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One way of preventing discussion of the centenary of Ireland’s 1916 Rising and of the actions of the IRA is to spread confusion about the meaning of “terrorist”. The authors of the confusion are mass murderers and their supporters, and they are successful because journalists and media managers facilitate them.

While in popular discussion “terrorist” has been almost drained of meaning, becoming a synonym for “bad”, in academic discussion its meaning has been stabilised and is now largely accepted. This was not always the case.

During the 20th century academics were looking at a distinct phenomenon that they wanted to study and talk about. It was clear that non-state groups were kidnapping, shooting and bombing civilians. These groups were commonly referred to as terrorists. Academics set out to study them but there was a problem which could only be addressed by working on definition.

Definition was necessary because the term was already loaded with negative connotations and study of any action or group attracted, “Who are you calling a terrorist? Why don’t you study atrocities committed by states?” The tactic was to prevent examination of what was clearly a separate and relatively new form of political violence. The choice facing academia was to find a new word for something which ordinary citizens referred to as terrorism or to define the term so that the violent phenomenon could be studied without the constant disruption of the “whatabouters”. A new label would have been daft, so definition it was.

Definition was of course fraught and contentious; university libraries tend to have a groaning shelf or two to attest to that. There was a battle because the last thing that non-state killers wanted was to be isolated from horrors committed by states. They could offer no moral justification for their actions so they relied on pointing to those who had done similar or worse. Some states – particularly the USA – aided them in this by referring to states they didn’t like as “terrorist states”.

Like the academics, citizens seeking clear public discourse have an interest in defining terrorism and insisting that self-serving games not be played with terminology. Let it be clear that terrorism for those neither involved in nor supporting barbarity signifies violence perpetrated by non-state actors on civilians for the purpose of sending a message to a wider audience (rhetorical violence). In other words, state armies are not involved either as perpetrators or victims and the dead or injured are reduced to mere messages, fodder for media.

In Ireland there is a tussle for ownership of the 2016 centenary of the Easter Rising. It is not a matter of whether the state’s founding myth is bloody; that’s a different issue. The tussle is about whether the actions of the Provisional IRA – supported by Sinn Féin – are like the actions of the 1916 insurrectionists. It is vitally important for SF that the actions of the IRA receive the respectability that has been granted to the insurrectionists because in Ireland that would elevate the IRA to heroes.

If a sensible public debate is to take place, it needs to be emphasised that the actions in 1916 fall a long way outside the definition of terrorism, while the actions of the IRA accurately match the terms of the definition. What the 1916 insurrectionists have in common with the IRA is that both are non-state actors. Apart from that they differ. The insurrectionists for the most part attacked armed soldiers. The IRA for the most part attacked civilians. The insurrectionists in a time before electronic mass media did not and could not reduce victims to media messages. The IRA, however, developed this form of conflict and killed for media effect.

Every journalist who is unaware of the struggle over the definition of terrorism and who permits the term to be bandied about as a mere synonym for bad, sides with those who would try to bury public discourse in a swamp of name-calling.


Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein posted the following on Facebook and in a few hours, i.e. by midday on April 1st 2015, it had been shared over a thousand times.

“There was some mention earlier on that the Taoiseach and the Fine Gael/Labour government want to rewrite the Proclamation as we head towards 2016.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic belongs to the people of Ireland. No government, not least the current government, has any right to alter or rewrite it.” –

Clearly it is ridiculous to suggest that a document produced a century ago could be rewritten. Three things, however, need to be said. Firstly, it is important that no document be elevated to the status of sacred text to be placed beyond examination and criticism. In the case of the 1916 proclamation its opening lines for example about Ireland summoning her children to her flag are incompatible with citizenship of a republic. Summoning children is more deeply daft and offensive than the UK monarchic tradition of referring to citizens as subjects.

Secondly, MLMcD is taking the familiar authoritarian line of speaking for the people. To say that the wording of a text belongs to the people of Ireland is meaningless other than in reference to the constitution where that ownership involves not stiffened preservation but vesting the power to change the text in a referendum. While the claim that the 1916 proclamation belongs to the people is meaningless, the devious intention behind the claim is not. This is an incident in a longer power play. It is a device that has been used many times. The trick is to put matters beyond discussion, to create blinding loyalty, respect and willing obedience. A person or group is to be insinuated as the true representative of the people and/or interpreter of special texts in opposition to an elected government, parliament or indeed the entire constitutional state. It is profoundly undemocratic relying on a perverse understanding of “the people”.

Thirdly, if the Taoiseach or anyone else wants to open a discussion on some sort of Proclamation for a New Republic, then let a debate begin. However, it must be emphasised that the discussion is essentially about choosing between contested political values. To be effective it will be a fraught discussion because Ireland is unused to contests over values, setting priorities and limits, and marking behaviour and beliefs as unacceptable – with the intention of change from time to time.

I recall Brendan Halligan saying at the time that the one good thing about Charles Haughey’s ascent to Taoiseach was that it would help polarise Irish politics. It didn’t.  I recall too that Frank Cluskey regarded him as a test instrument; if there was any doubt about a policy but Charles Haughey disliked it, very likely it was the correct thing to do. I was relatively young then and, finding Charles Haughey ridiculous, I struggled to understand his appeal. Later it occurred to me that he was mad. (If you doubt this, find a picture of him before his mansion with his horse.) Of course the realisation that he was mad was of little value in trying to understand his appeal. That understanding took years and another similar Taoiseach in Bertie Ahern.

The key to understanding the phenomenon of a Taoiseach who is without political values and claims to be neither left nor right is the preoccupation with aristocracy and leadership of the nation*. The main virtue of the RTE TV drama series, “Charlie”, is that it makes this plain. The importance of the drama right now is that the Irish attitude to national leadership has not changed. Ireland’s history, and the view of politics accepted by the majority and reinforced by journalists has led to this point.

The leader is required to deliver a modicum of self-respect to a nation held down by outsiders and their cronies within. These cronies – “the establishment” – characteristically exhibit foreign traits and “betray” the “people”. The leader is required to be kindly and to have a common touch, delivering to some people and some communities, while offering hope of a delivery to each one. When Charlie wants Ireland to “dine at the top table”, he epitomises national abasement.

Charles sought to be the chieftain of the Irish nation. Today the model remains one of ruler and ruled with “ordinary people” or sometimes “ordinary working people” seeking relief, reassuring promises, favours, and gifts from their chieftain or aristocracy. Lately the would-be chieftains strike their version of the traditional anti-establishment pose by deriding “the political class”. The term offers a distant whiff of Marxism while ensuring that the concept of class is never explored. Then they get on with precisely what FF and Charlie inherited from their SF origins: they insinuate themselves into communities, take up causes and make representations. They have it appear that nothing can be “delivered” without pressure and that they are best at pressurising.  It is a depressingly long way from citizens discussing and deciding on the direction of their republic. The whinging cry now, as in the 70s and 80s, is for leadership.

The state’s founding myth continues to figure in selecting leaders.  In 1916 Ireland had The Easter Rising (Irish: Éirí** Amach na Cásca).  The cultural base to that was a harking back to mythical Irish chieftains. The cruelly executed signatories to the Easter Proclamation*** became lost leaders, revered for representing the nation.  The drama, Charlie, showed that by the early 80s an invitation – in familiar “rebel song” format – to Arise and Follow Charlie (It featured the line, “Hail the leader, hail the man”. Jesus wept!) was still compelling.**** Today we have calls for new leaders and new parties to come and save the people who have been “betrayed” by leaders who ignore the “principles”, dreams and aspirations of 1916. (There is even a nationalist group styling itself “Éirigí”.) The tradition of rebellion in Ireland is essentially nationalist, a desire to be ruled by “our own”. Though Irish nationalists – in common with British opponents of monarchy – like to call themselves “republican”, their use of the term drains it of its participative meaning.

In the first episode of the TV drama, as Charlie called the race together under his emerging leadership, he stood before an enormous picture of Pádraig Pearse.  With the 2016 centenary approaching the trick is being reworked time and again.

Many found the TV drama difficult to follow or disliked the reliance on actors who featured in the crime series, Love Hate. More importantly, the drama was criticised for its stereotypes and gormless script. However, the real subjects of the drama (Charles Haughey and co.) performed for the most part as stereotypes who spoke rubbish which voters found agreeable. Moreover, the drama speaks to Ireland’s present predicament as citizens seek new saviours.


* Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote that Mr Haughey “was an aristocrat in the proper sense of the word: not a nobleman or even a gentleman, but one who believed in the right of the best people to rule, and that he himself was the best of the best people”. – quoted in Dermot Ferriter’s The Transformation of Ireland 1900 – 2000 pg.561


*** The text of the 1916 proclamation:

**** Donie Cassidy teamed with Dublin folk singer Pete St. John to co-write ‘Charlie’s Song’ (better known as ‘Arise and Follow Charlie’).

Take a look at this from

It is a longish piece but bear with it or at least scan through to its salient features. If it is remotely accurate, it predicts a single digit number of Labour seats and extraordinarily right wing parliaments for Ireland.

Attention focusses on the belief that, while Labour might hold on to a vote in the region of its traditional 10% support, it is reaching a tipping point at which marginal seats fall rather than are won. This will be a cause for celebration among Labour’s rivals both left and right. The problem for those celebrating on the left is that there is no leftward movement in voter support. The belief on the left (a very old belief) is that as soon as Labour is destroyed and/or joins a unified left, Ireland will magically have something like a 50/50 left/right electoral split. There’s not the tiniest shred of evidence to support this hope.

Here’s a different interpretation of what’s happening and it too is not based on anything that could be remotely described as quantitative research. Let’s leave gullible victims of populism aside and consider the citizen who is open to argument. The citizen is listening and knows the precarious state that we are in. The citizen can choose to support the left or the right. There are arguments presented from left and right. Neither set of arguments seeks to change the structure of inequality. The right argues that cuts are necessary to “restore the economy”. The left argues that cuts are unnecessary and will further damage the economy. I’ve always found liberal economics both daft and cruel so I won’t address the right wing argument here. It is the left wing arguments that concern me deeply. They pretend that if bond holders and banks were not bailed out, there’d be no shortfall between state income and expenditure. They talk about making the rich pay but exclude the majority of the rich, i.e. emphasis is on the top 1%, possibly the top 10% but under no circumstances will the top 20% be targeted. The left’s position is to try to convince citizens that life can return to “normal” as before the crisis. Yes, it’s a conservative argument but it is also implausible.

It is hardly surprising that a thoughtful citizen would turn right because the argument offered there seems less implausible.

While there are no details as yet as to the motivations of the murderers of the English soldier at Woolwich, the web is already alive with opponents and defenders of Islam. More significantly for those of us who value public discourse, many thoughtful and tolerant people are taking the position that Islam – and by extension all religion – is not a problem. Paradoxically it is this kind of blanket tolerance that can lead to trouble.

For as long as religion is “respected” in public discourse, particular religions will be attacked because of the actions and statements of their most extreme adherents.

When we discuss values and matters concerning values, religion has to be ignored and certainly cannot be allowed become a trump card. For example, debates about abortion cannot be side-tracked by stuff about respect for catholic beliefs and nastiness to gays cannot be permitted because the speaker believes in Islam. When a society takes seriously claims that something should be or not be because God or a prophet said so, it encourages belief as opposed to argument. Every single cruel, divisive and – yes! – inegalitarian belief should be hauled out from under religious cloaks and tackled.

When that has been established, we can say with some confidence that an act of barbarity had nothing to do with religion.

I was listening to an interview on RTE Radio 1 this morning with the Ceann Commhairle of the Dáil. He mentioned that he received many complaints from citizens about the boorish behaviour of some TDs. He worried about the impression that this behaviour gave to thoughtful citizens. He also said that he had taken aside some of the TDs who indulged in shouting and abuse, and told them that in terms of gathering support, what they were doing was counterproductive that people were not impresssed and were critical. He is wrong.

There are citizens who reject talk, debate, reasoned argument. Indeed they despise politics. They don’t want to change society. They want someone to stand up for them, to shout for them, to put the boot into all that they despise.

It is true that most of these people – though not all – are poor. It is also true that they are not working class but that’s an argument for another day. The point is that there is an appreciative audience for abuse and there are politicians who aspire to lead cynicism and opposition to discursive politics.

We need to begin to take seriously the pernicious effect of jargon, guff and blather on our lives. It’s certainly not new; Orwell’s “Newspeak” and Marcuse’s observations that “free” had come to mean “market” and that “intellectual” and “bureaucrat” had become terms of abuse spring to mind. Now that I think about it, Alice in Wonderland springs to mind too! There is of course a wickedly funny side to it. The, let’s call them, “goingforwardeers” and “drilldowners” provide hours of amusement. Recently a PR representative for Bus Eireann told a radio interviewer of plans to “roll out” new buses. Interestingly, the interviewer didn’t laugh.

The sheer scale of the balderdash, the confidence of its users, the lack of media criticism and the rise of a highly paid and unproductive elite suggest that perhaps something rather serious has happened.

It is of course a problem for public discourse when participants will not or cannot speak plainly. In most cases nothing very remarkable is being said; the jargon merely masks a vacuous lack of originality. What is remarkable is the lack of a challenging voice and the failure of media to clarify. It is worrying to think that there is a protective consensus around nonsense.

Anyone troubled by this consensus would be wide of the mark to blame capitalists or business. In trying to identify who gains, look not to the super rich but to a new elite who master the language of obscurity. These are the composers of mission statements, the change managers, the authors of impenetrable reports and pointless restructuring. They are many, they are relatively wealthy, they exhibit an extraordinary degree of solidarity and they are not subjected to public scrutiny. They are a nuisance – possibly, a menace – in that they smother innovation, creativity, and argument. A fake progressive and fake business lexicon is used to mask a layer of drones.

By all means let’s have fun with this. Let’s make the utterance of “key performance indicator” a capital offence! Let’s call for the closure of the Podge and Rodge School of Management! But, let us also begin to end this nonsense. Sooner rather than later searing clarity will be needed in government, business and the public sphere.