Getting Off the Pot

Seems some people from widely varying perspectives, for their own reasons, have managed to get annoyed about my previous piece Against the Odds. Whether giving off about shaking the hands of PSNI members or claiming offence as a result of the rights of a 17-year old being defended against police abuse, the responses shared a common theme, a resentment of democratic sentiment.

I have purposefully chosen to highlight the following comment from someone posting as Mark because of the attitude it provides for furthering discussion. The comment is not selected because it is particularly insightful; it is not. Nor because Mark is a bigot or a fool; he seems neither. It is chosen because it is a concise political opinion situated at the opposite end of the spectrum from where I find myself. Subsequently, there is much in between the two positions that can be cultivated and explored in pursuit of a better comprehension of the issues involved rather than a better understanding by each of the other’s stance.

It is not my intention to home in on Mark but rather to use his suggestion as being representative of arguments out there that cannot be dismissed as being irrelevant or without substantial support. His advice is:

Sh*t or get off the pot Anthony. Either support peaceful democratic methods, which include co-operating with police investigations into murder, or don't. If the youth had fully co-operated with police after his arrest, there would have been no need for an extended period of detention without charge.

This is an authoritarian impulse masquerading as democratic discourse. The first challenge to a democratic tenet contained within it is the bias it shows against the rights of citizens in favour of a police already shown to have behaved illegally in its holding of some members of the public. The only people we can at present be sure have behaved illegally are not those in custody but those holding them in custody – the police. The courts have ruled against no one else – just the police.

In the ‘get off the pot perspective’ peaceful democratic methods are postulated as exclusively meaning an absolute requirement to cooperate with police investigation into murders by answering any questions police ask during interrogation. Nowhere is there the slightest understanding that it is a detained person’s democratic and legal right to remain silent. And these rights exist because the police are not to be trusted to behave legally. And in behaving illegally they undermine the democratic ethos. Yet it seems that this right, from the ‘get off the pot perspective’ is not in fact a right at all, merely something for the optics; there only to be broadcast to the wider world as evidence of British police best practice.

There is also, not very well shielded, within the ‘get off the pot perspective’ a typical presumption of guilt which has echoes of the old British maxim, ‘innocent until proven Irish.’ The only way to shorten the time of detention we are told is to cooperate. But to cooperate by disputing one’s involvement is likely to ensure a longer stay in custody as a means to squeezing out the confession the police seek to obtain. It is a long established view that the police instinctively presume guilty everyone they arrest. Why would they release early those they believe to be guilty? Is there anyone so naïve as to believe that a denial will lead to an ‘ok, on your way, mind how you go’ response? Only someone who has never undergone police interrogation. The democratic duty to cooperate in the ‘get off the pot’ perspective really means the authoritarian right to extract a confession.

Moreover, that perspective’ seems hopelessly blind to the tension that exists within the legislative system whereby a 17 year old youth is on the one hand considered too young to be identified, yet on the other not young enough to avoid being detained for anything up to 28 days, the most stringent application of detention procedures in the democratic world; a practice described by Mike Ritchie of the Committee for the Administration of Justice as outrageous. This must mean that Mr Ritchie too should get off the pot or face being branded a fellow traveller of those against peaceful democratic methods. When it gets to this point it becomes easy to see how ridiculously self-serving the argument in favour of more powers for the police and less for the detainee has become.

The pot we are asked to either foul or move off is one which sits atop the moral sewer of draconian legislation and police abuse. The stench it emits comes from decaying justice. Those able to sit on the pot indifferent to the putrescence it contains will inevitably add to it as they fill it with a pollution all of their own. Sitting on that pot causes a smell that suffocates the porous culture of civil liberties. The ‘get off the pot’ perspective is little more than an authoritarian assault on civil liberties and human rights. I want to ensure as much ethical distance between it and me lest it contaminates my thinking. If the pot fits …

Democracy is about strengthening rights of citizens within society, not usurping them. It includes empowering citizens against the state. It gives citizens rights against the police. Lest it is forgotten David Mamet hardly hit the wrong note when he intoned that: ‘Policemen so cherish their status as keepers of the peace and protectors of the public that they have occasionally been known to beat to death those citizens or groups who question that status.’


  1. I appreciate your remarks on the PSNI, the need for common decency between foes in a civilized polity, and the essential commitment to an equality based on respect if not perfect agreement which all aspire towards in a civilized polity. Unless we learn to balance our own ideological commitment with our own ability to listen and live alongside those with whom we disagree, how can anywhere we claim to love as a land and a culture be a place and a people worth the struggle? Thirty years of recent strife have been followed by fifteen of far less strife. Not perfect, not perhaps what we wanted to the nth degree, but it's some progress.

    For retreat from such an understanding: Atul Gawande in the "New Yorker" on solitary confinement as torture.

  2. Fionnchú, a thought provoking way of putting it. The balancing of ideological commitment with what is going on alongside it is a struggle against fanaticism and zealotry

  3. I don't think authoritanism lies behind 'shit or get off the pot'. I believe its one of those one liners used by people in their everyday lives because most of us get on with things and don't intellectualise all things all the time. I think we look for consistency, when consistency doesn't really exsist in ideas or in life. Most people want a position laid out for them all nice and neat.

    This is an authoritarian impulse masquerading as democratic discourse.

    I don't think so. I think you are really discussing 'power'. State power vs individual freedoms in a democracy.

    Lets look at democracy, and the state vs the individual. Socialists like yourself call for government intervention and at the same time greater freedoms for the individual. Socialism, especially of ideas, a one size fits all mentality, and if a person steps outside it then they are ostracised. Thats Sinn Feins position, they claim to be socialists, with their socialism freedom for the individual is limitated. But all socialists fall into this contradictory position, even you who calls for dissent. Especially you. Greater freedom for the individual has led to greater involvement of the state. The welfare state can question and intrude in every intimate area of our lives, and yet we want greater individual freedoms.

    Under a socialist govt the state has grown and individual freedoms restricted. If you really and truly want individual liberty can you really be a socialist?

  4. Sophie, the point was never that authoritarianism lies behind 'shit or get off the pot'. That was the phrase used to hang the article on. Authoritarianism lay behind the sentiment expressed not the phrase which is pretty much what you say it is.
    W are not merely discussing state power versus individual freedoms in a democracy. We are discussing abnormal state power undermining civil liberties.
    If you can cite where I support a one size fits all model I will gladly discuss it with you. I don’t believe one size fits all. Government intervention can destroy freedoms or enhance it. How are people to be free from poverty, for example, without government intervention? Hardly the uninhibited market.
    Nor do I believe those who disagree with socialism should be ostracised. If you can find where I have stated this please cite it. I have never thought Sinn Fein were a socialist party so I am not sure what the relevance of your point is.
    So I more than any other socialist fall into the contradictory position of calling for socialism that encroaches on dissent. The distinction might flatter me but it is hardly any more true for that. How I earned it I have no idea. I don’t favour any system that curbs free inquiry or freedom of opinion. Authoritarian socialism does not have me in its fan club.

    ‘If you really and truly want individual liberty can you really be a socialist?’ An interesting question but ultimately the argument can be made that socialism emancipates more than it restricts. To deny that the tensions you flag up do not exist would be futile. How to deal with them is probably the challenge for socialists who want a more democratic socialism than we have had up to now.