Ah see, you knew the time would come. And it's happened already, right? You miss Kevin Myers in the Irish Times? Harry Browne on Myres and The Irish Times. It was just the week for the intervention of Myers as an antidote to D'Olier Street political correctness, what with those do-gooding Irish Times liberals ostentatiously hand-wringing and advocating all kinds of mollycoddling for the Afghan hunger-strikers in St Patrick's Cathedral. Myers would have given them a dose of what's what.
What's that you say? The Irish Times didn't editorialise at all about the asylum-seekers' hunger strike, good, bad or indifferent, for the whole week they were in the church? And none of the regular opinion columnists wrote about them either? And no other relevant piece appeared in the paper's opinion section? And it carried only a handful of readers' letters on the subject? Well, now, maybe that's why Myers felt it was time to be moving on: you can only bravely battle a straw man for so long.
It seems only everyone else in the country was exercised and opinionated about recent events in Dublin's inner city. Certainly if the calls to radio programmes were any indication, the hunger-strike brought Ireland out in hives, with high levels of hostility and low levels of compassion that were shocking, even when you knew the basic attitudes revealed by, for example, the result of the citizenship referendum. Broadcasters largely followed suit.
At wits' end
So what happened to the old equation wherein evidence of fear, poverty and desperation evokes, you know, sympathy? To be sure, when RTÉ journalist John Kilraine phoned in to report live on Saturday's Marian Finucane programme, he seemed concerned that someone in the cathedral was at “wits' end”. Unfortunately, that sympathy was for a church official. The men who were starving themselves to death and apparently signalling a willingness to perform more rapid acts of self-harm were rarely described in such terms.
Indeed the contempt for them could scarcely be disguised. Partly it sounded as though journalists, used to having news and views spoon-fed to them, were annoyed with the men for not having a more thought-out PR strategy. But it was, heartbreakingly, worse than that, with the failure of empathy near-total among commentators. The fact, for instance, that the men were emotional about their plight was labelled “aggressivity” – and there's a posh word – by no less a liberal than Dublin's Catholic archbishop, Diarmuid Martin.
Another good liberal, Colm O'Gorman, called them “violent” (a favourite and wholly unjustifiable term), “aggressive” and indeed “morally repugnant” because among them there were minors – actually young men old enough to fight wars in much of the world, and old enough to be potentially treated as adults in our justice system. Mary Banotti couldn't work up much sympathy either: “If Afghanistan is such a terrible place, who's taking care of their women?” This after she had told us just how terrible Afghanistan is.
Then there was the Taliban-baiting, which reached a predictable apogee in the Sunday Independent. As Diarmuid McDermott put it on Friday's Pat Kenny radio programme when asked to comment on the hunger-strikers: “They were the ones inflicting persecution and torture in Afghanistan – I have no sympathy at all for them.” No one in Afghanistan appears to have a monopoly on persecution and torture. But do you remember the last time a group of Afghan asylum-seekers was in the news? It was August 2001, when some 460 were marooned off the Australian coast because that country's government wouldn't let their ship land. In those pre-9/11 days, the tough-minded hacks of this world assured us that they were surely economic migrants, because Taliban Afghanistan wasn't so bad.
Given what their country has been through in the last 30 years, it was rich that RTÉ chose to use the word “occupation” in news reports to describe the hunger-strikers' choice of sanctuary in St Patrick's. The same word is studiously avoided when describing the US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Indeed, it was rarely observed that St Patrick's is both a place of worship and a repository of imperial memorabilia. The men were starving under the old flags of regiments that slaughtered their ancestors and occupied southwest Asia, mementos of the empire that tortured the nation of Afghanistan into existence less than a century ago. As usual in the media, a sense of history was sorely missed.