Fact-free political debate can have lethal consequences


Anti-Lisbon groups now feel free to make arguments that have no basis in reality in the belief that nobody can, or will, challenge them, writes TONY KINSELLA

BERNT CARLSSON was a colleague who became a friend. A convinced social democrat and Swedish diplomat, he had worked with Olof Palme, Willy Brandt and others in pursuit of peace in some of the most intractable of our planet’s conflicts.

Bernt’s calm, punctilious exterior masked a wicked sense of humour and a razor-sharp brain. In December 1988 he was the UN high commissioner for Namibia. After years of patient effort he had succeeded in negotiating independence for Namibia, which had been under South African mandate since the end of the first World War.We had arranged to meet in London but he called early on Wednesday, December 21st, to cancel our dinner. He had to return to New York where the formal Namibian deal was to be signed.

I have often tried to picture Bernt as the 747 swung northwest to New York. Thirty-six minutes after Pan Am 103 had taken off from Heathrow, a bomb ripped it apart 9,400m above Lockerbie. Bernt, aged 50, was one of the 270 people killed.

Scotland’s release on compassionate grounds of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi revives many of the unanswered questions about that barbarous attack. Out of the murky waters of Middle Eastern conflicts, drug smuggling, and intelligence agency rivalries in the US, Syria and Iran comes a repeated murmur that Libya had little or nothing to do with the bombing.

While the full story may never emerge, one of Bernt’s many valuable lessons seems particularly apt. He argued that in approaching any conflict it was vital to remember that the actions of those involved, however horrendous and however inexplicable, formed part of what constituted, to their perpetrators, a rational approach.

Any attempt to engage the protagonists in a dialogue that might one day lead to peace had first to accept the validity of the combatants’ actions – at least in their own eyes – a validity that often flowed from interpreting apparently self-evident “facts”.

It thus appeared entirely rational for Northern Ireland’s loyalist gunmen to open fire on British troops to defend their “British way of life”. Israeli colonists who destroy century-old olive trees to drive Palestinian farmers from their land can rationally discourse about human rights and “improving local agriculture”.

Staff in Ronald Reagan’s White House thought it perfectly acceptable to break US laws by selling weapons and spare parts to Iran – via Israel – and to then break further laws by recycling the revenues thus earned to arm Nicaraguan Contras. Since they were defending democracy they were naturally above the rule of democratic institutions such as the US Senate and House of Representatives.

This belief in our own convictions leads us to select those facts that best serve the arguments we seek to make. In a democratic dialogue the role of those on the other side is to reinsert the deleted facts into the debate. The media should recall the facts to help the rest of us reach a judgment.

Those who oppose the Lisbon Treaty argue that it is identical to the proposed constitutional treaty rejected by French and Dutch voters in referendums. The first part of that argument is highly questionable, the second highly selective. Lisbon differs from the rejected treaty in several ways, but perhaps most importantly of all in that it is not proposed as a constitutional text. The No argument also skips over the awkward reality that voters in Spain and Luxembourg did endorse the constitutional treaty by referendum.

Comdt Horgan’s letter in last Friday’s Irish Times about the safety of the seven Irish troops in Afghanistan is equally selective in its presentation. His argument about their participation in the Nato-led ISAF being in breach of Irish neutrality would have lost traction had he also mentioned that the presence of that force in Afghanistan derives from no less than nine UN Security Council resolutions, plus an agreement with the Afghan government, and that Ireland is one of 14 non-Nato contributors including neutrals such as Austria, Finland and Sweden.

We now face what is either a new challenge, or one recycled from the dark ages of human ignorance and illiteracy – fact-free arguments. Protagonists now feel free to advance arguments that have no basis whatsoever in reality in the belief that nobody can, or will, challenge them. More worryingly it seems that numbers of our fellow humans unquestioningly accept such fabrications as truth.

The former Co Longford chairman of the Irish Farmers Association James Reynolds informed a Dublin press conference that Lisbon was “a proxy vote on Turkish accession”. Quite where Reynolds got his inspiration for this extraordinary invention was neither revealed nor questioned.

It is probably worth mentioning that Lisbon changes nothing in terms of how countries join the EU. Each existing member state has to individually assent to every newcomer. Two of Lisbon’s main promoters, chancellor Merkel of Germany and president Sarkozy of France, are implacably opposed to Turkish membership of the EU and the latter has even guaranteed a national referendum on this question – should it ever arise.

Opponents of healthcare reform in the US are, polls would seem to suggest, having a wonderful fact-free ride in their attacks on the Obama administration’s proposals. A Public Policy Polling poll carried out in mid-August asked: “Do you think the government should stay out of Medicare?” Some 39 per cent said it should, and a further 15 per cent were “not sure”.

Medicare is the US government healthcare system for those over 65, which has been in operation for 44 years.

Interpreted facts can sometimes lead to barbarous actions – as they did over Lockerbie. Ignorance invariably does, making it lethal for our very humanity.

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