‘The Irish are not fun-loving goblins’

PARIS: An Irish writer in France tells of his heated TV debates with the Sarkozian critics of Ireland’s child-like voters.

Gerry Feehily

Topics Brexit Politics

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‘Whatever they say we are, that’s what we’re not.’

Having lived in France much of my adult life, I constantly come across two clichés about the Irish, which on several occasions have led me to say ‘I’m English’ or ‘I’m Texan’ to avoid a stream of condescending gush about what me and my compatriots are supposed to be.

One is that we are fun-loving pissheads, who are ‘really sympathique, not like the English’. The other is that we are a ‘proud people’ imbued with ‘le fighting spirit’; that epithet is most often applied to us when our national team inevitably crashes out of rugby and football tournaments.

Such clichés abounded when I took part in two debates about the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty on French television news last week. My fellow debaters who were pro-Lisbon used these clichés to establish a suitably condescending tone, so that they could impute the large ‘No’ vote to a cabal of right-wing crackpots, conspiracy theorists and reconverted IRA terrorists. They certainly did not see it as a vote expressing informed concern, perplexity and frustration about the direction the EU is taking.

As one pro-Lisbon Euro-deputy talked of drinking whiskey and beer with her ‘proud’ Irish friends, my mind drifted off to the tale of Aristides, the fourth-century BCE Athenian democrat, who helped an illiterate peasant to vote for his – that is, Aristides’ – ostracism. It occurred to me that our modern leaders’ attitudes to those who dare to vote against them are distinctly at odds with the generosity and courage with which the unfortunate Aristides helped an uneducated old man send him into a 10-year exile.

This should be kept in mind when Nicolas Sarkozy, as France takes over the rotating EU presidency, seeks to deny that the Irish vote ever took place. Yesterday’s UK Observer reported that: ‘The Franco-German plan is to get all 27 EU states to ratify the treaty as soon as possible, to quarantine the Irish and then come up with some legal manoeuvre enabling the treaty to go ahead.’ This statement is not only fabulous in the way it states as bald fact the most loathsome variety of realpolitik – it also reminds us that Sarkozy denies even that his own countrymen, who rejected the EU Constitution in 2005, would probably also reject this rehashed version of it if they were granted a vote (which they were not).

It is not surprising to see Sarkozy being so anti-democratic; after all, this is a politician who sought to curb freedoms when he was minister of the interior and who now seeks to muzzle the French press, particularly when it criticises his good self. Alongside Sarkozy’s plans to ‘quarantine’ the Irish, we had the barfly menace of his sidekick Bernard Kouchner. The minister of foreign affairs and former Communist told the Irish they would ‘suffer’ if they voted ‘No’.

What is perhaps more surprising is that politicians and commentators of the comparatively enlightened left are of the same opinion as Sarkozy. Will Hutton – a subtle thinker who has links to that dying animal, New Labour – argued with exultant belligerence in the Observer that Europe might have ‘to get tough’ on the Irish, and that the Irish ‘are heading for the exit’. He also said of referendums: ‘[They] work best for the demagogue, the dissimulator and scaremonger, as Hitler and Mussolini, lovers of referendums, proved.’

Scratch this statement a little, and you discover that it contains a multitude of ludicrous logical outcomes. From Hutton’s standpoint, the writers of the Irish Constitution – which states that all changes to the constitutional set-up must be approved by national referendum – have a streak of the Blackshirt to them. Never mind Hutton’s disdain for the Irish vote, and for Irish voters, one could easily take his argument a little further and say that Hitler won elections; ergo, elections are happy hunting grounds for demagogues and scaremongers. Ergo, let’s cancel elections.

The spectre haunting Europe these days is one of caring, sharing despotism – not Big Brother, but Big Mother. This attitude was best summed up in one of the TV debates I took part in, where a Euro-deputy of President Sarkozy’s UMP party suggested that the Irish, and other EU citizens, needed pedagogy – that is, like children, we need to be informed of our best interests.

Indeed, amongst the EU elites, the Irish ‘No’ is being pitied in the way one pities a toddler who throws a tantrum in the high street. Such official pity can be seen in relation to other forms of legitimate protest, too, be they strikes or street demonstrations. One only has to think back to the ineffectual million-strong marches against Gulf War II that took place in Europe to see the indifference, if not contempt, with which contemporary leaders disregard traditional expressions of opposition.

Worse, the infantilisation of protest is accompanied today by the infantilism of protesters. Protest organisers take great pains to create a ‘carnival’ atmosphere at their demonstrations. This overwhelming need to be seen as cuddly and fun-loving has struck me several times in recent months, when not a week has passed in Paris without a march against President Sarkozy’s attempts to undermine health, education and transport services. As I follow corteges down the boulevards, I am inevitably confronted by the sight of middle-aged men wearing shorts of candy-coloured hues, battering samba drums and dancing with the shakiness of a razzled relative at a wedding. They dance their way past forces of law and order wearing body armour and wielding truncheons, gas canisters, stun guns, who are decidedly not in the party mood themselves.

Sarkozy is a president whose only philosophy – if one can describe the vacuous slogan ‘Work more to earn more’ as having any philosophy to it – is that every aspect of human endeavour should be subjected to the profit motive. This should give a sense of what kind of EU he wants. Yet those who consider that productivity is not the exclusive domain of the accounts department have become rather ineffectual; indeed, protesters nowadays seek at all costs to deny that a real conflict of interest between the state and its citizens is being played out.

You only have to contrast recent scenes of carnival-like protest in France with archive images of street demonstrations from the Sixties and Seventies to grasp that, even during that apparently hedonistic age, protesters seemed to take their activity with a great deal more solemnity, and indeed (with apologies to those people in shorts who have good intentions) with a greater amount of dignity, too.

Improving the quality and intensity of protest in France, and elsewhere in Europe, is important. Sarkozy now seeks to bulldoze the Lisbon Treaty through the eight states that have yet to pass it through their national parliaments, which no doubt he will do with the kind of aggressive tactics that will make Will Hutton’s left-wing heart flutter with approval. And chickenguts Gordon Brown is now mulling over the consequences of the Irish vote for the sake of his own dismal premiership in the UK. In such circumstances, we ought to reflect that the impetus of the ‘No’ vote – of the people’s protest against their aloof rulers – could be lost unless there is a distinct change in attitude amongst the progressive elements who organised against the treaty.

Adopting a distinctly unfriendly attitude to the authorities would be a start, under the aegis of the great Alan Sillitoe: ‘Whatever it is they say they think we are, that’s what we’re not.’ Perhaps we should offer our rulers a long exile on a suitable Greek island, so that they can work through their despotic, anti-democratic impulses. On Friday, the Irish, unlike the fun-loving goblins they’re painted to be, said ‘No’, like millions of their fellow European citizens who rooted for them. And they meant it.

Gerry Feehily is a journalist based in Paris, and author of the novel Fever.

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Topics Brexit Politics


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