C: Houses of the Oireachtas

Helen McEntee’s imaginary Ireland doesn’t exist

Two Irish men brutally murdered in Sligo. An Englishman sucker-punched in the street and left for dead. An eighty-year-old woman, stabbed to death in her own home. A Donegal man in hospital after a serious assault in Castlefin. €1.75million worth of Cocaine, seized in Dublin.

All of this in less than one week. Holy week, in fact, in Ireland, in 2022.

Should we be surprised? This is, after all, a country where a serious assault will earn you, as often as not, a suspended sentence. It is a country where a convicted sex offender, released on the basis that he would leave the country, is wandering around the streets of central Dublin with impunity. It is a country where one of our most prominent criminal Judges, Martin Nolan, seems allergic to custodial sentences, unless the criminal before him has done something like avoid taxes.

And it is a country where Helen McEntee is regarded by the great and the good as an effective and progressive Minister for Justice.

My colleague Matt wrote yesterday about the incongruity of her response to the horrors in Sligo. Faced with a brutally violent case where two men were beheaded – apparently based on their sexuality – the Minister worried that it might be a return to “days we thought were long gone”. What days? Ireland has not – at least until now – ever had a case where Gay men were beheaded.

There are two stories of modern Ireland. There is the official story, and the real story.

The official story is this: That we, now, after decades of work by progressive activists, live in a country at ease with itself. A country that is open, and tolerant, and accepting, and warm, and well-off, and friendly. This is the Ireland in which Helen McEntee is Minister for Justice.

“Justice”, in this Ireland, is not about anything hard and severe like sending people to prison or cracking down on lawlessness. “Justice”, instead, is about “finishing the work” of undoing our dark past. To be the Minister for Justice in official Ireland is to be the person responsible for soothing the wounds left behind from the 1960s and the 1970s. It is about opening enquiries and organising commissions and announcing state apologies, and assigning the correct pronouns, and keeping unpleasant dissenters a decent distance from respectability.

In this Ireland, the Ireland of Donnybrook and D’Olier Street and the Labour Party Conference, “Justice” is much more about gender quotas on State Boards and establishing a citizens assembly on Climate Justice than it is about getting criminals off our streets. In this Ireland, after all, “criminals” are not so much criminal as they are the products of “disadvantaged communities”. The real criminals in Helen McEntee’s Ireland are not necessarily the gurriers on our street corners. They are just an inconvenience – the real criminals are the hate-speakers on the Internet, and the anti-vaxxers in their whatsapp groups, and the enemies of progress in general.

The problem with all of this is that there is a second story of modern Ireland.

It is a country in which almost all genuine respect for authority has been eroded by decades of scandals. A country in which there exists a whole class of people in their tens of thousands with next to nothing but that which the state hands to them every week. There is a country with an increasing epidemic of broken homes, and broken families. There is a country where dealing drugs is a much more realistic path to prosperity, in some communities, than staying in the local state school. There is a country where many of the prime city centre jobs go to wealthy, educated, American and international immigrants, while the people who lived in those communities for generations get shoved out.

In that, second Ireland, crime is rampant, as is anti-social behaviour.

But there is another modern Ireland, too. Even within official Ireland, it exists: an Ireland of quiet loneliness and frustration, where the official pieties about consent and healthy living give way to alcohol addictions and porn addictions and gambling addictions and feelings of inadequacy and unbelonging. We are a progressive country, and oh, so very, very proud of it. And yet, many of our people – even those materially comfortable – live lives of quiet unhappiness.

The Government cannot bear the blame for all of it. But it must be said that this is a Government – and, in particular, a Minister for Justice – with no vision beyond the official version of Ireland. It is a Government that seems to believe that if it closes its eyes very tight, and repeats all the mantras with sufficient intensity, then maybe one day we really will be “an inclusive Ireland”, or “a diverse Ireland”, or a “caring, compassionate, tolerant Ireland”.

The fact is, we are not. This is a hard, cold, and at times downright unpleasant Ireland. The Minister for Justice is miles out of her depth. But then, so are they all.


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