Una Mullally: Fine Gael has been complicit in debasing discourse

Verona Murphy’s candidacy saw the party validating toxic forms of discussion

"She apologised, but there are other candidates, and one in particular, Gemma O'Doherty, who didn't apologise and who seemed to get something of a free pass, perhaps from former colleagues in the media." I'm not sure on what planet Charlie Flanagan thinks it's normal to equate a Fine Gael candidate in a byelection with Gemma O'Doherty, or indeed attack the media in a similar manner to how O'Doherty and her ilk do, but here we are. Flanagan surely knows how seriously political journalists take their jobs, and that many journalists take incredible care not to recklessly amplify disinformation and conspiracies.

Flanagan was of course talking about Verona Murphy, sore from an inevitable loss for Fine Gael at the end of a disastrous campaign in Wexford, not to mention the three other byelections that Fine Gael also lost.

Murphy’s campaign was dominated by her spreading of, and then breathtakingly apologising for, her own claims that Islamic State is a big part of the immigrant population and that children as young as three may have been manipulated by the terror group, adding that some would need to be “reprogrammed” upon arrival here. Whatever on Earth that entails.

Murphy's campaign ended with a ridiculous video accusing the media of "character assassination" and which used terminology such as "fight back", pitching a wannabe politician – whose ego extends to using the theme from Rocky, Eye of the Tiger, as a video soundtrack – against the media. Defensive, fantastical, sensational, inaccurate, this is how Murphy's campaign ended. It's a video Peter Casey would enjoy. It is "content" that debases mainstream political discourse, and scrapes the bottom of the political messaging barrel. One wonders what Fine Gael would have done if Murphy had actually won. How many kerfuffles and dramas would the party have been dragged through had Murphy ended up in Dáil Éireann?


Take stock

It is time now for Fine Gael to take stock. As a general election approaches, what kind of candidates does the party think are acceptable? Who else will they get on board with? Or will Murphy’s campaign and loss lead them to reflect on how all publicity is not in fact good publicity? Maybe there aren’t votes in her type of guff after all. If Fine Gael is indeed chasing a type of “electability” where the substance of a candidate’s character is simply incidental to that pursuit, that’s obviously an ugly way to go about representing people in a constituency. But if that was what they were doing, their Wexford candidate didn’t even win. Even their cynicism failed. They lost every byelection. So what is Fine Gael really at? How can their strategy be so lacking in, well, strategy?

Fine Gael would do well to reflect on what kind of discourse they're validating

It was obvious that Murphy’s rhetoric would damage Fine Gael. But the real issue is with the senior Fine Gael politicians who stood by her. We have a Taoiseach who supported Murphy and went to Wexford to canvass with her. It doesn’t matter if the Taoiseach attempted to do this in the most low-key manner possible; he still did it. He should have taken a stand. When Murphy said what she said, she should have been out of the game. There should be no space in mainstream so-called “moderate” politics for peddling racist, Islamophobic conspiracy theories. If that’s not a red line, then what is?

Murphy is not “straight talking”, as her last-minute campaign video attested. She parroted dangerous nonsense. But the narrative of someone being a straight talker, or a straight shooter, or “telling it how it is”, is code for a desire to say whatever you want about other people and damn the consequences. It’s code for facts being too nuanced a thing for the blunt force of a rant. It’s code for being the type of bar stool bore who operates in generalisations and fast and loose truthiness.

Loose cannon

Fine Gael ended their four failed byelection campaigns talking out of both sides of their mouth. We have Fine Gael politicians saying Murphy’s video wasn’t an official party video, and that her tone won’t be part of their election campaigns. But her video was part of their election campaign. She was the candidate. You can’t be simultaneously condemning a candidate and supporting their run. Ultimately, it’s good enough for them. Fine Gael pinned their aspirations on a loose cannon, and learned that the electorate wasn’t keen on having their intelligence insulted.

But where to next? At the Ireland's Edge conference in Dingle as part of Other Voices at the weekend, the journalist Carole Cadwalladr – whose tireless reporting on digital threats to democracy continues to unravel the toxicity at the heart of the intersection between tech, targeted advertising, political propaganda and disinformation – spoke about what has been her most disheartening realisation throughout the work she has undertaken, and that is how difficult it is to hold people to account. As mainstream politicians drag their heels on regulating online political advertising because they too believe they can carve out some useful territory in this wild west, the discourse continues to sink. As mainstream politicians back the types of candidates that are emerging from this culture where heightened online rhetoric is influencing offline discourse, we lose ground on decency.

Decency and truth depend a lot on a magical sort of collective agreement that we’ll all be honest and nice and fair. When this is broken, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Flanagan defended Murphy to the end, saying she had a positive contribution to make to Irish political life. No she doesn’t. Her contribution was toxic, and Fine Gael would do well to reflect on what kind of discourse they’re validating.