What is the point of Irish Times parliamentary sketch writer Miriam Lord? My Twitter timeline regularly coughs up gobbets of approval for her articles, from people who appear to hanker after some kind of critique of the political arena, but not one that proves too acidic, or too corrosive of the goings-on in the Dáil. The appeal of her kind of humour does of course depend on one’s personal taste and personally I find it vile. At best, the effect of her jokes puts me in mind of the worst moment in a stand-up routine, when the comedian says or does something that receives polite applause from the audience for having contrived something that is clever, rather than funny, deserving of the audience’s admiration, but never its laughter.
At worst, and she is consistent, the effect of her sketches is to trivialise and ridicule any hint of the political conflict that is an essential element of democratic exchange. Not that I think that the Dáil is in any way an exemplary democratic assembly- on the contrary.
For the parliamentary sketch writer, the basic assumptions are largely the same as the political correspondent. But whereas the political correspondent worries about how the deeds of different political actors might play out in the polls, the sketch writer is concerned with the human strivings behind the grind of political machinery: the tics, the idiosyncratic expressions, the self-importance and the self-delusion. With this close-up on the personal side of things, with the references to politicians by their first names (“Leo”, “Joan”, “Paschal”, “Mary Lou”), and even by nicknames (“Inda”), the constituents, and the idea that public representatives are there to speak on behalf of their constituents, fade away altogether. Politics is severed from its origins as a civil passion, and reduced to a family affair. There may be rows and disagreements and occasionally shocking behaviour, and one may have to please think of the children from time to time, but only as you might get with any family. For the intended reader, politics is something you look in upon and tut about, affectionately here, exasperated there, but not much more than a soap opera. Just as in Eastenders the truth always gets out eventually, in the Dáil your hopes of these characters ever getting their act together are forever dashed.
Lord’s glib confections are a kind of fire blanket for potentially dangerous political passions, a warning that politics taken seriously turns you into a stock character, a self-important figure of fun whose political interests are usually a cover for pecuniary or egotistical interests instead. But hers is far from a pox-on-all-your-houses approach. Her affection and loyalty rests with the parties of the political establishment -witness her “Go for it Joan!“- article in sentimental celebration of Joan Burton’s recent Labour leadership victory, and she conserves her more bilious contortions for Sinn Féin. As is regularly the case in Ireland’s media, Sinn Féin, in Lord’s writing, functions as a totem for the unschooled, uncouth and untrustworthy plebs: the kind of people who cannot speak Irish properly, the kind of people who speak in accents that are inherently threatening, the kind of people who may one day cross a line and put all of this at risk.
Yesterday Lord’s report concerned the remarks by the Fianna Fáil Senator Ned O’Sullivan concerning seagulls. She rebaptised O’Sullivan as “O’Seagullivan”, the kind of thing Hale and Pace might have cut for lacking inspiration. O’Sullivan’s intervention was right up her street.
As usual, Lord conserved the real scorn for Sinn Féin, and its moment of silence for the victims in Gaza, wondering if her beloved “Joan” -who had been in thrall to Israeli propaganda when answering questions on Israel’s crimes and their Palestinian victims- ought to have granted a debate on the crisis in Gaza, which in Lord’s eyes would have prevented Sinn Féin from staging what she described as an “effective political stunt”, that is, a show of international solidarity with a besieged people subjected to the terror of an overwhelming bombing campaign and the horror of children perishing in massacres. Her pooh-poohing of such ‘stunts’ – which took place in national parliaments across the world – was replicated today with sharpened outrage, from political correspondent Stephen Collins. It is worth pointing out that the establishment culture discomfited by this kind of act holds that the height of political maturity is to go and get your head blown off in the trenches of an imperial war in the hope that the imperialist power will look kindly on your sacrifice.
The fact Sinn Féin senator Kathryn Reilly had earlier raised the matter of Gaza, specifically Israel’s murder of four children on the beach, in the Seanad prior to O’Sullivan’s frivolous complaints about seagulls “dispossessing” children in Dublin did not figure as important in Lord’s mind. Can’t be having dead bodies turning up in a colour piece. Not if it makes Joan look bad. Maybe it’s worthwhile thinking of Lord and O’Sullivan as elements of the same phenomenon, part of the same repertoire of cultural practice: whimsical meandering with the purpose of trivialising and de-politicising; the deployment of humour in support of a regime that relies on moments of familiarity and intimacy to maintain credibility; an irreverence intended to reconcile, not undo.