Interesting how in the Labour leader’s speech on Wednesday dealt with heckling from a minority of conference delegates. The stand out response was one he had clearly pre-prepared: “chanting slogans or changing lives”.
It had an immediate effect on the audience in the hall, and judging by the unusually positive reviews for the UK Labour leader on some beyond, acting as a philosophical razor between ‘aimless chatter’ and ‘planned, concerted action’.
Heckling plays a large part in modern politics (Twitter is an amplified ‘heckle chamber’). Politicians are so overwhelmed by it or reliant upon it, many see no alternative but to retaliate in the same terms as the incoming attack.
It’s a byproduct of comms platforms that constantly privilege the thrill of speed over the gathering of sense. This particular ‘razor’ divides talk from walk and it has uses far beyond the domestic political scene in Britain.
The Irish Times colour writer Miriam Lord wrote about it twice this week, giving examples of how debates in the Dáil descended into chaos. In the first, she gives examples of the P6 tone of some of the exchanges:
…wearyingly familiar was Sinn Féin’s response to the wide-reaching Housing for All proposals, along with the repetition of the stock “what planet are you on?” reactions.
“Do you live in the real world at all, Minister. Do you really?” asked Louise O’Reilly (Dublin Fingal). “What planet are you actually living on?” asked Sorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath).
Kildare TD Réada Cronin took the out-of-this-world line to new heights and said the housing plan was taking people “on a spin on a magic carpet, only there’s a massive hole in it”.
The Government hit back. Jennifer Carroll MacNeill held up Sinn Féin’s housing policy. “Rubbish” she scoffed. “There are two more, but don’t go looking for any detail.”
That’s pure Twitter talk. The housing minister Darragh O’Brien’s response was a little more grown up:
“In reality we must use every weapon we have … There is no silver bullet and I can’t tell you it will be fixed overnight,” he stressed, before looking across the chamber at Ó Broin.
“We can’t let one party’s perfect be the enemy of the common good. The Opposition needs to show what it is offering beyond soundbites, hypocrisy and ideological dead-ends.” [Emphasis added]
Leader’s Questions are gruelling sessions several times a week with the express intention of giving opposition leaders a chance to examine government performance in grinding detail. Miriam writes in her second piece:
Leaders Questions kicked off with the standard pleasantries which accompany all exchanges between the two on housing policy. The routine is well-established now: the Sinn Féin leader excoriates the Government for its scandalous dereliction of duty on the housing front, the Taoiseach for his failure to understand the gravity of the crisis because he is living in a fantasy world and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for lining the pockets of wealthy developers to the detriment of ordinary people who have been given a slap in the face yet again by the Coalition’s cosy boys’ club.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, argues Micheál.
But you’ve been going on about it for years with no appreciable results, reposts Mary Lou. “Blathering” is what she called it on Wednesday.
The Taoiseach’s response (from the official Dáil record):
With the greatest respect, what I think is scandalous is that the Deputy’s party opposed 975 homes that were due to be built in Clondalkin, of which 20% were social housing. I think it is scandalous that her party opposed 500 homes in Tallaght, of which 80% would be social or affordable purchase homes.
I think it is scandalous that her party opposed 278 homes in Swords. It voted against 1,200 social, affordable and private homes in Ballymastone and Donabate. That is what is scandalous – the hypocrisy that emanates from the Deputy and her party when it comes to housing provision in this country.
Obviously stung, the SF heckling intensifies. Then Mary Lou turns to the Ceann Comhairle (or chair) to intervene, who ends up telling her she’s after bringing the house into disrepute and asking her to resume her seat (which she does).
Then, back to Miriam (from her contemporaneous eye witness notes):
“You’re bluffing,” said Mary Lou.
“Spoofing” was the word on Wednesday.
What’s underway in Dublin is something of a experiment to see which of “chanting slogans or changing lives” appeals most to the electorate? However Sinn Féin add unnecessary peril to themselves by blocking house building.
The hope (and it’s an oddly desperate one for a party already tipped to walk into government after the next election) clearly is that they can artificially block house building they will can pick up the keys to government buildings then.
That would be tragic. Every government needs proper scrutiny. But that’s impossible if the line of attack consists largely of insults and shrill denial of the official government responses just because the answers are inconvenient.
But to be effective , you have to advocate alternatives from a similar space so that over time, people who may start out as sceptics can gradually be drawn into your way of viewing the problem at hand rather than the govt’s.
The descent into insults [Tweedledee and Tweedledum worked a treat last year though didn’t? – Ed] derives partly because there is no consistent analysis from the Sinn Féin leader, whether it be housing or Covid policy.
In other words, there has to be purpose and intention. It’s clear what the Taoiseach’s intention is in these exchanges (to build as many houses as he can as though his life depended upon), Sinn Féin’s less so.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty