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Maura Harrington Corrib pipeline hunger strike: “indulge potty protesters and you end up with Sarah Palin””

Times Online
September 14, 2008

Sarah Carey: Indulge potty protesters and you end up with Sarah Palin

We should be braver about confronting extreme religious views such as those of the US vice-presidential candidate

This might seem insensitive of me to say so, but the Maura Harrington business is plain ridiculous and RTE’s Morning Ireland programme isn’t helping. It’s the must-listen-to radio show of the day, but sometimes the presenters’ contrived humour and sincerity grates on my early-morning nerves.

Aine Lawlor put on that deeply sympathetic tone of hers when she interviewed Harrington last Wednesday morning. The Mayo woman had just declared that she was going on hunger strike until Shell’s pipe-laying ship, Solitaire, abandoned its task. Harrington professed herself ready to die for her beliefs and excitedly informed us that at 6st 9lb, that could be sooner rather than later.

Given that Harrington had started her strike the previous night, all she had done was skip breakfast. That didn’t stop Lawlor asking how she was feeling.

I hovered between bewilderment and irritation that an obviously irrational woman was being taken seriously by the most important news programme in the country. I’m no psychiatrist, but Harrington strikes me as potty — and yet was being gently indulged without the slightest challenge by one of our leading radio journalists. Lawlor might have asked where is the sense in objecting to a pipeline on the grounds that it might injure people’s health by endangering one’s own. Because surely the biggest threat to Harrington’s physical wellbeing is Maura Harrington.

I’ve often passed hunger strikers outside Leinster House protesting about some grievance or other. They are ignored by both the public and RTE and nobody ever seems to die. At some stage, I suppose around day three, common sense presumably kicks in and they head for the chipper. In Harrington’s case, I’m quite sure a psychiatrist would conclude that all the media attention is only encouraging her in her self-harming behaviour.

Despite the fact that I clearly know better, curiosity won the day and I rang her on Thursday to see how she was getting on. Since the Solitaire was unexpectedly tucked safely out of harm’s way in Killybegs, would she consider abandoning the strike? As my four-year-old says when asked to co-operate with some simple domestic task: “No way. Not ever.” Not until the ship has left our territorial waters, Harrington replied. Since even Shell doesn’t know how long the Solitaire will be stuck in Killybegs, Harrington’s claim will be truly tested.

She did confess that, contrary to her claims on Morning Ireland, she was taking water. She thanked me for asking and her gratitude invoked a twinge of guilt. Oh dear. This woman needs help, not a queue of rubber-necking journalists.

We shouldn’t occupy ourselves too much with the whys or wheretofores of Shell’s pipeline project. At this stage one is required to believe that the pipeline is either quite safe or the product of a mass conspiracy by every authority in the country. I’ll go with the former because believing the latter simply isn’t rational. What should concern us is that people who lack the power to rationalise are indulged so easily.

I call them the “I Just Feel Brigade”. They honestly believe that since “they just feel” that a pipeline is dangerous, despite all evidence to the contrary, the project should be abandoned. Since “they just feel” this very strongly, the rest of us are supposed to respect these feelings and stop whatever it is we are doing that’s upsetting them.

They adopt the language of victimhood and oppression, and weasel their way out of all sensible conversation, whether on a picket line or at a dinner party. Any fact, regardless of how well-proven, is swiped away with a wide-eyed, morally superior, emotional “I just feel”.

Unfortunately, it’s not the done thing to reply: “But if you believe that you must be stupid.” Instead, all opinions must be held to be equally valid, regardless of how ludicrous they may be. That would merely be irritating were it not for the fact that “I just feel” often evolves into firmly believing utter claptrap about the world around us.

In today’s Ireland, despite our religious history and fondness for fairy tales, irrationality is generally confined to protesters or “cures”. I could list more silly notions, but I’d offend too many friends and I’m generally content to leave people alone. There is rarely anything to be gained in challenging apparently benign but sincerely held beliefs. Each to their own, and all that.

I’m starting to wonder if this is wise. The reason I’m wondering is because of the possibility that Sarah Palin could end up as president of America. Sean Moncrieff put it best on his fabulous afternoon show on Newstalk last week, when he said that she was nominated to appeal to the ignorant. One minute you’re shrugging off the crazies, and next thing they have a superpower in the palm of their hands.

I’m not going to have a go at harmless God-fearing citizens, but America’s evangelicals are distant cousins of the Irish Christian. I think it’s fair to say most Irish people accept that many Bible stories are mythology. Palin, who could well be a 72-year-old’s unhealthy heartbeat away from the Oval Office, is the ideal nominee for nutters who think that the world was created in six days, 6,000 years ago, when people lived for 800 years and Noah built an ark to save the animals from the flood. She represents people who think that creationism is literally true and that evolution is a fantasy and a conspiracy.

Palin thinks it’s fine to teach evolution in school, once it’s alongside creationism and they are presented as equally valid theories. So you see? It starts out as not being rude to someone in social chat or indulging them on national radio. You validate fiction out of sheer politeness, but actually they have succeeded in framing science and empirically verifiable fact as just another theory. You thought you were patronising them. But in America at least, they’ve got the upper hand.

Holding back from challenging apparently decent people on their crazy ideas is nice but foolish. We need to be braver about calling a spade a spade and a fantasist a fantasist. We shouldn’t provide the hysterical with a platform in an effort to respect alternative opinion. I’m as sympathetic as Lawlor towards Harrington’s feelings. But she needs to be quietly talked down, not talked up on the airwaves.

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