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21 May 1998 Edition

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Opposite sides of the same coin

The Two Irelands: 1912-1939
By David Fitzpatrick
Published by Oxford University Press
Price £8.99

The Italian historian Croce once made the acute comment that when we write about history we are actually writing about ourselves. That is, the way we interpret the past depends on how we experience the present. This little maxim is well illustrated by David Fitzpatrick's shrewd and cleverly constructed account of Ireland from shortly before the Rising to the outbreak of the Second World War.

A common approach is to treat Republican and Unionist history entirely separately from one another; indeed many historians treat the two as mutually incompatible. However, Fitzpatrick carefully draws out the unexplored, complex and surprising similarities between Republican and Unionist rebellions (or `dual revolution' as Fitzpatrick terms it) against the British state - the reason behind the seemingly odd choice of historical time frame for the book.

Also of interest, and hence the paraphrasing of Croce above, is the way in which Fitzpatrick skilfully highlights the parallels between then and now, particularly in respect of Republicanism. Most of them are pointed up in a vaguely sarcastic tone. Fitzpatrick can also sound irritatingly patronising in places, even if one should be used to it by now from southern academics, but it still has the effect of making one think very hard about the current state of political play in Ireland.

Importantly, however, what the book ultimately does, precisely by its apparently strange choice of period, is to force readers from both sides of the political divide into considering the arguments and rationale of the opposition, and manages to do so without didacticism. The argument, however, is not that old `there's-more-which-unites-us-than-divides-us' chestnut; rather it is one which suggests with subtlety and logic that Republicanism and Unionism are opposite sides of the same coin; a coin which many could say, and with absolute justification, was minted by the British state.

By Fern Lane

Cosy conclusions

Fianna Fail and Irish Labour
By Kieran Allen
Published by Pluto
Price £9.99

Call me cynical and conspiratorial but when I first looked at the cover of this book titled Fianna Fail and Irish Labour: 1926 to the Present, written by Socialist Worker editor and UCD academic Kieran Allen, all my in-built political prejudices clicked into gear.

I didn't need to read it because just by associating the author and subject matter I could guess the conclusive analysis Allen would produce.

It was clear that he would show that a weak, disorganised and ideologically impotent Irish Labour Movement would be no match for a wily Fianna Fáil able to transcend social class with the overpowering emulsion of socially radical republicanism espoused by Dev and his cohorts in the early 1930s.

Fianna Fáil had convinced the Labour Movement that they could be, at some remote corporatist level, partners in government and I believed Allen would argue this is still the case as shown by the ten years of social partnership and wage agreements between the ICTU and successive Dublin Governments.

However, on tackling the book you will find it a surprisingly good read. Not that Allen doesn't reach the predicted conclusions; he does. It's more that the book is well researched and Allen has brought together a lot of interesting material.

It's not that I disagree with his conclusions either. I don't. It is that the next step in his argument, which is touched on in this work, is impossible to agree with. Allen writes in the last pages of this book that ``the other alternative that is available to Irish workers is the smaller tradition of radical republicanism''.

The Sinn Féin tradition is for Allen flawed because ``Ever since the H-Block crisis, republicans have worked on a strategy of constructing a pan-nationalist alliance that stretches from Irish America to the local Fianna Fáil branch. This has meant that they now disavow any intention of undermining the southern state'' thus making them unworthy allies for the left in Ireland.

Allen's book is good on its own merits but he cannot resist the predictable cheap shots at socialist republicans. It just reminds me of James Connolly's reported musings in the GPO at the start of the rising:

``They will never understand why I am here''. How right he was.


A bad news day

On Television and Journalism
By Pierre Bourdieu
Published by Pluto Press
Price £9.99 (pb); £30.00 (hb)

Television is an inescapable medium - as well as being ``such an ugly piece of furniture'', according to film director John Waters. In this short and highly entertaining book, noted French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu examines this extraordinary method of communication. He raises fears about its ``dumbing down'' and the impact this has on the ..........culture and democracy itself.

The dumbing down of TV, asserts Bourdieu, is inextricably linked to market forces and a preoccupation with ratings. This ratings mindset had led to the tabloidisation of TV, in which the real news agenda is rudely shunted aside in favour of sensational news (particularly crime), human interest stories and sport. You only have to glance at the schedules to see this approach in action.

Competition for viewers has led to a battery of standard journalistic subjects that are thought to have mass appeal. These subjects will interest any and every viewer, and are unlikely to offend. They arouse curiosity but require no analysis. They are non-controversial and demand no knowledge.

Channel hopping - in the context of news - has become a futile pastime, as each station inevitably covers the same stories and themes. The threat of competition has resulted in a levelling of output. So, paradoxically, as more channels emerge, the variety of output actually reduces, as audience ratings dictate a homogenised agenda and uniform approach.

In TV journalism, speech is secondary and dialogue reduced to soundbites, thereby trivialising content. If you can't say it in 30 seconds, then it's apparently not worth saying. Time pressures (and the short attention spans now assumed of viewers) ensures guests and interviewees are chosen on the basis of being professional talkers - pundits - who can churn out what Bourdieu calls cultural ``fast food''. For TV producers, there's no appeal in their guests actually thinking. As an image, it doesn't work well on TV and is wholly inappropriate for an impatient audience (although the same could be said of radio journalism too). But the visual nature of TV, and its preoccupation with time, renders it almost impossible for people to say what they have (or want) to say in any case. Everything is directed, edited and regulated (some might say censored) by faceless producers with audience figures in mind. Such an approach, interestingly, seems tailor-made for a certain breed of modern politician.

Bourdieu believes the real threat of television lies in the powerful effects it can have on public opinion. As a medium that's supposed to record and report reality, it actually has the power to create or mutate its own reality instead. Such false realitys can engender whatever feelings in the viewer are demanded by the public behind the news agenda - whether those feelings are fear (of crime, for example), racism, xenophobia, or just the warm fuzzy feeling you allegedly get from learning about Blinky the Bicycling Penguin.

On a French TV station in 1989, as unlikely a cultural commentator as you could find - Sylvester Stallone - commented that the ``last thing people want is truth''.

So turn on, tune in, and veg out.

By Eileen Lyons

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