Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Sticks and Stones...

To dig what Saturday's riot tells us about our society, Jack, you also need to know that that while the average house price in Ireland is approximately €300,000, the average mortgage held is a mere €100,000. Bear with me.

Kevin Myers made much of the sectarianism of Saturday's events, attributing that vile motive not only to the particular mob in the instant mayhem, but to the denizens of the southern polity as a whole. If memory serves, he called the outbreak of disorder an anti-Protestant riot, a curiously ahistorical charge with not a little whiff of the 19th century and Punch magazine if not the Wars of the Three Kingdoms about it. I didn't know, for example, that Charlie Bird was a Protestant, but according to Kevin that was what particularly exercised his attackers in their assault when they called him an Orange bastard. It's a good thing Charlie was the loin fruit of happily married individuals, or Myers might have had it in for the "bastard" himself. While Kevin might well be technically correct about the facts of the assault, his implication is that a) we all knew Charlie Bird dug with the other foot and b) any one of us would have been delighted at the opportunity to give him a good Fenian hiding. (I have strong views on the notion of coterminous religious and national identity in Ireland, but that is the stuff of another post.)

However, as Richard Delevan can attest, Charlie was not the only journalist threatened or physically assaulted on Saturday and the reason for that is related, not to the endemic sectarian colour of the State but to the same circumstances which led to the murder of Veronica Guerin. Yes, there is a sectarian element in our society, and yes, the State in particular and the population in general have not always covered themselves in glory in embracing the minority denomination, but this is a republic and efforts have been made, belated and inadequate though they may occasionally have been. Protestants live happily among us, practice their religion, enjoy the benefits of the Block Grant in education and on occasion adorn with aplomb and elan the chambers of our bicameral parliament. Seymour Crawford, this means you.

It should also be remembered that there are natural contingencies in our history which divide loyalties and cloud issues. I, for example, find it poignant but intellectually stimulating and evocative of the essence of the human condition to stumble upon the graves in the grounds of St. Mary's Cathedral in Limerick of Right Honorable young O'Briens, killed flying Spitfires in the Battle of Britain, listed in Burke's Peerage but Dalcassian princes still; old Etonians, sure, but descendants in primogeniture of Brian Boruma himself, High King of all the Gaels.

Article 44 of our Constitution guarantees not only the free profession and practice of religion, but not to endow any religion in particular. And the State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status. Across the water, however, the heir to the throne - in whom is made flesh the will of the divine and through whom the realm itself finds its corporeal expression - is prohibited from contracting a marriage with a person of the Roman Catholic persuasion. The Prime Minister of the self-same sceptred isle appears to head up a Roman Catholic household, but has refrained from taking the plunge into that particular Jordan, perhaps on grounds of conscience (he has reportedly taken the RC sacraments), perhaps on foot of more temporal considerations.

The point is that Myers himself wrote in 1995 in respect of the hideous Parachute Regiment having watched being beaten himself in turn a 16 year old boy with whom he was attempting to assist a victim of that outfit's red-beret-wearing thugs:
What happened to that 16-year-old boy? Did he join the IRA, as I suspect I would have done if I had been him? Is he now dead in Milltown Cemetery? Did he find himself doing 15 years on terrorist charges because of what happened to him that night?
If Kevin could reach those conclusions and recognise the villainy of the Parachute Regiment, especially on Bloody Sunday, why can he not admit the possibility that certain of Saturday's protestors had engaged in a similar intellectual process in respect of the injustices of the past 30 years? I don't agree with them either by the way, but that's not really the point. Instead, Myers sought at the expense of the truth of what Saturday's riot has to tell us - and compels us to understand - to bolster others of his hobby-horse arguments. And that's not very cool.

The political fallout from Saturday's public disorder is disproportionate and unilluminating because of administrative failures on the part of the authorities rather than the inevitable result of a sectarian tendency in Irish society. The lesson we should learn involves the complacency and incompetence of the State at every level; senior Garda management who not only failed the public but their own officers whom they exposed to an unacceptable level of risk; the incompetence of the local authority which authorised the intended route through the O'Connell Street building site and the Government itself, to whose members it seems not to have occured that these were significant events with a potential public order dimension. Of course, there are intolerant, ignorant and short-sighted elements in our society, but we have a right to expect the Government to ensure not only that limb and property are protected but that the likes of Kevin Myers does not have the excuse to tar us all with the same brush at the expense of peace on our island.

The other lesson we need to learn from the riot is that we have complacently allowed to develop among us a poisonous and dangerously thuggish element because people with glass houses have generally kept them in leafy suburbs and away from any stones; unlike O'Connell Street. Gay Mitchell reacted on Six One directly after the riot, correctly to my mind, by referring to the fact that the behaviour we witnessed in the city centre on Saturday afternoon is the quotidian stay of those whom we have, by the corruption in our planning process and our disdain for the lower orders (despite republican pieties of a classless society) relegated to the peripheries of our socio-economic imagination. But they don't vote, or if they do, trouble the polls in insufficient numbers to attract the extensive attentions of the political classes. The lack of services, educational opportunity and diversity of experience and expectation unfortunately coincide with a reactionary drugs policy which has enriched and empowered criminal gangs who communicate their lack of values and inculcate in vulnerable, blank-slate youths a casual attitude to violence and authority the fruits of which we see in the throwing from point-blank range of a Molotov cocktail at a garda officer in broad daylight in the commercial and social centre of our capital city in full view of the media and a hundred mobile phones and digital cameras. Attacks on journalists also took place in an implicit assault on free speech and the right to know, very seriously compromising all our rights to help effect criminal activity. It is something you would scarce see in parts of the world in which order has broken down almost entirely, and of far greater concern than the fact that there are a couple of hundred bigots among us with whom the authorities, if motivated, could easily have dealt. If someone had asked you on Friday if you would see looting in Dublin city centre the next day, what would you have said?

We are all responsible for how the country is run. We vote, or don't vote, to allow the parties of complacency to enact their narrowly focused, populist, lobby-influenced agendas. In the same way that working class areas are left to deal with anti-social elements (I'm not in favour of ASBOs by the way), the underrepresentation of young people at the polls means that any party which attempts to address the difficulties of getting on the housing ladder will inevitably be taking approximately €200,000 (in equity) from middle-class, middle-aged people who do vote and can punish them at the polls and giving it to people who don't vote and affect very little various party political careers. To be honest, a politician would be mad to do it. We should remember that the Minister for Finance in office for the greater part of the Celtic tiger's development prescribed for its beneficiaries a rather vulgar, undignified existence about as far from Plato's examined life as it is possible to get without entering the same philosopher's cave and chaining oneself to one's fellows with one's back forever to the light. In the same way, we were all responsible too for the way in which the likes of Fr. Sean Fortune were permitted to conduct their repulsive abuses as the rest of us faffed about, unwilling to upset the status quo and deal with the undignified hassle which would inevitably result.

But the chickens have come home to roost. It is no longer the working poor who have to deal with the consequences of the nihilism the rest of us have incubated among them by our neglect, complacency and corruption. Imagine wanting desperately to join the tygger world and leaving your west-Finglas, terraced abode to go to work only to find that for the umpteenth time your car has been stolen, joy-ridden and burnt out. A police officer might easily have been killed on Saturday as a journalist has been killed before. It was not for want of trying that one was not. And that should terrify us more than a few embittered, misguided flagwavers whose greatest wish is to fight and die for an Ireland which never really existed.


Blogger EWI said...

I didn't know, for example, that Charlie Bird was a Protestant, but according to Kevin that was what particularly exercised his attackers in their assault when they called him an Orange bastard.

Who knew? It's the sort of thing that wouldn't even attract mention in a bio piece these days.

8:37 p.m.  
Anonymous Fergus said...

Thanks for the excellent comment and analysis which greatly aids this expatriate Irishman in understanding the riots in Dublin and allows me to do a "compare and contrast" with the riots in the French suburbs of last October/November.

There are some interesting parallels. I see that the press in Ireland talked about how the riots were "planned in advance" and coordinated by some dark malevolent force. The evidence put forth: some SMS messaging among the rioters...

The French press got into a similar tizzy after the Minister for the Interior (the diminutive but dangerous Nicolas Sarkozy) hinted at similar dark forces behind the French riots. Some weeks later an official investigation into the riots could find no evidence of such top-down coordination, but those results were little publicised by the press.

Just shows how easy it is to indulge in sloppy thinking and to focus the anger on some "bad guys" who are manipulating feckless youth and causing them to riot. It is much harder to look in the mirror and to ask: what is it in our society that causes such spontaneous, grass-roots outbreaks of rage from the underclass?

France totally failed to look in the mirror after their riots. I fear Ireland will do the same.

11:22 a.m.  
Blogger Copernicus said...

The press hasn't been covering itself in glory of late Fergus. A good example was a recent murder/suicide over a land dispute in which the press reported a load of cobblers that could only have been known to the men involved, both of whom were dead. As the facts began to emerge do you think the press drew attention to the sensationalist rubbish they'd previously printed? Quite.

Probably a good blog post in that actually.

5:47 p.m.  

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