When Ireland first started to tackle the issue of immigration two decades ago, there were regular letters to the editor of the Irish Times from “The Immigration Control Platform”, which were an advocacy group against immigration. Their message was simple: you can be whatever race you want, just not in Ireland. It was never clear who or what ICP was beyond Áine Ni Chonaill, its public relations officer, and to be honest, you couldn’t help feel that it was a fairly small platform that probably fitted easily into a corner of Áine’s front room.
But she was from “somewhere”. Irish news media producers seem to be automatically programmed into needing to fill a byline when someone’s name appears on screen. Therefore advocacy groups like the ICP or Iona Institute are ideal, as the byline looks offical, and instead of “Michael Seery / Some random bloke off the street with an opinion”, it can look much more professional with “Michael Seery / Serious Issue Society”. Recently Vincent Browne, struggling to introduce “Random Bloke off the Street”, eventually spat out “Blogger” by way of explaining why he was on the television in our sitting rooms. The same person had become part of “Preserve Marriage” or some such by the time of his appearance on Prime Time a few days later. A label looks much more impressive.
This approach of caring that a contributing commentator is from somewhere more than where that somewhere is appears to be changing. The spotlight is suddenly very much on the Iona Institute itself, a small band of conservative intellectuals, who have for more than a decade had prime position in Irish media. One blogger has found company accounts from 2011, which document Iona’s income that year of over €220,000. Where this comes from, we don’t know, but a good guess is that a significant proportion comes from a wealthy American who wants to keep Ireland pure. Despite the intellectual capacity of its patrons, Iona produce rather poor quality material, which like any lobby group, cherry pick and “interpret” results and data to suit its own message. My favourite, from its many reports, was a report opposing co-habitation (of straight people). Many more cohabiting couples fail, the report proclaimed, than married couples. When the source was explored, it transpired that Iona were characterising “marriage” as one of the failure routes of a cohabiting couple. What a strange world.
Breda O’Brien, one of the Iona Institute’s patrons writes weekly in the Irish Times. On 13th November 2004 she rejected the concept of same-sex marriage:
But should we sanction an even more radical experiment [of same sex marriage], an experiment with children as the subject, by officially declaring gender to be irrelevant?
Almost ten years later, last Saturday, O’Brien complained that the debate was being stifled and those with a view similar to hers were being silenced. While she has held her platform for a decade, the way this debate is conducted has undoubtedly changed over those 10 years, likely to her frustration. Respondents to her views were restricted in 2004 to writing a letter to the editor. In 2014, opponents of O’Brien’s views can take to the stage, literally. Instead of the old media containing and directing the debate, they are now chasing the debate as it happens elsewhere. That this story has run now for almost three weeks demonstrates the length of time it has taken old media to catch up.
In all this negativity, some wonderful things have emerged. Ironically, a debate on the word “homophobia” has led to a much broader awareness of gay life in Irish society, and the ridiculousness of the concept of rejecting same sex marriage. Panti’s speech at The Abbey has given an insight into the slight remove gay people feel in society – a sense of checking to ensure conformity. Holding hands becomes a political message, Rory O’Neill explained to Miriam O’Callaghan, when all you wanted was a private moment. Gay politicians have given eloquent speeches in the Dáil. It’s not all suddenly wonderful in Oz, but we’ve covered a lot of yellow bricks in a month. I doubt any of this was in Iona’s mission for the year, and to be honest, I think the €45,000 isn’t a bad price. The €40,000 to John Waters? Less so; I want that back. I’d imagine most of the “plain people of Ireland”, to use the Iona’s legal representative’s term, want it back too.
O’Brien wrote in her 2004 article:
No one likes to think that they are bigoted or prejudiced, but that is no protection from being either.
Too right. The acknowledgement of the legacy of oppression of homosexuality in our society that has emerged over recent weeks, and how we all need to “check ourselves” in countering that legacy, will go a long way towards challenging remnants of bigotry and prejudice wherever it exists.