Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Top-selling Irish paper keeps on grovelling towards Israel

I've been thinking a lot lately about what my native Dublin was like one hundred years ago. During this week in 1913, seven people were killed when two tenement buildings in the city collapsed. The living and working conditions of the poor were deplorable. When a strike halted the tram service on Dublin's main street, leading industrialist William Martin Murphy tried to starve his employees into submission by locking them out of their jobs.

Murphy's business empire included The Irish Independent group of newspapers. Dublin has changed largely for the better since the 1913 Lock-Out; yet this media organ has remained consistent in displaying a contempt for the downtrodden and marginalized. Palestinians, victims of AIDS in Africa, the unemployed and even people with disabilities have all been attacked by its venomous, right-wing columnists in recent times.

The latest issue of The Sunday Independent contains a piece from Nicky Larkin, a film-maker who has been dubbed "the Irish Zionist" by the Israeli press. (Nicky Larkin should not to be confused with Murphy's nemesis, the early twentieth century union leader Jim Larkin).


In it, Nicky Larkin recalls a conversation in which a German neo-Nazi expressed an affinity with Palestinians on the assumption that they hated Jews. Larkin also stated that his interlocutor was the proud owner of a kuffiyeh -- a Palestinian checkered scarf.

I'm not sure if Larkin was trying to imply that the kuffiyeh is a popular fashion accessory for the extreme right. But I do know that he frequently writes about the kuffiyeh, sometimes in an ill-informed way. Last year, he described it as the "PLO scarf." That apparent attempt to brand it an item of "terrorist chic" ignores how it was worn by Palestinians long before the PLO's inception in 1964.

In that same 2012 article, Larkin outlined an "intellectual journey" (his words), where he was persuaded to become pro-Israeli by people he met in Tel Aviv. One of those was a former soldier who, according to Larkin, was attacked by "about 20 Arab teenagers filled with ecstasy tablets" while he was serving in Gaza.

Larkin felt that the soldier's memories were indicative of the "sense of alienation" felt by Israelis. He neglected to mention that the soldier was enforcing a brutal occupation at the time.

Free speech?

Larkin's efforts to portray the oppressor as the oppressed haven't gone down too well in Ireland's coffee shops. "Free speech must work both ways," he wrote. "But back in Dublin, whenever I speak up for Israel, the Fiachras and Fionas look at me aghast, as if I'd pissed on their paninis."

The Sunday Independent isn't too big on this free speech lark. A few weeks ago, I bumped into Paul Murphy, a left-wing member of the European Parliament, on a flight from Brussels to Dublin. Murphy (not to be confused with William Martin Murphy) told me that he had just written a response to an article in that paper, which had attacked his stance on Palestine.

Penned by Richard Humphreys, who sits on a local authority in South Dublin, the article denounced Murphy for stating that he would be in favor of a new Palestinian intifada. Humphreys branded Murphy's argument as "eccentric" and "embarrassing," while praising the position of the Irish government on the Middle East as "one of balance and sensitivity." To bolster his case, Humphreys referred to how Eamon Gilmore, the Irish foreign minister, had been part of an EU decision to blacklist the armed wing of Hizballah.

Murphy was denied a right of reply by the newspaper's editors. So he posted his response on his own website. It stressed that far from being a cool-headed commentator, Humphreys was "an apologist for the crimes of the Israeli state." When Israel murdered nine activists who were sailing towards Gaza in May 2010, Humphreys insulted the dead by calling them "Turkish terrorists."

(Full disclosure: I took part in a conference organized by Murphy earlier this year. My travel expenses were covered but I was not paid for my participation).

The Sunday Independent is the most widely-distributed weekend paper in Ireland. Although I've never heard any of my relatives or friends saying a good word about it, the paper nonetheless helps to make reactionary views appear acceptable.

Attack on truth?

One of its regular pundits, Eoghan Harris, has a deep-seated aversion to Palestinian rights. In April, Harris vented his fury at the Teachers' Union of Ireland over its decision to call for an academic boycott of Israel. "To call Israel an apartheid state is an attack on truth," he wrote. "As wrong as teaching that two plus two equals five."

Of course, Harris omitted some salient truths while trying to highlight differences between Israel and South Africa under white rule. He forgot, for example, how Henrik Verwoerd, the former South African prime minister, had declared that "Israel, like South Africa is an apartheid state."

I doubt that Harris was too perturbed by his omissions. He received a pat on the back for that "excellent op-ed" from Israel's embassy in Dublin.

Harris has done well from groveling. In 2007, he was appointed to the Irish Senate -- an elitist institution -- by the country's then prime minister Bertie Ahern. The appointment was clearly a reward for how Harris had sung Ahern's praises during a pre-election TV debate.

I had a friend who worked for The Independent group, when the late Vinnie Doyle was one of its top editors (confession: I also wrote feature articles for The Irish Independent in the 1990s). On one occasion my friend was commissioned to write a piece alleging that Dublin's beggars weren't really poor. A senior member of staff told him: "Always remember that Vinnie Doyle doesn't have much time for the little people in our society."

The same can be said for the paper's attitude to the Palestinians. Why bother holding the powerful to account, when it is so much easier to pick on the little people of our world?

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 3 September 2013.

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