Comment: On Paul Kehoe and political correctness

Let’s emancipate ourselves from political correctness.

I’m with Fine Gael TD Paul Kehoe on this, though going by the look of him, the archetype of the plain-thinking-thick-as-the-ditch provincial simpleton who eats his dinner at lunchtime, I’m not sure he’s ever come across a four-syllable word he understood, and there are two of them right there in that first sentence. I’m inferring though that he respects the sentiment, given his recent comments about, in his words, “druggies” on O’Connell Street and his later defence of this language. Kehoe knows, like Frank, that if a man isn’t himself, he has naught – that we’re to say the things we truly feel and not the words of one who kneels.

So I’m sure he won’t mind my description of him or my admission that whenever I see photographs of him, I’m struck by his big and ignorant unseeing eyes, more ornamental than functional, the eyes of a man just about capable of thought but incapable of imagination. He looks like the ideal of an idiot and when he speaks he confirms it. It might be politically incorrect for me to say that but it’s honest. Kehoe would respect me for this.

Not only does Kehoe say what he thinks, he does so on behalf of “ordinary, decent people” without his courage, the people he invoked in the Dáil last week when he whined about what he considers the state of O’Connell Street. "It's a street I'm absolutely ashamed of as an Irish person," he said. "It is full of druggies, crime, anti-social behaviour, robberies, takeaways, alcohol, drug abuse.”

When predictably the more cosseted among us took issue with Kehoe’s language, he didn’t care. "I realise that this isn't trendy, and apparently the PC brigade don't approve of my language. I'm more interested in the victims of drug-related crime that are making ordinary, working people's lives an absolute misery," he told South East Radio the following day.

Good man Paul. Finally someone willing to take a cut at the PC brigade and say what ordinary, working people think.

Buckle up, buttercup: here’s some actual taboo

Where Kehoe and I diverge though is what we consider taboo or politically incorrect. Because if it’s not politically correct to dehumanise people living with drug addictions, it’s perhaps politically expedient, and if it’s neither correct nor expedient, it’s certainly politically authentic. The Irish state, of which Kehoe has been an elected representative for 20 years, dehumanises those with addiction. Acknowledging that is more controversial, in Kehoe’s circles at least, than how he spoke in the Dáil.

The state dehumanised people with drug addictions when 45 years ago it introduced the Misuse of Drugs Act, which continues to criminalise people more in need of help than imprisonment. In 2017, 70 percent of the country’s prison population were living with drug and alcohol addiction issues, according to the Prison Service director general.

The state dehumanised people with drug addictions when in the 15 years from 1996 to 2021 it oversaw a 225 percent rise in drug-related deaths and a 500 percent rise in drug prosecutions, according to figures compiled by the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign.

And Kehoe’s post-crash austerity government, along with the Fianna Fáil government that preceded it, dehumanised people with drug addictions from 2008 to 2013 when it cut funding for drug initiatives by 37 percent – cuts that are yet to be fully reversed.

So if Kehoe wants to throw a few “druggies” around, have at it, hoss. His record, the record of the class he comes from and represents, is plain. It’s spoken every day. Marginalised people are to remain marginalised.

Here’s something unspoken though: Kehoe, and men and women like him in parties like Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, devote themselves to transferring wealth from the “working people” of Ireland of whom Kehoe speaks to the country’s wealthiest. That’s Kehoe and his party colleagues’ jobs – they’re secretaries for the rich, members of “committees to manage the affairs of the capitalist class”, as James Connolly put it. And for this class to be properly served, the “druggies” that Kehoe demeans need to be demeaned.

To speak as plainly as that is what’s actually incorrect, taboo, in a liberal democracy like Ireland where the very act of putting yourself up for election before the people, committing yourself to so-called public service like Kehoe, is spoken of as a moral act in itself. But it’s a narrow public that people like Kehoe serve.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic Ireland’s nine billionaires have increased their wealth by 58 percent to €49.7 billion, according to Oxfam. Kehoe and his party colleagues understand this is their public and serve them well. Kehoe personally also knows that frontline workers aren’t part of his public. He showed this when he said a government proposal to give €500 bonuses to healthcare workers was “mad” and “crazy” and excoriated even his own party colleagues for suggesting it. He gets it.

He also knows that landlords and landowners are part of his public. Of course he’s a landlord himself: “an accidental landlord”, in his words, who accidentally turned the living quarters of his Wexford constituency office into apartments before letting them out. Kehoe understood the aftermath of the Robert Troy affair, when the property portfolios of public representatives were subject of public scrutiny, was his time to come to the defence of the put-upon landlord. “We do need landlords too. I would say that very few landlords are making much money off it if they’re paying a mortgage on the property etc as well,” as he said to the Wexford Independent.

A man who knows his role

Kehoe is a man who knows his place, who understands class politics. It’s what made him such a perfect candidate for the junior minister for defence position he held from 2011 to 2020. Junior minister for defence, or in other words, the junior minister for letting the most blood-soaked military in the world do whatever it wants with Shannon Airport – the junior minister for deference. When once asked by People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barret in 2016 whether “we should facilitate a military machine”, Kehoe knew the right answer. “We have carried out this facilitation for over 50 years.” That’s just the way it is.

Like any good Fine Gael man Kehoe respects his betters. His Twitter header photograph shows what I deduce was a proud day for him: meeting Kate Middleton in Dublin. The picture shows Kehoe with head slightly bowed and hand outstretched to Middleton, someone he clearly considers worthy of respect, by the Garden of Remembrance, not a ten-minute walk from the street he considers overrun with the subhuman.

It’s unfortunate that the superiors in his own party don't respect Kehoe. He’s almost 50 years’ old. He’s dedicated his best years to Fine Gael. He’s won elections for the party. You’d think his party leader would have time for him. But he doesn’t. To Leo Varadkar someone like Kehoe is an embarrassment. And it was this embarrassment that finally led to Kehoe giving an apology of sorts for his O’Connell Street intervention.

“I was in touch with Paul yesterday and he accepts that he shouldn’t have used that term,” said Varadkar, speaking to the Irish Independent, about his backbencher’s use of the word druggies. It’s a pejorative term, and he shouldn’t have used it and he’s very clear on that and I’m very clear on that,” said Varadkar.

Kehoe duly corrected the record, losing his bluster about political correctness. “I used maybe a poor choice of language and I accept that,” he told RTÉ’s Drivetime.

A career of prostrating himself to his party and the class it represents and what does he get. A junior ministerial position for nine years and now a spell as a backbench TD, nothing more than a body to shuffle in and out of the Dáil to mark his Tá when told to do so. That’s it. That’s what he contributes, the occasional impotent outburst he’ll later half-retract aside.

So say what you like about Paul Kehoe, even the politically incorrect. He can take it. Or maybe he can’t and just expects others to take it from him.

Eoghan McNeill

Eoghan McNeill