President McAleese speaks of words designed to silence

 

The Editor of The Irish Times, Mr Conor Brady, who chaired the question-and-answer session, remarked at the outset that Mrs McAleese's "thought-provoking paper" had made him acutely aware there would be very strong contrasts in perspective between the view of people on each side of the Atlantic on the points she had raised.

The first example of this contrast came in the first question, from Prof Fred Schaeur, professor of the First Amendment at the Kennedy School of Government. He said that Americans tended to believe that "we get dialogue through the absence of prohibition, while much of the rest of the world thinks we get better dialogue by channelling and constraining the nature of the discussion".

Mrs McAleese defended her thesis that the right to free speech must be countered by giving rights to the victims of such speech to respond and to be protected. She indicated that she believed channelling and constraining the nature of discussion was sometimes necessary to protect those hurt and damaged by the words of others.

"There is a presumption at the heart of civilised discourse that words stop dead, that they don't have consequences beyond the hearing of them," she said.

But it was simplistic to believe this, she went on. Words did indeed have consequences beyond the simple fact that they were heard by others. She said she could put it no better than the poet Seamus Heaney (who was in the audience), who talked of how our lives become shaped by the silencing effect of words "which are actually designed to silence".

She said she came from the Catholic-nationalist tradition in Northern Ireland, which regarded itself as the silenced. Similarly, many women could give examples of the way in which words silence. "And in that silencing there is a recognisable psychological impact, not just on a person but very often right across a tier or layer of society - it could be Catholics or Orange people or men or women."

Words hurt people, silenced people and in this way shaped history. "The more we listen to the voices of victims the more we are humbled in our realisation of how deep go the tentacles of words that hurt."

She returned to the theme of the use of language as a weapon in response to a question as to how the perception of the Irish language as being sectoral and one-sided could be eroded. "In a culture of conflict such as we have come from in Ireland we tend to use a lot of things as weapons," she said.

"We used our language as a weapon, we used religion as a weapon, we used God as a weapon. We tended to gather into our armoury everything that was usable and everything usable then became ours.

"I think it one of the great regrets that in so many minds the Irish language is associated with one section of the population. A culture of conflict unfortunately has made hostages to fortune of things like the language and it has happened in two ways. There are those who have used the language in a contemptuous way or treated it with contempt in order to promote the silencing effect, to launch barbs at the other community."

She said she would like to see a major change that would allow both communities look afresh at the Irish language and its role. "But in a culture of conflict everything in the armoury is used, language, God - you know how well God is used, it's the `yah, boo' school of theology: my God is bigger than your God, my language is better than your language. That is how we have abused it."

In a response to a question about the RUC's role in this area she said that in Northern Ireland, the police had a very limited role in policing this matter. "In relation to the kind of hate speech I have been talking about, unless it falls into the realm of incitement to hatred or incitement to violence, by and large it doesn't fit into the criminal category at all.

Similarly, where codes of practice in the workplace were broken, they tended to give rise to civil rather than criminal proceedings. "I'm talking abut a realm of activity which is short of that which is traditionally within the bailiwick of the police."

Mrs McAleese emphasised that she had no role in politics and therefore would not be taking part in any debate in Ireland concerning constitutional or legislative changes that might be required to put into effect some of the principles she was talking about in relation to free speech.

In response to a question from Prof Kathleen Mahoney, visiting fellow at the human-rights centre at Harvard Law School, she said she was "not a politician. The role of the presidency is to be above politics and political dialogue, so my role in that debate would be to decide as President whether I have any doubt as to the constitutionality of legislation that that particular discussion might provoke, and if I did have any doubt, the worst case scenario would be that I have a power under the Constitution to refer it to the Supreme Court for a test as to its constitutionality. So in a sense that dialogue you talk about will not directly involve me as President."

Mr Ken Dunn, a young African-American in the audience, said his perception of Ireland was of a country of conviction and struggle and great pride. "Given that most countries take their cue from the United States and that there there are great chasms between African-Americans and whites at the social, political, economic and at the educational level, what advice can you give America on helping close that gap between black and white?"

Mrs McAleese said it ill behoved the Irish to offer advice to the US, particularly as Ireland "has drained the American administration over recent months and years". Last Thursday, she said, she met representatives of the Irish Immigration Bureau who dealt with ill-prepared immigrants. They had told her they were now making common cause with other immigrant groups in relation to visas and such issues.

"There is an old Irish expression which says `Ni neart go chur le cheile' which means we are strongest when we work together."

One of the lessons from Northern Ireland was that an important part of resolving such problems was the creation of respect. "I think respect is everything. When people feel respected they can accomplish so much. By and large if you have conflict, if you have people who are unhappy, you have people who do not feel respected. I think where you have that conflict you stop and you ask: `What are the inhibitors in the way of allowing these people to feel the respect that is their God-given right?' to quote President Kennedy."