Credit: Micheál Martin TD, via twitter

Taoiseach: We’ll have no English trans debate here, thank you very much

This is a few days old, but worth writing about nevertheless. One might venture to suggest that if the strongest riposte the Government can manage to critics of Ireland’s gender recognition policy is “you have the same ideas as some English people” then, frankly, this is a debate that sooner or later, they are destined to lose. Here’s the Taoiseach:

Speaking today, An Taoiseach said he was aware of the “toxic” debate in the UK and added that it should be avoided here. 

“I’d be very concerned about that and and I’ve watched it in the UK and we certainly don’t need that kind of debate in Ireland. We don’t need to have that kind of debate in Ireland,” he said.

There are a few obvious points that should be made here:

First, it’s not up to the Taoiseach which debates do, or do not, happen in Ireland. The media have been suspiciously keen to highlight these comments, almost as if that’s the end of the matter. Almost as if they were a sort of instruction. Almost as if the Taoiseach were some kind of national referee, whose job it is to decide that which shall, or shall not, be talked about. He is not. His view on whether there should be a debate should be properly presented through the lens of self-interest: It is obvious that the Government does not want a debate like this because it would be troublesome for them, forcing them, as it would, to choose between polls showing massive opposition to gender self identification laws on the one hand, and the angry insistence of their NGO friends on the other. Of course the Government does not want a debate on this one, because they would have to choose to annoy somebody by taking a side. The fact that these comments were self-interested is a basic political observation, but it seems beyond the capacity of any of our political journalists to note it.

Second, there’s a Father Ted quality to it all. The debate is either legitimate or it is not. The fact that it is happening in England is an irrelevance. There’s a transparent attempt to appeal to a sort of base anglophobia here: “Well, if the English are doing something, we should obviously do the opposite”. That’s the basic message, and that’s what’s intended to be heard. “We wouldn’t do the likes of that in Ireland, now, Dougal”.

Third, the description of the debate as “toxic” is noteworthy. What does he mean by that? Does he mean that “toxic” debates in general should be avoided? That would be an interesting new choice for the Taoiseach, who has built his brand around wading into debates that were obviously “toxic” in the past, like the 8th amendment debate, to cite just one example. The man has no fear of “toxic” debates. What he’s saying, I think, without outright saying it, is that those who wish to even have a debate are doing something bad: By raising a difficult (as he sees it) issue, they are somehow coarsening the discourse and wrecking the vibe for everybody else.

This is, of course, a tried and tested tactic for when Irish politicians do not want to talk about something: We saw it just last week on immigration, when the Minister for Housing decided to accuse Carol Nolan TD of dangerous rhetoric simply for questioning whether the Government had done an impact assessment study on the level of migration the country is currently experiencing. “You can’t talk about that” is an entirely arbitrary rule, deployed only on issues that suits them. Meanwhile, they have no difficulty at all having “difficult” discussions on issues where it does suit them: It’s not three months, remember, since the entire establishment wanted to have a big talk about whether all men are potential rapists, or just some of us.

The Taoiseach knows what he’s doing, though, and he’s a past master at it. The language is clearly designed to send a signal to writers and broadcasters that the ideas advanced by gender critical feminists are toxic, divisive, and, worst of all, English, and that they shouldn’t be given much play. It’s also a swipe at Joe Duffy, whose fault all of this is, in the eyes of the establishment: We don’t want to hear any more of that, Joe.

As I said at the outset, it will not work. It will not work for two reasons: The first reason is that this strategy generally works when the ideas in question are confined to an easily stereotyped group. It’s not hard to stereotype pro lifers, or Christians in general, or people opposed to the EU, or other groups not widely represented in the media, as a sort of crank fringe. It’s much harder to do it on this issue, where there are many mainstream journalists and women who share the concerns of gender critical feminists.

The second reason is – and pardon my language here – that as arguments go, it’s just shit. If your answer to “why are we accommodating a male bodied rapist in a women’s prison” is “that’s a very English question”, you’re not going to get very far with most people. You’ll note that there’s no “love is love” here, and no “her body, her choice”. There simply is no good, compassionate, voting-yes-makes-you-kind argument for this stuff. The best argument they can muster is “shut up, you sound English”.

So yeah, not the Taoiseach’s finest moment. Not that he needs to worry unduly. He’ll be gone in a few months, and from then on, poor Leo Varadkar will be the one who has to tell the women to be quiet

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