Michael D Higgins got called a “midget” and a “parasite” last Friday. Somehow, it has only made its way into the papers and onto the airwaves on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. It has elicited comment from the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and from Health Minister Leo Varadkar. Labour Party Senator Lorraine Higgins ventured on Today With Sean O’Rourke that it was an ‘attack on democracy’ Liveline was devoted to the topic today, two days before Funny Friday on the 30th of January, but also, and more importantly, three days in advance of another round of anti-water charges mobilisations, this Saturday, 31st January.
Why has it happened thus? You don’t need to be a genius to work out that the concern here, on the part of both the media and the political establishment, is not some grievous act of lèse-majesté from which they have spent the last 5 days reeling in shock with the smelling salts only now kicking in. Nor is it horror at the use of ableist abuse. Rather, it is, purely and plainly, the potential for keeping numbers down on the 31st.
Did you notice that opinion polls of the 12th and 13th of January showed a rise in support for the coalition parties? As RTÉ noted at the time, ‘January is a month when Government parties fare slightly better in polls because of the Dáil break’. Before Christmas, however, support for the coalition was on the way down. One factor in this was revealed in a headline in the Irish Times noted on December 4th: Government parties pay price for water charges. When water charges are the focus of public attention, the government flounders. Hence the more the government can keep water charges off the agenda, the more it can diminish its sense of importance, the better its chances of remaining in power. Simple. As a consequence, it makes urgent sense, from its perspective, to strive to keep the rabble in line.
This concern was clear in the words of Leo Varadkar on Morning Ireland today, when he said that “what strikes me, is that as the water protesters get fewer, they’re getting nastier”. Varadkar’s claim about the water protesters has no basis in fact. It is akin to saying there is less rain nowadays because it is not raining outside. Needless to say, his claim was not challenged by his interviewer.
Varadkar, moreover, like Lorraine Higgins, sought to criminalise dissent altogether. He claimed that the President was ‘above politics’ and that hence such protests were a de facto attack on the constitution. Needless to say, the contradiction in Varadkar’s claims -here was a Minister using the President for transparently political purposes– was left unprobed by the questioner.
I should stress here that it is not the content of the insult –“midget”, “parasite”, “traitor”- that Varadkar was denouncing as an attack on the constitution, but the very fact that the figure of the President was being challenged. It is important to remember that Varadkar –described last week in an Irish Times editorial as “such a refreshing and popular politician” with a “reputation for candour and straight talking” has form in intervening on the question of water. It is he who came up with the image of the “sinister fringe”. He spoke of how it “really bothered him” that people might protest about water charges when there were other things, like “Áras Attracta, the fact that there over 300 people on trollies this morning in our hospitals” that were far more important. Back in 2012 he claimed that people who did not pay the household charge –the household charge- would have their water cut off, and that a “bomb” would go off in Dublin unless bondholders were repaid in full. ‘Straight talking’. ‘Refreshing’. ‘Popular’.
Neither Varadkar nor Lorraine Higgins, for her part, had anything to say when her government colleague Charlie Flanagan, who is the Minister for Justice, let it be known on Twitter that another public representative was a “cunt”.
The idea that Michael D Higgins is “above politics” is contradicted somewhat by Higgins’s own pronouncements, which seldom receive more than the most superficial of treatment in the regime press. Michael D Higgins is to the regime media, roughly speaking, what the Pope is to the Iona Institute . An important figurehead, a symbol of authority and power, worth celebrating the fact of his popularity, but well worth studiously ignoring anything he has to say.
Consider, for instance, these remarks:
there are great risks inherent in both the very responses that might emerge from fear and anger among our citizens, and then too in the obvious potential for political exploitation of these passions
Which come from Michael D Higgins’s remarks to the Parliamentary Assembly to the Council of Europe, hier matin. These remarks, from Ireland’s supposed ‘first citizen’, will be given less media attention than a man giving a qualified apology for calling someone else a midget and a parasite.
What Varadkar is doing, of course, as are Enda Kenny and Lorraine Higgins, and the regime press, is political exploitation of fear and anger par excellence. They seek to locate the source of fear not in the institutions stripping people of their “effective enjoyment of social rights” (Michael D Higgins) such as the “modern panopticon” of ratings agencies, “not bound by any democratic requirement”, but in individuals whose anger brings them onto the streets.
There’s a Greek word for this: metonymy. They single out a part, and they make it stand in for the whole. Through this approach, the abusive language of a few is what really characterises the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets to object to policies imposed by the government and produced a vertiginous collapse in the government’s credibility as a consequence. The message: don’t go onto the streets, they’ll eat you alive. What are you, some sort of thug?
What these double standards show is that the government has conclusively lost the political argument about water charges. It cannot argue that water charges are anything other than regressive. Hence it is seeking to sap numbers from vocal opposition to the charges, in the hope that resignation will set in, and it can hang onto power.
Fine Gael and Labour politicians in government must be especially conscious of the fact that the government in Greece, composed of politicians from its own European Parliamentary party groupings, met an ignominious end the other day, swept away by a political party buoyed aloft by militant social movements. The reverberations from this will continue for a long time. It is a major popular repudiation of the kind of policies exemplified in Ireland by the imposition of water charges, of the idea that debt must hold sway over life.
That such a thing might happen in Ireland is not at all unthinkable. The prospect of the current political order being swept away is, in fact, a spectre that weighs heavier on the brain of ruling politicians and their scribes than it does on most people. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the creeping fear of a new beginning might turn these political animals into the most rabid of attack dogs.