C: Still via YouTube

The national embarrassment

There is a tendency in Ireland to look east to the UK and west to the US and tell ourselves we do politics and debate better here than there. We are, we think, more reasoned, reasonable and considered. The ‘States is polarized between the Republicans and Democrats. In the UK, it is Tories and Labour. Left and right. Good versus evil. Whichever side you are on. In Ireland, it is different, we think. We are pragmatic. We compromise. We form coalitions across the divide.

Those days are gone. Now it goes a little more like this:

It’s a national embarrassment, this whole thing about singing the ‘RA songs in the shower. National embarrassment? Surely that is an over-reaction I hear you say. Sure, they are only young women, celebrating a great achievement? Surely it is just the adrenalin. They didn’t mean anything by it. They had no intention of hurting anyone with it, sure they didn’t. They didn’t even know what they were singing. Isn’t it only a chant?

It’s an outrage, is what it is. Do they not know the history? The IRA and their brutal murders? Do they not know of all the pain and suffering they have caused? Singing that song that glorifies the ‘RA only causes more pain and suffering? Glorifying murderers and terrorists is what they were doing. It shouldn’t happen. They need to apologise. They can’t apologise enough. They can’t undo the harm they have done.

This level of dialogue in Ireland is the national embarrassment. Debate and discussion in Ireland is Twitter brought to life. It is not a place for moderation. It isn’t a place for agreeing to disagree. That would be heresy. It is place where your opponent, your (verbal) jouster, has to be vanquished. As every utterance is in public you cannot be seen to give any ground. It is a sign of weakness to your friends and your foes – all of whom are either with you or against you. And they have to demonstrate their approval or disagreement publicly. Because silence is violence – whichever side you sit on. They can’t help it. Everyone has to be seen to be taking a stand. Taking sides. Being on the right side.

And this is not confined to Twitter. It may be that social media has brought us to this place. Maybe we were going to end up there anyhow. Something has done it. The shackles of moderation and restraint are off. The benefit of the doubt is gone.

It is a demonstration of the depths we have descended to (as a society) where something that is, in the greater scheme of things, somewhat trivial, ignited such passions and fury – mostly in the form of virtue signalling, gaslighting and all those other new things that are now commonplace when we have a discussion or a 164-character mud-slinging death battle. It is Mortal Kombat with words. And emojis.

Let’s step it back. The Irish women’s soccer team had just qualified for the World Cup. Their passions were high. And adrenaline was pumping. They were elated. They sang a song with the line ‘Ooh aah up the RA’. Someone recorded it and posted it on social media. All hell broke loose. A Sky Sports reporter asked the young soccer player whether she and her friends needed some education. Fuel to the fire.

After that, I do not know. Anyone and everyone has had something to say about it. And any agreeing to disagree has been very guarded or contingent. Ray D’Arcy struggled to let John Spillane agree to disagree with him. He had to have the last word. Last-wordism is an under-rated social malaise that has ripped through society like wildfire. You can’t just leave it there. It is there for all to see for all eternity. The last word has to be mine. I must destroy my adversary.

Where has the space for discussion gone? Instead of demanding the players apologise, why is it no longer possible to say ‘I think that is bad form.’ ‘In my opinion, they shouldn’t have done that’ – and then enter into a discussion about the whys and why nots. Why is not possible to say ‘I think it isn’t a big deal’ without that becoming a big deal? Why can’t they have made a mistake without being considered out of order?

Demanding apologies – which Irish Manager Vera Pauw was probably too quick to submit to – is cheating. It is taking a short-cut. It is an attempt to say Q.E.D. without ever learning a theorem. It is a societal ill that is becoming too common. I will not debate, I will exclaim my correctness, and demand an apology. Being OUTRAGED is cheating. Being OUTRAGED or offended on behalf of someone else is cheating twice. It no longer matters the intention of the wrongdoer, if something is claimed as verboten, then so be it. Consummatum est.

I do not have too much sympathy for Sinn Fein. Less for the IRA. And I know that I did not live through the era when they were murdering innocent people. But the case of the IRA is not a settled question. It is certainly not settled in the way that the question of Hitler and the Nazis is a settled question. History is complex and as many have pointed out, there were two sides involved in the conflict, yet one is an existing State so it cannot be ostracised. It is rehabilitated, forgotten (if not forgiven), out of necessity if not powerlessness to do anything else. That is realpolitik.

Yet, with the reaction to the song, you would have thought the players had given the Nazi salute en masse in the dressing room. Prince Harry got off lighter – although looking back at it now, he has had to go to great lengths for his rehabilitation. Many may feel that the IRA question should be considered settled history. But it isn’t and it cannot be, not without erasing important parts of the historical narrative, not without deleting the pain caused by the other side. Treating the question as settled, as many commentators have implicitly and explicitly done on this occasion, is not the same as arguing the case – and also hearing from the other side.

The reaction to the song was opportunistic. It was an opportunity to declare a particular perspective as the last word without going through the wearisome problem of a discussion – a national discussion even. Yet, there were many commentators – Sky Sports among them – who do not. Sky Sports can claim victimhood on behalf of the English who had suffered atrocities, but they then have to look at their own house as well. It is a two-sided coin.

There are some people who have a right to say why it is traumatic for them to hear ‘Ooh aah, up the RA’ being sung. They are people who have suffered from IRA violence. And they should be heard. But the soccer players, they also have a right to, if nothing else, plausible deniability. They were not singing to glorify the IRA. They were not singing even to glorify the Wolfe Tones. They were singing a football chant that gets sung on lots of terraces, in nightclubs, on the street. It isn’t a new event.

And then all of a sudden, it is verboten. The pile on was disgraceful but it is what we do. If we don’t pile on quick the ship might sail. Where all those who are so outraged have been for the last 35 years since the song was written. Why did this particular rendition trigger the response? When was it declared that this song could not be sung?

For years (and I have not heard anyone bring this up) the Irish public has sung the same tune, but only as ‘Ooh aah, Paul McGrath’. The words are different. But it comes from the same source. It might trigger the same feelings. But there is no intent. And that is why it is ok. Although it most likely will not be risked by anyone in future. Because no one knows what might be considered beyond the Pale, next week, next month, next year. Chronological snobbery is always just around the corner. It waits for everyone. The best-intentionedwords will be picked up and twisted sometimes in the future.

Or maybe when we were beating the Italians in Giant’s Stadium in 1994 we were all IRA apologists and just did not know it? That we were let take the chant and change the words without anyone batting an eyelid is indicative that we are living in different times. The ‘Troubles’ were not so settled back then and the tangled narrative was fresh in the mind. And there was no Twitter. And although we still had Civil War political parties vying for Government, politics was not so divisive. Ireland was not as polarised as it is today.

The lads singing the song in Dublin Airport? That’s a different kettle of fish. They know that it is a sensitive subject now. But why are they singing it? Not to glorify the IRA. Not at all. Not to hurt the people who are genuinely affected by IRA violence. They are singing it because them that demanded submission were cheating (and because they think it is just a bit of a laugh). This is payback for trying to take a shortcut. Instead of a mature discussion, there is parental finger-wagging and adolescent rebellion. You get what you pay for. The Streisand Effect is to be expected. If it wasn’t a rebel song before (it was a song about going to a Glasgow Celtic game), it is a rebel song now.

There is a smug narrative the speaks down to society; an attitude of moral superiority; of being on the ‘right side’; of knowing better – about what is right and how to behave; and then there are those that know they are being preached to, looked down and being told how to be like their betters. And they push back. They rebel by doing exactly what they are told not to do. There are fewer and fewer adult conversations. There are very few adults left in the room.

Even as I write this, I check myself. Have I covered all the bases? Have I stated strongly enough that I condemn IRA violence. Have I stated strongly enough that I condemn the UK violence? Have I said that the soccer players should have known better anyhow? Putting their hands up and saying they regret it should be enough.  Have I said that it is a serious issue? I have I said … I am sure I have missed something, and I will be told it is unacceptable to say this or to say that instead of simply disagreeing. Have I had the last word?

The real victims are both the women’s soccer team who have had their great achievement of qualifying for the World Cup ruined as a memory by the people who turned this into a big deal, and the people who have been affected by IRA violence, having to revisit the pain and suffering, not because the soccer team played the song, but because it has been amplified in the echo chamber of what masquerades as Irish ‘debate’.

The national conversation. It is how we do it in Ireland.

 


 

Dualta Roughneen

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