Is Cardinal O'Brien being used as bait?

Nuance, compromise, and ambivalence don't make 'good TV'. We've chosen this binary world.

It's hard to write about Cardinal O'Brien without writing about Cardinal O'Brien, but I feel I have to try.

I can't help reaching the conclusion that this kind of confected argument, this kind of outcry, this kind of reaction, serves no-one very well. Does it serve O'Brien well? Not really. Does it serve those who attack him well? Not entirely either, and some reactions have skirted close to being as intolerant as the person they're attacking for seeing a "tyranny of tolerance". Who, then, does it serve? Those who host the discussions, I suppose. People like me, who write articles about it. But not many others.

It's difficult to avoid thinking that there is plenty of delight to be had in some quarters about comments like O'Brien's, which are akin to Sheriff Bart saying "Hey, where the white women at?" to the KKK dudes in Blazing Saddles. I can't help thinking that this might just be a tedious bit of provocation, signifying nothing at all, designed to create heat and light (mainly heat), a few clicks on a few websites and a few circular custard pie fights in comments sections underneath blogposts.

Oh, but it keeps happening. "Gay marriage, wurgh!" yells the newspaper website. "Ooh, bad views, wurgh!" yell the liberals, and all pile on. And so it perpetuates a self-serving tedious circular debate of nothingness in which no-one wins, no-one says anything remotely insightful and no-one learns anything, other than that other people can be quite annoying when they disagree with you -- and I think we all kind of knew that anyway.

I'm not saying Cardinal O'Brien, god bless him, is a troll. As far as I'm aware, he isn't. I assume he believes everything he says, and really believes that it's right. Which he's entirely entitled to do -- and his views probably represent the views of a lot of morons, bigots, idiots and fools up and down the country. I don't imagine he speaks for all Roman Catholics, believers or otherwise. I'm sure there is nothing to doubt his integrity; I wonder if he's just being used as bait.

To me, though, this seems to be the way we often tend to conduct our intellectual debate in this country. We find a bit of an outlier who has some kind of authority, flatter them that they're more significant than they really are, and tease them into saying exactly the thing that will create the most shouty polarised arguments possible. This seems to happen more often than is healthy for a genuinely fruitful debate to take place.

Have you seen that programme that stains Sunday morning television like a suspicious map-like mark on a previously pristine bedsheet? The Big Questions, it's called. I can't work out if it's a mickey take of Mitchell and Webb's Big Talk or just someone's idea of how adults really should discuss things. If it's the former, it's quite good, although rather unsubtle; if it's the latter, it's a crime against brains. I rather fear that might be what it is, though.

I THINK THIS, says person A. WELL YOU'RE WRONG, booms person B. And then they annoy each other for five minutes while Nicky Campbell referees. It's deeply unsatisfying if you've tuned in expecting anything other than a fight, and I end up turning over. There's no room for people to find common ground or work towards any compromise. It's Team A v Team B. I wonder if our deliberately adversarial parliamentary system, exemplified by the boorish lowing of backbenchers at Prime Minister's Questions, has something to do with this; if this is the example you get from the people at the very top, the cream of the country's intelligentsia, why shouldn't everyone else do the same?

But this is the way these things seem to go. If you can't talk in sufficiently argumentative, snappy soundbites, you don't get invited onto television and radio to talk about things; dare to try and speak in nuance, or admit you don't know the answer to questions, and you'll be quietly dropped. Ever wondered why people come out with daft answers on gameshows? They're chosen to be the ones who'll wildly guess at anything, rather than say they don't know. And it's relatively similar with current affairs, I'm afraid.

Back to O'Brien for a moment. I probably disagree with what he has to say. So what? I'm bound to. That's what it's all about. Who wants to listen to some relatively enlightened religious figure (of which there are many) taking the modern world on board, when you can demonise some dozy old dinosaur instead, and imagine all godsquad types are the same? I think it's the selection of these people in the first place that's the key. We get the voices we deserve. If we wanted nuance, compromise or ambivalence, we'd probably get it. But that wouldn't make what's considered 'good TV' or 'good radio', or, in this world, 'good copy'.

So, on with the binary world. It's the one we've chosen, and it's the one we're stuck with.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser