Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Category: Politics (page 1 of 2)

Poetry and profanity–a couple of thoughts on Miggeldy and blasphemy

Michael D. at Arbour Hill

So Ireland has voted to #keepthepoet and take blasphemy out of the constitution. Miggeldy will have another seven years in the Aras. For any non-Irish readers I should explain, Miggeldy is the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. Miggeldy is an affectionate pet name for this president used widely by Irish people after a child’s school essay misspelling his name went viral some years ago. The name is a joke on how the president has been referred to for years, especially in the West of Ireland, as a popular left-leaning politician and minister. Back then he was universally known as Michael D. rather than as Minister or Deputy Higgins. It’s fitting for someone who has spent his entire career arguing for equality and fairness. Michael D. was the politician everyone would stop on the street to say hello to. Miggedly is the president who loves his dogs and is immortalised in a popular tea cosy. He’s also the president who had a pleasingly humanistic inauguration ceremony the first time round and who’s official speeches have made me repeatedly proud of one of my countries on a regular basis over the past seven years.

Since Mary Robinson took the job back in 1990 the Irish presidency has become a very aspirational role. The presidency was where the Irish people could try out new ideas for size. There have been two female presidents but no female Taoiseach for example. Seven years ago Ireland could have had their first openly gay president in the shape of Senator David Norris but instead voted for their first humanist president, someone who’s further left than the majority of TDs. Michael D. was elected before Ireland’s historic referendum votes in favour of marriage equality and to remove the 8th amendment banning abortion. The winds of change might have already been blowing but once again, it was the presidency that tried out the idea to look for a fit. I’ve often thought that in recent years the presidency has become the face Ireland wants to show the world, a “good room” in human form to be brought out for visitors and kept under plastic covers the rest of the time – and we’re almost back to tea cosies.

This election campaign has been a bit extreme though. Coming so soon after the abortion vote it was always going to be. That vote revealed a lie that had been told to liberal Ireland for a generation – there are more of us than you. That vote proved the lie and gave a breakdown. Of course there are complexities in any vote result, a variety of reasons why people may vote this way or that, but the abortion vote, like marriage equality before it, showed the breakdown to be  somewhere in the region of a 60/40 split. You see Ireland, like many other countries has always had two faces. There is conservative, Catholic Ireland – the country of greys and blacks, right wing, dogmatic tendencies and an ultra Catholic tone – and there’s liberal Ireland – the land of saints and scholars, dark cynical humour, dazzling discoveries. These two countries have always existed in theory. In practice Ireland as she really is is a balance of the two. The question is always what is the balance. It’s the balance we glimpse in referendum results. Divorce in 1992 told us it was 50/50. Since marriage equality we know it’s shifted a bit but you can never be certain.

So when it was announced that Miggeldy was in fact going to seek a second term (he had always said he would only do the one) they all came out of the woodwork. That’s how there were early stories about famine theme parks and anti-vaxxers and Dragons Den. Actually it all got very odd. In the end there was only one other contender. Peter Casey managed to garner around a third of the vote by dog whistling anti traveller sentiments and being generally reactionary. The last 24 hours have seen a flurry of articles explaining that Casey is not the Irish Trump. He’s not – but his comments about travellers did appeal very neatly to that section of Irish society who are reeling from discovering that they don’t have 50 % of the vote anymore, that they are now in the minority. They didn’t vote for Miggeldy the first time round, they didn’t vote for marriage equality and they didn’t vote to repeal the 8th. That lot have always been there, they just can’t say they’re in the majority anymore. It isn’t that long ago when Casey may well have won. This isn’t a sign that Ireland has a growing rump of right wing sentiment, it’s just an indication of where they are.

Which brings me to blasphemy. As well as the presidential election there was also a referendum on whether or not to remove “blasphemous” from the statement “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” This hadn’t been a major problem until 2009 when a clause on blasphemy was added to the Defamation Act, thus defining it in law. Now it might have been a pretty useless law that was ultimately unprosecutable but it was still put in there. It seems to have just been there to catch out comics with Tommy Tiernan inadvertently triggering the damn thing in the first place and Stephen Fry falling foul of it and ultimately setting the ball rolling to get rid of it. Well kind of. Most of the coverage of this blasphemy referendum has referred to the Irish people voting to remove the law on blasphemy. They’re not. The law will still stand but at least now politicians can no longer argue it’s a gap that needs filling and hopefully speedily remove the clause from the Defamation Act.

So having Miggeldy for another seven years is a good thing. Having further confirmation that liberal Ireland is still in the majority is a good thing – even if there is still a third of the population who would vote hard right conservatism. Given Ireland’s history this is actually a pretty good figure. There’s still a very long way to go but at least Ireland has decided to put a progressive face to the world.

O Brave New World

Tattered-Union-flag

Nothing happens in a vacuum. My words are shaped by the experiences I’ve lived through. Everything has a cause and effect. Some events resonate so strongly within their own context that the echoes can be heard for years.

I moved back to England 5 months ago yesterday. My return was shaped by my departure many years before. I knew that the European Referendum would be the defining story of my first year. I was a journalist for a long time. I still think in stories. My own view of Europe is coloured by my experiences. While I was in college I produced and presented a European news show on community radio. I considered myself European, as a blow-in in a country of race memory it was the most comfortable choice. Europe was everywhere, the little blue plaques on public buildings, the awarding body for any funding. I visited Brussels on a press trip for local journalists, we all knew that the European funding for radio documentaries was so much easier to get than the Irish alternative and often more generous. In college I got the opportunity to mix with journalism students  from the Netherlands and and spent a semester in France with European funding. I studied French as part of my course, the better to read European documents and legislation. There’s an innate understanding in bi-lingual Ireland that translation can be a slippery thing and the devil’s in the detail.

Europe was labyrinthine, a gestalt entity built on centuries old rivalries and jealousies. A squabbling family that will stand together when it matters. I’ve watched that relationship grow tense and strained and the dream to falter but you can’t choose your family. You can refuse to attend a family Christmas but the ties and the shared history are still there. We’re shaped by our history and so much of that history is shared. That’s just the way it is.

Nationality is a funny thing. I chose to define myself as European for most of my adult life because the choice was either to be the member of a club that had the blood of half the globe on its hands or one that constantly told me I didn’t belong. I spent years viewing Ireland through a English lens and now I’m in England I view it through an Irish lens. At this point I don’t know where one nationality begins and the other ends. Being transplanted does funny things to the sense of self. I know my father spent many years without a nationality. An accident of birth. I have a form in a family file to apply for British citizenship when it’s not automatically given. My dad was born in India. A generation earlier my grandfather fought in the 1st World War in the Indian Army Medical Corps. He didn’t get his medals automatically like every other British subject. He had to apply more than a decade later. I never questioned those medals when I saw that multicoloured ribbon as a child. As a researcher looking at the documentary evidence from the National Archives I wondered, as I had wondered when I saw my great uncle, his brother, describe himself in various American documents as Indian, Irish or British as the occasion suggested. Nationality is a curious thing.

Given my experiences, a lifetime of noticed things and lessons learned, I cannot imagine voting anything other than Remain on Thursday. It saddens me but I understand why so many others will vote Leave. It’s a fairly safe bet that when Thomas Mair gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court, he views the world through a very darkened lens. That case is live now so that’s all I’m going to say but those views don’t grow in a vacuum either and only time will tell what shaped them, if it’s possible to tell.

One thing I’ve noticed since I moved back to England is how many people take the whole “Island Nation” thing very literally indeed. I’ve spent the largest part of my life on a smaller island but Ireland has always looked beyond it’s rocky borders. For hundreds of years the Irish have been populating the globe – or at least making sure that there’s an Irish bar in every town, village and urban conurbation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that Dublin is not in the UK. Given that this is a country that appears on the weather map I’m still a little shocked at the lack of understanding of the next door neighbour but perhaps that’s the crux of it. I’m also discomforted by the all the little jumps to the right in everyday life. The fact it is now seen as normal to be vetted at almost every stage of setting up a life because everybody knows that people are inherently untrustworthy and they’re all just out to scam you so you might as well scam them first. So estate agents charge exorbitant fees for opening a Word document and credit checks have become so ubiquitous they have become a growth industry.  When you assume ordinary people are only on the make it’s easy to assume that anyone from outside is at least ten times worse. We’re seeing the results in the Leave camp of prejudices left unchallenged. If no one is correcting long held false beliefs then it’s easy for the cynical and power hungry to use half truths and fantasy to stoke a fire. This is something that is beyond newspaper columnists to fix, it needs to be addressed on a societal level through education and investment. I wouldn’t trust the current UK government to do any such thing so here’s hoping that European funding will still be available in the future.

Living in Ireland you get used to the fact that Europe is the voice of reason when all else fails. If it wasn’t for a European Court of Human Rights ruling many years ago Ireland would not have got as far as a referendum on marriage equality. For years it’s been Europe piling on the pressure to reform abortion law in Ireland. And that’s the one thing this referendum campaign has reminded me of through my Irish lens – it’s as divisive and poisonous as an Irish referendum on the family.

The point I’m trying to make is that just as I could no more be on the Leave side than sacrifice my first born child to a snake god, so a lot of people here are shaped by the world they live in. And when that world is shaped by papers who go out of their way to demonise the poor and the different, when ordinary people are vetted as naturally untrustworthy just to go through life. The world does feel just a little less fair, a little more brutal. An unjust, brutal world shapes the people who live in it. Not everyone will respond by looking beyond. Some will lash out. Some will kill.

This isn’t just a British problem it’s everywhere. It’s polarising people to the left and the right. The vote on Thursday worries me but I’m more worried about the world that we’ll be living in next week. It’s the same world we live in today and it’s a terrifying one.

A Moment of History

Una Mullally is hugged by Colm O'Gorman photo by Michael Stamp

Una Mullally is hugged by Colm O’Gorman photo by Michael Stamp

There aren’t many times in life when you can genuinely say you’ve watched history being made. Yesterday was a historic day, a happy day, a profound one. Today my muscles are sore from hours of standing, I’m a little sunburned and I feel 20 again. It feels as if all the cynicism has just melted away. I know this feeling won’t last but I’m holding onto it as long as I can because it feels magical. It feels like Christmas. It feels like a new dawn.

Walking into town around lunchtime there was something palpable in the air, an excitement, a sense of revolution. A steady stream of people were heading for Dublin Castle, conscious there was only one place to be, one place where you could touch history. All around us were rainbow flags, , rainbow umbrellas, rainbow socks, rainbow skirts, rainbow hair. The cathedral quarter had become a sea of colour. The Castle seems like a logical place to go. It holds such an iconic place in Dublin’s history, it’s been the seat of power, a place where leaders have faced judgement – or investigation anyway. It’s a place where you go to see concerts or sand sculptures or Dracula’s garden. A place of power and spectacle.

There are many things I’ll remember about standing in that crowd, watching county after county turning green. Every few minutes the graphic on the large screen that was showing us the feed from the count centre would refresh. The crowd would cheer as the patches of green came back one by one. As the afternoon wore on those patches of green picked out the shape of Ireland. For a second they would hang against the white before the familiar grey template popped back into view. It looked as if Ireland was being made out of green in those moments. The crowd cheered and laughed.

When the Roscommon result came in the howls of genuine anger and betrayal rose in a wounded roar. That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. For the rest of the count Roscommon became the bleeding heart of Ireland but soon it was surrounded with green and the shape of Ireland became clearer with every screen refresh.

I’ll remember David Norris walking through the crowd and getting a standing ovation. The sound system wasn’t working so he held up his arms for quiet and the crowd, those thousands of ecstatic, excited people, were quiet. He had a forceful voice for speeches he told us, before telling those upturned faces that history had been made today, that our little country was a beacon to the rest of the world. We all cheered when he finished with the motto of another country “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, because in that moment everyone understood what the 1798  revolutionaries hoped would be true, that those values are as much part of the Irish DNA as any other. That this was what we were made of.

I’ll remember the mix of people there. The young and optimistic and the older, jaded, disbelieving. Some I knew, some I recognised from many, many years ago. Yesterday we really are one city, one family and it was incredible. I met so many people yesterday. A teacher from the Netherlands who had left Ireland years ago because of the intolerance over his sexuality. As Ireland turned greener with each county vote he turned to me and said, Maybe in a while I’ll look at coming back here to teach. Or the American couple standing behind us that we explained each appearance on the stage. He was a sociology professor. She worked in civil liberties. We agreed that history could be grim viewing if you approached it from the left. Days like this mattered.

It was one of those crowds. One united by a common cause, where people talk and share. No one could get mobile coverage to check the results as they came in. History was obviously clogging up the airwaves. We were in the middle of the crowd and there were many Monty Python moments as we tried to work out what was going on up the front. “Blessed are the cheesemakers”, “That was Cavan” “No Kerry, are you blind?” It was all good-humoured. There must have been No voters somewhere in that crowd but nowhere near us. Yesterday it felt like they didn’t exist. That’s a rare feeling.

Because I know writing this that this feeling of euphoria won’t last. The feeling was overwhelming yesterday, it was love, it was pure solidarity, but it’s a rare and fragile thing. The familiarity of it made the tears come. I hadn’t felt it for a such a long time. It was a feeling of optimism, of common cause, a feeling of invincibility. I’m in  my 40s now. That bright, shining optimism has tarnished, corroded. Cynicism took its place. I mourn it’s loss but now suddenly it’s back. Like a reunion with an old friend I can see the world the way I could half a lifetime ago, when it was all worth fighting for, when we never doubted we could win.

The world can be a pretty bleak place if you’re generally left-leaning. So many of my generation are. We are the children on the 60s, the 70s. We grew up with parents fighting encroaching cynicism just like we are today. But we took the memories that matched our youthful optimism. Our pop culture references are invincible. We all have those iconic moment, times we know where we were when, when the world seemed as if it was understandable just then, where uncertainty wasn’t needed. Yesterday will be a moment like that for a new generation. Because that’s what we’ve done Ireland. We’ve given the world a fairytale to tell its children, to be whispered in the dark when  hope is lost. We’ve done a thing that proves that  people are not shits, that humanity is worth saving. We were that moment in the movie where the music swells and the audience cries. We were the happily ever after, the knight in shining armour.

Yesterday was a battle won, and I don’t hesitate to use the terms of war here. Because a war it is and it is yet to be won. Yesterday was about love but isn’t it always? When we fight these battles it’s always about love, respect and empathy. That’s where the battle lines were drawn. There’s always someone who refuses to show compassion because it will erode their values. For those of us who believe that people are more important than ideologies or things these days don’t happen often. But when they do my god they are amazing. This feeling will fade soon and it’ll be onto the next battle. But after yesterday I’m ready for the fight. Because people are not shits, they can be trusted to do the right thing. They’ve done it once and they will do it again. We know that now.

Voting for a better future

On May 7th in the UK and May 22nd in Ireland voters will get to make a momentous decision. In both cases the choice will be not simply one for a political party or even a Yes or No – the choice facing voters will be a fundamental one, what kind of world do you want to live in?

Both votes are divisive ones. In the UK, this General Election is likely to result in a second consecutive coalition government. With a historically fragmented electorate the choice for voters is far broader than usual. Do they swing to the left or the right. In Ireland the choice, ultimately is the same.  The Marriage Equality referendum which offers a democratically sanctioned equality for same sex marriage has been fought on the old ideological currents that run beneath the fragile veneer of modern Ireland. Ireland is familiar with referenda but it’s been a long time since there was a vote on a subject that went so close to the still beating heart of Holy Catholic Ireland. While it might appear on first glance that the two votes have nothing to do with one another, don’t be fooled. This month voters in both countries are being asked to vote for one of two futures – in very broad terms we are being asked to choose Star Trek or the Hunger Games.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. If we vote Star Trek in either May vote, we are not suddenly going to discover life on other planets. If we vote the Hunger Games we will not suddenly be divided into zones and forced to fight to the death but if you look behind all the campaign posters and the political point scoring the choice is equally stark. In both votes one result will bring positive change. It will say to a marginalised quarter of society that they are included, they are of value and they will not be left behind. It is saying that principles like equality and compassion are central to society and that the people themselves recognise the need to step forward together into a brighter, fairer future.

Or in either vote the choice could go the opposite way. In both cases a retrograde step. In both cases a closing of ranks, a lowering of heads and a clear message to those on the outside that they are not wanted, they are not cared about, they are not “one of us”.

This is a choice about the future you want for your children. Do you want to look forward or back? Democracy is not something that we can passively expect to happen, it is something we must push forward ourselves. This May we have a chance to make a difference. Don’t vote out of fear, vote to include. At least connect.

On Fishes and Bicycles and Other Hard Concepts

When I was very small I was taught that it was important to know right from wrong. I was told that I was a lucky girl who got to live in a civilised country, in a comfortable house, who got to go to a good school and who didn’t know anything about war or famine other than what the pictures on the little cardboard money boxes I brought home from school showed. I was taught that because I was a lucky girl in all these ways I understood there were those who weren’t as fortunate and who didn’t have what I had. It was important I stood up for what was right, what was fair.

It was a fairly standard liberal middle class indoctrination. But it stuck. Even now the one thing that reduces me to red-faced, fist-clenched, speechless rage is unfairness. I’m not talking sulky, pouty, “but I want it” unfairness here, by the way. Oh no. This is the kind of jaw-dropping, gob-smacking, bone-crunching unfairness that’s like a slap in the face with the sharp edge of a damp smelly towel. It doesn’t compute. It can’t, it’s wrong, spelled out in capital letters that are probably red and flashing.

When I was about five and the world was a far simpler, softer place that fundamental instability was locked in a milk carton. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t open the side of the carton myself to get at the last drops and instead had to wait with my arm raised, the puddle of milk in the corner of the carton getting warmer and sharper by the second. I couldn’t understand why I got into trouble when I opened it myself and showed my friends how to open theirs. It didn’t compute. It just wasn’t right.

When I was a little older I learnt there were bigger things that weren’t fair too. I remember well the burning cheeks and stinging eyes at being denied Scalectrix or Meccano because I was a girl. I’ve felt them often. Once that stuff starts happening it doesn’t stop. You can’t get lost in a knot of rage every time it happens though. You grow up. You learn to stand your ground.

But this isn’t a trip down memory lane. I’m trying to make a point.  I wouldn’t consider myself madly political but I do believe that I have no right to judge my fellow human beings, that empathy and compassion are evolutionary traits and that everyone deserves dignity and freedom. Every so often, when I’m blunt about the things that matter to me, when I tweet about racism or blog about abortion or atheism, someone will tell me I’m brave for speaking out. What I’m trying to explain is that bravery has absolutely nothing to do with it. I was raised with a particular moral framework, a “sense of fair play”. Why wouldn’t you stand up for that?

Of course, I’m well aware that there will be some reading this who don’t think what I’m saying is reasonable or obvious in the slightest. They will have got as far as the title of this piece and dismissed me as a mouthy feminist, a dissolute member of the liberal meeja, a purveyor of happy clappy bullshit. It’s because of this dismissal of values that I consider fundamental and absolutely bleeding obvious that I have, in the past hesitated about tackling a range of subjects head on – and that’s at the heart of the problem.

In tackling these subjects I’m aware that perhaps I may be painting myself in a less than favourable light. It’s been suggested to me more than once that by being honest about my liberal opinions I could offend people, even jeopardise my career prospects. In my head there’s still a treacherous little voice warning me I could come across as “strident” and no boy will ever want me (well, perhaps not quite). Yup, it’s still there. I live in a Western European country, I’m middle-class, educated. As a woman I’ve benefitted from the ground gained by former generations, by the hard won right to a third level, even second level education, to vote, to have autonomy.  Looking back over my family tree I can watch as they joined the middle classes and benefitted from greater opportunities and wider choices. Over the past century or so the world has changed beyond recognition because people saw that progress lay in these fundamental rights. The right to work for a fair wage, in decent conditions. The right to an education. The right to own property.

These changes have given us the world we live in today. They’ve benefitted the right as much as the left (although the former land owning men who once held all the power must be feeling a wee bit hard done by). Many of the social and religious conservatives seeking to shape the world we live in today wouldn’t have a voice if it wasn’t for these waves of progress. So why does it so often feel that we haven’t moved forward at all?

Last night during the late night sitting over the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill Fine Gael TD Tom Barry pulled his colleague Áine Collins TD onto his lap. He’s since apologised but it’s a stark reminder of why that treacherous little voice is still telling me to be quiet. Mr Barry has since apologised and the whole thing is being brushed away and that again is the problem. I know that if a male friend did the same in the pub I’d take exception. I also know that if I did so at least some of the company would tell me not to over react. I know this because over the years this kind of stuff has happened many, many times. I know it’s wrong but in the past I’ve laughed it off myself to play the game.

As I’ve grown older I’ve seen it so many times. I’m out of patience. I fail to see why speaking up should make me mouthy, or militant, or strident. I could be fairly sure that Mr Tom Barry TD would not have grabbed one of his male colleagues and wrestled with him on the benches of the Dáil Chamber. That kind of horse play just wouldn’t have been proper in such solemn circumstances. The fact that he and his colleagues think this is a minor, if insulting, lapse in judgement says it all. It’s not right, it’s not fair and it shouldn’t be an issue to say so.

This isn’t a call to arms, or an incitement to anything. I’m really not that dogmatic. But it’s always important to stick up for what’s right. That will never change.

The Right to Believe in Nothing

According to yesterday’s Irish Times some census enumerators are advising people to fill in their religion as the one they were raised in rather than the beliefs they currently hold.  On the Antiroom blog today author and journalist Anna Carey called for those with no formal religious beliefs to make their voices heard – it’s a call echoed by Atheist Ireland who, back in January, launched their Be Honest About Religion campaign asking for all those not practising a religion to tick the No Religion box on the census to give an accurate suggestion of how secular Irish society has become.

This is an issue I feel strongly about.  It would never occur to me to answer anything other than No Religion.  That’s been the case for as long as I can remember, apart from a brief flirtation with God when I was about ten.  I grew up in a very secular environment – it was my choice to start going to church and my decision to get baptised then confirmed.  I remember being shown a lovely silver goblet given to me for my christening when I was a baby, that had sat in it’s green leather box slowly tarnishing as the day never arrived.  It seemed as if this elegant, shiny thing was never really mine because I’d never signed on the dotted line.  I can’t say for certain whether this had any influence on my decision to start attending church but  it never was engraved even when I finally did get baptised – about twenty minutes before I was confirmed at the age of 11. 

For a few years I really got into it.  I loved the ritual, the flowers and the way the light shone down through the stained glass windows in our modern church.  I also liked the way it made me feel, virtuous and special.  But it was always play acting for me.  I loved the music of the hymns, the rhythm of the words of the prayers we recited each week, the cadence of the sung parts of the eucharist, but at no stage did I really have a concept of some superior being.  When I heard the words Our Father I vaguely associated it with My Father, dead when I was a baby but always, so I was told, looking down on me.

So the issue of religion has never been a big one for me.  I’ve tried, over the years, to believe in a variety of things but deep down I know that for me it would always be play acting.  In England it was never a big deal.  I didn’t know what religion most of my friends were and it never came up.  But when we moved to Ireland all that changed.  Religion runs through this country like veins of silica through rock and is just as impenetrable.  I know that for my Irish friends the decision to say they have no religion usually means turning their backs on a deeply held faith that would have been followed unquestioningly before the doubts began.

Since I’ve moved here I’ve come to see how important belief can be but also how vital it is to respect the views of others.  This is something that, on even on an official level, is not always done here. 

A few years ago, in a different life, I was working as a consultant’s PA in a Dublin hospital.  One day I was helping a patient with his hospital admission.  The man had just been told he had terminal cancer and would probably not be leaving the hospital alive.  I had got to know him over the months he had been coming to the hospital for tests.  He was a lovely man, always quick with a joke and would always stop by my desk for a chat when he was leaving.  This day he was quiet as we worked through the form and I filled in the necessary details.  Towards the end of the form was a question on religion.  Without missing a beat he answered None.  This wasn’t an option so I left the section blank and moved on.

Leaving him sitting beside my desk I walked down the corridor to the admissions office, wanting to make the process as simple and painless as possible.  The woman sitting at the admissions desk glanced at the form I handed her before handing it back.  “You didn’t fill in the religion”.  “He doesn’t have one” I answered, not thinking twice about it.  “Take it back and get him to put something down – it has to be filled in before we can admit him.”

So I went back down the corridor clutching the form feeling slightly sick.  I had to tell this terribly sick man that his beliefs, obviously strongly felt, weren’t good enough for the hospital administrators.  I sat down beside him and explained it as lightly as I could but knew immediately I should have stayed and argued the toss at the admissions desk.  The poor man was angry and upset.  He was crying as he began to justify his decision to me, something he should never have felt he  had to do.

I stopped him and said that I would sort it and eventually I did.  It took a stand up row before they would admit him without a religion but eventually I was able to go back and tell him he could go up to the ward.  The whole incident left me shaking with anger.  That this lovely man should have been questioned like that, that I had to be the one to question him.  For weeks after I argued that the option should be added to the admissions form, but I was only a temp and the hospital administration staff were on a work to rule over a benchmarking dispute.  The issue wasn’t high on the agenda.  Eventually I persuaded the IT guy to add an extra box to the form and started reading all the options to everyone coming to admission.  Nobody else ticked the No Religion box but I would hope that next time they did it was accepted as an option.

I left the hospital not long after, a little bit more militant on a number of issues.  But it was that day that has stuck with me ever since and the anger still rises when I think of it.  I know that religion is part of the fabric of the State here but that has to change.  Things might have improved since I was working in the hospital but as long as there is the assumption that everyone is the same, everyone has the same background, the same values if you scratch the civilised veneer with a sharp enough point, then that complacency will make some people feel like aliens in their own home.  When that complacency strikes when people are at their most vulnerable then it becomes a cruelty.

I know there is pressure to conform.  When I took the stand last week down in Dungarvan I felt embarrassed when I asked to affirm, even though any other oath would be a lie.  I went to church for long enough as a child to feel awkward when everyone gets up for communion and I stay seated at the family milestones we gather to celebrate, all of them taking place in a Church.

The No Religion box on the current census form didn’t need to be asked for.  But if those who don’t believe don’t tick it then it’s too easy to assume it’s not a problem.  That not believing is just an aberration, a blip in the religious hegemony.  It’s the times when we’re at our most vulnerable that feeling like  an individual can be most important. But in those same times you shouldn’t be made to feel like an outsider.

New Leaves for Spring

You would have to have been living in a hole, and a hole with no internet access or phone signal, to have missed the fact that Ireland has been in a bit of trouble lately.  The economy’s screwed, the government banjaxed and there’s talk of revolution (just talk mind you.)  Well finally there’s been a change and on Friday the Irish people took to the polling booths and voted in a new Government.

I was one of the few journalists in the country who wasn’t deployed to a count centre to watch the implosion of Fianna Fail play out in real time.  My job’s a little on the specialised side so I watched the election unfold along with the rest on the country, on TV, radio and Twitter.  They’re still counting the final votes today and in a week or so we’ll be watching different talking heads explaining why everything’s shagged on the nightly news.

It would be nice to believe that something will change, that this will be a much needed new beginning for a country on it’s knees, but I don’t believe in Santa Claus either.  For the next few weeks ambitious noises will be made and great plans will be discussed but it remains to be seen what actual, real change takes place.

For very pertinent reasons, everyone’s focused on the economy at the moment but I’m not a political hack or a business journalist.  I watch the cases that come through the courts, usually the criminal ones.  The Dáil circus doesn’t often encroach on my daily work.  That’ll continue to be the case with the new lot for the most part.

But there are exceptions.  Every now and then I find myself writing about things that have happened over there.  In recently years that’s usually been down to knee jerk pieces of legislation that need their rough corners smoothed by passage through the courts.  Most recently there was the case of Rebecca French, a young mother of two, whose badly beaten body was found in the boot of her burning car.  Four men were convicted of disposing of and trying to destroy her body but no one will ever be tried and convicted of her murder.  Two men, Ricardas Dilys and Ruslanas Mineikas stood trial, but the charges against them were withdrawn.  The trial judge ruled that they had been held unlawfully when gardai and a doctor became confused about the meaning of a clause in the 2009 Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, brought in to tackle gang land violence to much criticism. 

There were quite a few bits of legislation with rough edges during Fianna Fail’s tenure, but quite a few more things were simply not done.  The new government is going to have a lot of nuts and bolts governing to attend to, stuff that languished in the perennial to-do pile under the previous administration.  There’s the situation that prospective adoptive parents find themselves in for a start.  It took the last government years to get round to ratifying the Hague Convention, which rather sensibly ruled that intercountry adoptions could only take place where a bilateral agreement exists between Ireland and the country were the adoption is to take place.  The problem is that they didn’t actually put in place any new bilateral agreements with the countries people were adopting from so people going through the arduous process are now in a legal limbo waiting for something to be done.  The only country currently open for adoption is Bulgaria and domestic adoption isn’t an option, for reasons I’ll go into another time.

It would be nice to think that the new government will actually do some governing, rather than reacting to every hysterical front page with a piece of shoddy knee jerk legislation and putting everything else on the long finger but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Until then I’ll expect to see the fallout passing through the courts, which aren’t so very far from Leinster House after all.

Welcome to the Asylum

I’m going to step away from my normal subject matter for once today.  You’d have to have been living in a hole on the dark side of an utterly deserted island to have missed the fact that Ireland is, not to put too fine a point on it, financially up the creek.

Photo by Michael Stamp

It’s hard to avoid the news that the IMF have hit town and are not even going to lay a wreath on the grave of the Celtic Tiger.  We’ve had the boom times and are now facing the bust.

I don’t write about the economy.  The only stories I cover tend to be the ones that are sparked by the money running out.  Even though both my books are about millionaires, when you’re writing about murder, even a farcical quasi attempt at one, money is never anything more than set dressing.  Death is the same whether it takes place in leafy suburbia or in a squat. It’s egalitarian that way.

But it’s hard to ignore what’s going on in Ireland at the moment.  Ireland’s party is over and the hangover has hit.  We’re left with a shambles of a government and a lot of lessons still to be learnt.  Ireland is the teenager with Europe, caught running up the phone bill and about to be denied car privileges for the foreseeable future.  The recession we’re in the middle of has hit the world but it’s knocked us for six.  Suddenly we discover that when the money was there the bills weren’t paid and the debt collectors are knocking on the door.

But what brought us to this point after so many years of prosperity? Why were the health and education systems left to fall into disrepair while the population bought holiday homes in far flung places and patio heaters bristled in every back yard?  When I think about the situation this beautiful country has got itself into my heart bleeds.  The situation we’ve found ourselves in has a feeling of inevitability and that’s not just because the party went on too long and we all succumbed to a national orgy of excess.  The problems have been there for almost as long as the republic.

Right from the start the writing was perhaps on the wall.  A health service funded by an illegal gambling operation for example.  The Irish Hospital Sweepstakes were famous for a flutter across the world and Ireland ended up with an enviable network of hospitals across the country.  Now those hospitals are closing or scaled down one by one.  The Sweepstakes themselves ended up in a sad little scandal as it was discovered that even when the cause was a noble one corruption wasn’t far behind.

I remember listening to an episode of the old BBC radio comedy show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.  The show starred John Cleese and The Goodies, Bill Oddie, Graham Garden and Tim Brooke Taylor. In an episode from the 60s which involved a skit about a trip to Ireland they made a crack about finding the Irish Government sitting in a woodland glade with brown paper bags full of money.  Now before all my Irish readers jump on me for referencing an Irish joke by a British show I’ll point out that it’s the subject matter of the joke I’m interested in here. The brown paper envelopes in the 60s…so reminiscent of the one businessman Ben Dunne handed former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, eliciting the now immortal response “Thanks a million big fella” back in 1991.

Then there’s the offshore gas deposits that would provide enough money to give Ireland a very nice little nest egg indeed.  But they were sold off to Shell by Minister Ray Burke (who’s since been jailed for corruption in other, unrelated, matters) in the late 1980s.

A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the government (who for most of the independence of the State have comprised of Fianna Fail, with or without a minor coalition partner) have plundered the country for every cent they could get while investing as little as possible of the country’s money into the services that make a functioning economy.  The observer could very well have a mental image of a robbery interrupted.  As the lights come on in a bare wood panelled room the black clad robbers are stuffing as much loot into their pockets as they can before the cops arrive.  There’s a filing cabinet overflowing with rifled papers, some of which are smouldering in the empty grate.  When the cops do arrive our robbers fall back on tried and tested denials.  “It wasn’t me Gov, no one saw me do it.  You can’t prove nothing.”

Of course I’m not the casual observer.  I live here and work here.  It’s hard to build a fantasy scenario when you’re afraid of how much the looming budget is going to dig into your pay packet.  Something really fundamental’s going to have to change here if things are going to get better and stay better.  Ireland is a wonderful country, and don’t let anyone tell you different.  But it’s been run into the ground by a load of people who shouldn’t have been let near a business let alone a whole country. For a republic that was born out of so much idealism it’s heartbreaking to see it brought so low.  Greed and ineptitude has won out and now all that’s left is to pick up the shattered pieces.  Let’s hope something better rises out of the wreckage and Ireland can learn from past mistakes.

A Matter of Credibility

If you’re Irish the last 24 hours will have had you cringing.  Not one but two government ministers have made international headlines in ways that can only bring embarrassment to the country as a whole.  One of them would have been bad enough but two in such quick succession does nothing to disprove any stereotypes that Ireland has been trying to escape for years.

If you haven’t been following the news or if you’re not Irish and are wondering what the hell I’m talking about it all started yesterday evening when the news broke that Minister for Science Conor Lenihan was to launch a self published book by a constituent which aims to debunk the theory of evolution.

The story had been buzzing around cyberspace for a couple of months but as the launch neared it gained critical mass and went well and truly viral.  The subject was being discussed on two popular Irish forums, Politics.ie and Boards.ie then it found it’s way onto Twitter.  As tends to happen, this sent the story into the stratosphere.  Before long the story had been picked up by high profile tweeters like Ben Goldacre, the science writer and Guardian columnist.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/bengoldacre/status/24424753852[/tweeted]

Dara O’Briain, the comedian and broadcaster also chimed in.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/daraobriain/status/24415254156[/tweeted]

Then the story got picked up by the traditional media appearing on the evening news on both RTE and the BBC.  Conor Lenihan appeared on RTE’s 9 o’clock news completely unrepentant.  He said he didn’t see a problem with the launch as the author, John J. May, was a constituent and a friend.  His name disappeared off the launch flyer on Mr May’s website.  Then this morning the Irish Times announced that Lenihan had pulled out of the launch.

This is John J. May.  This is the man who Conor Lenihan was willing to hold himself up to public ridicule for.  Many, many years ago I worked for John May.  He ran a company called The Day You Were Born.  The name kind of gives it away.  For a small fee you could get a piece of paper with information about the day you were born.  You know the kind of thing – that day’s headlines, sports results, what was in the chart.  You can still get that kind of thing now but back then, in the early 90s it was a reasonably new idea.

My job was to get the headlines.  I spent some very happy weeks in the Reading Room of the National Library going through microfilms picking headlines for each day in a certain year.  I still remember some of the news stories I found during that time.  The broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the World, as covered by the Irish Times, or the reading in the Abbey of one of Yeat’s plays when he had engaged with a heckler about the merits of his writing.  I was there the day Charlie Haughey walked out of Leinster House for the last time.  I had been listening to the radio knowing something was imminent and lead a mass walkout as we all left our books and ran downstairs to watch the doleful procession leave Leinster House, ignoring our pale faces pressed up against the wire that separates the Dail from the Library.

There were a group of us working for May. Every couple of weeks, it might have been once a month, we all met up in a pub in Clondalkin where he would brief us and hand out the pay cheques.  We all thought him a little odd but we all needed the work  so no one wanted to rock the boat.  It was definitely one of the odder jobs I have had.

Years later I ran into May again.  I was getting work experience in special interest station Anna Livia FM and May turned up as a funding guru with radio experience.  Rumour had it he had run a pirate station in the 80s that had been based around where the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre is now.

John May always seemed in those days to be a bit of a Flash Harry character.  I’m not by any means suggesting that he did anything untoward, just that he was a man who always had an eye for a fast buck and was enthusiastic and diligent in getting it.  I had heard something about affiliations with some kind of Christian group but don’t know any details about that.

The way he is pushing this book of his is no deviation from type.  He’s a pushy, fast talking person and it doesn’t surprise me that he would manage to pull off a coup like this, guaranteeing his tome will get world wide publicity and will undoubtedly sell more than it would otherwise.

It doesn’t surprise me that he would end up in the middle of something like this but what does surprise me is why a government minister would get involved.  It doesn’t really matter if Conor Lenihan goes along to tomorrow’s Gorillas and Girls launch party in Buswells Hotel.  What does matter is the fact that he agreed to it in the first place.

He might think that he was going in a personal capacity but he is a government minister with special responsibility for science and the book is anti evolution.  What exactly did he think was going to happen.  Surely if John May is a friend of his he would know that May would make sure the launch got as much publicity as possible.  It’s years since I’ve seen the man and even I could figure that one out.  The problem the minister doesn’t seem to understand is that in cases like this there is no “personal capacity”.  If in his personal life he is a rabid creationist, say, he should not be the man standing as a figurehead to promote and champion Irish science. If he can’t understand this surely at the very least his political acumen should be severely in doubt?

The Lenihan debacle was bad enough but this morning another embarrassing story broke, this time centring around the Taoiseach himself, Brian Cowen. This morning Brian Cowen appeared on Morning Ireland, the main breakfast news programme in the country.  It was a pre arranged interview.  The Fianna Fail party, his party, were having their yearly think in down in Galway before the Dail resumes sitting next month after the summer break.

You would have to have spent the last year or so on another planet not to have heard of the spectacular crash and burn that has been the Irish economy.  Things have been bad for a while now and this December’s Budget is likely to be a particularly tough one.  You always know things are bad when the media start over using the word “swingeing” when talking about funding.

Cowen’s appearance on radio to talk about the economy isn’t so very unusual in these trying times but this morning something about his voice on air and the way he bumbled through some of his answers provoked a fairly speedy response.  Opposition politician, Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney got the ball rolling.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/simoncoveney/status/24458595143[/tweeted]

When Cowen got off air he was approached by the waiting media in Galway.  TV3’s Ursula Halligan asked him if he was in fact hung over after a late night, a fact he spiritedly denied.  But by then it was too late.  Once again the story had leapt from Twitter into the waiting arms of the International media.  As I write this the story of the question and Cowen’s denial has made it onto the BBC news.  It’s also been picked up by the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and has been picked up websites in South Africa and India.  It’ll probably keep growing.

Throughout the day those who were in the bar of the Ardilaun Hotel near Salthill in Galway last night, where the Fianna Fail party and attendant political correspondents are staying, came forward with stories of what went on last night.  Stories of late night sessions abounded, but whether or not anyone breaks ranks to give a full blow by blow account remains to be seen.  In the end only those who were there on the night will know exactly who was there and what went on but again, it’s not really important.

On Liveline this afternoon, members of the public were queuing up to give their support to the beleaguered leader.  Everybody deserves time to unwind, they said.  Give the guy a break.  We all like to think our politicians are human, Ireland perhaps embraces such displays of human frailty more than most.  Maybe this was why Bill Clinton decided to wait until he was on a visit to Dublin to apologise from his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.  But there’s a big difference between Brian Cowen and Bill Clinton in this regard.  Clinton was leading another country.  He was a visitor and his admission put us in the glare of international media.

Brian Cowen is leading this country and he’s not accused of playing around with an intern.  The suggestion is that he was unprofessional enough to stay up so late he was groggy and hoarse the next morning when he knew he had an interview on one of the most listened to shows in the country, his country.  He’s the guy in charge.  He doesn’t get to play with the rank and file.  He has the ultimate responsiblity for steering this sinking ship and, at a time when decisions are being made about how much the country is going to suffer in the forthcoming Budget, surely coming on air sounding, at best tired and disinterested, at worst hung over, is not the way to instill confidence.

Once again if he can’t understand why appearances are important now, why having credibility as someone who’s holding the reigns is vital.  If you were working in a company and had heard rumours of redundancies and pay cuts how would you feel if you came into work to a boss who was unshaven, sweating and looked like they were wearing last night’s clothes.  I’ve no idea what Cowen was wearing on the radio this morning, he could have even been in his pyjamas, but he sounded as if he was wearing last night’s suit.

What both incidents in the past 24 hours have shown is that there are people in Fianna Fail, who are the majority partner in our coalition government, who do not understand that the job they are doing has a lot to do with appearances.  You keep up appearances to keep people’s confidence – not just the voters but also the world outside.  All these two stories have done is give a picture of a country that is floundering, one that is a joke.  A country that has no leadership.

It’s that that makes me embarrassed to be Irish today.  I hope it embarrasses those at the centre of the stories as much.

To Defame or Not to Defame

On Monday Justice Minister Dermot Ahern announced that comments posted on social networking sites could be defamatory.  The papers the following day were full of headlines that warned users of Facebook and Twitter to be careful what they said because they could now be guilty of libel.

This is all fine and dandy but for one thing. They always could be.  Libel covers any defamatory material that is written, printed or otherwise permanently represented. Surely any first year journalism student could work out that just as letters, emails, blogs or graffiti can be defamatory so can tweets or Facebook updates.

We should all be aware that what we write online is no different from something written in a newspaper or set down permanently in any other way.  I have to be aware that anything I write online about the trials I cover is not going to land me in contempt of court just as I have to be careful with any copy I write for newspapers, magazines or books.  Defamation is no different.

I understand that there are millions of people now writing stuff online who have not been taught a basic primer in defamation law that the average journalist receives in college but surely most people have a rough idea of what libel is?

The minister’s comments at the second annual report of the Press Ombudsman on Monday evening were indicative of a widespread assumption that online words somehow exist in a special alternative reality that needs special laws and special rules.  The defamation laws are not suddenly applying to stuff that has been blissfully unregulated since it came into being, they always did.  If online material is permanent then surely it is covered by the standard libel definition, just as letters to a third party have always been, just as graffiti has always been and just as blogs and emails are and have been proved to be in recent cases here in Ireland.

Yes the spectacular growth of social networking has given a lot of new ways to libel people but it beats me why this should come as a shock to anyone.  The idea that online communities are in some way private, or at least give that impression, is often bandied around as as reason for why people are so cavalier about basic common sense online but this doesn’t really wash.  You can commit libel in a letter to your mum…if you’re talking about a third party and the letter is put lovingly away in a box.  It’s the making of defamatory comments to a third party that breaks the law.  That could be over the counter in your local shop (talking the old offence of slander), over a pint in your local pub or standing with semaphore flags on your roof. 

We should all be familiar with the basic idea of defamation.  Now we all spend so much time writing down our defamatory thoughts, rather than cheerfully slandering people with gay abandon, we all need to be more aware of libel.

It’s something that internet forums have long needed to deal with, as has anyone who has to monitor comments on a website or blog and it’s not something that only journalists need to understand.

I remember being taught media law in college.  Our lecturer came from the assumption that there was a lot we would already know.  When did people stop assuming that? When did people start thinking that new rules applied?  There are a lot of things that do need to be looked at afresh in light of modern technological changes, things that will have to be decided in the courts at some stage because they’ve never existed before.  Defamation isn’t one of them.

Maybe it’s about time that social media sites or blogging platforms started to give people signing up a primer on the legal issues they’ll be facing.  It could be something you had to work through before you could finish signing up…like reading the Terms and Conditions always is. 

Commentators are fond of saying that we’re all journalists now.  No we’re not, but we will all need to learn how not to defame people.  It’s something we should all already know.  It’s hardly rocket science.  The penny is going to have to drop sometime that social networks are not some magic special case where the normal rules do not apply.  It’s common sense.  It shouldn’t be such a big shock that it makes headlines.

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