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When I began to study politics formally, populism was rarely mentioned in Ireland. Clientelism – the reduction of citizens to mere clients of politicians – was a frequent concern of those who cherished democracy in its participative, republican sense. In particular it was conventional to argue that our voting system, PRSTV, encouraged clientelism. The reasoning was clear. Multi-seat meant that our larger parties tended to have more than one candidate per constituency. On what basis could these candidates, party colleagues, compete? Clearly they could not compete on policy or ideology, so they competed by offering constituency “services” – activity “on the ground”: clinics, advice, support etc. In other words they substituted the safety of activity on the ground for meaningful politics.

Today – apart from ideological surges in party support to, say, the Greens – clientelism is the norm. Being “active on the ground” is accepted as necessary to election. Now, no one at all is saying that clientelism is utterly incompatible with real discursive, republican politics. However, it is generally accepted that election is next to impossible without groundwork.

An aspiring election candidate would have to recognise that the route to success is by way of putting themselves around and convincing citizens to recognise them as one of the people who campaigns and delivers locally, and offers advice. A potential candidate would try to identify – even generate – local issues that were specifically theirs and they’d probably get upset when inevitably a rival would “steal” their initiative or issue.

The idea is to offer service, create obligations and accumulate loyal clients. There is not the slightest hint of criticism here; it’s merely recognition of perhaps the overwhelming majority’s understanding of the operation of the Irish political system. The point is that clientelism isn’t just a way for party colleagues to compete; it’s the way almost everyone competes.

There are of course hold-outs who want discursive, republican politics – who would never make a voting decision purely on the basis of groundwork – and importantly there are candidates who while striving to work within or make the best of a clientelist system, also want a republic. There’s no antagonism between these two.

The antagonism arises from conservatives, those so in favour of the clientelist system that they want to prevent it being criticised. They tend to respond to thoughtful comment with a range of dismissive abuse, e.g. “elitist”, “academic”, “out of touch”, “unelected”, “shut up and go knocking on doors” etc.

The old Irish clientelist approach comes right up to date when it is realised that Brexit was won by telling people that whatever their issue, it will be solved by a vote for us. This is the point at which old fashioned democrats become very worried about the future but if they say so, they will greatly annoy active clientelists and those who would reduce politics to an electoral game.


** Local Area Representative (LAR) is party recognition that an individual will be an election candidate.

There is a startling lacuna at the core of reactions to the abuse of a young staff member at UCD. Emphasis is on the system, while there is emptiness where ordinary people would expect to find personal integrity.

All the talk is of systems, organisations, policies and procedures, culture, training etc. Unfortunately it’s a familiar type of talk in Ireland where any curse-of-God excuse or fig leaf will do to avoid holding anyone – any real, live, breathing person – responsible.

Personal integrity is an ordinary matter

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone gets through life without occasionally having their integrity tested. The price to be paid, however, varies with circumstances. When faced with colleagues or superiors who accept wrongdoing, the consequences of standing up for what is right, decent and honest can range from appalling to trivial. There are vanishingly rare situations where showing integrity might risk death, imprisonment or exile and in such a situation fear unto dishonesty is understandable and forgivable; but that’s it, that’s the extent of excuses, because in most situations the risk is small. In truth the most common motivation for failing to act or speak with integrity is ambition for career advancement.

It is true too that in our times a calculating, professional, strategic way of thinking tends to be lauded and this provides a ready cover for acting without reference to good or bad, but integrity remains an everyday thing.

There are ordinary people who behave properly when their integrity is tested. They are rarely dealing with matters very serious but they speak up and/or act according to what is right – either morally or for the good of the organisation that employs them. In the short term they accept that they will anger the boss and their career may stall. In the long-term they may never recover that impetus for promotion but on the other hand they may come to be seen as having integrity, precisely what is required in a more senior position. Moreover, while it is unfortunately true that chancers lacking in integrity often make career progress, it is imperative that when they are found out, i.e. found to be “the wrong stuff”, they be required to go.

Now, let’s be quite clear. A person who abandons their integrity for the hope of career advancement reveals a paradox: They progress by being precisely the kind of person who is unsuited to a position of trust or of any importance.

Let’s now be brutally clear. We are not talking about just any organisation or institution; we are talking about a university, an institution in which citizens expect to find the highest standards. A person lacking in integrity should not be working there. Well OK, there are probably some mundane posts where integrity might not be of overriding importance but there can be no question about this: management posts cannot be held by other than people of the highest integrity.

Managerial responsibility

In the current controversy, with the exception of the offender, personal responsibility has not been mentioned. Indeed the status and collegiality of university has been exploited to ensure that individual blame does not feature in discussions. It is bizarrely implied that normal structural obligations just don’t exist, that despite management pay rates, line management doesn’t exist, that a misbehaving staff member is just a colleague answerable to no one, i.e. has no line manager and so on up the hierarchy. Clearly this is nonsense.

The scandal at UCD involved an experienced lecturer – an older man – repeatedly intruding into the life of a young woman colleague (a former student of his) with his romantic or sexual fantasy. Something blunt needs to be said: in any organisation a manager with a shred of decency and personal integrity would – and usually does – act decisively on finding out that one of their staff is an offender of this sort. There would be no prevarication, no talk of procedures, lack of training in dealing with such matters or any other deflection. A responsible person would act and sort out the details later. No other course is remotely acceptable.

Now it may be that the immediate manager was explicitly instructed by a more senior manager to take no action. That would attenuate and spreadthe personal responsibility.

The point is that in all the talk prompted by this matter, attention is confined to process, policy, procedure, structure – even culture, while a set of well-paid and high status managers is ignored. That’s just not on – either in terms of justice or in terms of management into the future. If it is the case that those in command played about within a system rather than acting immediately to take care of a young member of staff, they are not the people to manage a university. This needs to be addressed as surely as any redevelopment of procedures.

A closing point
If those involved in reform at UCD are adamant that the integrity of managers will not be questioned, then at the very least they must ensure that integrity will feature explicitly in their reformed system. They should demand that recruitment and promotion seek to attract candidates with integrity. If a person cannot speak up in the face of an overbearing superior or a mistaken consensus, then they are either too timid or too lacking in integrity to be appointed. How about: “All candidates for a management position must detail and be prepared to discuss instances in their career when their integrity was tested.” The existence of interview boards obliged to explore a candidate’s integrity would go some way to weeding out assenters, and to promoting management values that are in keeping with the questioning culture expected at a university.

It is an abuse of an entire age category and of ordinary language to describe the scenes at the Berlin “pub” in Dublin’s Dame Street as young people partying. Moreover, the entire debacle was essentially caused by official corruption of the licensing laws.

What the pictures showed was hooligans and hooliganism. It has become routine to refer to ordinary loutish behaviour as “partying”; “party” has become a verb for that purpose. Everyone is aware of this behaviour. It’s the sort of messing that holiday makers try to avoid and it attracts police attention in continental resorts. There is no reason why young people or party goers should identify with this or fear being mired in it.

Let’s be absolutely clear: the video footage showed what louts like to do on a night out.

It could be argued that louts are entitled to do their thing in private and that Berlin facilitated them. That would have been a persuasive civil-liberties argument in pre-covid times. Now doing their thing even in private presents a danger to public health and they are required in solidarity to stop.

There is also the strange matter of Berlin’s drinks licence. The strangeness lies in the decisions of public servants and official corruption of a regulatory system. As the LVA have been at pains to point out, Berlin is not a licensed pub. It is licensed as a restaurant and theatre. Clearly it is neither of those things. Sure, it serves food but under a sign advertising vodka and red bull as soup of the day. Sure, it has a raised dais in the basement on which someone may have performed but that’s it. The point is that citizens grasp ordinary concepts like restaurant and theatre. It is wrong that public servants be allowed to make a nonsense of that ordinary meaning and undermine law by pretending the existence of a theatre. Yes, you’ve guessed it: Berlin can have late night bar extensions.

If alcoholic drink licencing has become risible, let it be abolished and let anyone who wants to sell drink do so. However, if licensing is to be retained let it be made meaningful again. That would be an opportune time to clear out the public servants who turned it into a joke or who lacked integrity and merely cooperated with the joke.

Until there is a vaccine or the number of new cases has fallen to near zero, everyone has to evaluate risk. Risk, however, cannot be divorced from consequences. That is to say, a high risk of some trivial outcome (Say, cutting one’s finger) is clearly not as important as a low risk of some life-threatening consequence (Say, catching plague).

I’ve been quite the student of Covid since early 2020 but especially so since the lock-down. It’s been apparent for months that because it’s new, little is known about this disease. As expected, when new or different knowledge became available, discussion changed and so too did the sensible advice.*

The most consistent piece of information is that it’s relatively difficult to become infected in open well-aerated space, i.e. out of doors while keeping one’s distance. So then, here’s a list of things that I commonly did and enjoyed in my pre-Covid life and which I will not be doing for the foreseeable future.

Attending the gym

Travelling by bus, train or aircraft


Eating in restaurants and coffee bars

Going to the pub

Going to Richmond Park to support my team

Walking crowded streets

Having visitors to my home

Here’s hoping it ends soon so that I can relax into my old habits.


* There are many who cannot cope with this uncertainty and they’ve been doing their nuts especially on social media. Theirs is a political position; they want certainty, strong leaders and as little information as possible. They want their lives to flow without being confronted by pro and con arguments. Covid denies them the very possibility of such living but there’s no shortage of soothing, lying potential leaders.

I want to make just two points in relation to the Irish TV series “Normal People” and today’s normality.

Firstly, I was struck by the nastiness among friends and acquaintances throughout but particularly by the portrayal of the school in the early episodes. Yes, there might be an attempt to say that school cruelty was ever present but this is of a different order. I couldn’t shake from my mind the newspaper reports of the school in Leixlip which was at the centre of the Ana Kriegel murder. It is disturbing to think that the school in the TV series might be the norm, that the young people are broken into shifting, mutually antagonistic in and out groups who seem to hate one another and who are on the look out for a person they might destroy, not because of anything in particular but because … well, that’s the way things are. Five years in such a place would be a hellish experience. No parent with the remotest clue about the nature of the place would send their child there to endure that, to be schooled in perverse ways and to emerge most assuredly damaged.

Secondly, the young adults – and not merely the main characters – emerge with a showy sophistication but very limited options. In this dramatisation upward mobility – getting out and getting on – is still a possibility but it has become a narrow, insecure and finely determined course. The option of settling and having children while young is not available now. Maturity and meaningful adult independence must indefinitely be deferred. It can seem like independence, like they want to live a little and see the world first. In reality they are trapped by the economics and insecurity of our times, and by a pressure to conform to a pattern of living which includes living abroad – even when they don’t want it.

Here’s a tweet posted by Gemma O’Doherty in April 2020:


Psychopath, Bill Gates, whose vaccines have destroyed the lives of millions of children, is embedded in the Irish Deep State. If you consent to #LockdownIreland much longer, you won’t be allowed to leave your home without receiving a syringe of toxins. #COVID2019

Reading slowly, it becomes apparent that it is a very dense message. It’s carefully crafted to push a lot of buttons. There are two important groups who unfortunately will not give it the attention it deserves. Firstly, thinking people are likely to dismiss it out of hand as raving lunacy. Secondly, leftists wedded to the idea that fascism is the ever present threat which it is their mission to oppose will shoehorn it into that simplistic world view. It is of course raving lunacy and fascism continues to lurk in filthy corners but that should not prevent taking such messages seriously.

There is a constituency waiting for that message. They believe its parts, and the whole is familiar and credible to them. They will be encouraged that smart people oppose them and that socialists might think them nazis. Bluntly, the people at whom this message was aimed regard socialism, other thoughtful approaches, education, expertise, science etc. as establishment and they are profoundly anti-establishment.

The temptation is to view them sympathetically as the left-behind, the people whose hopes and ambitions vanished while a management, professional, university-educated elite settled into good jobs. The new elite offered to those left behind little more than a haughty explanation of a changed world to which they must submit – even though they have no future in that world. There’s a twofold problem with this approach. Not all of the left-behind are credulous anti-establishment. Moreover, many who are certainly not left behind are also credulous and anti-establishment (CAE).

If CAE is not explained by social class, there are two other approaches. One comes from psychology; it’s popular and has explanatory force. The idea is to look at what kind of personal satisfaction is gained from being CAE. A number of answers emerge but a popular one is that being CAE makes a person feel special, part of an insider group. There is little point in presenting here an overview of what psychologists have discovered about the satisfactions of being CAE as personal satisfactions reveal nothing about the social or political significance of what has become a political constituency.

A better approach might be to liberate CAE from its current manifestation, its views on present concerns, and look at it instead as a movement which has developed over years. It is difficult to decide on a starting point. There is a temptation to go back to the early days of mass democracy because democrats then were worried about franchise enlargement to include those unable or unwilling to reason and likely to fall victim to manipulators, demagogues.


A second temptation arrives back at the same period but relates to a quite different story. This is the temptation to find the roots of CAE in esoteric or spiritual movements which, though they claim descent from ancient times and practices, seem to blossom in the hey day of theosophy, the likes of Madam Blavatsky and, let’s call it, a romantic mysticism.

It’s possible, however, to locate a more recent starting point. Just a few decades ago the Mind, Body, Spirit (MBS) movement developed. This saw significant numbers of people turning to beliefs, theories, cures, therapies for which there was no conventional explanation or evidence. Indeed the lack of evidence seems to be the main attraction and basic line of defence. As with today’s 5-G conspiracists, their obdurate stronghold is the rejection of all conventional evidence.

Sections of bookshops were set up to present this arrant nonsense and to serve the market for it. Conventional media reported it as if it were true. Health insurers paid for bogus therapies which their medical directors knew provided no medical benefit. (They still do.) State schools opened their doors to evening courses which their management knew or should have known had no educational benefit. Educational awards bodies sacrificed their credibility to recognise bogus disciplines.

What appeared in the 90s was a body of people large enough to support a thriving market. What these people had in common was a willingness to believe in powers, systems and cures for which there is absolutely no evidence or it might have to be said in order to humour them, for which there is no conventional evidence. The list is staggeringly long but includes reflexology, reiki, homeopathy, numerology, angel therapy, magnet therapy and on it goes … A comprehensive list is not essential to the argument here.


The point can be summarised thus. A believer in homeopathy should have no difficulty accepting that 5-G caused the Coronavirus for two reasons. Firstly, the evidential basis for both is equally absent. Secondly, adherents of both are actively promoting lies during this pandemic.

It has to be said that not all believers subscribe to the full range of beliefs. Many a believer in, say, Reiki or the power of orgonite might reject the notion of the deep state, the Illuminati and the Lizard People along with 5-G myths but that doesn’t change the fact that they believe something for which there is no evidence or, oops, no conventional evidence. These limited believers (LB) therefore actively contribute to the acceptance or normalisation of beliefs which have no foundation.

It’s important not to exaggerate the influence of light-hearted, entertaining interests in MBS but it has to be said that it just isn’t like an interest in science fiction or dragons, which participants know perfectly well doesn’t make truth claims. Belief in forces beyond discussion, however, does nothing to promote the ordinary conversations which are basic to society. This then is the LBs’ small contribution; they’ve helped normalise a refusal to engage in ordinary debate. Bluntly, they’ve helped make it acceptable to treat seriously views for which there is no justification.

There is now worldwide, accepted in local schools, bookshops, libraries, crossing socio-economic divides from poor to rich, from little education to highly educated, from menial employment to prosperous professionals, a huge constituency waiting to be addressed. They are the CAE. To gain the support of a fraction of them would make all the difference to a political candidate, movement or party.

The existence of this constituency is not a secret. They are real people; they have votes. They are there to be addressed but not in any conventional sense, for they are not amenable to argument. Apart from the possibility of a leader who shares their beliefs, they are there to hear lies. In truth it’s not unlike a lot of political campaigning in which a charlatan identifies people’s issues and concerns, tells them they share their concerns and asks for their vote or offers to lead them. It’s simple political marketing.

The tweet at the top of this piece is an all-out play for their support by pushing a lot of buttons at once but also in Ireland there has been a softer approach, a mere signalling to them that they are not being dismissed, that at least some politicians have what the CAE call an “open mind”, that they might be prepared to do their “own research”, i.e. believe something beyond what the scientific “establishment” treats as evidence. This softly, softly approach is in evidence when SF representatives and uncharacteristically one of the leaders of the Social Democrats show themselves open to the possibility that there really is a 5-G conspiracy.

Journalism and the political establishment have belatedly woken up to the dangers of lies, conspiracy theories and mass delusions. It was recognised as a problem to be tackled firstly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal illustrated that the GAE could be mobilised and secondly, when coping with the Covid-19 pandemic was being undermined by widespread beliefs. It wasn’t simply that communication masts were vandalised and workers threatened by activists opposed to radio waves but people groomed on anti-vax, anti-government plots were prepared to believe that there is no virus, that it is all a grand plot by the “establishment” to control the “people”.

What is to be done? Assuming it is not too late, democrats must resist but democrats have not been forthright against un-reason. Journalism is at last seeing the danger, talking about fact-checking and discussing their role in support of the public sphere but they are not being entirely frank and there is no sign of change. They do not acknowledge the part they’ve played in popularising, normalising crazy beliefs and practices. Suffice it to mention Andrew Wakefield and the platform later given to those opposed to HPV vaccination. Mention too should be made of impartial reporting of nonsense or even conferring normality by way of presenting it as balance to conventional science. The covid epidemic has led RTE, the Irish state broadcaster, to say explicitly that the 5-G myth is untrue. However, there is no intention to say that of anything else – no matter how bizarre.

If journalism is not prepared to stand against unreason, that leaves just ordinary participant citizens; there’s no one else. They are thus required to question not merely in social media but in everyday life, to be prepared to ask a family member to stop pushing nonsense. Moreover, they are to be asked to speak up in this way not only when their relative, friend, neighbour or acquaintance is coming on strong with fantastic and dangerous conspiracy theories but when they talk of a recreational interest in the likes of reiki, chakras, energy channels etc. because that’s where the LB support lies. That’s a lot of – perhaps far too much – activism and courage to ask of ordinary citizens but then the context is that pompous guff despises their ordinary discussions and needs to be chased away.

Well, it’s happened before so it’s hardly surprising that we’re returning to consideration of “hard choices” and “austerity”. All the signs are that the established left will again play a part in ensuring that debate and courses of action will be limited, and will help to guarantee “austerity” while striking an “anti-austerity” pose.

What they most assuredly will not do is ask, “Are there other hard choices that we might consider, choices that might be unthinkable outside of a crisis?” or agree, “Of course public spending will have to be cut in order to preserve a functioning state.” and then ask, “How can public spending be cut in such a way that it primarily affects the rich?”

The rich? Deciding who is rich will always be controversial but something blunt can be said.

The majority of the rich work a neat trick. They exclude themselves by defining the rich as belonging to the 1%. Then for the majority of the rich the obvious way to preserve their privileged position is to say, take from the 1%. That’s fine but their corollary, that nothing must change until the 1% are tackled, is not fine. It’s evasive nonsense of course but oddly enough it is generally supported by the left.

Ordinary people – those on low incomes or the average industrial wage or the median income or even a fair bit above that—would not come to an easy agreement on what constitutes rich but it’s safe to suggest that all would regard as rich someone having an income of 150k p.a. The majority would regard an income of 100k as qualifying. Many would go lower. The point is that ordinary people think that rich reaches far lower than that 1%.

The established left disagrees. They will not interrogate the terms “hard choices” and “austerity”. Why? Because exploring, then listing, an expanded range of hard choices would draw anti-austerity activists into a real assault on a structure of inequality which is within reach of change. It’s much more agreeable to target the 1%, the banks, corporations, tax exiles etc. Indeed any curse of God thing can be targeted as long as the structure of relative advantage is maintained.

It’s likely that there are many hard choices beyond the conservative ritual but how about this for just ONE extra hard choice: let’s choose to place a ceiling on public service pay such as would achieve a required saving in public expenditure. Howls! Why the howls? Because it wouldn’t be … wait for it … fair. Ah, “fairness”, a notion most suited to operating within an established set of rules. It’s the word used to maintain relative advantage. It’s a refuge for conservatism.

There is too a variation on fairness and it is expressed in a self-absorbed take on equality. It defends inequality in public sector pay by saying that change cannot be applied to public sector workers in isolation, that nothing should happen until incomes in the private sector can be similarly treated. As a form of argument this is often encountered in a very different realm; it is used against putting war criminals on trial. In this regard it goes like this: no war criminal should face charges unless all face charges because to do otherwise would be …yes, unfair. Whether it is used against reforming income inequality or protecting monsters, it is a bizarre, conservative argument, deployed to prevent progress.

Then there’s what might be termed, decile defence. It has become routine to segment the range of income into deciles. The implication is that a top income ten times the bottom is normal, established. Moreover, not everyone in that top segment is a mere ten times; it includes much greater multiples. Uncritical discussion is how normalisation works. When a leftist deals with – discusses in any way – a ten tier ordering of income and does so without a word of criticism, they aid its normalisation; they take up a conservative position.

There is no question of saying that the establishment of decent or sane multiples is a panacea. What is odd is the degree to which anti-austerity by opposing all cuts has become conservative; it defends the incomes of people who are among the top earners in the country.

The Covid-19 public health emergency has pushed Irish broadcasters into a significant, perhaps fundamental, change in reporting. The system which underpins coverage of political controversy is dictated by the Broadcasting Acts. In essence the requirement is be fair to what might be termed stakeholders and to provide balance. In other words, editorialising is not permitted. That was the stable, well-understood practice for decades.

No matter how unproven, unscientific or wacky a view, if it was held by someone notable or could be used as counterbalance to create controversy, it would be presented without comment.

The idea that a view could be marked out as suspect, wrong or even dangerous nonsense was foreign to the practice of reporting. The 5-G conspiracy theory in a time of crisis for public health changed that.

Now, for years 5-G has been a staple among believers in alternative therapies/medicine, a state or world government or “big pharma” trying to dominate, poison or exploit “the people”, through vaccines, fluoridated water, chemicals sprayed from aircraft (chem trails) and a whole range of other strange fantasies.

5-G refers to a fifth generation of mobile communication operating at a higher frequency than earlier systems. The higher frequency reduces range and therefore to achieve coverage many more sites with aerials are required.

Electro-magnetic radiation (i.e. radio signals) or non-ionising radiation has long been confused with ionising or “atomic” radiation and this confusion has caused unnecessary fears.* Because some who have stoked these fears are qualified in science, it is implausible that they do not understand; it is more likely that their purpose is exploitation. In other words, 5-G is the latest in a long line of scare stories but it took a truly bizarre turn when its adherents linked it to the coronavirus outbreak. They tried to have people believe that the appearance of the virus in Wuhan coincided with and was caused by the switch-on of a 5-G system. The story spread among the credulous and scared them to the extent that they began to attack communication towers and the technical staff who attended to them. In the middle of a pandemic this was getting out of hand and something had to be done. In communication terms the public had to be informed that this was pure bunkum.

The national broadcaster, RTE, acted. The 5-G conspiracy theory was explicitly labelled as untrue. Three points need to be made at this stage. Firstly, RTE acted correctly. Secondly, a complainant might be successful in saying that RTE was wrong to editorialise and in breach of a statutory obligation. In the circumstances it is unlikely that anyone will complain. Thirdly and crucially, the decision to say that the 5-G conspiracy was untrue could not have been based on new data. To be blunt about this, if the 5-G conspiracy was untrue in April 2020, it was no less untrue in, say, April 2019.

This amounts to a troubling realisation: that a health emergency forced a national broadcaster to tell the truth. It is of course entirely possible that the causal link was not so direct: that until the emergency the broadcaster did not know the truth. In other words, that controversy during the emergency prompted or forced the broadcaster to check the veracity of the years-old 5-G myth. There is no need to pursue truth any further down this philosophical rabbit hole because a much wider problem for political communication has been opened to examination.

The conventional view among journalists and broadcasters now is that social media are the font of all nonsense and that public discourse requires dependable, professional journalists who will seek out, interrogate and tell the truth. Given that it took an emergency on the scale of a pandemic for news from just one source in Ireland to break with convention, find and tell the truth, it is clearly not the case that social media have a monopoly on spreading nonsense.

If the 5-G lie were were an isolated issue, nothing further need be said but that’s not the case. Journalism and broadcasting has a long history of neutral reporting of lies. Anti-vax is a case in point. In the late 90s Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a bogus study linking MMR vaccine and autism. Eventually he was forced to retract and he was struck off but not before mass media reported it extensively. It would have been reasonable to expect that his disgrace would signal the end of such nonsense but it merely signalled the beginning of a movement which has been damaging public health vaccination programmes for years. Serious illnesses like measles, once thought eradicated, have begun to reappear and cause deaths. In Ireland the proposal to vaccinate young people against HPV was resisted. This anti-vax movement gained ground when mass media reported utterly unproven claims of vaccine damage as if they were true. It left a suspicion that journalists and broadcasters were unable to distinguish between causation and correlation. The public health vaccination programme was saved when a dying young woman whom the vaccine would likely have protected, spoke out. Nevertheless, anti-vax remains and thrives. Even the disgraced Andrew Wakefield has been re-cycled as a media spokesperson.

Here’s the point. Support for wicked harmful nonsense did not originate in social media or even with the internet. Much of it predates social media. The public sphere was poisoned by professional reporting.

Broadcasters may choose to hide behind the legal obligations to avoid editorialising but they could – if competent in the most basic science – have questioned, investigated, found the truth and at least avoided reporting harmful nonsense.

The decision finally to label the 5-G scare as untrue merely highlights the extent of the problem. The truth claims of homeopathy are at least as daft and its practitioners have been claiming to cure or help to cure covid-19. There is no indication that RTE or anyone else will label homeopathy untrue and that observation can be extended to a whole range “miracle” cancer cures and much else.

Yes, the Irish Broadcasting Acts may need amendment but what is at issue is more fundamental. It goes to the core of what citizens might expect of their broadcasters and particularly their national broadcaster. It is entirely reasonable that Broadcasters be required to have both the interest and the technical ability to identify arrant nonsense. It is out of the question that myths, fantasies and general raiméis be passively reported as if they were true.


* Radiation is said to be ionising when it has sufficient power to crate ions, i.e. to shift electrons out of an atom. That power is related to the type of radiation and there is no evidence that electromagnetic radiation (radio signals) has this effect. The suspicion that it might is related to a paper published by The International Agency for Research Into Cancer, a part of the World Health Organisation. The paper refers to a particular cancer, to extensive use of a mobile phone held to the ear, and is clear that it is not making a finding of fact. (The paper can be accessed here: Moreover, it was published in 2011 when all mobile phones were held to the ear. It might be worth adding that ionising radiation is not bad; modern medicine in the form of X-rays etc. relies on it.

Archivists are concerned that the effective lifetime of a considerable amount of on-line record may be as brief as 90 days. Their response to this may be at the limits of what can be done or it may be conditioned by their own dated approach or both. The response in Ireland is an attempt to grab and store the content of web sites. These websites are the traditional sources of information (state agencies and the like) who now update regularly, in many cases making their earlier record impossible to retrieve. Clearly this is work worth doing but it may be missing some of the most influential comment which will be denied to tomorrow’s historians and give a wholly misleading impression of what happened.

A considerable amount – perhaps the bulk – of organised comment and influence has been occurring on Facebook and other social media. That is to say, it does not appear on any website. In April 2020 in Ireland racist, nationalist and anti-government sentiment was mobilised behind shared scare stories – lies – about possibly covid-carrying passengers being waved through the ports or forming close contact bus queues. Now, it would be impossible to have an understanding of this period in Ireland without consideration of this activity and yet it is not being archived. Indeed, it may not practicable or even possible to do so.

In Ireland there is a problem at the very core of the legislation and guidelines that govern broadcast coverage of public controversy. Despite their public service objectives, the Irish regulations are not overtly concerned with what citizens require. For that reason reform will have to involve a basic change, overturning the familiar practices of decades.

The difficulty with regulation as it stands now is that it serves those who appear on radio and TV and helps keep producers and journalists out of conflict with these contributors. In brief it could be put like this: if a broadcaster is fair to public figures and institutions, and is balanced in offering a rival perspective, everyone will be content. That “everyone”, however, does not refer to the audience, to citizens.

Now, broadcasters are highly competitive and commercial, and with on-line media ever increasing in importance, they will become more so. Whether state funded or not, they seek to maximise audience numbers. Their tendency merely to be commercial is constrained by a set of legal public service obligations. One of those obligations ensures that public controversy receives coverage, i.e. that news and current affairs feature strongly in their output. In other words, it is long accepted that coverage of public controversy is a public good which broadcasters must supply.

That coverage in turn has to be commercial, and in two senses. Firstly, public controversy is not the most obvious crowd pleaser. Secondly, there is nothing democratic about a small audience and there is a drive – while staying within the regulations – to attract as large an audience as possible.

The question that arises is who are the audience for public controversy. The easy answer is the Demos, all the citizens of the state. The difficulty of course is that many citizens are not interested while others are very interested and demanding. This reflects a traditional dilemma for public service broadcasters. Going back almost a century there is the requirement to achieve a viable content mix of entertainment, information and education. Much later came the realisation that there was a demand for two very different types of news service: one comprehensive for participative or republican citizens and another mainly entertaining but ringing an alarm bell if anything really serious was happening – for passive or liberal citizens who didn’t want to be bothered by politics.

It might be interesting to speculate how it came about that with everyone so aware that there was a dilemma concerning different audiences, the obligations for the treatment of public controversy came to focus so much on the establishment: the public figures and institutions, and the broadcasting/journalism profession. That, however, will have to be work for another day.

There is no feeble, uncontroversial way to put this: It is certainly undemocratic, if not completely ludicrous, to base public service obligations in relation to public discourse on the requirements of spokespersons and broadcasters. However, reform to make those obligations serve citizen requirements will mean deciding – at least within a part of overall output – to serve one audience rather than another.

Lest there be any confusion something needs emphasis at this point. There is not the slightest intention here to replace familiar, entertaining political coverage in news and interview form with a more serious minded approach. No matter how serious and demanding a citizen might be, without exception they like the entertaining approach and want it to continue.

Nothing is radical or odd in having a typical audience member in mind when broadcasting. It is commonplace to talk of addressing younger, older and all manner of different audiences; existing legislation requires service to minorities. Indeed, it would likely be daft even to consider the possibility that a broadcaster or journalist ever creates output with no one in mind. Occasionally it can go further with management providing a detailed profile of a typical member of a targeted audience.

However, when it comes to politics and public controversy, something strange happens: it is very often assumed that there is an undifferentiated audience, a Demos waiting to be addressed. The character, interests, outlook and political-communication requirements of that audience is assumed to be known.

Certainly an audience is being addressed and well-served but it is not the entire people. It is a part, the part that shares the general political outlook of the broadcasters, an outlook more basic than left-right division. Equally certainly the rest of the people have little choice but to make the best of what’s delivered, and because journalism generally can be poor and partisan, broadcast journalism tends to be recognised as relatively good.

Reform of legislation, therefore, will involve two radical breaks with tradition. Firstly, it will move to address the needs of the audience rather than programme participants. Indeed participants in a broadcast programme will be chosen on the basis of how best to serve an audience rather than the present practice of being fair to potential participants. Secondly – and it must be emphasised that this refers not to the entire service but to the delivery of broadcast politics – it will move to serve the needs of a particular type of audience rather than the entire national audience many of whom might express little or no interest in complex politics. The audience to be served in this case will very likely be a minority: those who are participative or republican citizens, those who want to be part of the public sphere, discussing all matters of political controversy and seeking broadcast coverage that will facilitate them, seeking the full range of perspectives, opinions, arguments and data to enable the republican citizen to explore, discuss, contribute and come to meaningful judgement on all matters affecting the republic.

There is nothing strange or new in seeking to serve the thinking, participative citizen; that’s always been the basic idea. What is new is the explicit recognition that all citizens do not share this participative level of interest and that serving any citizens by looking after the concerns of public figures and media staff is, well, frankly daft.

While republican reforms will replace decades-old rules designed to please – perhaps, appease – politicians, activists and journalists, it will not be necessary to have new complaints procedures to aid compliance; existing staff and processes will be fine as long as everyone involved understands the enormity of the change.

There are essentially just two entwined changes. Firstly, legislation needs to recognise the existence of republican citizens and to oblige the broadcaster to serve their specific political communication needs. Secondly, since the republican citizen is an active and conscious participant in the public sphere and wants to come to judgement on political controversies, legislation will oblige the broadcaster to deliver the necessary range and quality of data and – crucially – arguments.

1. Recognition that two distinct types of political journalism will need management

There are opposing pitfalls which have to be recognised. While no one wants an end to entertaining news and speculation about political celebrities and events, this admits a risk of trivialisation. A sensible approach would be to acknowledge the difficulty and place a formal onus on the broadcaster to deal with it. The stark reality is that there is a difference between the journalism which deals with political news, speculation, personalities and gossip and that which deals with political values, ideologies, theory and outcomes for citizens. The broadcaster can be made explicitly responsible for maintaining and managing the distinction in the interests of citizens.

2. The broadcaster will be obliged to deliver a service to the engaged/participative/republican citizen. This will mean a) an obligation to deliver arguments and to be responsible for their quality; and b) an obligation to have the selection of programme contributors determined by how best to deliver those arguments.

It is important to be clear on the enormity of the change required. The overwhelming majority of journalists see their role as merely reporting and assume little responsibility for the informative quality of what is reported. To burden the broadcaster (and by implication the staff employed) with responsibility for public discourse is a radical departure. This can be said despite the existing obligation to public discourse and journalists’ claims to public service because up to now it has been accepted that news delivery is sufficient.

Explicit Guidelines

* Coverage must address all political controversies and there can be no question of editorial picking and choosing other than that motivated by a commitment to the citizen seeking the fullest engagement. For fear a controversy might be overlooked, citizen initiative/suggestion will be sought and in the event of disputes, the matter can be considered as a Broadcasting Complaint.

* Appearances on politics programmes will be determined by contribution to a debate rather than any affiliation.

* Developed viewpoints which challenge a prevailing orthodoxy will be treated as especially useful.

* Complexity beyond the traditional notion of balance will be assumed and the fullest range of viewpoints will be sought and presented.

* Verifiable truth will be an overriding consideration.

* Interests will be explored, uncovered and made clear. That is to say, it will be assumed that different proposals will have better outcomes for some rather than others and it will be accepted that such information is vital for the citizen. In other words, when a policy or policy suggestion becomes a matter for discussion, the likely winners and losers will have to be made plain.

When discussion involves incomes or incomes policy, a contributor’s income if known will be stated; if not known, that will be stated.

* It would never be satisfactory in a democracy that those charged with nourishing the public sphere would dismiss an enquiry by recourse to simple “editorial judgement”. Excluding the vexatious or frivolous, all requests to explain an editorial decision or policy will be answered fully. Any dispute arising may be referred to the complaints procedure.

* Suggestions (accompanied by data) that a pattern of editorial decisions amount to an effective editorial policy will be similarly treated.

* A very short list of morally repugnant viewpoints will be developed, the purpose being to state that they will never be normalised. On all occasions where a programme contributor holds such a view or is a member of a group/party holding such a view, Broadcasters will be required to make that clear. For example, without a broadcaster’s clarifying comment, a racist will not be permitted to present themselves as normal by contributing to a discussion on, say, health.

* Broadcasters will not allow reliance on authority (e.g. religion) but will demand argument.

* Broadcasters will not permit contributors merely to “call-on” government to take action. In money matters this will demand clarity on priorities and funding either by a corresponding level of cuts to named spending or of new revenues.

* Broadcasters will ensure that mathematical, scientific, economic and other claims are competent.

* Broadcasters will ensure that alternative/complementary therapies are rigorously questioned and that they are not granted equivalence with science or medicine.

* With such a long tradition of politics being regarded predominantly as news and speculation about the activities of politicians, the change to more demanding – perhaps, theoretical – politics will have to be effected without undermining the traditional and frankly entertaining approach. There should, therefore, be two distinct editors: a politics editor charged with taking care of the republican citizen and a political affairs editor looking after news about politicians (leadership challenges, speculation about elections and the like) for a more general audience. (An early draft of this piece referred to the latter post as a “political gossip editor”!) It hardly needs to be said that the broadcaster will be required to indicate which service a programme or programme segment is offering and mixing the two, while inevitable in practice, will not be encouraged.

Something blunt needs to be said before closing.

This change is likely to be shocking for journalists/presenters who have built a career on a kind of anti-establishment. Everyone approves the interviewer who is seen to ask difficult questions but too often this has been a service to those who want to be outraged, who are antagonistic to politics itself, who are poorly informed, who prefer gossip, catch phrases, familiar story frames and an absence of complexity, maths or science. In future an anti-establishment service will have to mean insistence on higher standards of contribution.

Long before the covid-19 crisis there was comment on the gradual development of a societal problem, a relatively large number of people who can be characterised thus:

# They do not use mass media, and tend to refer to print, radio and TV as “old people’s media”.

# They have a very restricted group of contacts both in the real world and on social media. Their attitude to polls is revealing; they don’t believe polls because they’ve never been polled and because the results never conform to the views of people they know – on or off-line.

# They confine participation in discourse to a select number of issues shared by on-line friends, groups, and chosen “influencers”.

# They regard all opinions as free and equal, and do not particularly value education or expertise.

# They are actively antithetical to anything they consider “establishment” and they utterly disparage politics.

This is the large cohort identified by Steve Bannon and later Dominic Cummings as ripe for mobilisation behind Trump, Brexit and Johnson. Conventional media and the political system were powerless against political and social media sophisticates who knew this cohort, its vulnerabilities and triggers.

It might now be educative to speculate on the likely attitude and actions of this cohort to the covid-19 crisis and in particular to controls on movement.

Many of this cohort would not be aware of the crisis in any detail, neither would they have been in discussions with any informed person. Insofar as they might be aware of the science, they would regard it as an opinion, having the same status as their own opinion or that of their chosen influencers. They would regard controls as an assault on their freedom and what they would expect of the derided establishment; they would resist, mock and very likely express this by doing the opposite.

Citizens outside of this cohort who participate generally speaking in a world of discursive politics, daily news and meaningful conversation look at behaviour in breach of advice and controls re Covid-19 and tend to see it as stupidity or mindlessness. They are wrong. They should look at it rather as the behaviour of people with whom they share very little, perhaps almost nothing. It is an exaggeration but it might be useful to view the cohort as a long neglected tribe allowed to grow in numbers, easily manipulated, sharing little culturally with the educated, informed majority but now posing a health risk.

This problem didn’t start with Covid-19; it has been developing for decades.




We are quite used to the idea that newspaper editors bear responsibility for public discourse. With the rise and reach of social media a similar responsibility has fallen to ordinary people who never expected it – people with no background in journalism or political communication. These are people who started or took over on-line sites that they never imagined would be hot spots for political struggle. They now find they are moderators, trying to square freedom of expression with organised attempts to dominate their sites. Typically these sites are local to an area or an interest and the interest is frequently nostalgia; memory sites, old pictures etc. are sitting ducks for reasonably organised intrusion.

The pattern seems to be fairly consistent. It usually begins with what might be termed a “Michael Collins appreciation society”. These activists extol Michael Collins and use this to deride today’s political leaders often as “traitors” to “the people”. The SF and/or IRA activists arrive a short time later, at which point the Michael Collins activists go quiet. Finally, the 5-G activists arrive and they tend to encompass anti-vax and other “alternative” views. Racists are prominent too, blaming change on foreigners, refugees, etc. but they don’t appear to be acting in an organised way.

Sometimes the intrusive activists take over, rendering the admins powerless. Other times an admin sees the problem in time and takes decisive action but at the cost of considerable pressure and abuse in the form of bogus defence of freedom of expression. Occasionally, ordinary people give up and leave the site to the activists. It can then rumble on picking up small numbers of adherents from the wider web, people who would know nothing of the previous process.

It is a great deal to ask of a site admin/moderator that they resist organised activists but their position is made worse by the failure of ordinary people to support them. Yes, it’s hard to speak up and much easier to leave them to it, but this is a struggle and remaining quiet is taking sides. The intrusive activists rely on most people lacking the nerve to tackle them.

The maths guy from Maynooth University was on the Radio a short while ago. He heads up a large team which does the Covid-19 predictive modelling for government. He had a small degree of relatively good news and he was very careful to lay out its limitations and conditions. Time and again the interviewer pushed him for certainty. Of course everyone would like certainty in these dreadful times but the memory of a long-established pattern intruded. It had a long time ago become the norm for broadcasters to ask for guarantees and “promises”. They simply do not accept an uncertain answer. A line of questioning which would explore the degree of risk would appear to be out of the question.

It may be that at least some broadcasters themselves do not have the ability to discuss risk. It may be that they see themselves serving that portion of the audience which doesn’t understand risk, rather than a better informed audience.

In either case the problem points to a failure in mass education at a very basic level. Risk and probability are the very stuff of political discourse. A detailed knowledge of the maths is not at all required but quite simply it should not be possible to leave school with an intractable desire for certainty and an inability to cope with a debate involving risk.

Right now discussions about policy for Covid-19 have illustrated a communication problem within democracy.







There are so many of my friends expressing frustration that people are not practising rigorous social distancing. Thinking them fools, irresponsible or malicious may be correct but let’s consider something very different.

That those congregating in public genuinely don’t know the danger or at least the real extent of it.

Long before this crisis, academics in all disciplines impinging on communication were talking about communication bubbles and information deprivation, and it featured frequently in mass media – the very media that no longer reach the people who may be causing the hazard.

It was years ago that I heard daily broadcast news described as something for old people. Among those aware of the shift to social media, the most common suggested remedy is to aim social media specifically at the young. There are two failings in this.

Firstly, it is not a problem confined to young people and secondly, putting material on social media is not sufficient to gain the attention of those behaving dangerously; they won’t necessarily see it.

Have you ever had someone say to you, “Surveys are rubbish. I’ve never been surveyed and it’s the same for my friends.” More seriously, there is considerable evidence to show that people with extreme views – racists etc. – consider themselves normal because their views are normal within their circles. Their circle is all they know.

Facebook’s fundamental position is liberal – private – as opposed to republican – participative. They encourage members to cut off those who annoy them or simply differ. Opinions are to be respected as an entitlement and certainly not as an invitation to argue. There are enormous political consequences but this is not the place to discuss them.

The point here is that large numbers of people have placed themselves beyond the reach of public discourse. It is entirely possible that those who are standing closely together, let their children mix etc. know little of what is going on.

Two groups among those concerned about breaches of social distancing need to think. Firstly, republican or participative citizens cannot fail to be aware that even in normal times many people have no desire to engage with society. Secondly, there are people who have placed themselves inside a participative bubble and that’s paradoxical. What it means is that discursive well-informed people in their own bubble are utterly cut off from and find incomprehensible those who appear to be out of touch with the seriousness of our crisis. They get angry and frustrated, and assume that people congregating are stupid or perverse.

What they need to consider is that in our time technology has facilitated a situation in which people living in different worlds or at least bubbles are sharing streets and parks.


There have been suggestions that influencers be targeted and asked to address their followers. This has attractions but the world of influencers is not unitary and operates by splitting numbers into devotees disconnected from a wider world.

Those people dangerously wandering about are a product of our technology. Until recently they were a problem for those concerned about democracy. Now they are a hazard to public health.



I’m afraid I’m one of those annoying sorts who deals with anxiety by trying to understand. In Ireland we are due to see alarming increases in covid cases. I find somehow that the maths is comforting, knowing about the progression and how to spot improvement.

If it interests or comforts, it’s easy to do. It uses that old compound interest formula from school:

PV(1 + r)n = FV, where PV is present value, r is interest rate, n is the number of payments and FV is the final value at the end of those payments.

As of last night we had approx. 220 covid cases and that’s our PV for calculation here, the daily increase for the past few days has been a little less than 30% or 0.3, n is the number of days for which you want to calculate – let’s say 14 days.

This gives 220(1+0.3)14 = 8,668. Now, that’s alarming but less so than the Taoiseach’s calculation. By the way, the exponent (“power of”) calculator is here:

Better is the realisation that this refers to cases, individual people. In 14 days some of these people will be recovered and recovering. The big number is less alarming when it is considered that there could not possibly be any expectation of an improvement in the rate of increase until the public health restrictions begin to have an effect, i.e. after about 14 days and that’s a reminder to concentrate not on the number of cases but on changes in the rate of increase. Always bear in mind too that most cases will be mild.

I don’t know if I’ve made your anxiety better or worse. I find it comforting to know what’s coming, why, and what to look out for to see any improvement.

Incidentally, I’m grateful to my old school friend, Paddy Griffin, who pointed to a basic error in calculation that I was making last night. He was always better at sums than me.

War is infernal; humans target fellow humans and try to kill them. Bad as it is, humanity has been compelled to define something more vile than war itself: the war crime, a category of crime against humanity. Two things need to be said. Firstly, no particular state can forgive a crime against humanity; the protection or amnesty of a state that might be afforded to perpetrators ends at its border. Secondly, there are many forms but targeting civilians is an unambiguous war crime.

During what is euphemistically called the Troubles in Ireland the Prov. IRA waged – as they see it – a war of liberation. Their selected targets were frequently civilian most notably through the use of public bombs. In other words their war was to a large extent conducted through the commission of war crimes. They were supported throughout by Sinn Féin.

After peace was agreed and the IRA disbanded* Sinn Féin embarked on a process of normalisation so as to gain wider acceptance as a political party. They had a choice: They could have put the war crimes behind them and relied on people to forgive and forget; or they could carry their support for war crimes into the future and make that support normal, a part of Irish life. They chose the latter and so they put it up to every Irish citizen to make the most fundamental of choices.

Sinn Féin enjoy the support of perhaps 20% of Irish voters and a much higher proportion of citizens will socialise with them and treat them as entirely normal. If the acceptance or celebration of war crime is to become a feature of life in Ireland, it will be a grave step. It will bring dishonour upon the nation and it should be approached carefully and with deliberation. That is to say, before we decide to normalise war crimes, war criminals and their supporters, there should be confrontation and frank public discussion. This is far too serious for any citizen to be be able to claim that they didn’t know.

SF use a number of devices to avoid the core issue.

1. Rubbish the very concept of a war crime

The argument here is that all war includes war crimes. That’s very likely true but it certainly doesn’t make war crimes any less evil or a normal tactic for combatants. It provides SF with a sick, self-serving rationale for pretending that the killings during the troubles or the armed struggle were typical of wars and that it is time to normalise them. Their proposition is that a war has ended and that its participants were good people caught up in a conflict and can now return to civilian life. This is a parody which ordinary Irish people will never accept.

Ordinary people know full well that in the pit of horrors that is crimes against humanity and war crimes, something stands out: the intentional targeting of civilians. To be absolutely clear: all combatants select targets, they make a choice. Some choose to kill civilians rather than soldiers.

SF will say that civilians unfortunately die in all wars. Yes, civilians die in wars but when they are intentionally targeted, it is deemed a war crime, a crime against humanity.

Furthermore, the IRA campaign was not a military campaign blighted by the unfortunate deaths of civilians. Neither was it a military campaign during which war crimes were committed, crimes which dishonoured the majority of the fighting force. Rather it was a campaign in which civilians were routinely chosen as targets; the preference for civilian deaths was punctuated by military engagements. The reality of the IRA’s armed struggle is a hideous inversion of SF’s warrior tale.

The Good Friday Agreement approved by the majority of Irish people involved among other features an end to IRA attacks in return for the Irish and UK states’ virtual amnesty for perpetrators, commanders and facilitators. It did not absolve, forgive or change the horror; it was a deal approved by citizens under duress. The IRA’s campaign remains a sordid series of crimes against humanity which was and is approved by SF. The Good Friday Agreement does not oblige any Irish citizen to join or vote for SF. Neither does it oblige any Irish citizen to engage socially with members and supporters of SF. It certainly does not imply that honouring war crimes become an accepted/normal part of Irish life.

2. Pretend that new leaders are different
Until relatively recently a common thread in Irish journalism was that SF needed to break with its past by changing to younger leaders. Now, this was a particularly sneaky argument because those who presented it knew well that the new leaders had joined the organisation before the killings stopped. SF’s present finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty, joined the year that Garda McCabe was murdered, a year in which civilians were bombed in Britain. Former MEP Lynn Boylan is the partner of Eoin O’Broin, the SF spokesperson on Housing, Planning & Local Government. When she was elected an MEP, pictures show her hoisted in celebration on the shoulders of an alleged bomber. It is ludicrous to suggest that such people are naive and do not discuss the nature of their chosen party.

3. Pretend that recent recruits are uninformed

SF has recruited many members, quite a few oedf them born years after the killings had stopped. It is argued that they know nothing of the crimes. This is patronising nonsense which rests on the plainly silly suggestion that the decision to join a political party is a trivial matter, done without thought. Not so. When a young person joins a party, it is deliberate, a choice, the selection of one party from among others. Such young people are not deluded, mistaken or intimidated. They are aware of what they are doing, they are making informed decisions.

4. Pretend that voters are stupid

A similar range of choice faces voters of whom something in the region of 20% choose SF. It is this figure that reveals the extent of a dark stain that is at risk of spreading across Irish society. A couple of evasions are offered to pretend that these citizens are innocent of support for any kind of violence, never mind the celebration of crimes against humanity.

Firstly, it is argued that at this remove from the ceasefire voters know nothing of what happened or regard it as a history which should now be ignored. This, however, is precisely what SF oppose. They have decided not to let the history fade but to drag it forward and have the celebration of war crimes become normal in the future.

Secondly, it is argued that while voters are aware of the crimes, they are voting for current policies and/or personalities, or are voting tactically against a despised government. Sometimes a part of this argument is that SF has become socialist or vaguely leftist and their relatively large support offers the possibility of a left-alliance majority government.

These are the arguments of those who despise ordinary citizens, who regard them as utterly uninformed and/or incapable of voting with thought. Among any group of voters there will be those who haven’t a clue and those who will try to avoid responsibility by feigning ignorance but most voters – including SF voters – are well aware of what they are doing.

The line that current controversies, issue, policies matter more than the past is important and deserves a terse response. This is not a matter of minor transgressions, petty crimes or even murders being consigned to the past and deemed unimportant with the passage of time. Choosing to target civilians – crimes against humanity – time and again can never be disregarded; war criminals as always must be pursued to the grave. When it comes to voting intentions, the very idea that commemorating/celebrating war crimes now and into our future could be less important than a policy or programme is abhorrent to civilised thinking.

Ordinary Irish citizens should accept an obligation

Face it: a sizeable minority in Ireland vote SF. Rather than pretend that they all represent something innocuous or some sort of misunderstanding or mistake, it would be sensible to confront two more likely and dismal explanations: the existence among us of i) a significant number who are not overly concerned about SF’s attempt to make the celebration of war crimes normal in Ireland or ii) a significant number who approve the Prov. IRA campaign and think it right that it be normalised for celebration.

There is an obligation on the rest of us to stand up for a basic point of civilisation: that the targeting of civilians is unforgivable and that to celebrate it is perverse. In this republic each citizen faces the decision of whether or not to acquiesce, to socialise without dissent or at every opportunity to tell such people that they ought to be ashamed of themselves and that they will never be accepted within the Irish nation.


* Very few now believe that the IRA is gone. Their Army Council is thought to command SF.

In Ireland there are two groups with quite different reasons for returning to familiar right wing parties.


1. The conservatives and their rider
The majority of Irish people seem to want a universal health service, greater equality etc. etc. but there’s a fundamentally important catch: they want these things to happen without any other change, i.e. without their lives being otherwise affected. In recent times the welfare of the planet was added to the list of things that can “change as long as there’s no change”.

Too many Leftists take comfort in polls that show Irish support for all sorts of progressive reforms. Then when votes are counted, they express themselves surprised – even hurt and betrayed – by the outcome. They reckon – with an enormous degree of arrogance – that voters have behaved stupidly. The reality is that there is nothing actually stupid in a selfish conservatism that defends one’s place in the structure of inequality, while saying that apart from this progressive reform is fine. It’s not even a contradictory position. Indeed it is a position encouraged by leftists who sell the notion that this is precisely what can be achieved by dispossessing the top 1% or big business while leaving the rest of the rich and privileged untouched.*

A useful and descriptive term for it is “left conservatism”. It’s rooted in a bizarre understanding of fairness: that the whole structure of inequality must remain unchanged until the ludicrously wealthy are reduced, while the ludicrously wealthy see that as … wait for it … unfair. Very little happens. Nice people express support for reforms and the protest marches can be a fun way to let off steam and pose as anti-establishment. The structure of inequality is secured.


2. Seekers of a plausible alternative
There’s an under-researched group of voters – very likely a small group – who probably think differently. They are not wedded to short term self interest. Neither are they interested in disorderly or unqualified change, never mind revolution. Short of that, they are open to plausible argument about their republic changing its course. That they don’t hear such argument is because the left tends to ignore them.

What they hear constantly is a right-wing but plausible argument that is shared by electoral rivals; these rivals compete on the basis of claims to be better managers of a stable, fair and unequal society. It’s hardly surprising then that citizens who are amenable to argument vote for plausible managers over those implausibly and constantly “calling on” the government/ political class/establishment for concessions that are not arranged in any order of priority. If the left wants to win the votes of thinking people, a plausible argument will have to be presented. However, there’s a problem: opting to present a coherent, plausible argument for change means abandoning the “calling-on” which is for a different and wholly incompatible audience.


If the UK Conservative Party and others like them are successful in destroying the real democratic and welfare gains of the past century, it is likely because opponents – both liberal and socialist – seem to lack the wit or the nerve to challenge. It’s as blunt as this: no one is pro-establishment.

The genius of what is happening lies in occupying the term “anti-establishment”. The stupidity lies with opponents who can’t see what is happening or are either so in thrall to their traditions or fear the contumely of their comrades that they fall back on safe familiarity.

When Dominic Cummings announced that he was recruiting outsiders, wreckers, to smash the traditions and expertise of the UK civil service, “pro-business” liberals lined up to offer mindless support. They had to; to do otherwise might seem like changing sides. After everything they had said about inefficiency and lack of enterprise, they couldn’t manage now to say anything remotely supportive of the established civil service. Many of them know that the Cummings wrecker, devoted exclusively to science and maths, is a parody of real science graduates, and yet they felt acquiescence to nonsense was the best course. Being seen as anti-establishment was more attractive than revealing the truth.

Because both Dominic Cummings and Steve Bannon, Trump’s onetime advisor, have explicitly said that they are plundering socialist tradition, the tacit support of socialists is more sad and culpable. Instead of hurrying to the defence of parliament and the whole range of hard-won institutions on which future reforms depend, the majority of socialists want to do the opposite. They want to remain true to their revolutionary tradition and they want to avoid the criticism of fellow socialists. They want to do as they’ve done before: to mobilise the people against parliament, the judiciary, the civil service, i.e. the establishment. They therefore argue for getting among the people, agitating, setting up counter structures: being anti-establishment.

The progressive position now and certainly the socialist position should be to defend the establishment so as to resist the right wing project to roll back the state and destroy so many gains on which decent living depends.

I have argued that it would shame and humiliate Ireland to have it accepted that Irish war crimes and war criminals be celebrated. Perhaps they could be forgotten or be quietly swept under the carpet as most countries do but celebration would be a stain on the nation.* Unfortunately, this is not what’s happening. Instead there is a normalisation struggle going on right now and our status as a civilised people is at stake.

I have, moreover, argued that this is one of a tiny number of viewpoints that should be categorised as “morally repugnant” with a view to treating them and their supporters differently.**

Here’s the position in summary:

Coverage of Sinn Féin must always mention their desire to celebrate war crimes

This is not about the past.

It’s about a party’s plans right now and for the future of our country.

1. Morally repugnant viewpoints

While racism may be the only one widely acknowledged now, there is a short list of morally repugnant viewpoints worthy of special treatment.

Always prevent the supporter of a morally repugnant viewpoint appearing normal

Morally repugnant viewpoints are normalised by allowing those who hold them present themselves as normal. They usually succeed by talking about things other than the morally repugnant viewpoint they or their organisation holds. The person and the viewpoint must be firmly tied together in condemnation.

To prevent the normalisation of the repugnant viewpoint, the activist/supporter can never be allowed to present themselves as normal.

Should they make a public statement on any matter, the publisher, platform operator or presenter should point to their unstated repugnant viewpoint.***

2. Media coverage of the view that war crimes be celebrated

In all conflicts combatants select targets.

When combatants target civilians – by gun or public bomb – an unambiguous war crime is committed.

When years later activists/supporters seek to commemorate/celebrate war crimes/war criminals, they propagate a repugnant viewpoint.

To prevent the normalisation of this repugnant viewpoint, the activist/supporter can never be allowed to present themselves as normal.

When they make a public statement on any matter, a publisher, platform operator or presenter should point to their unstated support for the celebration of war crimes.





*** Surprisingly, this is an approach recently adopted by Facebook. Jim Corr has had an anti-vaxer label permanently attached to his posts.

Here’s a provocative suggestion for political activists/campaigners:

Let’s find out what pushes a person’s buttons and lie that voting our way will deliver for them.”

Yes, that’s outrageous in a democracy. However, it’s happened and there are now very late attempts to control information and social media but there’s far more to it.

Dominic Cummings who is credited with winning the Brexit referendum has been very open about how it was done. Simply stated, Cummings and company had access to personal data gathered without permission from citizens’ on-line activity. This enabled them to identify gullible people and their concerns. These people were then targeted and told that a vote for Brexit would address their concerns. Though a thinking person might find it hard to believe, the example of the polar bears is true: having identified concerns over polar bears, the lie was told that the bears’ future would be better in the event of Brexit.

When this campaigning methodology became the subject of public controversy, concern was directed in a very peculiar direction. There was of course concern over extreme lies but the main concern was over surreptitious gathering of information about people on-line and its availability to rich political campaigners. Little or no concern was raised over the basic campaigning tactic of telling people that their “issue” could or would be addressed by voting in a certain way.

Here’s a question: if the issue were nothing as large or as bizarre as the likes of polar bears and the personal data had been obtained legitimately, would it be acceptable to direct lies at people, telling them that their issue would be resolved by voting in a particular way? Well, regardless of the answer, it is commonplace during election campaigns to exploit local knowledge (data) about the concerns of gullible voters. A typical case might be a housing estate in which residents oppose a planning application. Aware of this, an enterprising candidate might exploit the data by aiming a message at gullible voters: a very local leaflet, telling voters that a vote for the candidate would take care of their issue. The point is that data are being used specifically to target gullible voters and they are being told a lie. The difference between this and Cummings/Cambridge Analytica is scale and the use of legally obtained data.

Directing large numbers of very local messages would be expensive. However, there is a less costly and familiar approach, and taking a look at election leaflets is revealing. It is routine to find them directed at a town or suburb. Data is collected about local “issues” and leaflets are prepared suggesting to gullible people that their vote can deliver a favourable outcome.

Let’s not be deluded that Dominic Cummings is a great campaign innovator or a uniquely bad enemy of democracy. He’s a cynic who based his methods on old, well-worn, tried and tested, anti-democratic campaigning. His opponents don’t condemn his methods; they are worried about unfair advantage (his data are not cheap) and surreptitious gathering of data.

The dreadful reality is that there’s a large number of gullible citizens waiting to be told that their vote offers the chance of deliverance from what ails or irks them. However, there are other quite different citizens who want to be treated with respect, who can deal with complexity, who want truth and reason. When there is talk of representation in parliament, the latter are seldom if ever considered. In practice it’s as if they don’t exist.