Thank You, Iona Institute #TeamPanti

breda o'brienWhen 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.

13 thoughts on “Thank You, Iona Institute #TeamPanti

  1. Thanks, Michael, for sharing this wonderful post, describing the roller coaster of events of these past few weeks. The impact of Panti’s noble call has been incredible, hasn’t it? The role of social media as a tool for democracy and debate has been fascinating also. As you describe so well here, ten years ago the public debate would have been limited to newspaper columns, letters to the editor, and radio/TV broadcasts and debates. And even if Panti had taken to the Abbey stage, very few would have seen that speech.

    Today — 400K+ views, countless tweets and blog posts later — anyone in Ireland or beyond who is interested in finding out more, or engaging in discussion, can do so. I’ve heard some entrenched and unchanging views, yes. But I’ve also seen and heard minds changing, hearts opening. The Emerald Isle isn’t quite Emerald City yet, but as you so beautifully describe, we’ve covered a lot of yellow bricks in a month 🙂

    Here’s to continuing that march onward to equality for all, with dignity and respect. and humour (oh, the humour!)
    RT @PantiBliss Off to meet Joan in Westmeath We’re going to have mojitos and then go ice skating & talk about boys

  2. Thanks Catherine for your insight, especially important to me given your own expertise in the digital medium! Love the humour too! I was laughing today at many times during Miriam’s broadcast, which apart from anything else, I thought was wonderful radio.

    The Abbey speech was amazing and I know it has helped a lot of people. It was good for RTÉ to bring David Norris onto the Late Late on Friday too; a subtle reminder of how far we have come and how much effort that took. Although RTÉ played the boardroom hand regarding the payout, I do think they have done some work in the production rooms to make up for it.

    Talk soon I hope, take care.

  3. I am ”English’ though born in Scotland and not part of contemporary Irish culture (though my roots engender an interest in it;). I have been spraying Panti Bliss’s video across all of my social media networks. Why? yes because I, as a mother of three adult offspring, married for 40 years, support same-sex marriage – but much more because Panti Bliss is speaking about oppression in a way I can understand. I despise racism, though I recognise my own racism; I want to work against sexism though I can see traces in my own behaviour. I think that we need, with humility, to call out when we see oppression. Panti did that par excellence .

    1. Dear Frances,
      I agree – the speech had much more meaning than just homophobia – which is a great tribute to it.
      Thanks for your message.

  4. Great article Michael,

    As a trans woman Panti articulated for many of us exactly how it feels to be checking yourself before crossing the road. We do this every day before leaving the house. It’s second nature. “Giving the gay away” becomes “Giving the trans man /woman away”

    For anyone who has been bullied because they look in any way different it also resonates. That is one reason why I think so many people have connected both straight and LGBT.

    It’s also a very simple well put together speech by Rory doing something that he has a great talent for, and we all owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for putting homophobia fair and square into the public worldwide domain.

    1. Dear Louise,
      Thank you for the comment – I cannot agree more. Imagine that this speech was written over a few hours. It’s incredible for that, I think we’ll be watching Reeling in the Years in a decade remembering the impact it had!
      All the best for now,
      (PS: Nice website!)

  5. Thank you for such a calm and enlightening piece, Michael. I hadn’t been aware of Ms. O’Brien’s “Noone-likes-to-think-they’re-a-bigot” line. That is something she might have remembered when dialling her solicitor’s number.

    Ultimately, I think we *do* owe the Iona lobby group some thanks for discharging that gun into their own foot. It was like getting a glimpse of the Wizard behind that curtain.

    1. Thanks Tony,
      Delighted you got an Oz reference in there 🙂 But I think you are exactly right.
      Thanks for the nice comment, take care.

  6. Thanks for posting Panti’s speech Michael, the short clips played on RTE gave no indication of how powerful it is. The current media spotlight on homophobia will serve to raise awareness, but there is a long way to go to change the minds of the many people who still believe that some sections of society are ‘different’, perhaps even ‘abnormal’, and do not merit equal rights. That battle is for minds and hearts, and the eloquence of Panti’s cry from the heart is a wonderful antidote to prejudice. Wouldn’t it be nice if her plea WAS going to be on the exam, the CPSE exam in our secondary schools?

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thanks for comment and good point re CPSE. The video is fantastic; and you’re right – it deals with prejudice on a wider basis, as many people seem to identify it.

      Thanks again for comment, talk to you soon,

  7. Did you forget to put my comment on, Michael?
    PS I like your article on the flipped classroom. However, as an RE teacher you probably would n’t approve of me?

    1. Hi Sean,

      No, I didn’t forget; as I emailed to you I just wasn’t sure what the point you were trying to make was. Thanks for comment on flipped class; in a discursive topic like religion I would imagine it has great potential. I’m not in favour of religious patronage and doctrinal instruction, but as my recent article pointed out I have no problem with religious education in its broadest sense. I certainly don’t and can’t disapprove of anyone; we are all human, trying to get along in an unnecessarily complicated world… Fade out music…

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