoring cartoons at the Irish Times


Above is the Martyn Turner cartoon that got pulled by the Irish Times. Why was it withdrawn? Others have pointed out that the Irish Times’s stated rationale for its withdrawal is inconsistent with its approach to other cartoons by the same artist. The Irish Times said that Turner had ‘taken a sideswipe at all priests‘, ‘suggesting that none of them can be trusted with children’. That, however, is merely the Irish Times’s interpretation of the cartoon. It is also, no doubt, an interpretation shared by whatever constituency of Catholics objected to the cartoon.

A different reading of the cartoon might conclude that Turner -since he is the regular cartoonist in the Irish Times and knows the readership is sentient beings, more or less, with a knowledge of Irish society- has already credited the readership with the awareness that not all priests are the same. That would be a normal enough assumption. There is no need, for example, for a cartoonist who draws a caricature of Enda Kenny or Gerry Adams to include a caption identifying them. What Turner is concerned with here is the way the Catholic Church as an institution -the priests are wearing vestments- has its clerics all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, a figure of speech Turner presents in his image.

The allusion to Meat Loaf’s “I would do anything for love (but I won’t do that)”, for me, is a suggestion that the Church’s position on mandatory reporting and the seal of confession is shrouded in histrionics. There is a neat contrast suggested by Meat Loaf’s thunderous pomp and the unctuous twee of official Church rhetoric with regard to children.

One might also interpret the under-the-breath afterthought, about staying away from children, not as a suggestion that all priests are paedophiles, but that the Church has a harmful effect on children’s development more broadly, in light of the control it still exercises over the education system, for example.

It might also be a suggestion that one of the reasons certain paedophiles were able to operate in the way they did within the Catholic Church was the degree of closeness, often unmediated closeness, between priests and children. It is hard to see how this could be interpreted as ‘a sideswipe at all priests’ unless you considered all priests collectively responsible. It is far from clear that Turner’s cartoon is saying such a thing.

That is only one reading, mind you. The point is, this is a reasonable alternative interpretation to the one put forward by Turner’s employers. But the Irish Times interpreted the cartoon in a particular way. Instead of saying, we will leave the interpretation of an ambiguous image -a great many cartoons are ambiguous- to our readers, they validated the interpretation of those who complained, and then they allowed the irrepressible Breda O’Brien of the equally irrepressible Iona Institute to slobber forth on the subject in her weekly column.

What this shows, I think, is the extent of the influence of a certain constituency over the Irish Times, or, at the very least, an obligation felt by the Irish Times to treat that constituency with respect, and even deference.

If this is true, why should it be so? What does the bastion of liberal opinion have to fear from publishing an ambiguous cartoon? Some people with whom I was in contact last week were not that impressed with the cartoon. They thought it was singling out Catholic priests as a facile target. One person said to me: if it was an image depicting all imams as bombers, there would be an outcry. I don’t think, however, that such a thought experiment works that well here.

There is a particular context for Turner’s cartoon: its publication in a society where many people are well aware of how the Church works and of the fact that only a small minority of priests are paedophiles. Crucially, in judging whether the publication of the cartoon is justified, we are also dealing with a society with a Catholic majority in which the Church exercised, and continues to exercise, a great deal of influence, over the education system, over the health system, and over questions of public morality and social teaching that extend well beyond the bedroom. The Iona Institute, but also the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (see David Begg lauding Catholic social teaching as the Church’s best kept secret). There are grounds for subjecting the Catholic Church to robust social critique, lampooning and ridicule. The absence of such things in Ireland would mean an absence of democracy. By contrast, the religion of Islam and its clerics have had very little role in Ireland, and Muslims have been a demonised minority in Western societies for a long time.

Or to put it another way: you will get articles demonising Muslims in the Irish Independent, but you won’t get articles demonising Catholics. And whilst many of the excesses of the Catholic Church have been well documented -the child abuse, the child abuse cover-ups, industrial schools, slave labour laundries, censorious teachings on sexual morality- it has only ever been the excesses that have been subject to public scrutiny. The role of the Catholic Church in sabotaging the prospect of universal health care because of its fanatical anti-communism, for instance, is treated with indifference by Ireland’s media establishment. Certainly, there is no reason why Denis O’Brien, now the proud owner of a private hospital, should commission his minions to examine the influence of the Catholic Church in this regard.

There are parallels here with the treatment of Ireland’s banks. Just as conventional wisdom in Ireland would have it that there is a fundamentally good banking sector that has been perverted by the greedy machinations of a few, so there is also a fundamentally good Catholic Church that has been tarnished by hierarchical arrogance and individuals unable to keep their urges under control. This fundamentally good organisation is personified by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, among others, and finds expression in organisations such as Trocaire and Social Justice Ireland, and, indirectly, in the particularly high esteem accorded to charitable organisations and voluntary groups, and, occasionally, in lay Catholics such as former President Mary McAleese (whose unqualified husband was handpicked by the government to investigate the Magdalene Laundries, an appointment that drew little scrutiny in the press).

And the thing is, there is very little critical treatment of this ‘good’ Church, whether with regard, for example, to the conformity imposed by its schools, or the preference it gives to private property and charity over social rights (its support for private schools and hospitals, for instance) and how this perpetuates consensus and social quiet. Of course, we shouldn’t expect much critical treatment of these things, since they are of service to Ireland’s ruling class. It isn’t hard to understand, in this scenario, how there is already a reservoir of sympathy for the average priest -who is not a paedophile but a member of the ‘good’ Church- in Ireland’s political and media establishment, even before the phone calls start coming in from Catholic lobby groups. From the perspective of ruling elites, this good Church is still a vital pillar of Irish society, pulling together the people needed to hose down the rabble with holy water if it gets too hot.



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The Gorgons of Corruption

So David Cameron was stung by a jellyfish on holiday. I mean, Cameron was on holiday, not the jellyfish. The word ‘jellyfish’ in English is no match for the evocative name for the same creature in Spanish: ‘medusa‘, recalling the figure of Greek myth. Medusa was one of the Gorgons whom Perseus had to slay. Rather than hair she had a writhing mass of snakes on her head, and if you looked straight at her face you would turn to stone. So Perseus had to use a mirror to aid him in chopping off her head since her reflected image, framed and captured, so to speak, was devoid of the horror of the direct encounter that left opponents frozen.


A few months ago my friend Eamonn Crudden did up this image with part of that story in mind. It is Colm Keaveney, the Labour Party chairman who joined Fianna Fáil, as a Gorgon. The thinking behind the image is not so much that the pompous, Latin-spouting Keaveney is a monstrous creature -which he is- but rather the sense that one’s gaze can become fixated on whatever monstrosity is on show.

More broadly, the procession of monstrous images -figures of corruption, public arrogance, cronyism- have the effect of rooting people to the spot. We might feel buoyed by the sensation that something is happening because these figures -Shatter, Kerins, Callinan, Flannery, Fingleton, Fitzpatrick, Ahern, and on and on- are paraded before us, but in the end, despite all the promises of a new era of public virtue, or the tough new investigation, or the day of reckoning fast approaching, and then: nothing happens. It is as it was. Why?

A while ago someone added me to a Facebook group intended to mark the anticipated departure of Justice Minister Alan Shatter from office, as a national day of celebration. I suspect the person who set up the group knew it was most likely not going to happen, and that the gesture of setting up the group was a satire -or a sigh- on the impotent collective spectating that is what passes for political life, the eternal expectation that some already existing mechanism might click into gear, move things along, put things on the right track.

Thus spectating in the age of social media seems to acquire a social dimension. Public affairs are no longer the concern of the solitary man or woman in the street who takes the form of vox populi on radio and TV, but rather, of a teeming ecosystem of solitary individuals, who, for all their frantic communicativeness, stand at no less a remove from proceedings.

Whose eyes and ears do we use to behold our Gorgons? Our encounter with them is through mediated images and sounds. Their framing and capture has, it seems, already been done on our behalf. They are at a safe distance for contemplation and weighing up. We are always already in a position to chop off their heads. And yet we do not. Instead, things take their course. Why is that? Is it because the public is wise and reasonable, and will wait its turn to punish them at the next election, as politicians and political correspondents often claim?

A more likely explanation is that our gaze onto these creatures is, inevitably, the gaze of the isolated and solitary individual, the unitary, targeted consumer of news events. We look on at these things, and try to make sense of them, through eyes and mirrors supplied by people who specialise in producing images of the Gorgons. But at the same time, in the way they condition our assumptions and our responses, in the way they disconnect us from our place in the broader social world, from the realm of class antagonism and economic exploitation, they are also producing… us. ‘We’, a constellation of isolated unitary individuals with the right to comment as much as we like and vote on occasion, but little else. It is this kind of ‘we’, otherwise known as ‘the public’, or ‘the people’, in whose name a government of the possessing class will always act.

What turns us to stone, in this case, is not so much the grotesque image -though it is that too- but rather, through this neverending chronicle of a noble order profaned, the erosion of any kind of shared ethical assumption that collective action and direct action are the only things that rid us of our monsters.

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The Injustice of Time Rendered Obsolete


Some speech in the Dáil by Labour Party Finance spokesperson Joan Burton, railing against the crony capitalism of Anglo Irish Bank and Fianna Fáil and Seanie Fitzpatrick, and drawing on past figures of corruption, like Ansbacher Man and god knows who else.

Some speech by Sean Fitpatrick of Anglo Irish Bank at the onset of the financial crisis, or maybe before it, calling for social welfare payments to be cut, in order to get the economy back on track and make the country more competitive, or to cut costs. To be honest I can’t remember the exact bullshit rationale.

Sean Fitzpatrick is acquitted of all charges.

Joan Burton sets the police on social welfare recipients.

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Translation: Notes for a Non-Statocentric Politics

These are notes by Amador Fernández-Savater, originally published on the Interferencias blog on, 11th April 2014. He describes them as ‘an intuition’, and ‘a hypothesis’, rather than a thesis.

Translation note: He uses the term ‘hacer plaza‘, which has no elegant translation in English, at least not from this source. What it means literally is to ‘make the square’, or to ‘do the square’, the square in this context being the site of public assembly and occupation that proliferated after 15-M. With ‘making’/’doing’ he is referring to the entire range of democratic practices that unfolded on these sites. I have translated it, inelegantly, as ‘making the square’.

Notes for a Non-Statocentric Politics



01 – There is a dominant (hegemonic, if you will) conception of the world, and its name is neoliberalism.

02. Neoliberalism -the management of life by business- is a global logic, but it exists in every one of the places where we experience reality (the school, the workplace, the street, our relations with others…).

03. If neoliberalism is reproduced every day it is not only through coercion and fear, but also because 1) it is self-evident and 2) it is desirable. It is self-evident in a myriad of life situations where one must think of oneself as a business and of the other as a competitor. It becomes desirable through a myriad of signs that carry its promise of success, of self-realisation, of freedom.

04. Neoliberalism passes through our bodies. It does not sustain itself through what our opinion of it is, but through what it makes us feel. We could all be against it and yet the machine could go on working undisturbed. Because we are against in the abstract and in general, but in the concrete situations in which we live the everyday it becomes self-evident and desirable. It holds all meaning. (‘Tiene todo el sentido‘)

05. Global neoliberalism is challenged locally and concretely. By opposing it, in any place of our experience, with other practical definitions of what is evident and what is desirable.

06. Social change entails the multiplication and generalisation of these practices. They are fragile, ambivalent, discontinuous, but they already prefigure a different society, another definition of reality. A new hegemony.



Making the square: 15M, the mareas, the PAH (Mortgage Victims’ Platform)

07. The squares of the 15M were at once a challenge to the neoliberal definition of reality (a NO) and the production of a new reality (a YES).

08- First of all, a NO. “We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers”, “They do not represent us”. A NO pronounced with one’s body, with others, in the street. A NO that redefines reality: the threshold between what we tolerate and what we no longer tolerate, between the just and the unjust, the decent and the indecent. And which breaks (with its deeds) with a regime of what is self-evident and what is desirable.

09. Secondly, a YES. A YES that did not consist so much of a programme as the making of a common experience of a better world than the one offered to us daily by neoliberalism.

The squares were an experience of co-operation between people who did not know each other, were the others were not instruments or obstacles, but rather accomplices and equals. A kind of anonymity, where there was a dissolving of the classifications and identifies that establish each day who is who and who can do what. An experience of activation, where we discovered ourselves capable of doing things that we generally delegate. An experience of lushness and enjoyment, where the abundance of time and relations, alongside care for our collective life, became the true measure of “wealth” and the “good life”. An experience, then, of the intensification of the common dimension of existence.

10. This experience materially questions the neoliberal definition of reality: the self as a firm, the search for profit as the motor of behaviours, competition as the principle governing relations with others, property and consumption as measures of wealth and the good life, the world as a mass of opportunities to be monetised. This is the substantive content of the ‘real democracy’ that people laid claim to in the squares.

11- The various mareas, the PAH and many other initiatives have multiplied the experience of 15M, translating it and dispersing it into a thousand corners of everyday life. Redefining what is just and unjust through the NO: “The health system is not for sale”; “This hospital is not closing”, “Our neighbour will not be evicted”. Creating new spaces and times where the YES might be lived. We call this operation “making the square”.

12. One can “make the square” in the squares or outside of them, with actions and with words, in the exceptional and the everyday, with others and even alone. To make the square is to oppose one world to another, or place one world in another. Concretely, putting oneself there, with one’s body, poking holes in the institutional definition of reality and producing new meanings for social life. Elements of a different conception of the world.


The impasse

13- This form of political action, making the square, is anything but easy. For a thousand reasons.

Because it is difficult to do things with people who are different from us, to change one’s immediate surrondings and oneself.

Because today the harshest of scenes is unfolding and accelerating, the precaritisation of life, institutional lockdown and repression.

Because we lack forms of organisation which make political action a long term habit, save for full time activists.

Because our mental schemes of reference (the imaginary of revolution, etc.) do not fit our practices and give little value or visibility to that which is not epic.

Faced with the thousands of difficulties we meet in practice, there is a rebirth of the tempting illusion of a shortcut: the “taking of power”, (political) power as a fulcrum of change.



14- Statocentrism is the name we give to a type of gaze that places political power at the centre of preoccupations, expectations and desires for social change. Let us add three buts.

15. The statocentric gaze sees political power as the cause-engine-source of social changes. Reaching it will therefore put us in a position to change society.

But, the power of political power depends on what happens in the everyday places of experiences. What can and cannot be done is interlinked and conditioned by the conflicts that permeate the thousands of situations that take place at the base of society. There is no macro without micro.

As such, it is a fatal strategy to empty time, desire, attention and energy from all these situations in order to concentrate on reaching political power, because the latter depends on what these situations allow and enable it to do.

16. The statocentric gaze proposes us to think of social change as a conflict between the political class (“chancers, crooks, liars”) and a “we” that is essentially healthy (“the real people”, “decent folk”, “the multitudes”). It would be sufficient for “the good guys” to reach power (through their representatives) to change the state of things.

But neoliberalism is in fact a co-production. With different levels, but we all produce it among ourselves (by entering into competition with our neighbour, by speculating, etc.). It is not enough to be against “the bad guys” as if there were about the place somewhere a “good us” that already existed. A new reality has to be created (and we have to change with it).

17. The statocentric gaze pursues above all the “creation of public opinion”. What for? It is simple: public opinion translates into votes and votes confer political power. As such, the main actors in this idea of politics are the intellectuals who articulate discourse.

Pedagogical politics, politics of explanation: it is primarily a matter of occupying the media and convincing the other, thought of as a spectator and voter.

But neoliberalism is not first of all a discourse, but rather an everyday practice crystallised in habits and affects. As such it is a question of opening spaces where we might make other experiences of life (in relation to work, with thinking, with money, etc.), in which the other appears as an accomplice and an equal.


The multilayered and multichanneled revolution

18. It is not a matter of turning one’s back on the problem of political power, but rather de-centring it, by placing it on the inside of a wider process of the construction of a new reality.

Statocentric discourse holds that right now it is a matter of passing “from the social to the political”, as if what happened in the squares had not been political. But it is not a matter of moving from one (inferior) thing to another (superior) thing, but at any rate to open up yet another plane.

19. “Multilayered and multichanneled revolution” is the image proposed by a friend to think and imagine a complex social change (that is: not a statocentric one).

It means that there is no privileged point that marks out rhythms, positions and the course of action for others: election times, the conjuncture…

What there is is a plurality of times, spaces and subjects, each one of them precious and necessary in so far as they set out, with their body and by being there, new regimes of what is self-evident and desirable. A party of a new kind can be one more point in this constellation.

20- God has died, but there are still too many vanguards that seek to occupy his place: the vision of everything in general from nowhere in particular.

Let us not talk about what is to be done, thinking on behalf of everyone, but rather what we can do, wherever it is that we have situated our body.

21. The multilayered and multichanneled paradigm is a paradigm of abundance, not scarcity. That is, it does not depart from what reality “lacks” in order to be what it “ought to be”, but rather the marvellous and marvelling affirmation that there are already a thousand experiences and situations in train, of which there are already currents of sympathy and flows of communication.

(A highly important ‘militant-function’ here would be to de-centre one’s gaze and help us see and value the potency of what normally remains covered up. One example, then another.)

22. Organisation, in this paradigm, does not consist of “fusing” or “uniting” different experiences into a bloc, but rather composing them, establishing communications between them, and connecting them into a network without a centre.

It is above all an art of the encounter: the creation of bonds between situations, tools, devices, times, knowledges, concepts, images.

23. This art of the encounter requires above all the fine-tuning of a faculty: the faculty of listening. The statocentric gaze is incapable of listening to the singularity of experiences and situations. It only hears what it wants to hear. It is interested in struggles and movements only “in so far as” they serve its plans. Its closeness is rhetorical and instrumental.

But struggles are valid “in themselves” -on account of the possibilities they open, the realities they generate, and not “for” something else. An encounter is not generated by fitting pieces into a plan, but rather by starting from the intimacy of one’s own experiences: their own rhythms, problems and potencies.

24. A social change that is multilayered and multichanneled follows what someone called a “strategy without strategists”. No-one directs it according to a plan, they are practices that multiply and spread by imprinting, via intensification, a new global direction to reality, effects “without an author”.

25 – Transformational hegemony is not the (quantitative) hegemony of opinion, but rather the (qualitative) hegemony of behaviours. It is not a media-based phenomenon, but rather a massive re-routing of the direction of life.

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Are You Democratically Experienced?


I am in Spain at the minute. Today marks the 83rd anniversary of the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic. Writing in La Marea today, in an article titled ‘The Republic bears the face and name of a woman’, Rafael Escudero Alday describes the Second Republic as the ‘first fully democratic experience in the history of Spain’. As he notes, it marked a break from the arbitrary rule of military leaders, chieftains and priests, and introduced the principle of equality before the law. The Republic and its Constitution, he writes ‘on the one hand, turned women into citizens, the bearers of civil, political and social rights; and, on the other, drew into the public square questions that until then had belonged to the private sphere, such as, for example, relations in marriage, in the family, and even domestic labour. That is, Republican women and men did not just broaden rights, but also the spaces protected by rights.’ The author goes on to note that women in Spain voted for the first time in Spain on the 19th of November 1933, and that in 1936, the Catalonia’s Generalitat, constituted as a consequence of the Republic’s proclamation, introduced the legalisation of abortion.


The democratic regime established by the Republic was overthrown by the putsch launched by a group of soldiers on the 18th of July 1936. As Joaquim Bosch noted in an article in January, ‘the coup d’état was supported militarily, ideologically and economically by Hitler’s Germany. When the rebellion did not prove victorious throughout the entire territory, Nazi Germany began trying its weaponry against defenceless civilians, in test run for what it would subsequently do in Europe’. ‘Hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of the conflict. There are still more than 100,000 people buried in mass graves, who were murdered by those who rose against the constitutional order.’

Of those who lie in mass graves, Bosch writes that ‘the majority of people who lie unidentified in mass graves had not gone off to any war. They were exterminated as part of the military coup strategy to eliminate any possible source of dissidence and to fill the entire population with fear.’ Thus ‘Spain ranks second in the world for disappeared people, behind Cambodia.’


On 12th October 2004, the then Socialist Party Defence Minister, José Bono, staged an Armed Forces parade, for the day known as ‘Spanishness Day’ –Dia de la Hispanidad– in which 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.

He 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”.


In Ireland, there was widespread support, from the political establishment and the church, for the overthrow of the Second Spanish Republic. The Primate of All Ireland, Cardinal MacRory, organised collections for Franco outside Catholic churches throughout the island. Irish men who went to fight for the Republic were excommunicated, and those who returned were ostracised. Support for the fascist forces in Spain was near unanimous in the ranks for the Fine Gael party. W.T. Cosgrave claimed ‘the fate of European civilisation and everything in it’ depended on Franco. As I’ve previously noted, ‘Fine Gael and the Francoist Partido Popular –which has never recanted its fascist past and blocks attempts at investigating crimes against humanity conducted by the Franco regime- are both members of the same grouping in the European Parliament. Both are in government, enacting vicious cutbacks to public spending and attacking social, economic and labour rights, and congratulating each other for the good work they are doing.’

In two years’ time, Irish society will mark the centenary of the proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916. But whereas it took less than five years for the Spanish Republic to introduce the legalisation of abortion, abortion remains illegal in Ireland over 100 years on. (And now they want to make it illegal in Spain too)


The current Irish government, with a Fine Gael majority, has committed to involving the British monarchy in State commemorations. One of the Irish government’s court scribes, Stephen Collins, wrote in the Irish Times on Saturday that ‘many in the mainstream Irish political parties feared the 1916 Rising commemorations might be hijacked by Sinn Féin, but republicans may now begin to fear the British royal family could steal the show. The presence of a member of a royal family should help ensure nobody steals the show..

What the introduction of the British monarchy to proceedings means, as noted approvingly by an Irish Times letter writer last week, is ‘progress towards social and political quiet’. Thus the fight for a democratic regime, for political and social and civil rights, is placed on a par with the fight for Empire and monarchy. It is all the same thing. We are all democracies nowadays. We all know what it is like. There is no longer any need for fully democratic experiences. And there is greater strength in the symbolism of an embrace between ruling castes in Britain and Ireland, whatever their biography, than in the seed of hatred of those whose finger hurts from pointing it at their opponent.

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How History Got Its End Away

I left this comment on the article by Roy Foster in today’s Irish Times, which is titled State visit seals the end of an era for Ireland, in which the historian discerns that the ‘two countries finally see each other as indeed separate but equal, in a mutually fulfilling relationship. Nearly as good as sex.’


There is a kind of neat echo, in the Professor’s climactic ejaculation here that the relations between Britain and Ireland are now ‘nearly as good as sex’, of Michael O’Leary’s crude joke last week in front of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, about having sex with the Queen, which provoked revulsion among those assembled.

A British politician once described Ryanair as displaying the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’. If political relations under capitalism are comparable to sex, as Roy Foster contends, perhaps the problem is that Ryanair have no sense of romance, no sense of foreplay. Official Britain and official Ireland are fine about Michael O’Leary and company destroying the environment, attacking the rights of workers, launching venomous attacks on public services and social protections, and humiliating their own staff, including female workers in particular. Where O’Leary crosses the line is when, in polite company, he disrupts the delicate sense of decorum and reveals the phantasmatic support of this whole exercise: a business leader copulating with the Head of State.

Since Roy Foster has brought sex and psychology into it, we might recall French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s declaration that “there is no sexual relationship”. What I think he meant was that the representation of sexual difference between men and women is an act of imagination; there are not really any complementary elements at work. Mutatis mutandis, we can apply this to the idea expressed here that Britain and Ireland are ‘separate but equal’. Roy Foster writes of ‘the Irish’ as if there was a homogeneous body of people subject to identical psychological mechanisms, and undisturbed by any kind of class tension. This is a fantasy. And, just as there is no ‘the Irish’, there is no ‘the British’ either, and of course, there is no relation between the two. It is a fantasy that the lives of the tens of millions of people classified as ‘Irish’ -or ‘British’, for that matter- could ever be properly accounted for through reference to the machinations of monarchs, politicians and bureaucrats, or through the performances of artistic figures among cultural elites. But such coiffured fantasies oil the gears of power and wealth, while helping History get its End away.


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The Significance of The Significance

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

-George Orwell, Animal Farm

I think that’s enough for today. I have just turned off the Liveline programme on RTÉ Radio. Callers were discussing the suit worn by Michael D. Higgins on the State visit to the UK. Earlier, on the Sean O’Rourke programme, guests were discussing the outfits worn by Sabina Higgins and the Queen of All That Is. Apparently if it is a windy day, Sabina Higgins may have to wear some pins in order to keep her hat on. Everything was weighed up in terms of its significance: the music, the military displays, the horses, the hats. Indeed, I doubt I’ve ever heard the word “significant” used so often in such a short space of time as I did on the Sean O’Rourke programme this morning. Eminent historian Roy Foster, called upon to put everything into perspective, was asked how significant the State visit was. He was asked if it was significant that the first State visit came from Britain, and not the other way round. Yes, said Roy, this was immensely significant.

You know something is significant when they get Roy Foster on to signify how significant it is by saying “it’s significant”. But that it is significant is far more significant than whatever it is that the signifier signifies. Got it? No?

OK. What is the significance of all this significance? Or to put it another way, what sort of system of signs are we being confronted with here?

Let’s start with a few basics. Michael D. Higgins is the President of Ireland. He is on a State visit to the United Kingdom. That means, in constitutional terms, that Michael D. Higgins is representing the people of Ireland in an official encounter with the…well, the Queen. The people of Ireland, so it goes, have sent Michael D. Higgins to represent them, and the peoples of England, Scotland and Wales have sent the Queen to…wait a minute, I don’t think that’s written down anywhere. The Queen is not doing anything on behalf of her subjects; rather, she is doing it because she is the Queen. It’s a pity Lord St. John of Fawsley isn’t still around to resolve these thorny questions.

Anyway, as The Guardian in the UK notes today, Michael D. Higgins is officially the head of democratic and republican Ireland. That means, for those who take these things seriously, that when he visits UK on a State visit, and he stays at Windsor Palace, he is doing so on behalf of each and every citizen of Ireland. If you are a citizen of Ireland, this means that it is as good as you yourself sleeping in the Queen’s bed, and drinking her brandy. The significance of this, to the people of Ireland is: if you’re ever in the vicinity and the Queen is in town, she’ll put you up for a mighty night’s craic. If you are ever evicted in London, I encourage you to try this some time, to check out how much the signified corresponds to reality.

Absent from all this talk of significance, apart from the most superficial of references, was the question of the intended target of this significance. To whom were these things supposed to signify stuff? A generous interpretation would be that mystical imaginary body commonly known as “the Irish people”, who, it turns out, are pretty much the same “people” that existed back in the day of Queen Victoria, when, according to Roy Foster, it was only “extremist nationalists” (his words), such as Maud Gonne, who objected to the relation of a subject people to its monarch.

Various Irish people had their views sought by RTÉ on the significance of Michael D. Higgins’s visit. Many others had their views represented by RTÉ broadcasters. As they put it, it must have been very significant for them to see their Head of State come to Britain. But wait. Most Irish people in Britain didn’t vote for Michael D. Higgins as ‘their’ Head of State. If you emigrate from Ireland, you lose the right to vote in the country’s elections. It has been a feature of Irish ‘democracy’ that the material deprivation that drives emigration goes hand in hand with basic political disenfranchisement.

A TV documentary is running on RTÉ at the minute titled ‘A Sovereign People’. Last week, a judge was talking about the 1916 Proclamation. He pointed out, quite rightly, that the language of the document, with its emphasis on the citizen, stood opposed to the political discourse of the subject that had hitherto prevailed under the colonial power. Whereas the subject, the royal or imperial subject, in these terms, was passive and obedient, the active citizen was the central figure of popular sovereignty. This kind of citizenship necessarily entails dispute, argument, conflict: qualities utterly absent from RTÉ coverage of the State visit, and from its political coverage more broadly. Instead, the RTÉ listener could hear Olivia O’Leary effuse about how “we” had given the Queen a great welcome to Dublin. Which is why An Garda Síochána put Dublin on lockdown for the duration of her visit.

These days, the significance of citizen poses problems for the declaration of equal rights enshrined in the 1916 proclamation. What now comes to the fore, in these post-sovereign days, is merely the question of who is a citizen and who is not, or more broadly, who is Irish and who is not, and how that distinction can best be drawn.

Who should be first in line to have their entitlement to health and welfare withdrawn? Who is useful to economic growth, and who is not? Who should be locked up and deported, and who should be allowed to move freely? These are the real shared concerns of the Irish and British ruling classes. What is rendered absent, from the generally sympathetic representation of Irish people who were once the object of suspicion, exclusion and surveillance in Britain, is the fact that this apparatus is now trained on other sectors of British society, particularly British Muslims, and Muslims more generally, but also migrants from places such as Romania and Bulgaria.

In this scenario, it comes naturally to Ireland’s media establishment to identify the Irish in Britain as their own, as part of the ‘diaspora’, and to go as far as identify the achievements of these people as the achievements of Ireland, whilst turning a blind eye to the processes that landed them in Britain in the first place, and to the fact that these people have been altogether excluded from Irish political life. Michael D. Higgins will be paying a visit to Irish people whose labour helped build the National Health Service; the bitter irony is that Ireland has never had one, and the British establishment represented by the Queen is dismantling it anyway.

Instead of these live political concerns, we have the image, conjured up by people like Roy Foster, of two peoples being “separate, but equal”, at the very same time that popular sovereignty in both islands is little more than a sick joke, with financial and economic elites destroying the public institutions and services and social protections that were built by generations of British and Irish people. And beneath all this, it as if there is a secret celebration underway that the Irish, or at least, the Irish people who matter, have now become fully white in the eyes of their former masters.


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