On last night’s show a debate on Europe’s refugee crisis was preceded by a standing ovation from the studio audience for members of the Irish Navy, who stood in line in full uniform.
The panellists for the debate were actor Liam Cunningham, government minister Paul Kehoe, and Irish Independent columnist Ian O’Doherty. I had started watching the programme out of curiosity after seeing tweets objecting to Ian O’Doherty’s presence on the show.
Ian O’Doherty -a dull-minded figure who poses as a Christopher Hitchens-style contrarian but without the allure of the turncoat, the ostentatious learning, or the mental dexterity that Hitchens had on offer – served up a farrago of racist talking points that originate with the far right. It was O’Doherty’s views that were allowed to frame the discussion, and Cunningham, and to a lesser extent Kehoe, were called upon to respond.
Of those who spoke from the studio audience, only the member of the far right National Party and the member of Christians Concerned for Ireland (who voiced the concern that hundreds of refugees had been arrested in Britain for crimes of “rape, etc”) were, as far as I can recall, afforded an on-screen caption detailing who they were.
If you were to press the programme-makers on their decision to afford Ian O’Doherty a platform, I suggest they would respond that they had sought to achieve a ‘balance’, that other contributors from the audience included a member of an organisation opposed to racism, a person with experience in aid work in Syria, and a woman living under Ireland’s Direct Provision regime. Pressed further, they might admit that controversy generates excitement and therefore viewing figures whereas informed debate is sterile. One imagines, moreover, that they would likely reject any suggestion that their editorial decisions produce racist effects.
In this regard it is interesting to consider not what O’Doherty had to say but what the presenter said. She repeatedly voiced the concern that resources devoted to assisting homeless people in Ireland might be jeopardised if the country took in more refugees.
Such proposed trade-offs arise with dreary regularity. It is always those most at risk, we are told, who are put at greatest risk when we wish to extend solidarity to others.
But even if we impose an arbitrary scarcity of resources in this way, the fortunes of the affluent are rarely, if ever, cited as the first port of call: it always falls, as if by nature, to those most at risk, who are supposedly now expected to take on even greater risk.
These economic trade-offs, of course, find a more vulgar expression in the notion that ‘we have to take care of our own first’. What all this hides from view is the fact of certain groups who will always already be taken care of.
It is not a question of racist cranks simply being given a platform. We should also ask: what kind of platform? In the case of the Claire Byrne Live show, we might best describe it as a pseudo-scientific wrapper.
Following the initial discussion, Claire Byrne said:
“We wanted to find out how people felt about this, so we asked our Claire Byrne Live – Amárach panel ‘Can Ireland cope with the planned intake of 4,000 refugees by the end of 2017?’”
Liam Cunningham, called on to respond to the results of the survey that showed a majority responding No, rightly pointed out that this was mere opinion. But Byrne insisted on how demographically representative the survey was. As if this could be detached from the actual question posed.
What does it mean, anyway, to ask “Can Ireland cope” with anything? Are we referring to Irish people on the whole? The State? The government? Are we speaking in terms of logistical assessments or mental resilience?
Since different people respond to such questions in different ways, the meaning of the question is ultimately established by the person who interprets the data.
In this case, Byrne was clear, or rather, clearly unclear:
“It’s about sentiment. Irish people saying “we can’t cope with this problem”.”
Well, how would she know? Where did the “we” come from?
Byrne, in her own mind, and likely at one with the producers of the programme, identified “Ireland” as “Irish people”. Hence it did not mean people in Ireland who are not Irish -a sizeable proportion of the population- and thus beyond the supposedly rigorous demographic scope of the survey.
But not only did “Ireland” mean “Irish people” here, but no distinction was drawn between the institutions of the state and people -strictly speaking, Irish people- at large. It’s doubtful that any such distinction could ever be drawn in a situation where the audience has just applauded members of the Navy in full uniform for making us all proud.
The overall effect of this concoction was to lend empirical weight -bogus, but weight nonetheless- to what O’Doherty was arguing.
If you want to trace the origins of the idea that “we have to look after our own”, with all the racist logic that emanates from it, it is best not to start with the likes of Ian O’Doherty or the National Party, but rather with those convinced they should be given a voice, in the supposed interests of ‘balance’.