Against Whataboutery

I may not get round to writing about the matter of Kincora Boys’ Home in Belfast and its treatment in the southern media in the depth I might like any time soon, but for the moment, allow me to vent about something: I am sick of the charge of ‘whataboutery’ being levelled –whether explicitly or implicitly- when it comes to discussion of outrages perpetrated by state forces in the North of Ireland.

Such charges of ‘whataboutery’ -whereby someone who points to a particular injustice or atrocity is accused of doing so in order to distract from or refuse to acknowledge their own misdeeds- are a form of moral blackmail. Nowadays, when both the press and prominent politicians make use of it, they generally do so not only as a blatant means of countering the political threat from Sinn Féin, but also as a covert means of exercising control over what questions can be asked, and what questions should be ignored, over which unaccountable sources of power deserve scrutiny, and which sources should remain unaccountable.

In recent weeks, there has been ample coverage in both the British press and the press in Northern Ireland concerning recent developments and revelations around Kincora Boys Home. When I say ‘ample’, I mean by comparison with what has been presented in the southern press.

A Nexis search for ‘Kincora’ and ‘Richard Kerr’ –the Kincora victim who recently appeared on Channel 4 news in the UK speaking about his experiences of being trafficked and sexually abused, and then intimidated by the RUC so that the Kincora case would not come to trial, reveals 19 articles in UK national newspapers, including the Mirror, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, and the Independent. The first such article is on February 18th.

A search of Irish publications shows 17 articles from the Belfast Telegraph, which has been following the story closely, and 3 from the Irish News. There is not one article from a news outlet south of the border. However, a check against news websites without using Nexis shows that the Independent website did carry a piece from the Belfast Telegraph, and that RTÉ’s website mentioned Kerr in relation to a call from Belfast East MP Naomi Long for Kincora’s inclusion in the UK abuse inquiry. There is also one report on the Irish Examiner. By contrast, for the same period (since February 18th), however, in the southern press, there are 136 articles mentioning Mairia Cahill, who was raped by a member of the IRA in Belfast.

On RTÉ radio the other day the parliamentary correspondent of the Irish Times ventured that it would be a strange press that did not go after someone like Eamon Lillis, who killed his wife with a brick and then made off with her money following a light prison sentence. He is right, I think.

But what would be even stranger is if you had a press in Ireland that occupied itself with honouring the royalty and military of another country –as is the case with the current concern including Britain in centenary commemorations- whilst ignoring altogether the role of members of that country’s establishment in perpetrating and facilitating not only heinous instances of child abuse, but death squads, and in Ireland.

Kincora and its housemaster William McGrath are not at all marginal elements of the history of the Northern conflict: they are vitally important to the question of the role of the British State in promoting loyalist paramilitary activity that prolonged the conflict and caused thousands of deaths.  The role of Ian Paisley and other unionist politicians of the era in relation to Kincora, Tara and William McGrath still remains largely open to question –I say open to question, nothing more- and the opportunity for such questioning, upon the event of Paisley’s death, passed with scarcely a remark. Indeed, there were hagiographical tributes made to Paisley by the same people who castigate Sinn Féin for IRA secrecy and cover-ups.

What I mean by explicit or implicit ‘whataboutery’ mainly consists of putting forward the idea that Sinn Féin are in no position to be calling for action on Kincora (or other instances of British State misdeeds) because of their own history. Hence there is no need to call for any action, or even look into the matter further, because to do so would mean collaborating with Sinn Féin’s political agenda, and, it is frequently implied, to actually take the side of child abusers and those who cover up child abuse by so doing.

Micheál Martin, for instance, used a Dáil debate to castigate what he described as the ‘craven hypocrisy’ of Sinn Féin for calling for an independent legal inquiry in the Kincora Boys’ Home, in light of British security force involvement. Leaving aside the fact that it ought to be the duty of any public representative to make such a call, Sinn Féin making such a call, or its alleged hypocrisy in so doing, does not diminish the responsibility of other parties and groups to make similar calls. But very few actually do, and others restrain themselves from saying anything out of a fear that they too will be tarred with the brush of terrorist or fellow traveller. That is, the very accusation of hypocrisy is used to foster a moral climate thick with hypocrisy.

What is most appalling, I guess, is the combination of the fawning over royalty and, simultaneously, the elevation of oneself to a moral high ground through suggestions that one is taking a stand against Nazism in embryo, whether it is Olivia O’Leary or Jonathan Irwin who suggest a vote for Sinn Féin would be like a vote for Auschwitz, or Brian Hayes who accuses Sinn Féin of Goebbels-style Big Lies (neither his own party’s fascist roots, nor the Irish Independent’s past support for Nazism appeared to weigh heavily on his mind when he wrote that article), all the while this whole milieu is indifferent to the near entirety of what victims –whether of child abuse or paramilitary or state-sponsored violence- have actually experienced, or to any possibility of finding effective mechanisms for addressing such matters. Indeed, their interest in such matters only appears to perk up when it is to their own advantage, or, what is the same thing, to the detriment of their enemies.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Against Whataboutery

  1. Well said. The world of true journalism is no place for gutless wonders.

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