Sinn Féin councillor Paddy Holohan was briefly suspended last year for racist and homophobic remarks about Leo Varadkar, and for describing teenage rape survivors as “some f***ing scum women”. Party whip restored, he now says critics are “coming after” him.

If you don’t know what a whatabout is, then you haven’t been paying attention to the way Sinn Féin does politics. A whatabout is what invariably happens whenever anyone highlights something that is embarrassing to Sinn Féin.

For example, if you were to mention the Provisional IRA, during the Troubles, moving paedophile terrorists around the country like they were bad priests, one of SF’s legions of online apologists would immediately whatabout something else, perhaps along the lines of: “Whatabout Fine Gael’s Josepha Madigan, currently Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion, in 2014 as a councillor issuing a leaflet opposing Traveller accommodation?”  

If you were to mention that 21-year-old Paul Quinn was in October 2007 – nine years after the Good Friday Agreement – beaten to death by the IRA for crossing the son of a local IRA chieftain, every bone in his body broken, his hands so crushed that his poor mother was unable to put rosary beads between his fingers, you might be asked whatabout the 1923 Ballyseedy Massacre?

If you were to recall Máiría Cahill, a 16-year-old rape survivor, being forced to confront her IRA rapist in a kangaroo court, the Shinnerbots, or their online fellow travellers, the people with good jobs who claim “I’m not a Sinn Féin supporter but”, might whatabout successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments, with the support of the Labour Party, establishing the Ireland which gave us Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, and industrial schools. 

In any of these scenarios, or in any of a thousand others, you might protest that the one has nothing to with the other, that an outrage on one side never justifies an unrelated atrocity on the other, and that most people are entirely capable of being appalled by more than one thing at a time, but then that’s not really the point at all, and, besides, by allowing the discourse to be derailed by whataboutery, you’ve already lost.

The point, of course, of whataboutery is always about politics as a spectator sport, always about rallying the troops, and always about revving up the home team. It is never seriously to argue, never genuinely to engage, and never in good faith to debate; rather it is always to undermine, always to confound, and always to deflect.

With that in mind, then, let’s get a couple of whatabouts out of the way.

In November 2013, former mayor of Naas Darren Scully was re-admitted to Fine Gael. Scully had, some 20 months earlier, had the FG whip removed from him for his 2011 announcement that he would no longer represent “Black Africans” in his area.

Scully was welcomed back to the Blueshirt fold, and was re-elected to Kildare County Council in 2014, eventually losing his seat in 2019.

In February 2006, Kildare South Fianna Fáil TD Seán Ó Fearghaíl wrote a letter of reference for Joseph Dempsey, who had already been convicted of raping his nephew Shane when Shane was a small boy.

Ó Fearghaíl’s letter was read out in court, causing Shane terrible hurt. Seán Ó Fearghaíl is Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil now and has never been censured for that reference.

(Please add your own whatabouts in the comments below.)

Paddy Holohan was born in 1988, after his mother was placed in a Magdalene laundry. He enjoyed a successful career as a mixed martial artist before retiring in 2016. He was elected in May 2019 as an SF councillor in South Dublin County Council. 

In a January 2020 episode of his No Shame podcast, Holohan criticised the then-Taoiseach, saying “Leo Varadkar’s blood obviously runs to India, you know, so his great-grandfather is not part of the history of this country, you know what I mean.” Referencing Varadkar’s sexuality, Holohan added that he would rather have a Taoiseach who was “a family man, one who “would know what it is like to have kids”.

When those comments became a subject of controversy during last year’s general election, Holohan was ordered by SF to apologise, and Varadkar graciously accepted the apology, saying that was the end of the matter. SF president Mary Lou McDonald agreed.

The following day it emerged that Holohan had also podcast claims about teenage girls allegedly entrapping older men into sexual relationships and extorting them. Seemingly unaware that a man who has sex with a teenage girl is a rapist, Holohan said: “There is some f***ing scum women out there …It petrifies me, petrifies me that somebody could turn around and say that you attacked me if you don’t give me ten grand.”

Describing Holohan’s comments as “beyond offensive”, McDonald wasted no time in initiating disciplinary proceedings, and Holohan was suspended that afternoon. Five months later, though, he was quietly reinstated, but further embarrassment for SF ensued when his fellow SF councillors subsequently nominated him for the position of mayor of South Dublin county council.

SF suspended its Dublin South West branch and said it was investigating. Last week, SF did not respond to requests for comment on the status of that investigation.  

It’s not unusual for politicians caught offside to have the whip restored after serving a period in Purgatory, and really that’s just what cynical political parties do – witness Darren Scully. It’s only weeks since three FG senators, and three FF senators, all of whom had been sanctioned for their attendance at last August’s Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Clifden, quietly had their respective party whips restored in the week media was consumed by the publication of the final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation.

Paddy Holohan was back in the news last week, when it was reported he had told the Mams on the Mic podcast that people were out to get him.

“I’m after being elected, I’m trying to do my best. They keep coming after me but I will not back down, I will be me. I will be here until my last dying breath representing what is good for everyone.”

It should be pointed out that those “coming after” Holohan are just reporting his own words, but then welcome to politics, Paddy.

The truth is, Paddy Holohan has some appalling views, and he seems incapable of not sharing them. Despite their pretence at disapproval, SF will not disavow a proven vote-getter.

Politics has always been a very dirty game, and SF does it better than most. Right now, SF has some of the most talented politicians in the country, not least of them its prodigious leader. Mary Lou McDonald is an undoubted star of Leinster House, and nobody does outrage better than she does, not even Shouty Pearse, or the apocalyptically apoplectic Richard Boyd Barrett.

In one sense, it should be seen as a positive development that Sinn Féin is, for all its self-appointed outrage at the cynicism of other political parties, well on its way to becoming a normal political party, and every bit as cynical as all the others.

If you want an illustration of that cynicism, it’s only two weeks since SF vice president Michelle O’Neill claimed it is “misogynistic” to suggest that Sinn Fein is not a normal political party and is instead still an offshoot of the Provisional IRA. When asked if she genuinely felt she suffered from misogyny, she replied “Absolutely. Absolutely. All day long.”

I was going to mention Mary Lou McDonald’s 2015 description of Thomas “Slab” Murphy, alleged former IRA chief of staff, alleged fuel-smuggling kingpin, and convicted tax evader, as “a good republican”, and point out that a 2013 cross-border raid by gardai and PSNI officers discovered, close to Murphy’s home, a large, purpose-built torture chamber, but then I don’t wish to appear misogynistic.

Instead, I’ll just wait until the next time Sinn Féin, the almost normal political party, is outraged at the cynicism of one of its political rivals, and then I’ll ask a simple question.

Whatabout Paddy Holohan?