What do you get when you let fundamentalists define the debate? Six doctors

Catholic Comment’s new intern hears they all like a beer on a Friday.

For those of you convinced that we are in the final stages of one of the last great Irish moral battles of our age, I hate to break it to you.

This abortion “debate” and whatever legislation it serves up will not bring closure, simply because once again we are asking the wrong questions of the wrong people.

The Supreme Court decision (subsequently ignored) that compelled the Irish government legislate following the X case was deemed by both sides to be a victory of sorts for the liberal agenda.

It was nothing of the kind, as it allowed for a very narrow definition of what the problem – and the possible solutions – actually are.

Suicidal thoughts are a problem in pregnancy.

Are they the reason ten or twelve Irish women every day go to England for abortions? No.

Will legislating for abortion in cases where the woman is suicidal help those women? No.

Will the Orwellian notion of six other people deciding whether or not a woman is to be trusted be good for them? No.

In fact, it will effectively roll back the clock for Irish women on all those years of clawing for rights automatically granted in other countries.

The definition of legislation within this narrow field of view allows the Irish taliban to do what they do best – argue anything but the point in question.

In fact, they’ve already done it.

They decide what the frame of reference is, and conveniently it’s chosen to to suit their arguments.

(If you’re an academic, they’ll also draw conclusions form your research that you expressly didn’t reach, and then won’t stop repeating them, but that’s another matter.)

They do the same on marriage equality.

They never talk about the gays, only about “the children,” which in itself is a massive own goal, when you think about it – anyone aligning themselves politically with Maude Flanders and Helen Lovejoy isn’t exactly credibile.

They cling blindly to such ridiculous statements as “Ireland is a very safe country to have children in” and “there is no scientific evidence to say abortion is a solution for suicidal mothers.”

There are glaringly obvious gaps in those arguments – the first is that those looking for abortions don’t want to have children, for whatever reason.

The second is that it’s amazing to find such a reliance on science all of a sudden, when they’re more than willing to accept any ould claptrap and hearsay in church on a Sunday.

The point is this – the government and the liberal-minded majority of Irish people have allowed the Christian far right to steer the proceedings.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the Irish taliban have grudgingly conceded that something must be done – but in doing so, that something must be so narrow and so ludicrous as to be entirely unworkable.

The solution is as simple as it is democratic.

We need to tell our legislators what we want, loudly and clearly.

We need to leave them in no doubt as to the fact that most people want abortion to be available to Irish women. In Ireland.

And we want an end to this charade of waving off our women on the early flight to Liverpool and pretending there is no problem.

We need to make them well aware that most people in Ireland don’t give a shit if you’re gay or not any more, and that we’re more likely to get offended by what football team you support.

And we must send a message, loud and clear, to Enda Kenny and everyone else in Leinster House – that the tiny, bobbed, Jesus-loving tail will no longer be allowed to morally wag the Irish dog.

It bears repeating: the time is ripe for a redefinition of our Republic, who we are and what we value.

That redefinition should be steered by our dreams of a better future, not by the clammy ghosts of our past.

Until we do that, we are condemned to repeating these moral battles, generation after generation, asking the wrong people the wrong questions, and then wondering why we keep getting the wrong answers.


Suicide, social media and getting stick from voters

Shane McEntee TD, who died this week.

The death by suicide of Irish parliamentarian Shane McEntee has prompted a slew of stroies in Sunday’s papers suggesting that bullying on social media was in some way a contributing factor – it seems cyberbulying is making it into the adult world.

In cases of suicide there is always an unseemly yet understandable rush to find out the why, and media in particular are always looking for a hook to hang their hat on.

Invariably, they pick it up and move on soon afterwards, leaving pelnty of their original questions unanswered.

Noticeable in Ireland’s Sunday newspapers is the conclusion that social media abuse hurled at McEntee is partially responsible, without ever really analysing why he was getting it.

The Sunday Independent reports that it was over the respite care cuts in the last budget, and if true McEntee essentially represents the first known victim of the latest installment of the austerity we flagellate ourselves with.

In that case, the ire should not be aimed at Twitter or Instagram, but at those who insist that our decent politicians – people like Shane McEntee, or many in the Labour party – are forced to vote against their principles, or walk the political desert.

That’s not to say that negativity directed at an individual on social media doesn’t have an effect.

I recall doing one TV show in Sweden which was put up on Youtube, where my contribution got dozens of positive comments. But the only one I recall is the one that said “he gets boring very quickly”.

It was like being punched in the stomach.

But as someone who works in media, I have to understand that the comment is not about my entire personality – the person making it has only seen me on Youtube, or maybe read some articles, so how could it be?

The commenter was criticising my performance, and that is fine – it goes with the territory. That I originally took it personally is my fault, not his or hers.

Personal abuse is different, and here is where the boundaries get blurred, especially in terms of politicians.

For instance, I think it’s entirely fair to refer to the Irish Labour Party’s elected representatives as spineless – how could one otherwise explain the abandonment of their principles as soon as they got into office?

That’s not to say that Pat Rabbitte isn’t a good father to his children, or that Joanna Tuffy is a bad person. It’s just that they are politically spineless, accepting policies that they promised their voters they wouldn’t.

Like the Arab Spring, social media has made our country more democratic. It provides instant feedback to our politicians about where they are going wrong, and indeed the few times they get it right.

But democracy demands that we be careful in our exercising of this power of communication – whatever the government does, we must play the ball, not the man.

Only then will can we demonstrate that it is the policies of this government that are ruining people’s lives, and not the reaction to them – on social media or otherwise.

Those in glass houses…

An all-too-familiar scene.

About a year or more ago, one of my best friends and I had a falling-out on Facebook.

Tired of the constant negative publicity Ireland was getting in Swedish media, I used the “Ireland is open for business” line to update my status.

The genie was out of the bottle.

The torrent of abuse I got was unmerciful, and for the most part understandably so. In addressing one audience, I had innocently offended another.

I had poked the hornet’s nest, and all the bitterness and anger at the destruction of Ireland’s economy was spread over my Facebook wall as I was publicly tarred and feathered.

Eventually an uneasy truce was reached, and as time went on I hope those in Ireland realised I was just as angry as them.

So despite the obvious advantages of living here, I’m very careful not to paint a picture of some Scandinavian utopia. Bad things happen here too.

Take the mail I got last night- it was one of the nicest, bravest, strongest things I’ve received in a while.

Someone wrote to me to thank me for not forgetting the case of Kate Fitzgerald. You could say the person had a vested interest, as they were in a similar position.

When the writer’s illness – brought on from what I understand by bullying in the workplace -became known, sensitivity and help were promised.

None was forthcoming.

Our correspondent with depression was made redundant.

Nor was this some two-bit PR firm that specialises in in smiling through the stench of hypocrisy.

The company this person worked for was one of the most respected in Scandinavia.

Having tweeted about the mail last night, I was shocked at the amount of other people that got in touch to say that they had been treated in a similar fashion.

I was even more shocked at how close some of them came to ending their own lives as a result of what happened at work.

Depression does not discriminate, but employers do.

But like depression, their discrimination seems to know no boundaries.

It happens in Ireland.

It happens in Scandinavia.

It happens everywhere.

And like depression, things can often appear to be OK on the surface, but all the while there is something malignant gnawing away beneath.

A decade or more ago, alcoholism in the workplace was treated in the same way. Ignored for the most part, and then shunned.

Nowadays, alcoholism meets with a lot more understanding – not because employers have changed their opinion of it, but because they have been shamed into treating it differently.

It still causes them problems. It still costs them money.

But they have been shamed into treating it as an illness.

So let me be very clear.

I know the name of this company.

I know the nature of the allegations against them.

I will be following their actions very carefully.

Very carefully indeed.


If you are feeling depressed, don’t suffer in silence- go visit your doctor and get professional medical help. If you feel your depression has been used against you by your employer, contact your union representative. 

Three wishes for 2012

Fresh from a few whirlwind weeks of book promotion and PR, I’ve been trying to relax and celebrate Christmas here in Dublin, but it’s never easy.

For one thing, Christmas in Ireland is celebrated with the boundless madness that pervaded ancient Rome, with tons of food and drink and promises not to eat or drink this much again for a very long time.

For another, my appearances last week on Pat Kenny’s programmes on RTE TV and radio prompted huge amounts of feedback, and for once I’m wishing my days away. I’m looking forward to getting back to Stockholm and getting stuck into a whole bunch of different initiatives.

I said in the foreword to A Parish Far From Home that I did not recognise the Ireland often depicted in the media here, and those interviews showed signs of finally proving me to be at least partially right.

There is a huge amount of energy and ideas that, with a little help from our friends, can be channelled into real achievements, real businesses, real art, real jobs. As with Dave Browne’s staggering world record back in June, sometimes you just have to do something.

But there is still a lot that is rotten at the core of Irish society – it cannot be changed overnight, but in 2012 we can make steps towards making our society and the debate that surrounds it more open and inclusive.

Here’s three of them.

Reform the laws that govern our media: It should not be possible for the powerful to suppress valid critcism and discussion simply by threatening legal action. What is needed is an independent system where those who feel wronged by the media – and there are many who rightfully feel they have a case – can get justice.

In turn, the media in Ireland needs to have a long, hard look at itself. So do those of us who consume it.

Too many stories are written before the subjects are even interviewed, and what passes for debate is often two extreme sides locking horns, completely unrepresentative of the vast swathe of opinion that occupies the middle ground.

We all need to be more reasonable, to listen more and to be willing to question what we believe to be right. There is no other path to lasting change.

There is also a lot we are not being told. When an argument does not stand up to public scrutiny, it is either wrong or not the real reason behind a decision or policy. For too long we have been spun different yarns- who will pay the nurses and the Gardai? Our ATMs will be out of cash by Monday and the rest – which are as idiotic as they are simplistic.

There a highly complex political reasons for why Ireland cannot be seen to win in our struggle against Europe and the financial woes that afflict us, but our leaders think that we can’t or won’t understand them.

We gave the world Joyce and Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Paul McGrath – try us.

And if we still don’t understand them, give us an education system that gives our children the tools to do so.

That way, we might prevent it from ever happening again.

Get involved: Far too many of us sit on the sidelines and don’t take part.
A friend of mine ended a lifetime of political inertia to go canvass for a party in the February election.
The messages on the doorsteps taught him more about the Irish political climate than a lifetime on the internet politics message boards. Since then, he has trotted back to the sidelines – one strike and he was out.
It’s a simple fact of democracy – the more of us that engage ourselves, the purer our democracy becomes. There is little or no chance of changing things from the outside. If you’re not in, you can’t win.
Talk about it: For once, let us have a story that runs and runs to a happy conclusion. 2011 has put suicide on the map in Ireland, often grudgingly so. Make no mistake- there are those who, like certain employers in the PR business, do not want to see the discussion take place in public.

It is a discussion that is painful for all of us, as it confronts us with our shortcomings as friends and siblings and lovers. It also asks us the deepest questions of ourselves – could we ever think of doing it ourselves? What would happen to our children and our friends and families?

However painful that discussion is, it is nowhere near as painful as sitting with a pill jar or a noose in your hand.

So let’s keep the discussion going. And if at the end of next year we find that less people have taken their own lives than this year, let’s keep it going for another year after that.

Happy New Year.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Kate

Publish and be damned!

– Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, when the courtesan Harriette Wilson threatened to publish her memoirs and his letters

It’s very hard to comment on anything in the Irish Times nowadays- by the time I get to the end of this post someone in a position of power might have threatened legal action and changed the whole thing.

But given the toothless, vacuous, cowardly non-explanation offered by the Irish Times blog about their despicable handling of the Kate Fitzgerald article, here goes.

Firstly, as soon as I saw the length of it I knew there would be no apology for calling the dead girl a liar.

I was right – 1500 words, and not one of them was ‘sorry’. It seems that, in the Irish Times, that word is reserved for a select few.

Instead, it opens with the classic excuse, and goes downhill from there, rambling on and on before finishing up with a mealy-mouthed pseudo excuse the like of which Sinn Féin are rightly pilloried for when they denigrate the memories of dead innocent women.

Rather than an apology, it is a 1500-word admission that journalism in Ireland has no teeth, and it does its best work when covering up its own inadequacies.

Some examples:

It is neither appropriate nor possible for me to go into detail on the specific legal issues involved in this case.

On the contrary Hugh- it would have been more than appropriate to comment on such issues, if only to explain what they were, if not the actual details.

Let us not forget that in the craven apology printed by your paper, you accused Kate Fitzgerald of being a liar, and that “significant assertions within the original piece were not factual”.

We still don’t know what they were, and no-one seems to be in any hurry to tell us.

There follows a lot of waffle about corrections policy, the net effect being to again imply that Kate had done something wrong in her original article.

For the entire 1500 words, the Irish Times are extremely cautious in their use of language to describe what went on, but there is one staggering, glaring fact- a veritable herd of elephants in the room – that is absolutely and utterly immutable, and that is this:

The piece that caused all the trouble was not Kate’s article.

It was the subsequent piece by Peter Murtagh and the revelation that Kate had worked for Terry Prone that caused the whole situation to go nuclear, and by then the genie was out of the bottle.

Changing Kate’s original article did not change anything, because there was nothing wrong with it.

All it did was appease the beast, as the baby was thrown out with the journalistic bathwater.

But make no mistake- this charade will be played out to the end, until Terry Prone or whoever is satisfied that it has been repeated often enough to become the truth.

The weasel words continue:

However, unfortunate and painful though these events have been, we as professional journalists and publishers took what we believed to be the best action from an ethical and legal perspective.

The implication here is that he and the Irish TImes must adhere to higher standards than bloggers or other social media – conveniently ignoring the fact that many of us who criticise their “ethical” course of action are professional journalists and publishers ourselves.

This is not about some kiss-and-tell Twitter rumour about a Premiership footballer. This is about a powerful woman reading something unpleasant and having her nose put out of joint – ironic, given Prone’s confessed love of plastic surgery.

This is about people on both sides ignoring the rights of writers and readers and deciding the narrative after the fact.

In Ireland, history is not written by the winners, because there are no winners any more.

It is written by the rich and the powerful and those with influence.

The version written by young women, the life crushed out of them under the burden of depression, narcissism, is seemingly a mere footnote to be changed at will.

In kowtowing to the former, the Irish Times is in dereliction of its journalistic duty as the paper of record.

Not only have they sullied the name of a dead woman, they have singularly failed to follow up the story and ask the questions people would like to see answered by Terry Prone and Kate’s ex-colleagues at the Communications Clinic about Kate and her demise.

I somehow doubt Prone and the Communications Clinic, not to mention would-be president and friend of the suicidal Gay Mitchell, will be in a hurry to give their side of this uncomfortable story, so why not send someone out to ask them?

But instead of Prone using her considerable network and influence to explore and explain the death of Kate Fitzgerald, she has chosen to ignore it – instead, she wrote some folksy nonsense for the Irish Examiner.

Worse still, they published it.

All this does is copper-fastens the idea that in Ireland, we still don’t do accountability, and we don’t tolerate criticism.

Like Fianna Fáil’s inability to apologise for ruining the country – saying “mistakes were made” is not the same thing – it seems that everyone can do whatever they like, and never be held accountable.

Nor is it acceptable to criticise anyone, however deserving they may be.

I have no problem with Hugh Linehan or any other journalist in Ireland.

I have a massive problem with how he and his paper have handled this case.

It’s not good enough.

I want them to win their credibility back.

I want to know the circumstances around Kate’s death.

I want to know if her employers supported her in her battle with the illness that led her to take her own life, or if they didn’t.

I want to know what Terry Prone thinks about Kate and what she wrote and why the Communications Clinic reacted so badly to it.

I want the Irish Times to ask those questions.

And then I want them to publish and be damned.

A right of reply

Terry Prone - expert on what working women should do - doesn't appear to be too keen to share that knowledge with us at the moment.

Busy day today, but here goes anyway – some things cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

The Irish Times has issued an apology to the Communications Clinic– the house of spin owned by Terry Prone and her family – after Kate Fitzgerald’s article published on September 9.

There is a simple anomaly here- neither she nor they were mentioned by name, so what is the Times apologising for?

Surely it should be regretting the fact that their identities became known by other means, rather than the article itself?

The Times goes on to say that ” significant assertions within the original piece were not factual”, but neither they nor the Communications Clinic specify what these assertions were.

In fact, I cannot recall seeing a single public statement from Prone on the issue, despite the fact that it appears she’d normally turn up at the opening of an envelope if it was televised or photographed.

The craven apology then goes on to state “their publication was significantly damaging to the staff and management of her employer, the Communications Clinic”.

Is it glib to suggest that the writing of the article was even more damaging to Kate Fitzgerald, who took her own life shortly after doing so?

But the killer blow comes at the end, when the Times blithely states that “no legal representation was made to us on this matter.”

It’s as if they woke up one morning and said “remember that anoymous piece about depression by that girl who killed herself? That must have been very upsetting for the Communications Company. We really should apologise for that.”

The reason for this rebuttal is this; the Irish Times is saying that it was wrong to publish the article. I disagree.

Despite the application of the highest journalistic standars, in an open debate about depression and its effects on the family, society and the workplace, reputations are going to get questioned and in some cases damaged.

Instead, the Irish Times has chosen the easy way out and apologised to, possibly without realising that in doing so, they are implying in the process that Kate Fitzgerald was lying in her article – a serious allegation in itself, I think you’ll agree.

In allowing the piece to be published anonymously with no reference to her employer, the Irish Times has done all that is reasonably possible to facillitate that debate whilst protecting the reputations of those involved.

That the Communications Clinic was subsequently identified is regrettable; that they have been apologised to in this manner is shameful.

They have offered nothing to the public debate on the treatment of people who suffer from depression in the workplace – all they have offered is more of the same thing that allows depression and bullying to prosper.


Saying the unsayable

George Carlin said the seven things you can't say on television. On television.

As comedian George Carlin once bravely stated, there are some things you just can’t say.

So he did.

He went on television and said the seven words that he believed you couldn’t say on television, and in the end the Supreme Court intervened to try to set the bar for what could and couldn’t be said.

There are certain things that, to a greater or lesser degree, cannot or should not be said in a recession-era Irish workplace – not if you want to keep your job.

Here’s six of them.






Sexual harassment.

Cancer? Fine, to a degree, as is having a heart attack.

After all, any employer seeking to curtail the rights of anyone suffering from these ailments would be seen as heartless.

But there is a stigma attached to the six conditions described above.

They are not seen by some employers as being illnesses or medical problems or acts perpetrated on a person against their will.

They are seen as signs of  weakness or selfishness.

Employers often don’t want to know. Perhaps understandably, they have enough to worry about with the collapse in domestic demand and rent and rates and taxes, and the problems of their employees just add to their burden.

But the fact of the matter is that you don’t just employ the sales person or the marketer or the teacher or, in the case of Kate Fitzgerald, the PR professional – you employ the person, and all that comes with them.

It’s time to remove the stigma around those words.

I used to drink a lot. I don’t anymore.

Was I an alcoholic? I don’t know.

But I have never used the “a” word in relation to myself, or anyone else, because it is of no help whatsoever.

Nor do I intend to. To do so would be to label myself and others, to narrow the perception of who we are and what it is we have to offer.

I absolutely refuse to have that done to me, and I refuse to do it to others.

Equally, like the vast majority of people, I have imagined what it would be like if I just wasn’t here any more.

Can you classify that as a suicidal thought? Probably, for all the good it will do you.

But others have taken those thoughts an awful lot further, many to their appalling conclusion.

Why can they not speak out?


There is a sense of shame attached to all of the above, but as I’ve previously written, what good does that serve? Where does being ashamed get us?

At best, nowhere. At worst, the end of a rope.

The point is this. There are a lot of people – a lot of people – who are barely keeping it together.

But they cannot talk about their drinking, or their abuse, or their depression or suicidal thoughts, because to do so would be to draw a veil of shame over themselves and effectively end their careers.

This has to stop.

The sooner we can see these things for what they are – illnesses that can be treated and/or cured, or life events that we can be counseled for – the sooner we can remove the stigma from them.

There is no shame in drinking too much, or in being stressed, depressed or suicidal. Rape or abuse is not your fault.

The depressing thing about George Carlin’s seven things you can’t say on television is that most of them still cannot be said on television.

If forty years from now the same was to be said of depression, alcoholism and the rest in Ireland, that would be a real tragedy.

God Speed

Gary Speed, 1969 - 2011.

You may almost be feeling jealous this morning.

Gary Speed dies and the outpouring of grief and love and respect is enormous.

Imagine if that was you.

That would solve a few problems, wouldn’t it?

If you were to die today – like Gary did yesterday – your problems would be over and people would love and respect you the way you always wanted them to.

The way they love and respect Gary.

But the love and respect being poured out in print and on the airwaves this morning is masking something an awful lot bigger – sadness and anger and bitterness at Gary Speed’s passing.

You can be sure his wife and kids love him, but that’s probably not the primary emotion for them just now. They’re probably feeling confused and helpless and angry, consumed by the enormous emptiness left by the sudden death of someone close to them.

His team-mates and coaches who put so much trust in him will be feeling the same way. Shay Given’s tears yesterday were testament to that.

For all their money and fame, Shay and Craig Bellamy and Robbie Savage would surely hand over every penny to have Gary back with them this morning on the training ground or in the café.

They will all be ransacking themselves this morning- was there something they could have said or done to make him change his mind? The vacuum left by his passing will be filled by countless “if onlys”.

However dark and cloying and suffocating, however hopeless it seems, suicide is not the answer. Your problems may cease in that awful, violent moment at your own hand, but the suffering of those around you would be only beginning.

But don’t do it for them. Do it for you- for your own good, pick up the phone and get professional help.

No-one is going to tell you that defeating depression will be easy, but at least it won’t be the end.

Most people were shocked by Speed’s death because the rest of his life looked so promising.

So is yours. Go live it.


Finding a light in the darkness

Welsh football legend Gary Speed, found dead today at age 42.

As I walked back from the shops with my seven-year-old an hour or two ago, I took a moment to think about how lucky I am.

Two children, a growing business, a new house and a book nominated for two prizes.

It doesn’t get much better.

My daughter was going through a list of animals to see if there was one I could consider getting her as a pet.

Despite the grey, blustery Stockholm weather, I wouldn’t have swapped places with anyone else in the world at that moment.

Shortly afterwards, the news of the death of former Newcastle and Wales midfielder Gary Speed hit me like a punch in the stomach.

I met him briefly in Dublin once. He was different to most other footballers- self-assured but not arrogant, confident but not cocky. Intelligent, well-spoken, a gentleman.

There is nothing gentle about depression or suicide.

Depression doesn’t care about your skill, or your money, or how many medals you have.

Depression is not a passive lying-down in the face of the challenges of life.

It is a battle, a struggle. Sometimes it is a fight to the bitter end. Sometimes it doesn’t end well.

Just before I moved to Sweden a team-mate of mine took his own life. Few things have affected me as much as that did – he was a young man, a superb footballer with a beautiful young son. But none of this mattered in the end.

Aside for the grief and memories of his family and friends, all that is left is a fair play trophy named after him- ironic given that he was known as the hardest tackler on our team.

The coming days will see much written about what a great player Gary Speed was for his clubs and his country. Much will be written about depression and suicide, and a lot of it will be nonsense.

If you haven’t suffered it, you will find it hard to imagine just how suffocating and crushing it can be. It is not an illness that can be cured by simply talking to someone, or going for a walk or “copping yourself on”. It’s a lot more complex than that.

But one thing that is certain is that there are organisations who do great work in helping people who are depressed or suicidal. The likes of the Samaritans and Pieta House have a proven track record of helping people who suffer from depression to find a light in the darkness. They are deserving of your support.

As Swansea played at home to Aston Villa today, the minute’s silence was interrupted by spontaneous applause and the chant of “there’s only one Gary Speed”. It was a far more fitting tribute to a man whose goals and tackles often brought the crowds to their feet.

But it is a tragedy for the man, his family and for football that his undoubted skill and courage on the field wasn’t enough to help him defeat depression off it.

Rest in peace Gary. You were a great champion, and you will be missed.


Suicide won’t solve your problems, or make people love or respect you more.

Call the Samaritans or visit www.samaritans.org and get help. There is an answer, but suicide is not it.