The Grey Suit and The Green Jersey
Question: what links Enda Kenny’s One Year In Office triumphalism, Sean Gallagher’s response to the RTÉ “fake tweet” discussion, and the clearing of both the Occupy Dame Street and Occupy Galway camps?
The best way to get to that is by dwelling on the Gallagher affair for the moment. By rights this should be comfortably the least important of the three – “Failed politician gets annoyed after making tit of himself on the telly” is a fairly ordinary headline – but the fallout from this, and the bullish attacks on RTÉ, are becoming something at which it is worth shouting “stop.” I wrote this piece as I listened to Leo Varadkar proclaiming that RTÉ has a left-liberal bias (to a gleeful Newstalk presenter)… and then, a few later, I heard that David Quinn was appearing on The Frontline again. One could write this off as the usual bluster, but…
No. This sort of nonsense can’t be allowed to stand, even if most people do think RTÉ is a pretty shoddy organisation. Anyone who seriously states that RTÉ is populated by revolutionary socialists either thinks libertarian dogma is centrist mainstream opinion, or is attacking the national broadcaster as part of a power-game. The latter means they’re cynical, calculating people who should on no account be in power. The former just means they’re an idiot. In the case of Varadkar, it’s probably both.
There has been some pretty egregious rewriting of the past over the Seán Gallagher “Tweetgate” affair -
(Incidentally, when are people going to stop putting “gate” on the end of things to imply scandal? The implication is that a break-in at the Watergate hotel lead to a political scandal called “Watergategate,” and I’m sure that’s not the case)
- not least by sections of the print and broadcast media who either dislike the concept of a national broadcaster, or are greasing the back-scratching patronage system by which they get information from the government. There is also, of course, plain old-fashioned laziness. Either way, the idea is being propagated that an entirely fictitious tweet from a “fake” (all right, let’s say “unverified”) account derailed Seán Gallagher’s campaign. Well, it didn’t.
Martin McGuinness confronted Gallagher with a story that he had accepted a cheque for €5,000 from a Fianna Fáil donor, and delivered a photograph of said donor with Brian Cowen. This was substantially true, although some of the details may have been awry. Gallagher had been spending much of the campaign portraying himself, quite falsely, as a grassroots Fianna Fáil member; he claimed to be someone who believed the party had gone away from its heritage, and who had no real involvement with Fianna Fáil at a high-level. Picking up cheques for Brian Cowen didn’t exactly square with this image, and so Gallagher decided to bluff his way out of things. Initially, he flatly denied anything of the sort had occurred. It was only when the Unverified Tweet appeared, threatening to produce the man, that Gallagher changed both his tune and his story. What we saw on television was a man caught in a lie, and that’s what did for him.
Had this tweet not appeared, Gallagher’s bluff would never have been called. This was a man who had been evading questions about his party political past and his business affairs for weeks on end. When push came to shove, he appeared willing to flat-out lie about who he did and didn’t remember. And yet, seriously, the people we should be questioning are RTÉ? It’s certainly not good practice to read out wrongly-attributed messages on air but, in the context of the sheer amount of falsehoods being peddled in the presidential election, it was a footnote issue at best.
It’s worth remembering that Gallagher is from the business community as well as the FF tradition, and the tradition of business discussions is that the important person must be respected at all times. When you’re sitting in a room with someone wealthy and authoritative, you absolutely cannot imply that they might be talking bollocks. Particularly if you aren’t a personage of importance yourself; particularly if you aren’t an alpha male (because preferably, you really should be male) and don’t have a decent suit or an employee or two to bully.
You can call this hierarchical, or patriarchal, or whatever you like; the point to emphasize is that it’s as prevalent in the profession of politics as it is in the culture of business. Politicians in Ireland (and indeed, most Western democracies) believe that even when they’re slumming it at election time – no, scrub that, especially when they’re slumming it at election time – nobody should have the right to question their motives, their integrity, or their honesty. You aren’t even allowed to call someone a liar in the Dáil, for heaven’s sake. The culture of politics and business mesh to give a perfect impression of entrenched privilege.
In a way, this is understandable; political discourse wouldn’t get far if it was dominated by people calling each other lying, cheating dipshits. Yet this sense of privilege leads to odd places. Leo Varadkar’s belief that RTÉ is a left-leaning liberal paradise is the sort of tin-hat gibberish that would get you ridiculed on a bar-stool, but is taken seriously in national media because Leo is an Important Person. And this silly shitstorm about Gallagher is a cynical, manufactured exercise in chin-stroking that conceals a placid, low-level conviction that a presidential candidate has the right to deceive everyone about his past, right through an election campaign and beyond, without ever being discomfited. Hey, Charlie and Bertie were allowed to do it, after all.
This is directly related to the extraordinarily crass One-Year-In-Office celebration by Fine Gael this week. This is the sort of exercise that can only ever be given by people who feel the need to remind themselves how important they are. Like businesspeople awarding themselves prizes for being profitable it’s most remarkable, not for its stunning disregard for the people who suffer under the measures this government have taken, but for its amazing self-reflexivity. Of course you disregard “ordinary people” if you don’t think they really matter. The culture of non-questioning – or rather, preapproved questioning – leads to a political class that focuses only on the etiquette-bound ceremonies of a parallel universe. In short, they’ve become self-absorbed dickheads.
At 3:30am on the 8th March, around a hundred Gardaí cleared the Occupy Dame Street camp. There are many arguments that can be had about the effectiveness of the camp, but these simply aren’t relevant. The Gardaí didn’t clear the camp because they felt it had stagnated or that its aims were incoherent. Nor did they clear it for reasons of public order or health and safety concerns. The Safety, Healthy and Welfare at Work Acts concern themselves with workplaces (the clue’s in the name), not protest camps; closing the camp for public order reasons, on the other hand, is like burning down someone’s house in order to prevent it from being burgled.
No; Varadkar had already given the game away when he suggested the camp should vanish for St Patrick’s weekend. At a time when the “eyes of the world are on Ireland,” i.e. vaguely reminded of its existence, Occupy is an embarrassment. It isn’t appropriate right now; it isn’t the sort of thing that should appear, even for a fleeting moment on a foreign news report. When there are parades and photogenic celebrations, a visceral reminder that our society is divided and impoverished simply won’t do.
If it seems strangely banal, that something as fundamental as political protest should be subservient to something so petty, the power of aesthetics isn’t something that can be overestimated. Want to maintain power for a certain social class? The easiest way is to ensure that the only arguments you ever have to face come in predetermined forms, to limit the ruminations of your society to banal orthodoxies. And what better way than to introduce this idea of decorum, of the correct way of behaviour, of appropriateness? Ensure that anyone who steps outside the received norms is automatically a dangerous or ridiculous subversive, and your system becomes almost self-sustaining.
In a healthy society, it would be absurd to suggest a protest camp should be moved for festivals. In a patriarchal, hierarchical society that drips of privilege, it’s… manners.
Authority is cunning and it’s petty. This week it has moved to weaken state broadcasters, held staged media-driven celebrations of its power, and cleared away the most visible sign of dissent. Good work, chaps.
In less than a week, Irish leaders will travel around the world and meet the people who matter. They will style themselves as ambassadors for the country. It’s ironic that, at these times, the question crops up of who’s been left in charge. It misses the point. In a culture that is suspicious of difference, you don’t need anyone to be in charge. You don’t need anything at all, except decorum.