Friday, March 31, 2006

Save us from the well-meaning Englishman

Jude Collins:

You probably remember Robert Robinson. He was the columnist ‘Atticus’ with the Sunday Times, he chaired TV programmes like Call My Bluff and Ask the Family, he was a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme for a couple of years, and he fronted Radio 4’s Stop the Week for a couple of decades. He was – still is, I suppose – a witty, intelligent Englishman.

So when I came on his autobiography Skip All That a week ago, I dived into it. He gives a whole chapter to his time on the Today programme, and he’s particularly interesting on how events in the North of Ireland were dealt with by the Radio 4 current affairs programme. What he calls ‘special rules’ operated for BBC presenters such as himself. ‘They were never written down, of course, they never are, for if you leave people to guess what they mustn’t say you have the most effective censorship of all.’ It’s the truth, Robert, the God’s truth.

Then one day he found himself confronted with a report where he felt the Beeb’s ‘special rules’ simply couldn’t apply. It was the early 1970s and a report had just been produced which found that the authorities in the North of Ireland , when they made detainees lean on their hands against walls for hours, with their heads encased in dustbin bags and with white sounds playing continuously, had not used torture. “It was just something called sensory dprivation”. Robinson was enraged by the report’s hypocrisy and wrote a few words for delivery on air as he introduced the item.

“1984 is at hand and Newspeak is upon us” he wrote. “Torture is a word that from this morning is no longer acceptable usage, it has been replaced by the officially approved phrase ‘sensory deprivation’. We remember that Orwell warned us – those who wish to distort reality first distort the language.”

Thrilling, defiant stuff. Speaking up against the perversion of truth being offered by the authorities. But alas, on the next page Robinson reveals that the Today editor refused to allow him to use the intro he had written; he, Robinson, spoke indignantly of resigning over such censorship; but then thought again. “Supposing my words were in some way subversive of endeavours to bring order to the situation in Northern Ireland, supposing their effect were in some way to promote the violence we were trying to contain? I didn’t want to hand out propaganda to be used by a bunch of murdering thugs who killed at random”. Robinson backed down.

Oh dear. As my opinion of the broadcaster plummeted, I remembered an evening years ago spent in the company of, among others, Professor John A Murphy. In the after-glow of an excellent dinner served with wine, the Professor of History at UCC informed a liberal-minded Englishman at the table that when it came to Ireland, decent Englishmen were almost worse than bloody-minded ones. For the first and probably the last time in my life, I found myself agreeing with an opinion coming from Professor Murphy.

Robert Robinson is a prime example of Murphy’s decent Englishman. In other areas he is sensitive and independent, responding to people and situations with a charm and understanding that’s completely winning. At the same time he has a keen eye for cant and balderdash, as his initial reaction to the ‘sensory deprivation’ case shows. Then just when you’re ready to applaud him, he falls back on a caricature of the Troubles that might find space in a British tabloid editorial: Britain is doing her best to ‘bring order’ to native antagonisms, the IRA are a bunch of psychopaths who murder at random. One moment Robinson is in revolt against officialdom’s attempts to misrepresent torture, the next he himself is misreprenting the Irish as mad, bad and dangerous natives in need of Britain’s civilising influence.

As John A Murphy implied, this decent-but-clueless-on-Ireland Englishman is a type that’s commonly found. If you were feeling in a charitable mood, you might say that several of British prime ministers and Secretaries of State here (with the obvious exceptions of Maggie Thatcher and Roy Mason) fell into that category. The tradition continues. Next week a British prime minister is coming over here, and if you could forget for a moment the bloody fiasco that is Iraq, you might credit him with being decent in his intentions for this island, but even if you managed to give him credit for good intentions, you’d still be depressed by his statements and assumptions.

Like British prime ministers for centuries, Tony Blair presents the situation here as two sets of adversaries he is duty-bound to try cajoling into co-operation. Back in the 1880s, Prime Minister Gladstone spoke of being ‘chained to the oar’ of the Irish question – tied to this country by a sense of duty and moral obligation. If you were cynical you might see this as perfidious Albion at work, positioning herself outside the problem, casting Ireland as the source of its own woes. Or, more charitably, you might feel sad that even decent Englishmen suffer from myopia the minute they look across the Irish Sea. Don’t forget : the British prime minister won’t be addressing the state of the North on his own. By his side, as is by now customary, will be the Taoiseach, and while we might - MIGHT – give Tony Blair an Englishman’s pardon for seeing the Troubles as mass criminality and the present impasse as equally-poised obstructiveness by the DUP and Sinn Fein, no such excuse is available for Bertie Ahern.

The Fianna Fail leader isn’t English, he’s Irish. He knows the source of the 30 years’ violence - discrimination and repression - and he knows what’s needed for progress - an end to the DUP’s excuses for non-engagement.

If Bertie isn’t prepared to face the facts and press Tony to see them too, he should fess up and say so. It’s one thing to be politically short-sighted, as so many English politicians appear to be. It’s another to be an Irish politician who misses the big picture because he’s got his eyes tight shut.

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