Earlier this month an estimated 4,500 people gathered around Balleyconnell, Co. Cavan, in the rain and cold, during hours of speeches to a rally in support of Sean Quinn and his family. Why would people be so happy to jump to the support of a family holding onto a half a billion euro of public assets?
It hasn’t been legally proven what exactly the Quinns have done, but an absolute barrage of accusations has come out about them. Among these are that they have lied to courts, forged and fraudulently backdated legal documents, destroyed computer files which could have been used as evidence, and seemingly have deceived the public and the justice system in every conceivable way. Yet instead of blaming the family that have caused the country so much grief, large sections of the public instead are jumping to defend them. Instead, the public are pointing their fingers at the media, claiming they’re on a ‘witch-hunt’ and that they’re all but declaring ‘war’ on them.
Since time immemorial there have been conflicts between the rich and poor; the lower and upper classes; the proletariat and the capitalist. In most popular philosophies and religions the rich are despised; whether it’s Christianity, Marxism, and even old-school conservative populism. Why is it then that now, even after the economic disaster that began in 2008, caused by the foolish and dangerous practices of well-paid politicians, bankers and corporate leaders all the way from Wall Street to Dame Street, that some sections of the public are jumping to defend the most privileged and unharmed amongst us? Surely by all comprehensible logic, it should be these people we should hate for wrecking the country.
It should of course be noted that it would be unfair to blame only the very rich. There is no doubt that some corporate leaders did act responsibly, and that they do not deserve to be lumped in with the ‘wanker banker’ stereotype. The Quinn family however, as evidence suggests, do not belong in this category of the benevolent good-natured elite. Why, in that case do people defend them?
There are two possible reasons, and quite possibly both are true. One is that many will stand up against blaming the most affluent no matter what, perhaps in the vain hope that they will join that group someday. They don’t want to see them as bad people, but rather those who were worked hard, and fully deserve their wealth. The second type are those who fall for loyalist theories and localism. These are those people who know the Quinn family from around the community and in spite of all the evidence, have a soft spot for them.
The first type, the phenomenon of standing up for the corrupt wealthy elite, is not confined the Quinn family, or even in Ireland. In the United States, Tea Party Republicans have stood up against tax cuts for rich ‘job creators’, a new term that has cropped up out of the minds of right-wing spin doctors since the economic crisis. In Syria, loyal supporters of Assad stand to defend them despite the obvious injustice and inequality they face at home. Thomas Frank, an American author and journalist has said of this phenomenon of ardently defending rich who do not pay their fair share in society that “the great goal of the backlash is to nurture a cultural class war.” This may explain why the Peter Quinn told the crowd at Balleyconnell that the media have been insulting his family’s supporters, calling them “morons and gobshites” and “culchies and idiots”; as he labelled journalists as “bastards”.
In Ireland, we do quite often turn a blind eye to corruption and law breaking among the white-collar classes, while being far quicker to place blame when it comes to petty crimes. In any other European country, with certain obvious exceptions like Italy, could Charles Haughey and Bertie Ahearn have stayed in charge, when just about everyone knew of their corruption, lies and criminal activities?
It’s likely that the Quinns’ most ardent supporters are the same crowd that defend corrupt public figures, claiming to be standing up for fellow Irish citizens against some sort of witch-hunt by the courts and the media, as Ciara and Peter Quinn have both seemed to suggest. One would suspect they really know full well that there isn’t any kind of truth to what they’re saying.
There seems to be a kind of bizarre nihilism among the most ardent defenders of the Quinn family. While some of them support and defend the Quinns despite their wrong doings, others deny they ever happened at all. Surely, with all the reporting on their legal affairs it must be obvious to everyone that there has been a huge lapse of justice here. It seems many would rather not know what the evidence suggests, but would rather go on some passionate instinct and assume that the Quinns are good people, that have done great things for the community, and any evidence or facts that conflicts or contradicts that view of them must just be mistaken.
In Ireland we often are unwilling to condemn the immoral and even illegal actions of public figures. If someone has done something positive for the local community in the past (for example, Michael Lowry et al.), they will probably be forgiven for massive corruption and dodgy dealings. This ‘Ah but he fixed the road’ mentality is fundamentally harmful to a functioning democracy. It makes a mockery of the Irish justice system. This sympathy for those that abuse their power, wealth and privilege must end. If it doesn’t, they will never be held accountable for their actions.
This article originally appeared in the University Observer: http://www.universityobserver.ie/2012/10/31/defending-the-elites/