Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Our elected representatives have to take the rough with the smooth after embarrassing quotations spring up all over NI

 

A poster put up by Led By Donkeys quotes Nigel Lawson
A poster put up by Led By Donkeys quotes Nigel Lawson

By Malachi O'Doherty

Mockery has its place. No one in public life, whether in journalism, the creative arts or politics, has ever been spared it.

So those who say that the current Led By Donkeys billboard campaign is unkind or unwarranted, as Lembit Opik argued on the Nolan Show, are taking a novel and, to my mind, bizarre position.

The campaign selects the statements of politicians and recreates them in the format of tweets on huge posters in town centres. The targets include Karen Bradley, our unfortunate Secretary of State, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Theresa May and more to come.

I hope.

For nothing lifts the spirits more in dull political times than for the earnest failures to be held up to public ridicule.

In this campaign, the criticism is unusual for a magnificent piece of public satire.

Usually satire exaggerates the foibles and absurdities of the targets. Led By Donkeys simply restates them in the words of the politicians themselves.

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David Cameron really did say that the choice available to us was strong and stable government or the sort of chaos Ed Milliband would bring.

And that's funny because Cameron excelled himself in the degree of chaos that could be triggered by a single decision.

Political life in Westminster, within the parties, between the parties and between the Government and its partner governments in the European Union, is a shambles.

No one knows how the conundrum is to be resolved and how the choice that Cameron offered us is to be realised.

We voted on whether to stay in the European Union or to leave it on the assumption that leaving was a realistic prospect.

Yet political life is at a halt and the media are distracted by the hand-wringing and head-scratching over how the leave decision that was voted for could actually be delivered.

You'd think a leader who offered stability over chaos would have thought that through.

Yet he could hardly have done more damage to Parliament, democracy and international relations short of declaring war on France or the Irish Republic.

Usually politicians do not make it so easy to ridicule them.

Nigel Farage is a twitter joke this week as drones follow his Leave March trying to find him at the head of it, or even at the back of it.

And tweeters relish the fantastic buffoonery of the man, the self-inflicted humiliation of summoning the people to his cause and not being there to lead them.

Karen Bradley gets quoted saying that she hadn't realised that unionists don't vote for nationalists. Hilarious. But she did say it.

In the usual tradition of satire, cartoonists and the sketch writers amplify the characteristics or the positions of those they invite us to laugh at.

So Spitting Image depicted former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley spitting at his audiences. This was deeply unkind. The man's lisp was hardly a personal failing. Hattersley himself was one of the most intelligent and humane politicians we have had, perhaps the last in a generation that produced people who had a compassionate imagination informed by a real education, before the wide boys and the chancers came in.

Ken Clarke strikes me as one of that type, somebody you could have a conversation with.

David Steele, a co-founder of the Liberal Democratic Party, was always depicted as sitting in the top pocket of David Owen, a slight not only on his apparent secondary position but also on his size.

Tony Blair has been depicted by Steve Bell, the Guardian cartoonist, with a dead staring eye. John Major was always represented as wearing Y-front underpants over his trousers.

Compared to this kind of humour, merely reminding us of the daft and incongruous things that people said amounts almost to respect.

My fear is that we don't have enough of this scoffing at our politicians.

The viewers and listeners are left to provide it themselves. When Karen Bradley said that killings by soldiers were not crimes, the BBC responded by inviting that old criminal, Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly, onto Evening Extra.

If you can't find something to scoff at in a gunman being given a platform to sneer at the justification of murder, the very art in which he himself excels, then you are a dull person indeed.

Seamus McKee asked Kelly if killings by the IRA had been crimes and Kelly conceded after much evasion that they had been against the law of the land at the time.

The hoots of derision in thousands of homes and cars passed unheard by the audience.

There are arguments which are so bad and so immorally grounded that they aren't worth being engaged with rationally. The only thing an insult to your intelligence warrants is an insult in return.

But there is a genuine feeling abroad that the media don't have the stomach for really tearing down the humbug and hokum of a Gerry Kelly.

The danger is always that the argument will get tangled up in whataboutery and other distractions.

So the job of ripping into republican smugness falls to the blogger and the commentator.

Shane Paul O'Doherty, a former bomber himself, provides the most trenchant criticism of the IRA in any forum today. He is scathing and uncompromising and goes so far as to outrage readers by posting photographs of dead bodies, of people shot and dumped as informers on the border.

He is pounding away at the Provos, week after week, reminding us of the hypocrisy of those who justified murder while presenting themselves as concerned with equality and human rights.

And what better target might we have today than Ian Paisley? Should he not have a travel programme?

Websites like Ulster Fry, Waterford Whispers, Tyrone Tribulations, LAD and a host of other creative sneerers are circulating parodies of Paisley, Arlene Foster and others, entertaining us and catering for a public appetite for pillorying those who have let us down.

Is this cruel?

Yes, often it is, but if it is genuinely funny, that's okay.

In Northern Ireland, scoffing is the due riposte of genuine cynicism in a political culture which privileges fanaticism, preening and self regard, which takes the most extreme exponents of deadlock, the absolvers of murder, places them at the centre, and attempts to put them in charge.

If the people sidelined by the elevation of bigotry and lies aren't entitled to laugh, then they have nothing left but their anger, and we maybe don't want to see that.

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