There was only ever one Martin McGuinness

Picture courtesy of rte.ie

In the rush to eulogise Martin McGuinness on his passing, it is fascinating to observe the discomfort as Ireland’s media outlets wrestle with how to remember a man they despised for the most part, but who ultimately brought peace to our island.

The laziest, yet most common knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that there were two Martin McGuinnesses – the post-ceasefire peacemaker and politician on one side, and the IRA leader on the other.

It is the conclusion drawn by those who still, almost 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, cannot even begin to understand why a young man like McGuinness would become a high-ranking IRA man and wage a guerrilla war against the British for so long and in such a bloody fashion.

It says more about the writer than it does about their subject.

It says that they have never really addressed the root cause of violent republicanism – that is, the state violence perpetrated on a minority whose human rights were constantly suspended, ignored and denied.

It says that they haven’t looked into the Bogside – or, for that matter, The Diamond – and tried to understand the political forces that spilt the community in Derry and turned them against one another.

It says that what they want is a clinical, road-to-Damascus-style conversion where the savage learns to speak and thus realises his potential, becoming acceptable to polite society in the process.

Because in Ireland, that makes us feel better about how we abandoned our brothers and sisters in the North – Catholic and Protestant, unionist and Nationalist – for so long.

In Britain, it allows our neighbours to ignore their role in the disaster of their rule.

McGuinness was undoubtedly a violent man in command of a group of violent men.

His opponents on the battlefield – the streets of Derry – were equally violent, but their violence was backed by the Crown and made them all but immune from prosecution or consequence.

When both sides had enough, much was made of the conversion of the “men of violence”, a term exclusively employed to describe the IRA, the INLA, the LVF, the UVF and other armed groups.

Little or nothing was said about the complicity of the state forces of the United Kingdom (and to a lesser extent the Republic of Ireland), and their role in the tragedy of those decades.

In our islands we wish to consign the Troubles to history, blithely ignoring that we continue to visit injustices – sometimes violently – on sections of our populations.

Whether it be the economic violence of austerity or the physical violence of state brutality, we still divide into “us” and “them”.

The reason we try to make this distinction is that we cannot countenance the fact that the “men of violence” were exactly like us – mostly fathers, brothers and sons, but also mothers, sisters and daughters who reached a point where they believed that peaceful protest was no longer effective.

We abhor their actions, but then we turn on the news to hear of a wedding bombed in Afghanistan and we feel nothing.

Beware the commentary that would simplify and attempt to remove Martin McGuinness from his context, and that would somehow suggest that he had a monopoly on violence, or that the violence of the state is automatically justified and justifiable.

There was never two Martin McGuinnesses – he was both a violent man and a skilled political operator.

So too was Nelson Mandela, another man once considered a terrorist only to be all but absolved of his sins in peace and, ultimately, in death.

Eventually the time came when both of them realised that the ballot box was indeed more useful than the Armalite.

But it is probably fair to say that, if either of them were ever again faced with the same level of cruelty or injustice being visited on their people, they would not have hesitated for one second to take up their arms again.

Nelson Mandela didn’t change.

Martin McGuinness didn’t change.

We did.

Why no-one really cares about Sweden

“Split on criminality and immigrants” – yesterday’s Expressen newspaper talking about what no-one is supposedly allowed to talk about in Sweden.

It’s not about Donald Trump.

It’s not about being the “rape capital of the world”

It’s not about riots in Rinkeby.

No-one cares about Sweden.

No-one cares about facts or statistics.

All they care about is winning the ideological battle over whether or not immigration – particularly Muslim immigration – is a bad thing or not.

I’m not going to bother regurgitating the statistics about why everyone from Donald Trump to Nigel Farage is clearly and empirically wrong about Sweden.

That has been done elsewhere, by the Swedish government among others.

I’m just going to share a few things that I have experienced.

Firstly – you might think so, but this is not new.

For almost three decades the Swedish far right – alleged nationalists and patriots – have in fact been telling anyone who would listen around the world that their country is a shithole.

It’s not a coincidence, or a mistake.

The same pattern has been seen in Norway and Denmark, and ultimately led to Anders Behring Breivik’s murderous rampage – a development brilliantly described by  Norwegian social anthropologist Sindre Bångstad in his book “Anders Breivik And The Rise of Islamophobia”.

This narrative didn’t just appear with Trump’s remarks – it’s been a trope of the far right for years.

Secondly, despite the protests of the far-right pearl-clutchers like spoof “Swedish national security expert” Nils Bildt on Fox News, you CAN talk about immigration, integration, criminality and the related issues.

In fact, for the last ten years or more, as the Sweden Democrats – the party who rose form the ashes of the neo-Nazi movement in 1989 – were given more and more of a platform, people have spoken of little else.

(According to various reports, Mr Bildt left Sweden in 1994 and was reportedly convicted of assaulting a law enforcement officer and public drunkenness by a Virginia court 20 years later and sentenced to a year in prison. A man of the same name was also sued by a credit card company for over $20,000 around the same time, suggesting that Mr Bildt is the same kind of violent criminal deadbeat immigrant he claims is a problem for Western societies).

The front page of yesterday’s Expressen newspaper, one of the country’s biggest tabloids, again featured immigration and integration all over its front page.

In short, that assertion is, like so much else in the debate, rubbish.

And it’s not just the right either - Conservative parties have lurched that direction, but even the supposedly centre-left Social Democrats in both Sweden and Denmark have lurched quickly and clumsily after them.

Thirdly, there are enormous problems in Sweden.

A young man was shot dead at the top of my street last autumn, and a teenage boy suffered a similar fate outside the school where my wife works. His brother was also seriously injured.

A grenade killed a young kid in Malmö, and a photographer was badly beaten in Rinkeby last Monday.

But in almost 18 years here I have never felt unsafe in Sweden – not in Malmö, not at the boxing club in Gothenburg, and certainly not in Stockholm, even during the famous riots in 2013.

Young people from the Stockholm suburbs I live in have problems finishing school and getting jobs. There is violence, there is crime, there are drugs.

This is a European city, with all the attendant social problems that entail.

But the far right – and indeed the Telegraph, the Irish Independent, the Spectator and other people who should know better, will tell you that this is simply because these people are immigrants.

They will tell you to ignore the prevalent socio-economic situations that have applied to first and second-generation immigrants that go back centuries – their place on the bottom rung of society’s ladder, their skills ignored and instead re-classed as cheap labour.

They will not refer to the social experiments that have seen health centres privatised and suburban centres gutted, or that schools allowed to make a profit hoover up kids whose parents hope for a better future for them, and then just warehouse them as state schools are forced to close due to lack of numbers.

They will not tell you about police targets that encourage the convicting of as many young offenders as possible, marking them for life for teenage misdemeanours and effectively shutting them out of the job market, leaving them no choice but to return to a life of crime.

They will not tell you about the dozens of fires at planned asylum centres over the last two years.

Instead they will make it all about race and immigration – and race is only relevant in criminology if you happen to be racist.

The only time race is a factor is when gunmen and murderers like Peter Mangs and “The Laser Man” John Ausonious chose their victims based on the colour of their skin, or when racists decide to set fire to a refugee centre.

After all, Niklas Lindgren, the “Haga Man” – one of Sweden’s most notorious serial rapists – did not commit his crimes because of his Swedish ethnicity.

He did it because he is a rapist.

Make no mistake – no-one cares about Sweden, and soon the international focus will shift back to the wall with Mexico, or expansionism in Ukraine, or whatever.

But no-one cares about facts.

All they care about is winning the ideological battle that says that a comprehensive and welcoming welfare state is in fact a disaster, and that Muslims are evil people intent on destroying Western civilisation.

It is, of course, nonsense.

But to racists, it is very important to be able to define and discuss things in terms of race – and, preferably, in terms of race only.

In allowing the debate to be framed in these terms and by “hearing them out”, mass media are doing exactly what is outlined in Bångstad’s book about Breivik.

(Ironically, the same day as the Sweden Democrats had an op-ed supporting Trump’s remarks published in the Wall Street Journal, one of their MPs was charged with embezzlement – SD parliamentarians are apparently twice as likely to have a criminal record as the average Swede).

They are allowing these ludicrous ideas – such as the idea that Sweden is anything other than an enormously advanced, rich and successful country that at the same time suffers the same social problems as virtually every modern European nation – to gain traction, uncriticised and unopposed.

And if Sweden can be painted in these terms, what hope do places like France and the UK have?

If what has happened in Norway, Denmark and now Sweden is anything to go by, there is no happy ending in sight. These ideas are not going to go away.

Call it fake news, call it propaganda, call it what you like – the ideological battle is currently being won by the far right pretty much everywhere you look.

This is happening, and it’s not going to get better until it gets a whole lot worse, as evidenced with the rise of far-right politics and leaders in the likes of Russia, Poland, Hungary and the United States of America.

 

Why I won’t be watching Claire Byrne Live

So apparently Clair Byrne Live is to be the latest to provide a platform to the self-proclaimed “alt-right”, presumably as some part of a “freedom of speech” segment designed to provoke a reaction, while blithely ignoring the consequences for Irish society.

I won’t be watching.

I won’t be watching because we have already had a real live discussion about their supremacist values, and found them wanting.

The first part of it ended in 1945, with millions dead – killed because of their ethnicity, their sexual preferences, their religion.

Their “values” lived on in the form of apartheid and segregation, until they too were gradually and thankfully consigned to the scrapbooks of history.

I won’t be watching because human dignity and equality are not a matters for discussion – they are enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

I won’t be watching because I don’t want to be part of the fact-free masturbatory fantasies about Muslim rape waves of white, male, emotionally stunted keyboard warriors.

I won’t be watching because I don’t believe that people fleeing from war and persecution should be painted as a threat.

I won’t be watching because I refuse to legitimise the language of their hatred.

I won’t be watching because I believe journalism is best served not by dragging these hateful cretins into the light, but by leaving them in the shadows where they have festered for so long, only to bloom when the lights of publicity were recently turned upon them.

I wont’ be watching for the same reasons I wouldn’t watch ISIS justify their murderous “caliphate” on the show, or Gary Glitter justify having sex with children.

I won’t be watching, because this “debate” about human dignity is already over, and they lost – and I am not prepared to offer the Nazis a chance to come in from the cold.

The real danger of normalising racism

Peter Mangs, who shot and killed people in southern Sweden based on their ehtnicity

I’m not quite sure every bleating quasi-liberal, from ministers to newspaper editors, has realised it yet, so I better take the time to point it out again – normalising racism and making hate acceptable has actual real-life consequences, not just for the discourse, but also for society itself.

I realised this recently when I said on Marian Finucane’s radio show that society as a whole was pretty much agreed on what constituted hate speech, and social protection minister Leo Varadkar disagreed with me.

I never got the chance to explain it then, but what I meant by that was that society has set the boundaries through its laws against incitement to hatred, as well as in Article 1 of the UN Convention of Human Rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

As for what Minister Varadkar meant, you’ll have to ask him – but he did mention “shutting down the debate”, which in this instance is what people say when what they really mean is “I want to be able to present my ideas unopposed, and have everyone agree with them.”

(For now I’m not even going to bother with the car-crash that is the Irish Times’ latest fuck-up in the rush to embrace the far right, and its pathetic explanation – let us just say it is indicative of the genre.)

Over the last 15 or so years I have seen the normalisation of racism and hate speech in the media lead to the rapid rise of the far right in Scandinavia, in the UK and in America, to the extent that they have recent government experience in many countries, and they have also moved the goalposts for the more “liberal” parties.

Ireland is behind the curve in that regard – or perhaps ahead of it, given that right-wing populism has been the order of the day since the foundation of the state – but it is more than capable of accommodating an upsurge similar to the one that happened in Scandinavia.

Despite its reputation for social democracy and equality, some in the Nordic region have always had a penchant for white supremacy, and it’s something that raises its Aryan head from time to time.

It is when it moves out of the shadows and into the mainstream that violence becomes acceptable, and in many cases inevitable.

Take the early nineties in Sweden when “New Democracy”, a hotch-potch of neo-Nazis, racists, Islamophobes and a man famed for churning out Eurovision stars, came into being.

Their rise, and the utilisation of their rhetoric, coincided with the advent of “The Laser Man”, a racist who targeted non-Aryan looking people and shot eleven people, killing one and paralysing my friend’s father.

As the century turned and Sweden gradually forgot the horror of the Laser Man, once again it was time to “hear them out”, and racists were again provided with a platform.

The rise in the polls of the Sweden Democrats coincided with the appearance of another racist murderer, this time in the form of Peter Mangs, who was eventually convicted of two murders and four attempted murders.

This is to say nothing of the wave of arson attacks against buildings that were ear-marked as housing for refugees in 2015, at a time when the anti-foreigner rhetoric being “heard out” from the far-right was at a peak.

What happens is that when we allow the racists airtime and column inches, when we “hear them out” and let them tell us about their “legitimate concerns”, we are allowing them to set the boundaries.

Regardless of whether we are editors, journalists or media consumers, we allow them to discuss things in terms of race, ethnicity and religion, and in those terms only – that African men are rapists, or that Muslims are potential terrorists who want to destroy “our values”, and the birth rate of feckless immigrants will mean that Europeans will soon be a minority in their own continent.

Once we go head first down that rabbit hole, there is no backing out, because these people are immune to facts – they just jump to the next trope, the next meme, the next fact-free accusation let loose on the airwaves.

Here’s one from personal experience – Sweden’s “55 no-go zones”.

This far-right racist trope arises from an op-ed piece written for the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, in which it was claimed that there were 55 lawless areas into which police essentially could not go.

Frankly, that claim is bollocks, as illustrated in this short (Swedish-language) video I made as a rebuttal – and if Svenska Dagbladet’s writer had bothered his arse to go to any of these areas, he would have seen the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong – there has been a spate of shootings, some fatal and many of them in the five suburbs where I live and circulate, and a young man was shot dead at the top of my street last year – but pretty much every one of them has to do with crime, rather than ethnicity.

Despite all this, the researchers at the Economist rank Stockholm as the fourth-safest city in the world – and the safest in Europe.

When I mentioned this to an Irish debater, and the fact that I had visited many of the areas listed among the 55 “no-go” areas without problem, he sent me a link … to a double murder carried out by a failed asylum seeker at IKEA in Västerås.

Now I’m not sure if his point was that IKEA is a now no-gone zone, but it illustrates the tactics perfectly – make an accusation, and when it is disproved, abandon it and make another, until you have a discussion based only on race, ethnicity or religion.

This is how racism is normalised.

This is what Clare Byrne Live and the Late Late Show are promoting and encouraging when they invite Ian O’Doherty or that vile Hopkins woman on and give them a platform to spew their bile.

Put simply, editors and producers are gatekeepers, and it is their editorial responsibility to ensure that anyone given a platform uses it responsibly – not to spew lies and hate and then change the subject when called out.

The neo-Nazi “alt-right” grew out of the dark reaches of the Internet, but it only became a political force when it was given a platform by the mainstream media to spread its ideas, its jargon and ultimately its hatred.

It should have been left in those dark corners of the Internet, along with the 9/11 conspiracy theorists, the Grassy Knoll brigade and the chemtrails enthusiasts.

Because as soon as you start to give these ideas and this rhetoric legitimacy, be that on the public service airwaves or in the paper of record, you are letting the genie of racism out of the bottle and giving him a seat at the table.

And experience shows that it is never those who do the letting-out that pay the price.

Forget “fake news”, fake debate is killing Irish discourse

Let’s get straight to the point here.

Last night’s “Claire Byrne Live” on RTE was a journalistic fiasco, a car crash of pub opinions presented as public service broadcasting.

And my suspicion is that it was no accident.

It was proceeded by a film called “The Crossing”, which highlighted the work being done by the Irish Navy in the Mediterranean, where they have been rescuing migrants by the boatload.

Indeed, some of those featured in the film were trotted out in a sort of mawkish public thank-you parade that seemed entirely out of place.

Some journeyman politician was then provided to give Official Ireland’s take, and actor Liam Cunningham, who has spent time in Syria, was also included.

To provide “balance”, the panel was completed by Ian O’Doherty, who has done … what, exactly, other than be sanctioned for racism by the Press Ombudsman when writing about Roma?

This is Irish journalism in the 21st century, where balance is giving equal weight to both sides, regardless of how inept, ill-informed or under-represented they are.

Given the opportunity on the national broadcaster, O’Doherty proceeded to march through the Breitbart checklist of racist tropes, ending up at one of his greatest hits – fundamentalist Islam.

Now I’m not sure if the refreshments were removed in the Green Room before the film was screened, but it seems that Ian missed the fact that many of those fleeing across the Med are from Eritrea – a country fairly evenly split between Christians and Muslims and from which people flee because of the dictatorship of Isaias Afewerki, rather than any religious conviction.

He moved from something which in this case was to do with sub-Saharan Africa and the failed state of Libya, and shifted it back to ISIS, without any explanation or nuance whatsoever.

Facts are, of course, useless to Ian, and he continued on through the tropes at a breakneck pace.

Rape.

Cologne.

Sweden.

And so on and so on, deep down into the rabbit hole of racism and self-importance currently jammed to bursting point by conservative columnists shrieking for some air time.

At no point did Byrne make any effort to challenge any of the erroneous assertions made by O’Doherty.

From a public service broadcaster, this is the very definition of unacceptable.

It is unacceptable to present people on a panel if all they have to offer is bar-stool opinions, rather than expertise, lived experience or at least some sort of insight into the subject matter  - say what one likes about Cunningham, but at least he put his boots on the ground in Syria.

Being the Village Racist (a man so incapable of discussing things in a civilised manner that Twitter suspended him recently) or the talking head at the top of the researcher’s telephone list should not be enough.

(Added to that was the sputtering representative of the newly-formed and avowedly racist National Party, who thankfully could barely formulate a sentence before foaming at the mouth and losing the plot, allowing the host to move on).

It is unacceptable not to challenge serious assertions that are racist in nature and that denigrate entire swathes of people, and to instead blithely allow them to be presented as fact or (at best) informed opinion.

It is unacceptable for RTE and Claire Byrne Live not to take their responsibilities, both in general journalism and public service broadcasting, seriously.

In short, it is not enough for an interviewer or moderator to know the questions – they must also know the plausible answers, and be able to distinguish when they are being manipulated or lied to.

The reason tropes like the ones espoused by O’Doherty are given credence is because they are allowed to go unchallenged; if a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes true for those who wish it to be so.

Those who pay attention to such things will have noticed the shift lately towards Breitbartian rhetoric – “virtue signalling”, “SJW” and the constant, all-encompassing Islamophobia.

The far right are coming out in Ireland, and in doing so they are revealing that they have been in plain sight all along.

And as with everything else it is important that “debates” probe and test arguments properly, instead of being the equivalent of putting two cats in a sack and letting them fight it out.

Fake news is a huge threat in terms of democracy, but the onus lies very much with the reader, viewer or listener to discern what is true and what is not.

Fake debates are a different matter, and giving extremists the platform to air their ill-informed views on vulnerable groups, from immigrants to those on social welfare, without them being robustly challenged is a failure of public service.

Remarks to Social Democrats convention in Dublin

Speaking at the Social Democrats National Convention in Dublin. (Source: @SocDems’ Twitter account)

For the most part I stay out of party politics, but I was honoured to be invited to speak about my experience of 17 years of living, working and travelling in social democratic countries in Scandinavia by Ireland’s Social Democrats, who held their first national congress in Dublin last weekend.

The night before I sat in a hotel room not really knowing what to expect.

Sweden and Scandinavia are often held up as paragons of virtue, and Ireland is often pilloried as being backward, but the truth of both is somewhere in between, and that was something I tried to address in these remarks.

They were not delivered verbatim as written here, mostly because I left my glasses on the table, and indeed one of the most important statements was left out.

That is, that Ireland should learn from not just the successes of social democracy, but perhaps even more so from its failures, and in that way chart its own course to a fairer future for all who live there.

I thank the Social Democrats for inviting me to speak and for giving me the chance to be part of a democratic process that those of us who have emigrated are normally and unapologetically shut out from.

REMARKS TO SOCIAL DEMOCRATS CONVENTION IN DUBLIN, NOV 19 2017

I live in Sweden.

I live in a country where I was welcomed with open arms in 1999 and treated fairly and with humanity, despite having nothing to invest and not being the most attractive person on the labour market until a few years after I arrived.

I live in a country that taught me its language and completed my education at its own expense.

I live in a country which believed in me, and I have repaid that country’s faith by paying my taxes ever since.

I live in a country that fixed my broken arm after playing football on a Saturday evening, and still had me home in time to see Match of the Day

I live in a country that saw people fleeing from war and who were in need, and that took them in and gave them food and shelter – 163,000 of them in one calendar year.

I live in a country where the chairperson of the sports journalists association I am a member of is a woman, and there are many more of them beside me in the press box.

I live in a country where full-time childcare for two children cost me around €220 a month.

I live in a country where I do not worry about my in-laws ageing, or being self-employed and getting sick.

I live in a country with a comprehensive public transport system that runs on time.

I live in a county where I do not worry for the future of my children, and where our hall door in an urban area is unlocked most of the time.

I live in a country where third-level education is free and students can get both grants and loans to help them complete it.

I live in a country where the beer is expensive and tastes horrible, where you can’t get smoked cod and chips and where they have never even heard of a spice bag.

I live in a country which has a terrible shortage of housing as it adopts free-market solutions to the problems of the state.

I live in a country – one of only a handful in the developed world – where it is legal and possible for a private enterprise to make a profit from running a school.

I live in a country that sells weapons to despotic regimes, and that is home to companies who manufacture technologies for those weapons, as well as technologies to prevent refugees from reaching Europe.

I live in a country that has subtly racist structures that builds glass walls around areas such as the one where I live, and that prevent some of my friends and neighbours from advancing and achieving their true potential.

I live in a country that is by no means perfect.

I live in a country that is built on generations of social democratic values, in which everyone is equal, and everyone is taken care of, regardless of the thickness of their wallet or where they went to school

I live in a country that I have lived in for 17 years, but I am not a citizen of that country.

I live in a country that is not my country.

But I long for the day when this country – my country – learns from my current home.

I want this country – my country – to treat my father, my mother, my brothers, my sister, and all my fellow citizens with the dignity and the care that all of us deserve.

I want this country – my country – to recognise the strength that comes from togetherness, from meeting the challenges of life head on, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, and not as individuals all just out for ourselves.

I want this country – my country – to be led by leaders whose first loyalty is to my fellow citizens, and not to themselves or the markets or the shareholders or the lobby groups.

I want this country – my country – to learn from the successes and perhaps even more so from the failures of social democracy.

 

I want this country – my country – to be worthy of my fellow citizens, and to recognise the truth in one of the oldest proverbs of our native language.

 

“Ní neart go chur le chéile” – there is no strength without unity.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Time running out for MMA’s Tipper Gores

I have to say, I find it abhorrent.

Bare-knuckled, talentless thugs fighting it out for supremacy while the crowd, both those in the arena and those who pay for expensive cable subscriptions to see the spectacle, bays for blood?

Nope, ice hockey is not for me.

As a sports journalist I’ve covered two ice hockey world championships and an Olympic final, and interviewed numerous world-class players and officials but, if you’ll pardon the pun, I just can’t warm to it.

But despite my misgivings about the sport, its inherently macho culture evidenced in regular on-ice fights between team “enforcers”, and the undercurrent of performance-enhancing drugs at virtually every level, I do not question its legitimacy, nor do I judge its players or condemn its fans.

I write about it with the same respect I would any sport or any athlete.

I wish the same could be said of the modern-day Tipper Gores who, every time the name of Conor McGregor or the sport of mixed martial arts are mentioned, boom out their contempt for all involved form the highest of vantage points, despite their own admissions that they have no idea what they are talking about.

I mean, think about it – in what other area of sports journalism would ignorance of the subject matter be worn like a badge of honour?

You remember Tipper Gore, right? The busy-body wife of Al Gore who in 1985, before he became vice-president of the USA, demanded that music (in particular rap, hip-hop and hard rock) be censored?

Her legacy is not a world devoid of the evils of rap and heavy metal – in fact, both genres have flourished, with Jay Z now topping many entertainment  rich lists and tours of hard rockers raking in the millions across the world.

Instead, her legacy is one in which t-shirts bearing the imprint “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” are worn ironically, in tribute to the staggering arrogance and stupidity of her and the Parents Music Resource Centre, the gang of worthies she set up to decide what is and what is not acceptable culture.

Luckily music fans simply did not give a shit – much like the MMA fans of today.

Don’t get me wrong – I too find it difficult to watch sometimes.

When Ilir Latifi, a Swede from Rosengård in Malmö, was knocked out in a recent fight, I felt crushed – the few times I’ve met him he has been warm and decent to me, and to see him flying back unconscious was hugely unsettling.

And despite the fact that I rank the epic fight between Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald as one of the best I’ve ever seen, I can almost feel MacDonald’s pain at the end as he finally succumbs, his nose a smashed, bloodied mess.

I get the fact that people don’t like it.

I get the fact that people don’t like McGregor.

On many occasions I have stated how I believe his foul mouth and his tendency towards misogyny and racial epithets is extremely troubling (and indeed damaging to his “brand”).

I’m not asking anyone to like it. Or him.

But there are a lot of people who do, and their interests are not being served or indeed taken seriously by many in mainstream media at the moment.

(One well-known Irish commentator actually sought me out in the press room at a soccer game to tell me how much he hated it, and editors regularly feel compelled to condemn the sport to me, even as they order coverage of it.)

The argument is made that criticism of the sport is not about class, and writers point to their own working-class roots as evidence that they cannot be biased.

Once again they are putting themselves at the centre of the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture.

The truth is that, wherever I go in the world at the moment, young, working-class men are the ones who talk to me most about McGregor and mixed martial arts.

When I asked him a question at last week’s press conference at Madison Square Garden, my phone started buzzing in my pocket even before I reached the end of my sentence.

All young lads, all watching live, all sending me messages, from all corners of the world.

In previous years it might have been Mike Tyson and boxing that were the subject of their affections, but things have changed.

It is not that young, working-class men are the only fans of MMA – it is that they make up a fairly large constituency, and they are the section of society that are roundly and regularly ignored in the media as it is.

That is what is meant by classism and snobbery.

In a week when an Irish athlete made history in Madison Square Garden, I would have expected sports journalists to put aside their personal prejudices and try to hide their ignorance while giving the sport and the subject the respect it – and its fans – deserves.

It hasn’t happened yet, but it is happening.

For the most part I work for very mainstream, respectable media outlets, and the fact that I have covered several UFC events for them this year is a good indication that the crossover is well underway.

Like Tipper Gore, the pearl-clutchers of Irish sports media will soon be left behind, left to celebrate their self-confessed ignorance to an ever-decreasing audience of retweeters and commenters as the rest of the world moves on.

And as has already happened in the USA, MMA fans will eventually enjoy the validation that comes from being featured in the mainstream media, and the sport will likely replace boxing as the number one combat sport.

And the UFC and McGregor?

They’ll continue laughing all the way to the bank regardless of what any of us says, so we better get used to it.

 

 

Immortality awaits McGregor in the Garden, but there are no guarantees

Those who have visited the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave often get a rude awakening on their arrival in New York.

Instead of the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty with her torch raised to welcome them, there is usually a long, winding queue for passport control.

Not so this week as I waltzed through Newark Airport and straight up to gate 49, where a clean-shaven young man inspected my newly-minted passport with both courtesy and studied detachment.

“What is the purpose of your visit, sir?”

“To watch the UFC and the NBA.”

He nodded approvingly.

Fingerprints and photographs taken, he snapped the passport shut.

“You’re all set. Let’s hope our boy wins on Saturday,” he said, his face cracking into a wide smile.

“Our boy” is Conor McGregor, and if the Irish once ruled New York, from the firehouses and the police precincts to City Hall and back, he is claiming it back at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, but the stakes are arguably higher than they ever were in Las Vegas.

Interest in McGregor is at fever pitch, but Eddie Alvarez, whom he faces as he seeks to become the first two-weight champion in the history of the UFC, is no slouch.

McGregor has seemed swept up in the hype this week, his manic behaviour at Thursday’s press conference a perfect example of a man highly strung, so close to achieving his dream, yet still vulnerable to failure.

No customised Rolls Royce or Gucci fur coat could hide the fact that, on Saturday, it will be Reebok shorts, four-ounce gloves and a gate that snaps shut when the moment of truth arrives – and that is all that matters.

If he wins, his legend will be complete, and the much-touted major announcement he has promised after the fight will take on even greater significance.

He will effectively control the UFC for the foreseeable future, reversing the master-and-servant relationship that once saw him beg Dana White for sixty grand; instead, White will be forced to go to McGregor on his knees if he wishes to keep the company steamrollering forward on the back of its most notorious fighter.

Lose, and the questions that were prompted by his defeat to Nate Diaz in March will once again echo around the sport.

Ronda Rousey and others may have done the spadework, but McGregor is undeniably the sport’s biggest truly cross-cultural global icon, but there is a huge risk that, with tens of millions in the bank and a promotion that has little choice but to bend to his demands, that McGregor will find himself surrounded by yes men – and that could signal the beginning of the end.

Those who have known him a long time say he has changed – he has become a brand, a one-man global industry with spin-offs and offshoots, with a bottom line and bills to pay, and expensive tastes to satisfy.

Honed over a decade or more, he knows his craft inside the octagon better than anyone else.

Given his meteoric rise, it would be foolish to assume that his mastery of the outside world – of the business of fighting and celebrity and investing – is at the same level, although the iron control he exerts over his brand and his support staff would suggest he is a fast learner, at least in terms of minimising the risk to himself.

It is unlikely that we will ever again see an open-hearted interview which allows us to see into the soul of the man – instead, we will be treated to staged videos and set-piece interviews where the answers are decided in advance, and are entirely independent of the questions.

He is uncouth and vulgar at times, but McGregor is no fool – he knows that the prospect of getting punched and kicked in the head for a living is not going to be attractive forever, and even at this stage he probably has his exit strategy mapped out.

Whatever that strategy is, it is surely based on the presumption that he will win this iconic fight in this iconic venue on Saturday, cementing his legend and opening up a world of wealth, fame and possibilities, financial and otherwise, beyond even his wildest dreams.

There is talk of movies, a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather and even a brief but lucrative move to professional wrestling and the WWE.

But the difference between the UFC and professional wrestling is a stark one – nothing in the octagon is scripted, and one clean shot could lay waste to whatever plans McGregor may have.

And you can be sure Eddie Alvarez is planning an entirely different ending.

Johaug dopade sig – allt annat är ointressant

Det finns något väldigt underligt i hur vi behandlar de som fuskar inom idrotten.

I vissa fall döms ju ut personer innan de ens åker dit medan i andra kan en utövares urin bestå av hundra procent testosteron och ändå ber vi om nåd för dem – varför?

Anledning till att ämnet kommer upp igen är att Theres Johaug har testat positiv för ett förbjudet preparat och att skandinavisk media skruvar på sig för att hitta en utväg.

Bland andra har två av Sveriges särklass bästa sportjournalister, Thomas Wilbacher och Patrik Ekwall, skrivit att vi måste ge henne en chans, ge henne “the benefit of the doubt”, att det finns säkert en rimlig förklaring för det positiva testet.

Min fråga är – varför?

Varför ska vi köpa just hennes ursäkt om att hon tog en kraftig steroid, helt omedvetet?

Varför ska hon komma undan när alla aktiva i alla sporter i hela världen vet ju att det är de som är ytterst ansvariga för det de stoppar i sig – inte läkaren eller tränaren eller någon annan?

Varför ska det skillnad mellan henne och, säg, Abeba Aregawi – i ett fall där Patrik Ekwall tidigare konstaterade att:

… allra först säger vi att idrottsstjärnor alltid ansvarar för sin egen kropp och för vad de väljer att stoppa i den.

Det gällde Linda Haglund, Ludmila Enquist, Ricky Bruch, Tomas Johansson, Andreas Gustafsson, Adil Bouafif och det gäller i allra högsta grad Abeba Aregawi.

Det är aldrig någon annans fel.

Varför ska vi då ha en dubbelmoral vad det gäller en skidåkerska som vi vet åker i ett landslag där aktiva har fått astmamedicin utan att vara sjuka?

Man blir ombedd hela tiden att ha nyanser i den här diskussionen – problem är att det finns inga nyanser, inga gråa zoner, inga frågetecken enligt WADA.

Den aktiva är själv ansvarig.

Punkt.

Det är inte en åsikt.

Det är fakta.

Och att be folk att tillämpa domstolens regler – att det ska bevisas utom all rimlig tvivel – är inte heller aktuellt. WADAs regelverk är solklar.

Det är upp till den aktiva att visa antingen att de inte hade stoffet i kroppen, eller att de hade en medicinsk anledning att ha det där.

Det har varit mycket snack om TUEs på senare tid och det är solklart att de som behöver medicin för att tävla ska absolut få ta det enligt det regelverket som finns (även om den också kan utnyttjas, men det är en annan femma).

Men att vi ska köpa Johaugs tårar bara för att köper inte jag.

Likt Patrik och säkert Thomas också har jag intervjuat aktiva som har ljugit mig rakt upp i ansiktet om dopning.

Jag har hört alla ursäkter, från att de har ätit kött som blev smittad med steroider i Kina till att de tog en oskyldig kosttillskott som hade blivit förorenade.

Jag har hört om olika krämer och hostmediciner (ofta innehållandes kraftiga ämnen som av en ren slump höjer prestationen hos en idrottare) som man har tagit helt oskyldigt, för att sedan åka dit på ett pissprov.

Jag har hört dem be om att få B-provet analyserat, när detta resultat ytterst, ytterst sällan visar sig vara annorlunda från A-provet.

För den som verkligen vill se med ett nyanserat öga – se bara på hennes ihåliga förklaringen. Där snackar vi duktigt med nyanser.

Sanningen är att det tog sekunder att googla fram en varning om att krämen som Johaug använde var på “banned list”.

USADA har också en “hotline” man kan ringa och till och med en app man kan ha i luren om man vill kolla om en medicin är OK eller inte.

Det finns hur många sätt som helst att ta reda på om något är förbjudet eller inte – och så finns det alternativet av att inte ta något alls om du inte vet vad det innehåller.

Och även om man nu köper Johaugs förklaring – var drar vi gränsen då?

Är det helt plötsligt läkaren som är ansvarig för hennes provresultat? Förbundet? Sponsorerna?

Dopningsregelverket är långt i från perfekt och även i dag finns det de som kommer runt det ganska enkelt.

Men det ser ut som det gör av en anledning – att det yttersta ansvaret måste ligga någonstans, och det är bestämt att det ska läggas på utövaren.

Om hon verkligen, verkligen har tagit det av ett misstag så tycker jag förstås synd om henne. Men det är ytterst osannolikt att en elitidrottare i den absoluta toppen av sin sport kunde göra ett så grovt fel helt omedvetet.

De man sällan pratar om är de andra hon tävlar mot – vem ser ut för deras intressen? De uteblivna pallplatserna och sponsorpengarna?

Om det är nyanser vi är ute efter så kan vi och ska vi och måste vi bena ut hur systemet funkar och vad som ska göras för att förenkla och förbättra det så att inte oskyldiga idrottare åker dit.

En bekant till mig som är journalist ställde gång på gång på gång frågor till och om en elitidrottare då han visste att idrottaren dopade sig. Till slut slutade folk att lyssna på journalisten.

Han blev av till och med av med jobbet eftersom juristerna sa, vecka ut och vecka in, att tidningen han jobbade på riskerade åklagas för förtal om han fortsatt på samma spår och de publicerade det han skrev.

Han gav sig inte.

Journalisten i frågan heter Paul Kimmage.

Idrottaren heter Lance Armstrong.

Det är därför vi ska fortsätta ställa frågor.

Men egentligen är det ju exakt som Patrik en gång skrev.

Det är aldrig någon annans fel.

 

 

 

Kvinnan, masken och den brinnande frågan

Expressens bild av händelsen på Göteborgsderbyt där en kvinna blev slagen, enligt uppgift

Som ofta innan pallar man inte försöka förklara komplicerade saker för folk på 140 tecken – då blir det det här istället.

Debatten har ju böljat fram och tillbaka om hur Allsvenskan mår.

Min gode vän Robbie Lauler var först ut med en typisk Laul-polemik på sin blogg – han belyser många av de problemen som onekligen finns i svensk fotboll.

Det besvarades av Klacksparksredaktionen som består av Malin Hägg, Jeanette Rådström och Anna Pierre, och även i Tutto Balutto med Gusten Dahlin och Thomas Wilbacher.

Som ett brev på posten blev det Göteborgsderby och rapporter om att en kvinna hade blivit nedslagen och slagsmål hade utbröt på Bravida innan Häcken och Blåvitt spelade 2-2 i måndags.

Låt mig börja med att säga – jag gillar bengaler och jag tycker att lagstiftningen i Sverige som förbjuder pyroteknik är fånig.

Som med många andra grejer i det här fina landet finns det en överdriven säkerhetstänk där riskerna höjs till skyarna på väldigt svaga grunder, och att man inte har hittat en lösning är snarare ett bevis på att de som styr svensk fotboll inte vill hitta en.

Jag gillar också supporterkultur och ståplatsen.

När jag går på fotboll privat och inte jobbar står jag helst i klacken. Jag har gjort det med fans från Inter, Everton, Liverpool, West Ham, Chelsea, Birmingham City, Djurgården, AIK, Malmö, FC Köpenhamn, Bohemians, Galway United, Hadjuk Spilt och dussintals andra över hela Sverige och hela Europa.

Ska man se på fotboll så ska man helst se det därifrån.

Ofta gör jag det ensam, och jag har sällan eller aldrig känt att situationen var hotfull eller obehaglig och från de erfarenheterna förstår ju att det finns vissa oskrivna regler för det som händer där.

Men jag förstår också att frågan är bredare.

Och en sak som jag och de allra flesta är överens om är att man aldrig lyfter sin hand mot en kvinna.

Igår kväll blev det rabalder på Twitter eftersom jag ifrågasatt den maskerade “hjälten” som hade hamnat i slagsmål efter att ha enligt uppgift slagit en kvinna som försökte slita bort luvan han hade på sig.

Det dröjde inte länge innan rytteriet kom till undsättning – tweetsen kan sammanfattas så här: “Vafan trodde hon skulle hända? Hon får skylla sig själv.”

Givetvis var det nästan uteslutande Göteborgssupportrar.

Och visst kan man tycka så – men om man accepterar att det finns ett vedertaget kodex, att det finns oskrivna regler på såväl stå- som sittplats så borde den maskerade pajasen aldrig har varit där till att börja med.

De allra flesta supportrar förstår ju att i klacken accepteras ett visst beteende – det kan vara bengaler, det kan vara ramsor, det kan vara att man förväntas delta i tifo eller stå eller sitta vid vissa tidpunkter och så vidare.

Köper du klackbiljett så är det underförstått att du går med på det, eller åtminstone att du inte förhindrar det.

Men likaså är det på andra sektioner. Kort sagt så bränner man inte av bengaler på andra sektioner där folk inte är med på det.

Utan något som helst bevis så känner jag att den negativa hälsoeffekten av bengalrök är nog kraftigt överdriven av såväl svensk media som av de som styr sporten – men för många åskådare är det en obekväm upplevelse.

Det är därför de väljer biljetter långt bort från bengaler och de maskerade personerna som håller i dem, som “vanliga” supportrar upplever dem oftast som hotfulla, oavsett om man hejar på samma lag eller ej.

Och när en maskerade person dyker upp på en plats på läktaren annat än där hen hör hemma, och de “vanliga” supportrar runtomkring börjar misstänka att det kanske ska brännas i deras sektion, ja då kan hen inte vara förvånad när de andra reagerar kraftigt.

För även på sittplats finns det oskrivna regler om hur man ska bete sig. Och maskering och bengalbränning ingår i de flesta fall inte.

Jag skrev för ett bra tag sedan om hur den svenska fotbollsläktaren är bland de sista platserna där vissa som annars står längst ned i näringskedjan får utöva lite makt i ett samhälle som annars gör allt för att trycka ned dem.

Men vad gör man för att lösa det?

Jag har rest Europa runt med mina irländska brödrar och systrar i klacken och jag tycker att självpolisering är utan tvekan det absolut bästa vägen för fans att gå, precis som de irländska landslagssupportrarna gör, med stöd (helst på långt håll) av ordningsmakten.

Men anledning att det funkar är att bland irländarna finns det en allmän förståelse för vad som är acceptabelt beteende.

I det här fallet i Göteborg är det rätt uppenbart att killen var på fel plats vid fel tidpunkt och det är det – inte att kvinnan försökt riva bort masken eller något annat – som står till grunden för vad som skedde därefter.

Att andra supportrar skyller på kvinnan och inte killen säger sitt – jag respekterar deras lojalitet, men jag håller absolut inte med deras resonemang.

Om ståplats vill ha respekt av sittplats måste det vara ömsesidig. Svårare än så är det inte.

Och är vi inte mogna nog för att erkänna när våra egna gör fel, då finns det inte mycket hopp för en långsiktig lösning för de flesta frågorna som berör ståplatssupportrarna – de som ger fotbollen den passionen som gör den unik och sevärd.

Än sämre får de som vill tysta ståplatserna helt vatten på sin kvarn. Och det gynnar varken de som står eller de som sitter.