Yesterday I finished a piece for the Catholic Church and Ireland’s elites for the upcoming edition of Look Left. One of the things I touched on in it was the response of the Irish media, in particular the Irish Times, to the uproar over the Tuam mother-and-baby home revelations and the fact Ireland’s media appeared to do nothing about it. The response from those quarters was largely a matter of the stupid public getting all frenzied about a series of misleading headlines.
Worst of all the responses came from Stephen Collins. I didn’t have room to go into it in great detail in the piece, so I’m just going to sketch it out here.
In a piece titled ‘Sound and fury overwhelm rational political debate’* , Collins wrote of the ‘instant hysteria’ and ‘lurid and misleading reports’ that had ‘fanned a political storm at home’, and of the ‘spectacle of politicians jostling to gain political advantage from the sufferings of past generations’. The etymology of the word ‘hysteria’ did not trouble him in the context of an institution that turned mothers into indentured slaves.
He was referring specifically here to Mary Lou McDonald’s Dáil intervention, which he described as ‘trying to make political capital’ out of ‘one of the dark episodes in our past’. In my view, Mary Lou McDonald’s intervention was both measured and appropriate, given the wider significance of the issue. She called for the investigation into mother and baby institutions to include the Magdalen laundries, and criticised ‘The State, the churches and society’ for ‘acting illegitimately and broke every rule and boundary of decency, morality and the rule of the law’. Collins basically said, in a way that aped Enda Kenny’s responses to uncomfortable questions in the Dáil from SF, that the Provos had some nerve pretending they were concerned with humanity.
What is interesting to me here is the way Collins talks about politicians ‘trying to make political capital’ whilst oblivious to the fact -or else he couldn’t care less- that his own actions are geared towards making political capital for the established parties.
Collins’s hatred of democracy knows no bounds. The task of a public representative in parliament, in theory anyway, is to represent the views of her constituency in deliberations on legislation and government. It is the essence of parliamentary democracy. This is the idealised picture of democracy that Collins and the Irish Times present, not me.
However, from Collins’s perspective, any time a representative actually does express views that most likely correspond to those of her constituents, such expressions, provided they are not at once the views of wealthy and powerful people, must be denounced as ‘populism’: made in the selfish interest of raising one’s political profile (and perhaps even a devious ploy to set the scene for bombing and killing people at some stage in future).
I should stress that this is not just Collins’s perspective; it is also evident more widely in the Irish Times, as well as in RTÉ, and in media controlled by Denis O’Brien.
There is little, if any, countervailing view of politics and democracy ever presented in any of these outlets. To give another example, the piece by Fiach Kelly yesterday on Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, titled ‘Ming to take full MEP’s pay as ‘it will be useful for the revolution’’ sought to cast Ming as someone who ran for MEP in order to double his salary whilst at the same time passing himself off as some kind of rural Dave Spart.
It is worth comparing what is happening here with what is happening in Spain and the European Parliament at the minute. At a meeting last week, Podemos figurehead and newly elected MEP Pablo Iglesias was asked how he would treat the matter of ETA in the European Parliament. He said: “If I have the opportunity to speak in the European Parliament about ETA, I would say that it has caused enormous pain but that it also has a political explanation.” He went on: “if there was no political basis to it, there would be no way to understand why [Felipe] González and Aznar sat down to negotiate”. Moreover: “to speak of a problem and try to analyse it politically does not mean being in agreement with it.”
As a consequence, numerous victims’ groups (some of whom have close associations with the Partido Popular] released a statement accusing Iglesias of ‘whitewashing ETA’s history of terror and justifying murder, kidnapping and extorsion’, insisting that ‘we do not accept that terrorist violence has a political explanation, given that any political position can be advocated with the instruments guaranteed by the Constitution in a democratic State’.
At a press conference today, presenting him as European Left candidate for presidency of the European Parliament, Iglesias was repeatedly asked about the details of Podemos deputies refusing to avail of the full MEP salary and other privileges. One Spanish journalist noted that there had been significant popular approval for this position. The word he used was ‘algarabía‘, a word that has no direct translation into English, but in Spanish connotes a festive rabble led by unthinking passions. Pablo Iglesias objected to the use of the word and said that journalists should have more respect for the views of the public. It is important to note that word ‘algarabia‘ derives from ‘al‘arabíyya’, that is, Arabic. It is also a word in Spanish that means garbled or unintelligible speech.
The point of all this, at a time when the credibility of traditional political parties of rule is collapsing due to their support for the anti-democratic imposition of austerity policies and bank bailouts, is for political and media establishments to present politics as a serious business for serious gentlemen with smart haircuts and a good understanding of what the markets want from them, gentlemen with no inclination of giving in to the public’s quicksilver emotions and turgid ululations.
Outside of that, anyone else with political pretensions is an egomaniac, a chancer or a terrorist, and anyone who votes for them is too stupid to have their voice heard. Ultimately, it is a response to the flagging legitimacy of the violence of the sovereign.
Whilst I think the effect of this approach is wearing off a bit, I think it is still strong in the way it designates safe and unsafe areas for ordinary people to think politically and express political opinions. Few people like to think of themselves as a mere element of a raging and unthinking mob. In particular, when it comes to the matter of terrorism, very few people have the stomach for coming under the suspicion of harbouring murderous terrorist thoughts. They don’t want to be thought of as would-be murderers, quite understandably. Ultimately, for this method of propaganda to be neutralised, it needs to be tackled head-on, in open public confrontation and debate.
* ‘Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing’. — Macbeth. Another one for the bumper catalogue of seasoned observer cliché, along with Zhou Enlai, things falling apart, and the week as a long time in politics.