Off with everyone’s heads! Give us head space please — and proportion

The default response to every controversy is killing the kind of public discourse we need, writes Fergus Finlay
Off with everyone’s heads! Give us head space please — and proportion

“A CAT may look at a king,’ said Alice. “I’ve read that in some book, but I don’t remember where.”

“Well, it must be removed,” said the King very decidedly, and he called the queen, who was passing at that moment, “My dear! I wish you would have this cat removed!” The queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking round. ‘I’ll fetch the executioner myself,’ said the King eagerly, and he hurried off.

The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland was, shall we say, a somewhat intemperate person. She didn’t go in for considered or thoughtful responses — her kneejerk reaction was always the same. She wasn’t like the priests on Craggy Island whose most aggressive posture was a sign saying ‘Down with this sort of thing’. No, there were no half measures for the Queen of Hearts.

That’s us now, isn’t it. Off with his (or her) head – that’s our default position in relation to more or less anything. It’s how we deal with all difficulties, great or small. It was the Garda Commissioner at the start of last week, then Kevin Duffy, President Michael D Higgins by the weekend. If this keeps up there’ll be no-one left to behead.

I find myself wondering when I open Monday’s newspapers who will be next.

Let’s sack Joe Schmidt immediately because Ireland only won three of its four autumn internationals. Off with his head, I say. How dare the Irish team make us nearly have collective heart attacks in the Aviva stadium on Saturday, before they finally pulled off one of the great Irish victories.

Instead, of course, I find one of the newspapers leading with the appalling disturbing news that Enda Kenny has used gmail. The shock. The horror. Apparently he replied to constituency representations from a Fine Gael TD without using the official government server. What next? Will correspondence between our Taoiseach and Russian Federation president, Vladimir Putin, be fatally compromised? How could he possibly send e-mails about “official” Fine Gael business on gmail?

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s getting close to the time that we all need to get a grip. I took part in a radio discussion the other night where the presenter (I hope with a twinkle in his eye) accused the head of SIPTU, Jack O’Connor, of “putting a gun” to the head of the unions that had been calling for Kevin Duffy’s resignation. Clearly, O’Connor has to go as well, for having the temerity to defend Kevin Duffy’s fair-mindedness.

Let’s have a quick look at the incidents that have caused this latest outbreak of “off with his head”. And let’s start with poor old Michael D. For most people on the left, Fidel Castro was an icon. With a rag-tag army of volunteers, he overthrew a brutal dictator, who had himself come to power in a military coup and had operated a corrupt and repressive regime that had virtually destroyed Cuba. Castro developed a Marxist republic, perhaps the most unique in the world, where education and healthcare became core public policy issues. He also ran a one-party state, where dissent was not tolerated and freedom of the press was extremely limited. There is evidence of torture in some of the things written about the Castro regime.

So it’s not, by any means, an mixed picture. But I believe that Castro’s place in history will be viewed in more positive than negative lights. The thousands who fled Cuba in the end, and who hate Castro to this day, were not ultimately fleeing from repression, but from economic hardship, a hardship in the main caused by the United States determination to starve Cuba into submission.

So when Castro dies, our president, himself a man of the 60s who had always been moved by the idealistic side of Castro’s character and struggle, issues a press release that describes him as a giant (which he was), while noting that economic and social achievement in Cuba went hand in hand with restrictions in civil society.

And the media goes mad, led by Ronán Mullins and some crowd called Renua, of whom we all have a distant memory. Fawning, offensive, wholly inappropriate — they were among the descriptions. According to David Quinn on twitter, “Michael D eulogised a dictator with many dead victims. That’s the bottom line”. Oh well, he’d better go then. Right away.

And as for Kevin Duffy. Last week he was speaking at a conference. He’s the head of the body examining public service pay. It’s now pretty well established that in some remarks to that conference he was attending, he defended the right of public servants to take strike action, and made the point that introducing repressive legislation wouldn’t stop it. As an example he mentioned the gardaí, whose proposed strike action didn’t have the support of existing legislation and could, he said, be seen as mutiny by some people.

Suddenly he’s in the middle of a controversy in which his independence and fairness are called into question by the garda representative associations (whose right to strike he had defended!). His position is untenable, apparently. Nobody could possibly have any trust in him. Ministers and colleagues are door-stepped all over the place, and put under pressure to declare their confidence.

This is a man who has never operated in the limelight. But he has put in a long career, first as a defender of working people in the good old days when that’s what trade unionism was all about, and then as a vindicator of rights during a long career in the Labour Court. And suddenly, because of one remark taken utterly out of context, the cries of “off with his head” are all over the place.

The Garda Commissioner, Noirín O’Sullivan, must be getting used to it by now. She’s just been through another week of it over the fact that she too (like the Taoiseach) occasionally uses gmail to contact people. And that’s just the latest episode.

Unlike some of the other instances of “off with their heads” however, there is some evidence that Noirín O’Sullivan has been the victim of a pretty well-orchestrated campaign to do her in. It doesn’t seem to be possible for her to say or do anything that isn’t immediately leaked, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the leaking is almost always done by other gardaí. They seemed to be lining up last week, for instance, to tell RTÉ’s assiduous security correspondent that they too had received e-mails on an inappropriate server.

Maybe her main crime is that she’s a woman in a macho world. Whatever it is, I hope she withstands the pressure. She’s a breath of fresh air — and could do a lot more if she was given a break.

As for the rest of us, we need a break too, and some sense of proportion about all this stuff. “Off with their heads”, as the default response to every controversy — especially when it’s amplified a thousand times by the poisonous side of social media — is not just wildly disproportionate, it’s killing the kind of public discourse we need.

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