Independent Media Centre Ireland

McGuinness Áras bid betrays pathology of southern anti-republicanism

category national | politics / elections | opinion/analysis author Thursday October 13, 2011 16:03author by An Puc ar Buile

Observing the recent series of interchanges between Martin McGuinness and his varied and many opponents in the Republic’s media and political circles, An Puc has been minded of experiments carried out by the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud.

Observing the recent series of interchanges between Martin McGuinness and his varied and many opponents in the Republic’s media and political circles, An Puc has been minded of experiments carried out by the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud.

No, not all that weird stuff about phallic symbols and Oedipal urges (although Freud would no doubt be interested in Gay ‘Oliver Twist’ Mitchell’s much trumpeted childhood deprivation and Enda ‘The Artful Dodger’s’ role as a surrogate father). In his studies of the concept of “negative hallucination”, Freud proposed a fundamental principle about how human beings make sense of the world that seems instructive when it comes to the collective amnesia many in the South’s elites seem to suffer.

Freud set out by experimenting with hypnotised patients, whom he would convince to deny the existence of something patently obvious e.g. that there was furniture in a room packed to the hilt with tables and chairs. He would then ask the patients to retrieve an item from the other end of the room and Freud would watch as they carefully plotted a path around the furniture, which, in the hypnotic state, they genuinely believed wasn’t there. The interesting part came when Freud pointed out the route they had taken around the furniture and asked why they simply didn’t walk straight to the item with no deviations on the way. Various responses, such as “I moved to examine a picture on the wall”, or “I saw a friend and moved towards her”, illustrated something very revealing about the way we think.

Freud concluded that his subjects had made up reasons for – or “rationalised” – their behaviour because of the “falsifying character of the ego”. The ego’s task is to maintain a fabricated appearance of consistency and completeness at all times — to comfort us in our belief that we understand things, particularly our own behaviour. In short, Freud argued, our brains develop all sorts of fancy explanations for our behaviour when we simply find it difficult to explain or justify. In some ways, subconsciously, we all tell ourselves a few lies now and again to explain away uncomfortable or inexplicable truths: baldness is a sign of virility; nasal hair makes me distinguished looking.

But could these theories be applied to more widespread narratives, such as our concept of history, or more specifically, the Irish revisionist view of political violence? Could it be that we compulsively ignore things that we find uncomfortable in our recent history because of our own collective guilt about inaction or evasion?
An Puc has been mulling over this question of late as his humble caprine mind becomes increasingly bewildered by the anti-republican tone of the presidential debate. Gay Mitchell continually blames Martin McGuinness for the entirety of the Northern conflict — inexplicably, because his ranting is not doing him any good in the polls. Last night Mitchell said that if republicans had accepted Sunningdale, the conflict would have ended in 1974. Nowhere in this anti-logic was any consideration of the fact that, historically speaking, large-scale loyalist violence and civil disobedience aided by British capitulation ended Sunningdale. Mitchell had actually, in a curiously gymnastic act of intellectual acrobatics, turned the course of events in 1974 on its head.

In this regard, the contrast between the incredibly uncritical, rhapsodic reception lavished on the head of the British army some months ago and the increasingly hysterical vitriol being heaped on Martin McGuinness could not be more glaring. How do revisionists and anti-republicans square this circle? How can they become so exercised by the (tragically plentiful) errors of the IRA, yet be struck dumb by the arrival of a monarch whose army, along with others, has killed the best part of a million people in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade?

The compulsive refusal to recognise the central role of the British government in the conflict in the North of Ireland is characteristic of Freudian negative hallucination; zig-zagging across the laboratory floor, the revisionist avoids all the things he cannot see and then makes up a load of reasons why he’s taken this particularly irrational historical path. Perhaps it’s that those who can’t rationalize their inaction following the pogroms, and the beating and shooting dead of civil rights protestors in the late 1960s and early 1970s, feel the need to project their guilt onto republicans: the IRA didn’t fight a clean war (was there ever one); therefore we’ve turned our backs on the lot of you beastly Northerners. Such a plague-on-both-your-houses mentality can only justify itself by compulsively ignoring the atrocities of the British government, the Orange state and loyalism, the effect of internment without trial and of course the origins of the conflict in sectarian inequalities.

If you don’t believe this, or think I’m just doing some rationalizations of my own, well just consider how many times politicians and journalists in the south take an interest in the cases of Pat Finucane or Rosemary Nelson – solicitors shot dead in highly questionable circumstances, in which British complicity is suspected – and then compare it to their fascination with a handful of republican killings. Elites in the Republic have managed to purge their guilt for inaction, when Irish citizens ninety miles up the road were being tortured and burned out of their houses, by reimagining the tragic origins and sustained injustices of the thirty-year conflict. The IRA is to blame, they say; the British government is nowhere to be seen. This evacuation of the British from their own conflict – the historical equivalent of saying bankers have nothing to do with the recession, or X Factor has nothing to do with ruining the weekends of middle-aged men – requires a significant capacity for rationalized denial.

Martin McGuinness pointed out the irony last night, on RTÉ’s largely predictable and ponderous Primetime debate (until the Danagate moment), that Tony Blair had a greater grasp of the dynamics of the conflict in the North than the reactionary media and politicians of the South do. Senior figures in British governments and intelligence agencies have long recognised their disastrous role in fanning the flames of war, while Irish elites, with grotesque postcolonial sycophancy, seek to reassure them that they did nothing wrong. As G.B. Shaw once put it: “put an Irishman on the spit and you can always get another Irishman to turn him.” The prime example of this servile posturing in the current campaign has been Gay Mitchell’s somewhat mischievous suggestion that we re-join the British Commonwealth and take on the queen as Irish head of state (making his own presidential bid a bit of a paradox).

Joining the Commonwealth would mean forgetting why we’re independent in the first place, and this kind of “remembering to forget”, as the great thinker Michel Foucault might put is, is characteristic of the pathology of reactionary revisionism. In this peculiar way of thinking, it was okay for Fianna Fáil founder-member and government minister Frank Aiken to blow up a British troop train in 1921, but not for the IRA of 1982 to do something similar; it was okay to fight tyranny without a mandate in 1916 (for that could be achieved retrospectively in 1918) but not to do so in the present phase of the conflict (after which Sinn Féin has ended up in government). British collusion in the murder of intractable solicitors or many of its own alleged citizens is to be forgotten, as is the British government’s obdurate determination to secure a military, rather than political solution to the conflict, until the 1990s brought a new dispensation. Most of all, you must remember to forget.

Strangely, those who lived with the chaos of the conflict north of the border have moved on, whereas south of the border the Miriam O’Callaghans of the world can’t help themselves when the opportunity to excoriate a modern-day republican presents itself. As McGuinness and Sinn Féin rise dramatically in the polls, and as Fine Gael and Labour brace themselves for the consequences of their first dirty deed in government - the budget - the likelihood, nonetheless, is that such attacks will act as a boon to a party seeking to position itself in opposition to the cosy consensus. The very negative hallucination of further "austerity" will make it difficult for media pundits to continue their tunnel-vision focus on Sinn Féin's past as the party marches ever more confidently into the future.

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