Irish mastery of doublespeak has led us to a tragic endpoint
The Germans need to be hearing Message A: Ireland is in dire trouble. They’re getting Message B: Ireland is grand
German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, pictured with Irish counterpart Michael Noonan, said: ‘Ireland did what Ireland had to do . . . now everything is fine.’ Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images
The Irish establishment speaks, in the words of Bing Crosby, “a language that the strangers do not know”. It is not Irish or English. It is doublespeak. The problem, indeed, is that they speak it all too well. Colm Tóibín once wrote that English people are mono but Irish people are stereo. More relevantly today, alas, the Irish are stereo while the Germans are mono.
Irish culture values the ability to broadcast on two different channels at the same time, to speak simultaneously out of both sides of the mouth. It probably comes from having, for some centuries, two vernacular languages, one for power and money (English) and the other for home, community and place (Irish).
It certainly relates to a history of oppression. Poor people who depend on the whims of their betters learn to be stereo, to tell the powerful what they want to hear (“I say a little prayer for you every day sir!”) and tell yourself what you need to say (“The bastard doesn’t know that the prayer is that he may rot in hell!”).
Whatever its roots, Irish doublespeak blossomed into a rich flowering of verbal hypocrisy. We developed a public language in which every sentence has a silent clause that annuls its meaning. Emigration is a tragedy – but the real tragedy would be if all these unwanted parasites hung around to cause trouble. Young people are our greatest asset – especially if they feck off out of here. A united
Ireland is our dream – if it didn’t have any Protestants in it.
We have a special love for children – we love them enough to build special institutions in which to incarcerate them. We revere our artists – but, Jesus, would it kill your man to give us a bit of a laugh now and then? We have a spiritual attachment to our countryside – how much would that field be worth if it was rezoned? And so on.
Weirdly, there was a moment when doublespeak came into its own, when it seemed supple and benign.
During the peace process, it became “creative ambiguity”. The process was based on the ability to take apparently fixed words – nation, State, sovereignty, identity, consent – and make them fluid, elastic and open to interpretation. Language was engineered precisely to be heard in stereo, with each side lending an ear to a different channel. Each could hear what it wanted to hear.
Out of all of this, presumably, came a strange confidence in the power of Irish doublespeak. The notion took hold that, even in a dire crisis, the state of Ireland could be articulated officially in two simultaneous but mutually contradictory ways. On one channel, there is
Message A, intended to be heard only by the Irish domestic public. It is that things are really, really terrible. They are so bad that we must take home help away from your sick 90-year-old mother and respite care away from the parents
of autistic children.
So bad that we can’t have counsellors in schools even when kids are killing themselves, so bad that A&Es have to go back to the status of field hospitals in the Crimean War. So bad that we have to go back to 1950s levels of emigration.
All of this has to be done because the State is in a terrible financial crisis, but it is a dirty business and the authorities are very sorry to have to do it.
But on the other channel there’s Message B: we’re grand. It is intended for the international markets. It is a message of confidence and reassurance. Our public finances are not in crisis; they are eminently manageable. The economy has turned the corner. We are not just a success story – we are the success story. We are not merely a credit to ourselves. We are a shining example to others. This is not dirty business: it is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing. This doublespeak might have worked, for we ourselves are so used to it that we take it for granted. But in this case there is the complicating factor of a third audience: our gallant allies in Europe and in particular Germany.
The wrong channel
The problem is that the Germans have been hearing the wrong channel. They need to be hearing Message A: Ireland is in dire trouble. They’re actually getting Message B: Ireland is grand. Or, as finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble put it: “We think Ireland is doing very well. Ireland did what Ireland had to do . . . now everything is fine.”
Fine in this case includes not just the barbaric A&Es and the bereft carers and the suicides and the mass emigration but also the €64 billion of bank debt that we assumed to save the euro.
This is the tragic endpoint of Irish doublespeak. The boy who cried “wolf” came to a bad end because he said things were dire so many times that no one believed him when they really were dire. Ireland, uniquely, has pulled off the opposite trick. No one believes that the wolf is here because we’ve spent so much time assuring them that wolves
do not exist.