Comment: Be respectful. Don't mention blood

We’re not supposed to talk about blood.

We’re not supposed to think about the blood running through the people who walk alongside us, the people subject to the rule of the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition and the choices it makes, the people who may be made homeless because of that government’s decision to end the eviction ban this week. So when you encounter a minister from that government in public, it’s considered gauche to tell him he has blood on his hands.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan visited Trinity College for the university’s Green Week. While taking part in a Q&A with students – in which he answered pre-submitted questions – protesters interrupted an anecdote where Ryan was recounting how much he loves his car and driving with his daughter. In footage of the incident, off camera, a self-appointed voice of reason asks the protesters to “let the minister speak”. Student union president-elect László Molnárfi didn’t listen and instead addressed Ryan.

“Minister Eamon Ryan, blood is on your hands and the Green Party’s hands due to your complicity in the neoliberal government that has just voted to end the eviction ban. You are making thousands and thousands of people homeless, and families and children, and blood is on your hands and your government’s hands,” he said.

Molnárfi was respectful, even if not to Ryan, but to his responsibility both as a witness to Ryan’s record in government and to the people affected by decisions Ryan continues to make. For people like Trinity provost Linda Doyle this respect wasn’t enough. This isn’t how you’re supposed to speak to people like Ryan and Doyle said as much. “I would like to think that people in Trinity can cope with different views, different opinions, and listen to those respectfully,” she told Trinity News.

Maybe Doyle thinks Trinity students are only to speak when spoken to or maybe she thinks government ministers have a right to never be interrupted. Or maybe her only duty is to what she considers respectability and she thinks it impudent to speak of the blood that may or may not be on the hands of her class ally Ryan.

Ryan’s government colleague, housing minister Darragh O’Brien, has admitted that lifting the eviction ban could result in increased homelessness. “It could very possibly,” he said while assuring reporters at a press conference, “That’s why this decision isn’t taken lightly.” In voting against a motion to extend the ban and directing his party to do likewise, expelling from the Greens for 15 months TD Neasa Hourigan who wouldn’t do as she was told, Ryan did so knowing that his choice could result in people being made homeless. Why shouldn’t this choice and what it means for people be made explicit to him?

'Signs which order us to keep off the grass'

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen, like incumbent housing minister O’Brien, made tough decisions in government, with Ryan alongside him as communications minister. Coming to power in 2008 during the global financial crash, a crisis caused by international and national finance, Cowen decided as taoiseach to institute austerity in Ireland. This austerity regime may have involved “tough decisions” for those in government – it sometimes meant death for actual people.

From 2008 to 2012, during which time Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael-led government had taken over, almost 500 more men died by suicide than would’ve otherwise been expected. By the end of 2012 the male suicide rate was 57 percent higher than previous trends would’ve predicted. Academic Paul Corcoran, who collected these findings and published them in 2015, said these deaths were “a stark reminder of the tragic human costs of policy failure in economic management by governments”.

Cowen has enjoyed something approaching a rehabilitation in recent years and last summer received Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Gradam na hÉigse award for his support of traditional Irish music. Green Party culture minister Catherine Martin, herself receiving an award, participated in the photo opportunity at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Mullingar. The resultant coverage in the Irish Times allowed Cowen to make soft jokes about the GAA and the “great craic” the people in Mullingar were about to have at the Fleadh. It was neither the time nor place to bring up austerity and Cowen’s record in government, just as it wasn’t appropriate to bring up Ryan’s eviction ban vote when he visited Trinity.

We infantilise people like Ryan and Cowen when, instead of holding them to account for things they’ve done, we instead flatter them with the spectacles of a Q&A with the right kind of Trinity students who’d submitted the right kind of questions, or with an honorific at a traditional music festival. And we betray any sense of our own dignity and agency when we decide to honour, with respect, the people who’ve made the difficult decisions that have spilled blood.

The people who decide to act like this are respectable. For philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre these “respectable citizens” aren’t respectable “as the result of contemplating moral values. Rather from the moment of their arising in the world they are thrown into a pattern of behaviour the meaning of which is respectability.” These people’s values, for Sartre, aren’t about what’s right or wrong, but nothing more than “signs which order us to keep off the grass”.

During Ryan’s Trinity appearance an increasingly irate attendee, who at one point took to her feet to ask the protesters to leave, said, “This is not the right time,” imploring Ryan’s interlocutors, “Please take this elsewhere, c’mon, we’ve only got an hour, please!” Which would make you wonder: when is the right time? And what was this person hoping to accomplish, in one hour, with Eamon Ryan during his appearance that could’ve been more important than the things Ryan has done and the choices he has made while in government?

The respectable thing to do with Ryan is to indulge him with a soft Q&A and lionise him for his bravery, as provost Doyle did, saying, “I think it’s really important that we are able to have somebody who is brave." Philosophise the disgrace of his voting record and time in government. Be respectful.

And don’t bring up blood.

Eoghan McNeill

Eoghan McNeill