- 25 Jan 17
There's a rocky road ahead. And we’re not talking about the one from Galway to Dublin. The good news is that Irish musicians have become far more politically involved than ever before. The bad news is that we are all facing into a particularly difficult and uncertain future. So how can we all – citizens, musicians and the media alike – deal with the political challenges ahead, from the Referendum to Repeal the 8th to the effects of Donald Trump’s presidency, knowing that we have entered the post-truth world – and that this is the backdrop against which fascism has been gaining momentum?
Irish folkies have always been political. It is in the DNA of the music, and – from Luke Kelly through Christy Moore, Donal Lunny and Luka Bloom to Damien Dempsey and Kíla (to name just a prominent few) – artists have frequently voiced political views through the songs they sing. They have also lent their names to campaigns and agitated for radical causes of one kind or another.
In contrast, for a long time, it seemed that rock musicians in Ireland, with the obvious exceptions of Bono and Sinéad O’Connor, as well as Bob Geldof and The Pogues in London, didn’t know quite what to think about politics. Maybe it was a hangover from the widespread ambivalence about the national question – and in particular paramilitary activities in the North. You’d talk to them privately and get a sense that they cared about the world and where it was heading. They’d do charity gigs when they were asked. But very few seemed to want to go out on a limb, or to say or do anything that might look or sound explicitly political.
Over the past few years, however, all of that has changed. The crash impacted deeply on Irish society and triggered a sharper sense of the deep-rooted indifference of the system to the hardships faced by ordinary people. And Irish musicians responded to that. To take one example, Bell X1 didn’t start out as a political band. But they seem to have become ever more conscious that blithely ignoring the issues that the average citizen is forced to grapple with can seem like apathy. And so their music has gradually taken on a more forceful social and political dimension.
In some respects, they nailed their colours to the mast, when they did a benefit gig in the Olympia Theatre in 2012 for the Capuchin Day Centre, a place where free meals are provided for people who are down on their luck or homeless, handing over a cheque for over €20,000 in its aftermath. Homelessness, poverty, unemployment, disadvantage: soup kitchens are not, of course, the answer to these social ills. At best they are a band aid. But that people, who would otherwise go hungry, can get food into their bellies, makes a big difference to the daily lives of those who are struggling on the margins. For an Irish rock band, the commitment which underpinned that gig represented a clear statement of intent.
CHANGED THE GAME
That strand of activism on behalf of the most luckless and vulnerable in Irish society has found a new, and more focussed expression in the Home Sweet Home movement that swung into action over the Christmas period, with the occupation of the NAMA owned Apollo House – and contemporary musicians have been central to the campaign.
From the start, Glen Hansard – a man who unselfconsciously straddles the worlds of folk and rock, and whose heart has always been with the disadvantaged, and especially those that are forced to sleep in doorways – played a key part in the drama. But other musicians got involved too. Damien Dempsey and Hozier were among the first names mentioned, alongside film director Jim Sheridan, and actors Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan.
But the net quickly widened. Lethal Dialect, whose manager Dean Sherry was one of the driving forces behind the occupation, composed a rap for the moment. Liam Ó Maonlaí of Hothouse Flowers put his shoulder to the wheel. So did Matthew Devereaux of The Pale. Lisa Hannigan recorded a special version of ‘Silent Night’ and donated the proceeds. Christy Dignam of Aslan, Hozier and Kodaline all gathered at Apollo House to perform. Jess Kavanagh of Barq was there in support. It became like a gathering of the clan. Conor O’Brien aka Villagers wrote and recorded a song for the occasion, entitled ‘Apollo House’, sung to the tune of ‘She Moves Through The Fair’.
Seldom have the contemporary musicians of Ireland shown this level of solidarity on an issue of serious public importance. We knew the credentials of people like Lisa Hannigan (who is a rock of intelligence and sense), Liam Ó Maonlaí and Conor O’Brien. But it was especially heartwarming to see the involvement of Hozier and Kodaline, the two biggest new acts to have emerged from this island over the past five years. And there was something uniquely touching also about Christy Dignam’s involvement. A Hot Press video of the gang singing his wonderfully apposite ‘Crazy World’ was subsequently viewed 60,000 times. “How can I protect you in this crazy world?”: politicians and public servants have a duty to ask themselves precisely that question about vulnerable citizens.
Apollo House has since been handed back to NAMA. But there is little doubt that the Home Sweet Home campaign has changed the game where homelessness in Ireland is concerned. As a result of the occupation, a new emphasis has been placed on the rights of those, who, for whatever reason, find themselves among the victims of homelessness. They are entitled not to be dumped out on the streets once morning comes. They should have the option of private rooms. Couples should be afforded facilities in which they can sleep together. If they have addiction problems, and want somewhere to sleep that is drug and alcohol-free then that should be available too.
The Home Sweet Home campaign has extracted promises in relation to all of these conditions from the authorities. And in doing so, they have given dignity back to people who had too often been stripped of it, as they became victims of the banks, the bailiffs, greedy landlords or just the bad luck that can drag anyone down, if they are hit with enough of it.
The same sex marriage referendum in 2015 was another milestone. In general, the majority of musicians know that they want to stand with the progressive forces. Sometimes, as with politics in the North, they just aren’t sure what is genuinely progressive and what isn’t. But on the topic of marriage equality, there was no doubt in evidence. Many of them, gay and straight alike, including Hermitage Green, Villagers, Hozier, Snow Patrol, Maria Doyle Kennedy, The Pale, Bressie, The Late David Turpin, The Nualas, Jack O’Rourke and far too many more to cite here, lent their voices and their talents to the movement.
You could sense that there was an increasing feeling of empowerment as a result. Irish musicians experienced then what it was like to be part of a grass roots political campaign – and that feeling of empowerment was rendered all the sweeter when the required constitutional change was passed by a large majority.
THE POPE WILL LAND
The introduction of same sex marriage in Ireland by popular vote was a victory for the new, emerging, egalitarian Ireland that Hot Press has long campaigned for. There was a possibility, of course, that people might retreat into a more apolitical view, with that victory under their belts.
But that hasn’t happened. What is becoming increasingly clear is that, like Hot Press, the vast majority of Irish musicians, across all genres, have a stake in shaping a new definition of Irishness, which embraces the inter-connected tenets of openness, generosity to others, mutual respect, equality of opportunity, tolerance of diversity and freedom of conscience.
The energy that went into the same sex marriage referendum has been building again, in support of the campaign to Repeal the 8th amendment. We have had a few outspoken women performers over the years: Sinéad O’Connor and Mary Coughlan spring to mind. But there is a difference now, with dozens of artists – among them Lisa Hannigan, Gemma Hayes and Jess Kavanagh of Barq – making a strong, ongoing, considered and frequently eloquent commitment to the campaign.
Make no mistake, this will be vital over the coming months. According to the opinion polls, there is currently a significant majority in favour of Repeal. But the Pope’s decision to visit Ireland in 2018 is specifically designed to get inside the heads of those who still adhere, even nominally, to Roman Catholicism. With the appalling legacy of child sex abuse hanging over them, the Church tried to play it cute by not getting too directly involved in the Same Sex Marriage Referendum. But on abortion, they will fight tooth and nail. They will try to drag the debate into the mire, by claiming that you have to decide in advance of Repeal what sort of an abortion regime will be introduced if the Referendum is passed.
This is patently untrue. If the 8th Amendment is repealed, the medical profession in Ireland is certainly not going to start offering abortions in a cavalier manner. No one on the Repeal side has any difficulty with the idea that in the long run, legislators will have to put a legal framework in place. But to try to suggest that this has to be done before we can repeal the 8th Amendment is just a ploy, aimed at complicating the issue in the minds of voters, and muddying the debate.
This is where what is happening in Ireland potentially connects directly with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America. We all know that it was part of Trump’s strategy to lie to, and mislead, the US electorate when and how it suited him. The claim that he would make Mexico pay for building the archly symbolic wall between the two countries is perhaps the most glaring example. There is no chance that this will happen. There never was – and Donald Trump knew it. But he made the preposterous claim – that is, he lied about it – knowingly on the basis that it was what the kind of people who might vote for him wanted to hear.
The same deliberately mendacious tactics won the referendum on Britain leaving the EU for Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and their slithery cronies. The ‘Leavers’ knew that it was a lie to suggest that there would be an additional £350 million a week to spend on the NHS as a result of Brexit. But they stuck it on the sides of buses nonetheless, confirming that Johnson and Farage – like the President elect Donald Trump – have no shame about lying through their smug grins if they think it will gain them extra votes.
But here’s the rub: the Anti-Choice Mob in Ireland – the not so Alt-Right – have always approached referenda in the same spirit. They did it with divorce. They did it in all of the referenda we had to endure concerning abortion. And they will do it again – only this time, emboldened by the inability of voters in the US and the UK to see a lie for what it is, they will surely do it more brazenly than ever.
They will vilify those who want to Repeal the 8th. They will attempt to strike fear into women who might tell their abortion stories. They will be nasty and aggressive on a personal level and, as we have seen already in their attempts to intimidate Róisín Ingle and Tara Flynn, who spoke openly about having had abortions, they will be utterly careless of who they hurt or how badly. They will use every emotive term that they can dredge up, to shock and bully people. We need be ready for the onslaught.
The official Church will, one suspects, take a more softly softly approach. They will try to create doubt. They will claim that women who have abortions inevitably suffer agonies of regret. They will play on the sadness that people feel about the idea of lost babies. They will engage in a more subtle form of emotional manipulation. They will try to say that the death of Savita Halappanaver was very sad, but that it had nothing to do with the 8th Amendment.
And then the Pope will land, and before, during and after his visit, there will be a big push to try to reclaim people of Roman Catholic background to the anti-choice cause, to get them singing from the same dishonest old hymn-sheet again. They will act with a veneer of compassion and reasonableness, but they will deny the terrible truth of the pain and suffering it can inflict on a woman who is forced to carry through a pregnancy which is a result of rape or incest.
They will turn the truth on its head and try to say that allowing people the freedom to choose is being duped into ‘conformity’. They will claim that there is no such thing as Fatal Foetal Abnormality, that the description is ‘hurtful’ and try to conflate it with ‘life limiting illness’ – as if that is the nub of the issue, when what really matters is what a woman feels is the right thing to do, if she is told that there is a near certainty that the foetus she is carrying cannot survive outside the womb.
They will lie about the extent of grief among women who have had abortions, ignoring the evidence of the hundreds of thousands of silent Irish women who know that they made the right choice when they decided to terminate a pregnancy – and who can still say that, in all honesty, five, ten, fifteen, twenty or fifty years on.
WOEFULLY PREJUDICED VIEWS
What has this got to do with the ‘Alt-Right’? Elsewhere in the current issue of Hot Press, the decision of the Irish Times to publish an article by a man called Nicholas Pell under the headline Everything You Need To Know About The Alt-Right, is discussed.
The article was a pathetic attempt to put a smokescreen of jovial, bad boy hipness around the ideology of white supremacism. So why would the self-styled ‘paper of record’ want to risk misleading its readers with an online article of this kind?
I watched the debate which took place on the topic, on the Clare Byrne Show on RTÉ – and it was deeply dispiriting. Dublin is a small town. I know lots of the people involved in the debate personally. A number of them are friends. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the intellectually sloppy nature of the discussion reflected very badly on the Irish media in general.
To take one example: Donal Lynch of the Sunday Independent said something to the effect that “the very fact that we are talking about the article proves that it was right to publish it.”
I don’t mean to be personal, but I have to ask: can a serious journalist really believe something that is so obviously illogical? If you published the most vile imaginable libel about, say, a journalist like Donal Lynch, there is little doubt that people would talk about it. And if the person were of sufficient public importance, like say Enda Kenny, it would doubtless end up on the 9 o’clock news, and be discussed on Prime Time, and be picked up on by all sorts of media around the world.
But does that make it right to publish it? Obviously not.
If what Donal said were true, then The Sun newspaper was right to publish blatant lies about Hillsborough. People talked about that. They ‘debated’ it.
In truth, this is a standard, and I’m afraid, utterly threadbare line that is constantly trotted out by media as a justification for publishing things that they really should be embarrassed about. The opinion editor of the Irish Times, John McManus, did in fact look and sound deeply embarrassed when he spoke during the debate – but he stuck with the party line that the Irish Times had been right to publish the piece, and that they had done what any good newspaper would do: they stood over it.
I know that there is a difference in gravity, but this is still like saying that, in the run-up to World War II, it would have been a good idea for a German newspaper – or indeed an Irish one – to publish the Nazis’ justification for the upcoming extermination of jews, gays and gypsies, without qualification or comment. And furthermore, to then have stood over the decision to publish it, on the basis that it was important to hear what these (nice? important? influential?) people have to say?
Whether it was a good decision or otherwise is down to what kind of newspaper The Irish Times wants to be. If it is happy to provide a vehicle for normalising terminology that sneers at minorities or insults women, then it was a good decision to publish the article. If it is happy to use controversy as clickbait, irrespective of the potential damage it might cause, then it was a good decision to publish it. If it is comfortable presenting the views of a clearly racist and misogynistic individual with the imprimatur of the editorial flag of The Irish Times, then it was a good decision to publish it.
The other defence commonly mounted is that to ‘censor’ an article like this would be a limitation on freedom of speech. It is another ludicrous canard. Freedom of speech is a right and an important one – but it is balanced against other competing rights: the right of an individual to their good name; the right to privacy; the right of an individual or a group not to be the turned into a target for hatred, abuse or violence – and so on.
Just because someone wants to say something doesn’t mean that a newspaper has to carry it. Let Nicholas Pell stick his verbiage online if he wants to. Or he can always start his own newspaper. What obligation does The Irish Times have to give a platform to him, or anyone else peddling woefully prejudiced views? The answer is none. The only reason for doing it can be that The Irish Times want him, and his ilk, in the house; that there is a demographic that they want not to feel excluded. He is the bait.
AN EDITOR’S PLAYBOOK
The truth, of course, is that there is nothing new in publishing material that has the primary objective of creating controversy. In fact, it was an essential part of the editorial approach of the Sunday Independent for many years. Eamon Dunphy, among others in the newspaper at the time, carried out a sustained campaign of vilification of John Hume, of Pat Kenny and of Mary Robinson, among others. Eamon – who is a friend – has a lot to be proud of in his career (not least being by far the most entertaining pundit on football in the UK or Ireland over the past 30 years or so), but I don’t think he would want to repeat any of that now.
A lot of what was said at the time in the Sunday Independent was wrong-headed in the extreme. It was personally abusive to a completely unnecessary degree. The facts often didn’t matter. And the judgements involved, especially in relation to John Hume, were profoundly agenda-driven, inaccurate and unfair. And what’s more they have been proven so by subsequent events.
And yet I remember the justification being offered at the time by deputy editor Anne Harris (also a friend), who said that while she might disapprove of what Eamon had to say she would defend to the death his right to say it.
It was a bogus argument then – and it remains so now. Where is the virtue in ‘standing over’ something that is demonstrably racist, as Nicholas Pell’s article was? There is none.
To be clear about it, Hot Press is not in favour of ‘No Platforming’. The fact that Germaine Greer was banned from speaking in a university because she said something which was considered contentious about trans people, who are born into one gender but identify as another, was and is absurd. We have to be willing to discuss and debate political and social perspectives.
We have never had any problem in Hot Press with interviewees expressing views with which we disagreed. The Hot Press interview aims to get behind bland expressions of belief and to winkle out the truth from people, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. We have interviewed priests, politicians and paramilitaries and had no compunction about giving space to exploring, as best we could, what the fuck they really think – and what the implications for the rest of us might be.
It would be a stupid and defeatist position for any editor to accept the dictats of the kind of people who insist, for example, that you shouldn’t ever entertain anyone who took up a gun and used it. We interviewed IRA volunteers. We quizzed Johnny Adair of the UFF. We went to Portlaoise Prison to speak to John Gilligan. And, at the height of the troubles, we spoke to Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, as well as David Ervine and John McMichael. As it happens, the interviews that we carried out with leading members of Provisional Sinn Féin were crucial to the start of the Peace Process.
No one is saying that journalism should be timid. Sometimes, the right thing to do editorially is to go into what is seen as the bear pit – and to risk offending readers in the process. We have always taken risks in Hot Press in terms of the language that is used and the subjects covered. And strong opinions are part of the journalistic stock-in-trade.
But the responsibility of every editor is to make a judgement, as well as he or she can, as to what (a) the intended effect of publishing a potentially contentious, controversial piece is; and (b) how badly that intended effect can go wrong – and what the fall-out might be.
There is no such things as an editor’s playbook that is going to cover every dilemma. But what you need to understand is that, while every decision is part of a cumulative process of defining what sort of a newspaper, magazine or publication you are working for, there are times when a decision not to publish on the basis that the views being expressed are toxic is the right one to make.
Looking at what is happening in the world right now, and the links of the self-styled ‘alt-right’ to white supremacism, and to fascism, the question for The Irish Times was and is: do we want to publish an article that might imply an endorsement of the views of people whose ideology has a clear lineage to Nazism?
I know what the answer would be if I had to ask myself the same question.
Running away from the reality that these ideas have gained a fresh currency is not the answer either. Instead, the onus is on everyone who believes in human rights and in the fundamental equality of people, no matter what their nationality, colour, race or religion might be, is to do everything possible to push dangerous, extremist, racist and militant religious views back to the margins.
Because if we don’t succeed in turning the tide, then the drift towards division, oppression and confrontation, and finally into war, might yet become unstoppable.