In an article in last Saturday’s Irish Times entitled ‘The water charges fiasco: a lesson in how not to do things’, Kathy Sheridan describes the saga as “an accessible, textbook study of how an unaccountable Government and Civil Service can unite to patronise and insult us.” Drawing on the views of Eddie Molly, she goes on to identify a number of reasons for public anger at the charges: rushed legislation, perceived cronyism in terms of board and management appointments, and, under a deal with the trade unions, the guaranteeing of workers’ jobs at Irish Water. I have to confess that at last week’s mass demonstration against the charges I did not see a single banner bemoaning the fact that workers were being allowed keep their jobs, but it was a very big turnout so maybe I missed one.
However, many banners highlighted other issues concerning Irish Water, including the regressive nature of the charges and the fear that a public asset might be privatised. The vast majority of people on the march were not attacking a claimed bogeyman nexus of civil servants and trade unions. Many were, however, attacking a perceived cosy relationship between decision-makers and corporate interests, specifically those of Denis O’Brien. The story of how an O’Brien-owned company won contracts to install water meters despite not being registered as a company at the time, and had a large chunk of debts owed to the former Anglo Irish Bank (i.e., the public) written off, need not be rehearsed again here, but it was common currency on both posters and in speeches at the demonstration. Kathy Sheridan’s elision of corporate power’s baleful influence over governmental decision making serves a reactionary agenda that places Ireland’s governance problems at the door of public sector workers and trade unions.
On the day of the water demonstration itself, Sheridan was scathing about the fact that the protestors had, she claimed, “hijacked” World Human Rights Day and foregrounded such relatively petty concerns above more pressing rights violations such as those endured by the people of Gaza. Well, maybe there is something in that, though I saw lots of people at the water demonstration who I also see regularly at small Gaza protests (where I am pretty sure I have never spotted Kathy Sheridan). Let us take one example of what is a very urgent human rights concern in Ireland right now – the scandal of Direct Provision for asylum seekers.
Sheridan interviewed the Minister responsible for Direct Provision in November in an article entitled ‘Minister with a mission to deliver’ and in which Frances Fitzgerald is described as “[p]ractical, tireless, sharp and fast-moving”. It was the sort of article that makes one wonder why the Minister bothers with a PR officer when she has the services of Ms Sheridan available to her. In fairness, Minister Fitzgerald is quoted sympathetically as saying that “I think it’s quite tough on families”, but she is referring to the problems faced by the families of politicians, not asylum-seeking families forced to live for years in inadequate and often abusive conditions.
Am I being unfair in singling out Kathy Sheridan? Perhaps, but she exemplifies many of the traits of Ireland’s mainstream journalists. She professes horror at the state of governance in Ireland but ignores the corporate constituencies that have been at the heart of bad government and the current economic crisis. She laments the lack of protest in Ireland and then maligns and distorts the views of those who have the courage to come out on the streets. She claims to be concerned for human rights but, given the opportunity to ask a minister challenging questions about human rights abuses, she opts instead for servile flattery. The status quo is safe in such hands.