Why I’m not a Progressive

I struggled with the title for this post. What I really wanted to call it was “You are not a Progressive”. I’ve compromised on this impulse to tell people that their beliefs are just wrong.

But you can’t be a Progressive, in the current political sense of the word, because there is no such thing as historical Progress. Progress is a journey, travelling towards a predetermined destination. But things do not gradually get better over time, moving towards a pre-destined better place. History is one damn thing after another until extinction. There is no reason to it. It does not have a shape. It doesn’t travel on rails, with the odd hesitation. Either things get better for people, or they get worse or they stay the same. But if they get better, that isn’t a step forward on a well mapped path along which we are Progressing. It’s the result of one set of social pressures and circumstances, sometimes planned and sometimes not, bringing about a change which can- as soon as opposing forces gather themselves to assault that change- be reversed or kept. The NHS in the UK wasn’t a result of Progress. It was a revolution. And it is always at risk from a counterrevolution. It had a beginning and just as certainly, it will have an end.

The outlawing of the slave trade was a moral triumph by UK abolitionists. If they hadn’t done all the things required to build that political change, it wouldn’t have changed by itself. There was no inevitability, no arrow of history, that would have ended the profitable activity of trading in humans without their intervention, or the intervention of another comparable group of people. Votes for women, labour laws, weekends, health systems, human rights- all social improvements, none of them inevitable, all of them fought for, all of them always at risk of reverse.

I am all in favour of efforts to make things better for as many people as possible. It devalues those efforts if they’re simply taken for granted as the invisible hand of progress. And it lulls us all into a false sense of security if we think that, once achieved, a material social improvement can just be banked.

There’s no such thing as progress. It’s much harder than that.

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The Campaign Jitters podcast series

A series of short (max 5 mins) daily audio essays, which I made during the 2011 General Election campaign.

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The Tuam Babies and the Irish Times’ ‘new info’

Accuracy and facts matter and had been ignored. We had new info and majored on that. We ran accompanying analysis of main issue
- Conor Goodman (@conorgoodman), Irish Times Features Editor,
June 28, 2014

Here is all the previously unknown information I can extract from the article the Irish Times ran on the 7th June 2014 under the heading “The Trouble with the Septic Tank Story”

Paragraph 6, which appears in bold below, appears to be the new information referred to by Mr. Goodman. It is, in fact, a conclusion drawn by the author which further historical research on the nature of the Tuam Mother and Baby sewage system has shown to be based on an incorrect premise.

1. “Between 2011 and 2013 Corless paid €4 each time to get the children’s publicly available death certificates. She says the total cost was €3,184.”

2. “The information recorded on these State- issued certificates has been seen by The Irish Times; the children are marked as having died variously of tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, influenza, bronchitis and meningitis, among other illnesses.”

3. “On St Patrick’s Day this year Barry Sweeney was drinking in Brownes bar, on the Square in Tuam. He fell into conversation with someone who was familiar with Corless’s research, and who repeated the story of boys finding bones. “I told her that I was one of those boys,” Sweeney tells The Irish Times in his home, on the outskirts of Tuam. “I got a phonecall from Catherine a couple of weeks later.””

4. “In his kitchen, Sweeney demonstrates the size of this concrete flag as he recalls it: it’s an area a little bigger than his coffee table, about 120cm long and 60cm wide. He says he does not recall seeing any other similar flags in their many visits to the area.”

5. “Between them the boys levered up the slab. “There were skeletons thrown in there. They were all this way and that way. They weren’t wrapped in anything, and there were no coffins,” he says. “But there was no way there were 800 skeletons down that hole. Nothing like that number. I don’t know where the papers got that.” How many skeletons does he believe there were? “About 20.””

6. “Even if a number of children are indeed interred in what was once a sewage tank, horrific as that thought is, there cannot be 796 of them. The public water scheme came to Tuam in 1937. Between 1925, when the home opened, and 1937 the tank remained in use. During that period 204 children died at the home. Corless admits that it now seems impossible to her that more than 200 bodies could have been put in a working sewage tank.”

Note A: (These statements are the author’s own conclusions. See “Vaults under #Tuambabies site are part of sewage system” for an account based on the historical building records demonstrating the existence of a larger system of underground sewage works and spaces at the Tuam Mother and Baby home than was presumed by the author.)

Note B: (Catherine Corless’ daughter has posted specific response to this paragraph, amongst other issues with the article.

“This is false; my mother says she did not “admit” that anything in her findings was “impossible”; she was as consistent in her presentation to Rosita Boland as she was with any other interviewer.”

It’s worth noting that this very significant assertion by the author is not supported by a quote.)

7. “Corless has not been contacted by anyone from any State department, asking to have access to her research.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 13.16.55

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The Buried Present

A terrible historical event intrudes into the present in lots of ways. Knowledge of a wrong makes us want to see justice done. But before we can do the work justice requires, we have to get through history’s bottleneck. We have to know what happened in the past.

That’s why the issue of reporting of the Tuam #800babies story is not the distraction it might look like. It feels wrong to care about which paper or station said what when, of course. It feels like it reduces horrors to the status of a media bunfight. But the choice to publish or withhold information- to acknowledge or ignore- is the proxy for the question; what will we remember and what will we forget?

There has been too much silence. We have forgotten too much too often that was inconvenient.

I am not inclined to give anyone who might ensure the past stays buried any latitude.

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Sentimental Values

Ireland is a sentimental society. We want all our fights to end with a hug. This is so even – especially – when the dispute is unresolved. Fudge it, say that both sides want the same thing but simply disagree on the means, and move on. Irreconcilable differences are hard work, and spoil the warm glow provided by the sentimental narrative of closure. Bury them, make a speech, and put a plaque on top.


Look at Northern Ireland, a dispute not so much resolved as put to one side. As Jason Walsh has perceptively written, it is “suspended in amber” and fought now on a cultural level (flags, language grants, “parity of esteem”) rather than a paramilitary one. Now think of the odd triumphalism of the early days of the Peace process. TV ads showed montages of some of the things Ulster can agree on (The Giant’s Causeway, George Best) set to the music of Brian Kennedy or Van Morrison. Tommie Gorman breathlessly reported for RTE on the joint doings of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, each one, he almost tearfully confided, “historic” and “unprecedented”. Bono, on stage in Belfast, held aloft on one side the hand of David Trimble, on the other that of John Hume. Bono, incidentally, is us at our sentimental worst, and we know it, that’s why he makes us wince so.

Look at the planned 1916 commemoration, the weird need to invite one of the British Royal Family along. To simply move on with our life as a nation having made some sort of peace with our colonial past would never be enough for us. We need to enfold Britain into our arms, the better to marvel, like Tommie Gorman “Who’d have thought, just a few short years ago?”. The British are far too polite to roll their eyes at the carrying-on of the sentimental Irish, at least not while we’re looking.

Sooner or later, Fianna Fáil too will be reintegrated into the family, amid assurances that we have all grown as people since our falling out. Though it will take longer, our tortured relationship with the Church will end the same way, I am sure of it.

Some years ago, a man named Michael O’Brian made a passionate, eloquent and upsetting contribution to RTE’s Questions & Answers following the release of the Ryan Report into child abuse. He was upset and angry, because years later, he was still having nightmares, and yet nothing seemed to have been done to bring the people who raped him (he did not hide behind euphemism) to justice.

When RTE finally cancelled Questions & Answers, I wrote the following:

Last night, having run various greatest hits and dissected them in studio, Q & A replayed Mr. O’Brien’s short speech. They went to the panel for reaction. The talking heads spoke of it as a powerful moment of television. One described where she was when she saw it. I cannot tell you how nauseated I was by this treatment. This poor man’s cry of hurt and anger was being turned into a TV moment. It was being treated like Ray Houghton’s goal against England in 1988.

The notional conversation was having its revenge. When real people intervene in the notional conversation, they need very quickly to be made less real, to be turned into a media talking point. Susie Long has had her name degraded by being constantly used as a catchphrase. Mr. O’Brien, who has surely suffered enough, is going through the same process.

This is how sentimentalism works. It is relentlesly anecdotal. It overlooks the need to address a problem or right a wrong and wallows instead in its own feelings. It enjoys being moved by things, but rarely lifts a finger to help.

Last year the Sisters of Mercy donated the site of a former Magdalene Laundry on Forster St. Galway to a new women’s refuge. In only one sense – that it’s about time the nuns made some kind of financial recompense – can this be said to be fitting. In terms of sheer symbolism, housing a women’s refuge in a Magdalene Laundry is not ideal, but on the other hand COPE, the charity running the refuge were grateful for the donation. But this is Ireland, and our keen eye for closure will not allow such moments to pass without noting their significance. A local TD commented:

“Developing the refuge on this site is a recognition of the tragic history of the Magdalene Laundries, using this premises instead for the liberation of women fleeing terrible domestic violence”

It is also perfectly fitted to the fundamentally conservative view that there is nothing of our past, be it a a Magdalene Laundry or a former imperial master, that cannot be easily converted to modern purposes.


Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s suggestion that the appropriate response to finding 800 dead babies in a mass grave in Tuam is an inquiry “or social history project” indicates that he too favours a therapeutic response over the colder, more clinical business of justice and compensation.

Father Fintan Monaghan, secretary of the Tuam archediocese, agrees:

“I suppose we can’t really judge the past from our point of view, from our lens. All we can do (emphasis mine) is mark it appropriately and make sure there is a suitable place here where people can come and remember the babies that died.”

There will be a plaque, perhaps a garden where one can reflect on the past and contemplate how time – and only time, it seems – heals all wounds. These are the kind of “healing moments” that Ireland favours, cultural rather than legal or administrative. You need to enjoy poetic justice in this country, because it is very often the only kind you’ll get.

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Digital Rights Ireland: ECJ Judgement on Data Retention

This morning, the European Court of Justice-the EU’s top court- will give its judgement on whether the EU’s data retention directive is compatible with the Charter on Fundamental Rights.

We’ll update this page as the day unfolds. In the meantime, here is our client’s description of how we got here and what today’s judgement will mean.

Digital Rights Ireland: Judgement Day Q&A

And our previous posts on this case, including full text copy pleadings.

All Digital Rights Ireland posts

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Why do Irish Journalism outlets not want to secure their sources?

Enigma machine
Imagine you know something. It’s something explosive, something the public ought urgently to know. Let’s say the state is being undermined from within- either by regular ole corruption, or by infiltration by a hostile external group.

Now, imagine you hold the evidence to prove this explosive fact. It’s on a USB stick (that’s how vast infodumps come, these days). You want to deliver it to a media outlet so they can alert the public. But you don’t know any journalists- you didn’t go to school or college with them. So, you can’t know who-if anyone- you can trust with your identity.

You work inside the system, you know its quirks and foibles and if you’re identified as the source of the leaks you’re afraid you’ll be identified and victimised (or worse. Don’t forget, we’re just imagining here.). Maybe you remember that Geraldine Kennedy, the former Editor of the Irish Times just this year said she feared for her life during the phone-tapping affair.

“I took the precaution to ask George Colley, the senior Fianna Fáil adversary of Mr Haughey, if he would come to see where I lived. He did. I told him that if I ever went missing to search the river Liffey and if I were found there I hadn’t gone voluntarily, because I didn’t swim.”

You realise you can’t just email the data in the clear. You can’t even contact a journalist in the clear. You need to contact a news outlet that can receive encrypted emails.

You look at the contact pages of The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, The Irish Examiner and RTE. You see no sign any of them use the PGP (or GPG, its free open source equivalent) system to protect sources. Nor do any of them seem to run a secure DeadDrop system to receive leaks from whistleblowers, like the New Yorker magazine. That’s free and open source too. But they just don’t seem to have bothered to set up the basics of receiving information in a way that protects their sources.

Perhaps, you think to yourself as you look at the USB key in your hand, they would prefer not to know.

Photo by Anthony Catalano, used under cc licence

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David Quinn, Shirley Temple, and The Milkman’s Cheery Whistle

It cannot be easy to be an opinion columnist. No, that’s not quite true. Being an opinion columnist is incredibly easy, especially when compared to jobs such as firefighter, coalminer or deep-sea fisherman. What is difficult though, so difficult that there are only a handful of people in the world up to the task, is to be a good one.

Most people don’t have all that many opinions. We might have subjects in which our jobs or personal experience have given us a certain expertise. We might have come across a subject in passing one day and kept ourselves vaguely informed about it. Otherwise, we tend to outsource our opinions to our friends (who will have their own handfuls of areas of expertise), to political leaders, to twitter. It would be an unusually thoughtful person who came up with a dozen fully-formed original opinions per year. Expecting someone to have one of them per week, let alone per day, is unrealistic. Worse, it depletes their intellectual resources, turning them into opinion machines, wandering through the world looking for things to publicly have opinions about. This is how the columnist turns into a crank, unable take a neutral stance on anything, having (and worse, expressing) strongly held views about things that no sane person would care about at all.

Stephen Fry has spoken amusingly of his time as a newspaper columnist, and the dangerous habits of mind into which this occupation can lure one. The most dangerous trap is what he calls “the milkman’s cheery whistle”. This is the lazy tendency, when stuck for something to write about, to muse on “an object of nostalgic regret”. Whatever happened to the milkman’s cheery whistle, muses the columnist. You used to hear it every morning, back in the old days. Now, the milkman is almost a thing of the past. Shame really. Of course I’ve been buying my milk from Tesco for years now, but still, it’s sad that we’ve lost that personal touch. Seems sort of soulless really, but sure that’s modern life, isn’t it?


All of which may be a possible explanation for a column written recently by David Quinn for the Irish Catholic. Mr. Quinn, perhaps best known on the internet, where he is a figure alternately of fun and hatred, writes not one but two weekly columns. And he’s been at it for over a decade. You might then be forgiven for thinking that he must be a polymath, a renaissance man, his mind ranging from subject to subject, and coming up with one hundred fresh, unique observations per year. On the evidence of his most recent column, you would be wrong.

Mr. Quinn laments the recent passing of his own personal milkman’s whistle, the former child actress Shirley Temple. Aside from displaying frequent symptoms of columnist’s laziness (“The only Shirley Temple film I can actually remember properly…”) he suggests that Temple’s post -child-stardom life was a more wholesome than Miley Cyrus’. But, in this fallen age, another Shirley Temple is impossible to imagine. Of “Bright Eyes”, a movie he “can’t remember at all” but read something about, somewhere (no citation is given), he asks:

“Could a movie like that be made today? Have we become too cynical, too secular-minded? My hunch is that a movie like that, adapted slightly for modern tastes would still be popular but would probably never see the light of day because of the overt faith references”

There’s a lot to deal with in this paragraph. First, the sneaky suggestion that secularism and cynicism are somehow the same thing. Better still, the “hunch” that Hollywood won’t give the people the pious, wholesome films they want (presumably because the movie industry hates to make money). Finally, the realisation that this entire fantasy, where Hollywood for some reason produces a remake of “Bright Eyes” only to suppress it, is based on a film Mr. Quinn admits to never having seen.

It is almost poignant, this sadness that the word has become so cynical. Things were better in the days of “Bright Eyes”.

In that less cynical age, Graham Greene wrote (and was sued for his trouble) that Shirley Temple’s appeal was essentially paedophilic in nature. Certainly, it is hard to imagine a contemporary child star glammed up the way Shirley Temple was (think of the Minipops debacle). Is that concern for sexualisation of children modern cynicism, or a better awareness of something we should have been more worried about all along?

In that less cynical age, the world saw the Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust.

In that less cynical age, there wasn’t so much in the media about demands for gay rights, and drag queens didn’t presume to enter public debate. But they still existed. The only difference is that now Mr. Quinn is hearing about them.


The world of your childhood was simpler, not because it was a simpler time, but because you were a child then. If it seems to you that in your childhood there was less alcoholism, infidelity and domestic violence, it’s probably because people don’t talk about those things in front of children. If it seems to you that things – rights for gay people, political correctness – have gone too far, you need to ask yourself at what point in history they had they gone exactly far enough. If it seems to you that there was ever such a thing as a less cynical age, that is entirely human and natural. Sit down, watch a Shirley Temple film (or whatever cultural comfort food you prefer) and wallow for a short moment in old, illusory certainties. Then turn the TV off, and go outside into the modern world, where you have to live whether you like it or not.

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CONFIRMED: RTE internal memo to unhappy staff re Pantigate

UPDATE: It is real.
I’m not a journalist and I’m not used to getting leaks.
So all I can tell you is, I received the text below and it may be accurate or it may not.
If it is accurate, it is the most expansive RTE has been in trying to justify their decision making on this.
If it isn’t accurate I’ll clarify that in an update and we can leave this post as a monument to my folly.



Over the last week a number of people have approached me questioning RTÉ’s apology to John Waters and members of the Iona Institute following the receipt of six legal complaints and you will, no doubt, have seen the ongoing debate on this subject.

I want to reassure you that RTÉ explored every option available to it, including right of reply. Legal advice was sought and all avenues were explored, including an offer to make a donation to a neutral charity.

However, based on the facts of what was broadcast, and having regard for broadcasting compliance issues, the seriousness of the legal complaints, and the decision by the complainants not to accept RTÉ’s proposed remedies, we decided that a settlement was the most prudent course of action. Senior counsel was consulted and confirmed that the legal position was far from clear.

As a dual-funded public body, RTÉ should not knowingly progress to defend an action when it is advised, internally and externally, that such a defence is unlikely to succeed before a jury.

RTÉ has not engaged in censorship, but has rather fallen foul of Ireland’s defamation laws. The topic reopened over the weekend and RTÉ will continue to cover this and related issues, as evidenced by last week’s Late Debate, coverage of the protest in Dublin city centre on Sunday, today’s item on Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1 and last weekend’s debate on the subject on The Saturday Night Show.

Glen Killane

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A People, Risen

I take it that you, like me, have already see the video posted above, of Panti’s Noble Call, a stirring address to the audience at the final production of The Risen People on Saturday night. If so, you won’t be the last. The video has been watched by 100,000 people already, and is spreading like wildfire across the world’s media.

And of course the whole thing is so magnificently stirring that you feel like soaring orchestral music should start playing behind it at the end. The setting, the Abbey Theatre, scene of so many famous nights in Irish history. The backdrop, actors playing workers who struck for their rights a century ago. The speech itself, so raw and honest, yet so thoughtful and reasoned that the anthologies of Great Irish Speeches already seem incomplete and out-of-date without it. It is the most significant piece of public speech Ireland has seen in years.

We all enjoy watching feelgood videos that confirm our already held political opinions. But for me at least, something else was at work when I watched. I couldn’t get the video out of my head, and I wondered why.

Yesterday, this conversation came up in my timeline:


And then I began to suspect why the Noble Call was still nagging at me, and I watched it again. Panti talks about checking herself at the pedestrian crossing, to make sure she doesn’t look too gay. She talks about cringing when friends act too gay in public. And this is the power of prejudice, that it is so pervasive that it can enter the head of an out-and-proud gay man and make him feel embarrassed by the very idea of gayness. And I recognised that embarrassment within myself. Because prejudice also worms its way into politically correct liberal thought. It makes us define other people’s struggle in terms of our own perspective (in my case, that of the straight white liberal male), rather than theirs. It leads to thoughts like “look guys, you know I’m on your side, but hey, dial it down a little”. It lead to my gut reaction when I read this tweet:


I thought, well that’s really sad, but maybe it was the safer option. This is how we endorse society’s prejudices even while we say we condemn them. Of course, I’m not prejudiced, we say, but not every taxi driver is as liberal as I am. This kind of thought is more common than we wish to acknowledge. You hear it too when people complain about tourists and foreign students around the town. We complain about their loudness, their “being in the way”, when maybe it is their visible foreignness that really irritates. You hear it when people declare they have no problems with Africans or Roma, but why do they have to dress like that?

Tolerance is a fine, useful value. It allows people to get on in society even when they hate or have no understanding of each other. But tolerance is no long-term solution for a society that aspires to inclusiveness and equality. These aspirations require us to accept people for what they are, not for how closely they conform to what we are. And that’s why the Noble Call wouldn’t get out of my head. By honestly addressing that homophobia exists everywhere, even in the minds of gay people, it (very graciously, in the circumstances) allowed me to recognise it within myself. It is not for me or anyone else to decide just how gay a gay man is permitted to act. Put on your heels and wig and make-up and do us proud before the world, Panti. Stand at the pedestrian crossing however you please. We, the risen people, will have your back.

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