The verbal sparring match that erupted last week around Kellie Harrington isn’t really about immigration. It’s about class.
pecifically, it’s about the simmering disdain for the working class which lies just under the surface of polite, middle-class liberal discourse, ever ready to bubble self-righteously to the surface.
In this case, the row happens to be because the Olympic gold medallist declined, while being interviewed on Newstalk’s Off The Ball AM, to clarify her assumed stance on immigration, which has been deduced from things she’s said or ‘liked’ on social media.
Society is run by people for whom the choice they faced at 17 was whether to do medicine or law at Trinity
The cocktail of condescension and condemnation with which she was met as a result was not simply for her, but for the Dublin north-inner-city community from which she hails, which has been shamed for not welcoming every newcomer with the warmth demanded by supporters of an open-door immigration policy.
Is it any wonder Harrington refused to answer the questions put to her when this is the inevitable response? Maybe she just smelled a rat, and decided not to play along.
That wouldn’t have been an unreasonable suspicion, considering other journalists spent the next few days trawling through her social media history in search of other tweets linked to immigration that they could throw back at her — finding a mere few, and each open to interpretation.
Sadly, in the ‘gotcha!’ world of Twitter there is no room for nuance, much less a recognition that human beings are complex and faceted, and cannot be reduced to single traits.
Dig deep enough, and everyone will have some views that don’t pass the Dublin 4 dinner party test, and some of them will indeed be sportspersons or actors or performers or the like.
Once you’ve found out what these views are, Miss Marple, what are you meant to do with the information?
After everyone’s had fun performatively wringing their hands, that person’s job remains exactly the same, which is to box or run or act or whatever it is, and to inspire others to do the same and reach their potential.
Kellie made it clear that she does not want to ‘engage in politically sensitive matters’
To try to snatch that role away from them because you don’t like one thing they might happen to believe about one issue is appalling.
Undeterred, Timmy Dooley, former TD and now an unelected senator, took to Twitter — that forum of calm and reason — and directly contacted Harrington’s sponsor, Spar Ireland, to add to the pressure on her by drawing more attention to the interview.
So far Spar are sticking by her, and they’re to be commended for that. But seriously, what an awful thing to do to someone, particularly one who’s had to work hard for everything they have.
There was no safety net for Harrington as she rose to the top. No Bank of Mum and Dad to fall back on.
She earned a living as a cleaner at St Vincent’s. You can be sure there isn’t a rugby player in Ireland who has ever cleaned a hospital to pay the bills.
Too much of society is still run by people for whom the choice they faced at 17 was whether to do medicine or law at Trinity College Dublin, rather than between making a go of maybe the one big shot they were ever going to get in life. The have-it-alls simply don’t seem to grasp that at all.
I was lucky enough to go to university, and have managed to make a living since by writing newspaper articles and the occasional book.
On paper, that career path is as middle class as it comes. But if you come from a background where that isn’t so common, as some of us did, a certain insecurity always remains.
Anyone from a working-class upbringing instantly understands, without needing to put it in words, how the hackles rise when middle-class people take such things for granted.
Worse is when they fail to see, as George Orwell did so brilliantly, that everything from their “taste in books and food and clothes” to their “table manners and turns of speech” and “notions of good and evil” are all “products of a special kind of upbringing”, and they haven’t magically self-actualised them into being by virtue of being better than everyone else.
The people who decided Harrington’s refusal to be badgered on immigration was unacceptable invariably never seem to put their own privilege under the microscope.
And they certainly don’t seem to reflect on why immigrants are being housed in inner-city communities which bore the brunt of austerity after the economic crash, rather than in their own leafy suburbs, or whether middle-class opinions might quickly shift if they were.
A Nimby mentality conveniently prevents them having to find out.
I wouldn’t for one second deign to speak on Harrington’s behalf, but if there is a common theme to the tweets she has been criticised for interacting with, it’s that they all centre on concern for the safety of women and girls.
Why does Harrington have to answer these questions at all?
It’s for those who proclaim that such concerns must, by definition, be motivated by racism to explain how denouncing anyone who expresses such sentiments either reassures or persuades them that they’re wrong.
If anything, suppressing disquiet only makes it mushroom.
The real question, of course, is: why does Harrington have to answer these questions at all? She has no political power, and has made it clear that she does not want to “engage in politically sensitive matters”.
Interacting with a few tweets is hardly sufficient to make her a political player in any real sense of the word. Why then should she have to go further than she feels comfortable to explain herself?
If Harrington sent a tweet saying she was against lifting the eviction ban, would she be dragged on to Prime Time to explain how she would therefore stem the exodus of private landlords from the housing market?
Would Shane Hannon have repeatedly insisted that she answer?
The idea is patently absurd, but there are apparently certain views which, however expressed, entitle others to demand that those holding them account for themselves, or be judged accordingly. These things are never decided from the ground up. They’re decreed from the top down.
Not even silence saves anyone in this climate. For years Taylor Swift never uttered a word about politics, and it led in 2017 to one of the craziest editorials in recent newspaper history, when The Guardian demanded to know if the singer was secretly “an envoy for [Donald] Trump’s values”.
Swift got the message and has since barely stopped reassuring the media that she holds the liberally acceptable position on all the issues of the day.
Phew. Imagine the horror if she’d just stuck to writing great songs.
Harrington’s job is to box. She happens to be very good at it. She shouldn’t have to pass a separate audition on some unrelated subject to prove that she’s fit to do it.
If diversity means anything, it must include finding room for people who may, because of their various backgrounds and life experiences, have reached different conclusions about what’s best for their communities.
Go a few rounds in Kellie Harrington’s boxing gloves before judging her.