Tag Archives: media hegemony

A Presidency With Enormous Potential

Yes, at the end of a tortuous journey, made all the more tortuous by a deeply flawed ‘journalism’, we have a President. In choosing Michael D Higgins to be President, over a million voters have given the wealthy Irish, and the rest of the political class, grounds for real unease.

In his early reactions to his election, Michael D has made clear his intention to work towards the creation of a true republic, something that will require real change – “This necessary transformation which has now begun will, I hope, result in making the values of equality, respect, participation in an active citizenship, the characteristic of the next seven years. The reconnection of society, economy and ethics, is a project we cannot postpone”.

Equality, respect, active citizenship, society and ethics are words that do not fit into the neo-liberal lexicon. They are words that have long been absent from the discourse of the southern Irish political class, other than for their propaganda value in which their use is entirely cynical. This absence is not a recent occurrence, but is part of a nine-decades-long counter-revolution, the central aim of which has been to defend privilege by maintaining a right-wing political hegemony in which lip-service was paid to the notion of a ‘republic’ while the principles upon which a genuine republic must be based – liberty, equality, community and justice – were consistently thrashed.

The maintenance of that right-wing political hegemony has been achieved by co-opting a willing corporate and state media – itself right-wing and hegemonic, complete with its token regard for ‘other views’ so as to present the necessary illusion of an impartial/balanced face to the public. Even the most cursory analysis of media content across the entire mainstream spectrum reveals the values that are given primacy, values consistent with the needs and desires of the wealthy and the rest of the political class, values which have no regard for those principles that underpin a republic, values that are contrary to the best interests of the vast majority of the Irish people.

So,  Michael D Higgins has lined up powerful people and powerful institutions as necessary targets and, wise man that he is, is very well aware that they will set their sights on him as a target. We should expect subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to undermine his project of creating a real republic with an active citizenry as its owners.

But President Higgins will not be an easy target, or a willing fall-guy. Over a long political career he has demonstrated courage and consistency of belief, often having to suffer the jibes of fools, and almost always winning at least the political and moral arguments, if not the logical outcome of winning those arguments. He has very significant public support based on a published manifesto in which the true republic and the citizen were integral parts, and that public is substantially the readership and audience for the media which would have to provide the theatre in which attempts to undermine him would play out. Readership and audience brings advertising, and the media would do well to remember that you lose one and then you lose the other.

Drawing on both his academic and political careers, Michael D will be a formidable opponent for the ‘commentariat’, particularly if the role of the media in a democracy comes up for examination – which it must do as an important byproduct of the discussion around creating a true republic. He was very much prepared to tackle powerful vested interests during his successful period as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, a brief which included broadcasting policy and with which he engaged in an intelligent and resolute manner. He was very much prepared to draw on his deep convictions regarding justice, civil and human rights, opposition to imperialism and to war, to take up often unpopular or little reported causes and issues, on national and international fronts, and to withstand attacks from misguided, or ignorant, or malign commentators, including powerful governments.

Why would a man like Michael D put so much emphasis on a project – that of creating true republic – that has been buried for 90 years? A look at his background reveals at least part of the answer. He is the son of a man who fought for the Irish Republic of the Proclamation of 1916, not just in the War of Independence, but in the brutal and divisive Civil War that raged after the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty and its ratification in 1922. His father, being on the losing side in that Civil War, suffered in terms of his health as a prisoner, and found it very difficult to find employment after his release in an Irish Free State ruled by anti-republican counter-revolutionaries. That was an experience common to very many on the republican side, both men and women, and through his father, Michael D. knew some of those people too. The Higgins family suffered greatly because of this, and so Michael D carries memories of not just his father’s sacrifice and of the damage his courageous participation in the struggle to establish the republic caused to him, but of the entire family’s sacrifice and suffering. It is a very emotional area for him.

In occasional private conversations, some short and others more substantial, mostly relating to modern Irish history, culture and society, Michael D has always come across to me as someone who is inspired by James Connolly to a far greater extent than anyone else in top echelons of the Labour Party. Perhaps it is this that has had him at times at the margins of the Labour Party. He is sometimes referred to as being the left-wing of the party, although there are a small number of other TDs who also occupy that position – but far too few.

Arising out of his presidency, the centenary celebrations of the founding of the Irish Labour Party which will occur in 2012 may become far more interesting than they might otherwise have been. In opening up public discussions on what sort of republic we want to build, and on the role citizens will have in that republic, Michael D may influence, from outside the Labour Party, the ideological direction that the party moves in over the next few years. And then in the following year we will have the centenary of the 1913 Lock-out in which the Labour Party’s founders, James Connolly and Jim Larkin, took the leading roles on the workers’ side, adding yet more pressure to today’s Labour Party to move towards the left.

Then, coming closer to the end of Michael D’s term in office there will be the big centenary in 2016, that of the revolution of April 24th 1916 and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. James Connolly was central to both the revolutionary action and the ideology of the Republic that that action sought to bring into being. Paragraph four of the Proclamation is, without doubt, Connolly’s work. It is, in effect, the Workers’ Republic, or at least provides the space in which that republic could be created by free citizens.

Michael D, fortunately, is the President who will, should he remain in good health, preside over the commemorations. There are few people who understand so well the deep meanings that lie in the text of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and fewer still so able to mine those meanings and ideas, and to articulate them to the citizens. While most citizens have probably not read the Proclamation – a document that was virtually suppressed because of the counter-revolution – and fewer still have delved into the deeper structure of it in terms of what it means, there is a great emotional bond between a majority of Irish citizens and the Proclamation, even if they don’t fully understand it. This emotional attachment is something that, no doubt, Michael D will draw on over the course of the next four years in the run-up to 2016. After all, the sort of true republic that he has indicated he wishes to speak about is contained, substantially, in the Proclamation.

It will be intriguing to watch how all of this plays out. There is no doubt that Michael D has thought deeply about these things and these opportunities, and about how he might influence events through the power of his ideas and of his words. He knows that there is an enormous amount of goodwill for him out there among the public, that Sinn Féin, a party on an upward curve, will support him in his efforts to create a true republic and to face down a corrupt political class of which top media operatives are a part and which Sinn Féin has no love for, that in his former party, Labour, many among the parliamentary party but especially among the ordinary membership hold him in special affection, and that, crucially, history has given him significant centenaries and commemorations during his term in office.

The future looks brighter now for those who have been waiting a lifetime for a real republic, owned, as Plato suggested it must be over two thousand years ago, by the citizens. He will need allies as he sets about his project. As the ramifications of what establishing of a real republic entails become more apparent to powerful vested interests, including among those main-stream media operatives and commentators who act as spokes-men/women for the so-called ‘elite’ and the wealthy, President Higgins will need those allies even more, and will need them to make their voices heard.

This is a presidency with enormous potential. It demands steadfast commitment on the part of Michael D to see it bear fruit, and it demands equal commitment from those of us who believe the Irish revolution of 1916 must be brought to completion, and that the Irish Republic must stand proudly in the world as James Connolly wished it would-  a sovereign, enlightened, progressive republic acting as a beacon of hope to the oppressed people of the world. Its day has come.


A Revolution in Thought or Feeling

Every revolution has a secret history difficult to discover and to disentangle. The Irish rising of 1916 is no exception.’                                 (F.S.L. Lyons 1971)

In 1992 in the course of a conversation with a friend, Barry Dunne, I remarked to him that my father, born in 1918, had been christened Patrick Pearse O’Rahilly Stokes as a tribute to two of the heroes of the 1916 Rising in which my grandfather, John Stokes,  had fought as a rank and file volunteer at Boland’s Mills. Barry expressed amazement and said that his father, born in late 1916, had been christened Joseph Pearse O’Rahilly Dunne, again in tribute to Patrick Pearse and The O’Rahilly. His grandfather, Joe Dunne had been a member of the GPO garrison in Easter Week. The possibility that this choice of names for their newly born sons was mere coincidence became less likely as more details emerged. Both were members of the Irish Volunteers, were about the same age and were interned in Frongoch prison camp after the Rising. Both worked as hackney cab drivers. The strong likelihood is that they knew one another well. Seventy-six years later, their grandsons would, by pure happenstance, partially rebuild the story, too late to verify the details since both men are long dead.

This, it seems to me, illustrates the secret history of the 1916 Revolution. Two young married men left their homes in working class areas of Dublin, said good-bye to their families, possibly, they must have thought, forever, and went to do battle with the mightiest imperial power in the world at that time. Several hundred other men and women did likewise, but their stories have been allowed to dissolve away over time.

The attention of academic historians has been concentrated on the leaders of the Rising, and on the elite group that surrounded them before the revolution and survived them after it. And even when dealing with the executed leaders, the details of their lives were rearranged where necessary to serve the needs of others. James Connolly’s birthplace was moved from Edinburgh in Scotland to Monaghan, one suspects to make him really Irish. His Catholic death was highlighted but his socialist life was obscured. The other leaders have been judged in different ways at different times depending, it seems, on the exigencies of the moment. In the process, the struggle has shifted from the GPO, and has become instead a battle between what Nietzsche describes as monumental and critical historiography, the former giving us positive images of historical figures, the latter concerned with dismantling the past so as to re-evaluate it from a ‘modern’ perspective. Even within these there have been shifts of emphasis. Writing in Eire-Ireland in 1994, Kathleen Nutt made this point:

‘The healthy condition of antiquarian history is not shared by monumental history. Because such figures in the nationalist historical tradition as Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, have been hijacked by republican paramilitaries, academic historians have been quick to direct their passionate iconoclasm against them.’ 

Critical historians have played their part in this too. In a rush, it seems, to distance themselves from events in the six counties in the last quarter of the last century, some have tended to focus, for instance, on the language of leaders such as Patrick Pearse, and to judge it by the standards of today, thus removing it from its context.

Nutt, in pointing to the negative effects of this form of historiography wrote that:

‘Critical history… dismantles heroic deeds, crushes ideals, and displays goodness and altruism as mere egoistic hankering after self-interest… Thus, heroes of the past are demoted, models no longer exist to be aspired to, little is left to feel proud about, and a community may feel cut off from its past and alienated from itself.’

Nutt points instead to other approaches, instancing  Paul Feyerabend’s notion of ‘the partial, multi-perspectival characteristics of “mini-” or fragmented narratives’ and also to the materialist theory of Jurgen Habermas which recognises the notion of a critical hermeneutic ‘which would incorporate into the interpretation of the past an acknowledgement of and critical reflection upon the scholar’s own historical and geographical vantage point’.

It does seem to be perfectly reasonable that in offering an interpretation of historical periods or events the scholar would illustrate in some way the personal perspective which must in some way inform the work. It equally seems to be reasonable to present history, not as something which happens due to the presence of one monumental figure or other, but as the sum of many fragmented narratives. Those voices which have been lost or excluded need to be heard again so that we may more fully understand ourselves as a people. It is not good enough that we should define ourselves by the actions or reactions of an ‘elite’. Writing on the shortcomings of conventional historiography in 1991 Margaret Ward had this to say:

‘Who are the people who make history? The argument rarely seems to touch upon the human content of the narrative. Conventional historiography has given us kings, with the odd queen thrown in, and rebellious chiefs and politicians, with the peasantry popping in and out of the picture. In the last couple of decades the working class has managed to shoulder its way onto the scene and the history of the Irish working class is now rapidly unfolding, thanks to the diligence of a new generation of historians. But it is all strangely woman-free.’

Since Ward wrote that, much has been done to bring the women and the central role they so often played in the revolution back into the narrative. The other significant group left out of the narrative, the working class, are edging back into it although much more work needs to be done on both (often overlapping) groups.

Very often over the past thirty years or so it has been from within the area of cultural studies that much of the work to liberate the silent voices has come. Rather than concentrating on ‘High’ literature, scholars from the cultural studies area of sociology have foregrounded the importance of popular culture in shaping people’s view of themselves and their societies. As Desmond Bell put it in 1993:

‘Significantly the major re-excavation of our past and reassessment of its significance for contemporary sensibilities has been undertaken by literary scholars rather than by academic historians… Criticism has been first along the pathways where historical determination, cultural formation and popular experience intersect.’

In the past, great emphasis has been placed on the role of the ‘High Art’ of the cultural revivalists such as Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory and others, in impelling the Irish people towards independence from Britain. But the majority of those without whom the 1916 Revolution would not have happened, the working and lower middle classes, were more likely to be found in the stalls of the Queens Theatre partaking of Irish historical melodramas rather than in the Abbey Theatre, and more likely to get their information and ideas from the pages of some newspaper or magazine which they could buy for a halfpenny or a penny than in some leather bound volume of poetry, even if it carried Yeats’ name. Some shift in the imagination changed a sufficient number from being, at the end of the nineteenth century, broadly supportive of Parnell and the Home Rule movement, into participation in the early part of the twentieth century in a revolutionary movement, and prepared to fight and evidently to die for the republican ideals laid out in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

As Peter Costello put it in 1977 in ‘The Heart Grown Brutal’:

‘Revolution, like tragedy, takes place in the imagination. A revolution in thought or feeling – that is, in what people know about themselves or imagine that they know – is the prerequisite for any revolution.’

As we approach the centenary of the 1916 revolution it is worth applying Costello’s assertion to the possibility, however weak, that today’s citizens might take on themselves the responsibility of completing the work of the stalled revolution – the re-creation of the Irish Republic, put into a state of suspended animation by the counter-revolution of 1922-2011. Do today’s citizens have the information to understand what is at stake and are they open to experiencing a ‘revolution in thought or feeling‘?

Over the past 30 years and more the project of historical revisionism has taken hold and has been paralleled by the active participation of many  of the senior academic historians involved in that project either as guests or very often as contracted commentators in the mainstream media. Too often the revisionist line has been used not for scholarly investigation but as a battering ram against republican activity in the ‘Troubles’, while at the same time these senior academics were engaged in the ‘education’ of future teachers of history to second and third level students.

The two byproducts of this have been the turning away of a significant number of citizens through distorted media coverage from the notion that 1916 was ‘a good thing’, or that it was even a ‘legitimate action’; secondly, by the teaching in our schools of  a version of the story of the revolution corrupted by the political exigencies of today. The very breath was taken out of the story, an element of shame was falsely attached to it, and the people that it should have inspired have been so uninspired as to leave school in large numbers ignorant of the part the 1916 revolution in both the forwarding of the ‘republic’ as a concept and of their own status as citizen, not subject.

Despite the presence of some good, professional historians  in the history departments of the various universities, it is too late for them to rescue the situation in time for the centenary. It will take as long to revise the revisionists as it did for the revisionists to create a corrupted historiography. Recent and imminent retirements of failed senior academic historians may help the next generation, provided care is taken in appointing proper historians in their place, historians who understand that ‘passionate iconoclasm’ should not be part of their tool-kit.

Despite the work of a small number of fine, ethical journalists and commentators, there is no chance, given the right-wing media hegemony that it seems we must endure in the immediate future, that the citizens at large will be properly informed through that channel of the relevance, indeed the central importance of the 1916 revolution in their lives, and of the need to investigate and understand its core meanings and significance.

The ‘revolution in thought or feeling’ can only come about outside of the mainstream media and despite a corrupted academia. We cannot rely on any more that a couple of Presidential candidates, most likely Martin McGuinness and Michael D Higgins, to engage the citizens with the notion of a ‘republic’ and what it should mean.

It falls, therefore, to artists, activists, trade unions,  social media users, working class and women’s groups and so on to engage with the centenary of the revolution, and with what that centenary will celebrate – the establishment of a genuine, progressive, enlightenment republic, the Irish Republic.

It is time for that ‘revolution in thought or feeling’.

Election Mania: notes from the asylum 6

As the last counts continue in the General Election, it is a black mark against the mainstream media in Ireland that across the board it is assiduously pushing the Fine Gael-Labour coalition as the only option. This  illustrates a deeply entrenched, internalised, unethical and unprofessional approach on the part of ‘professional’ journalists.

The fact is that there are at least four options available. Fine Gael can form a coalition government with Labour, or with independents, or with Fianna Fail, or can form a minority government with the agreed support of Fianna Fail and like-minded independents. If stability is a key requirement, then the coalition of two parties which share the same broad ideology is available, against the potential instability of a coalition of a left-wing party, which Labour claims to be, and a right-wing party which Fine Gael is.

There is anecdotal evidence of Labour Party workers at a Dublin count centre supporting the idea that Labour would lead the opposition and work toward leading a government at the next opportunity. A strong statement from Jimmy Kelly, Regional Secretary of the Unite trade union, echoes this line, with sound reasoning.

Should Labour insist that it will lead the opposition, that would force Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to hold talks, and to find the basis of agreement on which a stable government could be formed. The fact is that about 55% of voters gave their first preference to right-wing parties and independents.That says something, but this fact does not register as being of any consequence with the media.

Should Fine Gael and Fianna Fail not reach agreement then another General Election would be required if Labour held firm and explained the dichotomy of Labour being required to provide stable government, but Fine Gael and Fianna Fail not being so required. In those circumstances, Fine Gael would not wish to take the chance of going to the country again, and so a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition of one sort or the other would have to be a runner.

Regarding international perception and confidence, neither the EU or the IMF, or the international bond market could lack confidence in such an arrangement – to adopt any other position would lack any logic.

It is difficult to imagine, given the ‘shapes’ that its spokespeople are throwing, that the Labour leadership will respect the mandate that the party and other left-wing parties and independents have been given to create real change in politics in the manner that Unite leader Jimmy Kelly describes.

Whichever way it goes with respect to forming a government, there is one  project that must be undertaken – it is vital that a proper examination of the deeply anti-democratic nature of media coverage across the printed press and broadcast media takes place, post-election, and that the findings are acted on. There is work here for academics, and we have no shortage of qualified people to do that work.

If a media hegemony was identified in any country outside Ireland, the Irish media would react indignantly. The parable of the Mote and the Beam comes to mind, a parable that has to do with hypocrisy and censoriousness. Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

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