Mar 20, 2012

The Shamrock and the Olive Branch

Conor Kenny

Staff Writer 


“It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you. “

Tony Benn

The Russian philosopher Ayn Rand famously used the phrase “to have one’s cake and eat it too” to summarize her approach to life. The history of this idiomatic proverb dates back as far as 1546, when John Heywood included it in “A Dialogue Containing the Number in Effect of All the Proverbs in the English Tongue”. Given the name of his book, we can probably surmise that it had been in popular usage for a fair amount of time before this. In a sense, it is interesting how many seemingly intelligent individuals live by the sentiment of this expression without even realizing it. Nowhere does this contradiction present itself more glaringly than in the presentation by the media of Sinn Fein’s recent acts of diplomacy towards their historical enemy. With the news out this week that the TCD Sinn Fein society have invited Jeffrey Dudgeon, the Belfast Unionist Party chair, to give a talk on Roger Casement, it will be fascinating to see how the Irish media (I do hope you’re reading, Mr. Myers) will react to another symbolic gesture of conciliation by those people everyone loves to hate.

The late Anglo-American soundbite merchant, Mr. Christopher Hitchens, once entitled an article for Slate Magazine ‘Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams Make Me Want to Spew’ in the aftermath of the peacemaking talks of 2007. Such a title slightly lacks the eloquence of a George Orwell piece, but at least the Hitch couldn’t be accused of walking like a cat around hot porridge. The problem with such an attitude, though, is that as well as being dismissive and inanely populist, it also remarkably unconstructive. If you want to take the approach of treating Messers Paisley and Adams as thought they are both reprehensible thugs not worth the time of day, then fair enough, but don’t pretend that there is anything progressive or helpful about this attitude. Whether you like it or not (and I don’t), both figures represent large groups of people with strongly felt grievances, and they have both made attempts to come to terms with each other for the greater good. About time, you might argue, but unfortunately, we cannot alter the events of the last forty years (or indeed, anything before that).

Such belligerence also makes an appearance in the writings of Mr. Kevin Myers who entitled an equally remedial article in the Irish Independent “Why Gerry’s tribute to Ian made me want to be sick”. Very classy indeed. The need for journalists to sink to a level where the allusion of vomiting is of any journalistic merit certainly makes this writer feel somewhat nauseated. Even more so when one considers how Mr. Myers decided to decline an invitation to participate in a debate on free speech at Trinity last year on the dubious and frankly offensive grounds that it would be akin to “discussing virginity in a brothel”. Brave, huh? Kevin, my boy, it is no longer a case of choosing between one extreme and another, it is a case of choosing between progress and opprobriousness. What would we think of a writer who disparaged a peace agreement between Hamas and the Israeli government on the grounds that they have both been responsible for peoples’ deaths?

Given the gravity of the subject matter, it may seem absurd, but sometimes humor can play a helpful role in these mollifications. The former British Labour politician and Sinn Fein sympathizer Tony Benn once met Paisley, and shared with him an interesting perspective on the events in the North. “You’ve got to hand it to the IRA and Gerry Adams”, remarked Benn, “they’ve stuck to their guns!” Paisley, for his part, had no problem in seeing the drollness here. But much more than this, the most effective medicine will be an understanding of how far we have come.

Mr. Dudgeon is a liberal Unionist, and in stark contrast to the right-wing reactionary views of the stereotypical Orange man, actively supported the decriminalization of male homosexual behavior in Northern Ireland. He was, in fact, the successful plaintiff at the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg in 1981 whose judgment led to that decision. A fascinating and contradictory figure, such an invitation is another impressive step towards mutual understanding, and anyone disagreeing with this assertion is fully deserving of being labeled a cynic. Cillian Fahy, the head of TCD Sinn Fein, remarked last week that “dialogue is vitally important”. Dialogue, if civil, inevitably leads to understanding. Distrust these peacemakers if you wish, and even doubt the sincerity of their concessions if you must, but please don’t dismiss the significance of progress. It’s about as useful as a hat rack is to a moose.

Jeffrey Dudgeon will be speaking at 7.30pm this Thursday in the Arts Block, Room 4047

Sign Up to Our Weekly Newsletters

Get The University Times into your inbox twice a week.