Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Irish Times, August 28 2010

“That’s shit. They could at least remember you as the ‘anti-war activist’ who dressed in a cat suit…”

The left-wing firebrand explains why Saddam was a better company than Bertie Ahern

Throughout your career, you’ve been closely associated with Arab and Middle Eastern issues. What initially inspired you to engage with the politics of this region?
In 1975, when I was 21 years old, a Palestinian student leader named Sa’ad Jabaji came to the door of the Labour party office in Dundee. He spoke to me for two hours in a mesmerising fashion about the catastrophe the Palestinian people have suffered. I became a signed-up member of the Palestinian resistance that day and have remained so ever since. You were an M.P. for 23 years. Did you constituents ever resent the amount of attention you devoted to Arab affairs?
I was very lucky, I suppose, in that I started out as an M.P. in a very educated and cosmopolitan constituency. Glasgow Hillhead was reputed to have the highest per capita sales of the New Statesman in the country. I won four consecutive elections there and doubled my majority on each occasion.

You’ve been at the centre of too many controversies, and take up too many contentious positions, to get into here. Ever wish you’d opted for a quiet life?
I would really hate to be in politics and toe the party line. The first time The Sun newspaper put me on their cover was when I joined Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness on a Time to Go march in Dublin in 1990. It was my photograph and the word ‘Traitor’ in 42 point bold. Of course, we all know what happened next. Today’s controversies are tomorrow’s orthodoxies. As long as we get them right.

You’re a voracious critic of Britain and the U.S. But you’ve tended to turn a blind eye to abuses by the regimes they oppose.
Of course not. The world is divided into rich and poor, powerful and powerless, occupier and occupied. When Irish revolutionaries took a stand in a post office on O’Connell Street, they were laughed at by the Fabians and the Bloomsbury Set in London. But the only approval they required was the approval of their own people.

How many of the regimes arrayed against the West would tolerate the dissent you’ve been free to voice in Britain?
We could spend a long time arguing about this. I have never agreed with everything said or done by any of the revolutionaries fighting Western aggression, invasion or occupation. But I take a stand with them against their aggressors. That’s the long and short of it.

In 2005, you were called in front of a U.S. Senate subcommittee to answer charges relating to the Iraqi Food for Oil programme. It was quite a performance you delivered that day.
Yes, I think was the headline in the New York Post that summed it up best: ‘Brit Fries Senators in Oil’. I don’t think those princes of American politics ever expected an Irish Catholic toerag from Scotland to lay into them like that. By the end, if they’d had a towel, I think they’d have thrown it in.

The atmosphere seemed hostile. Was there any tea or small talk afterward?
Not afterward. But Senator Norm Coleman did try to bully beforehand with some procedural jive. I said to him, Senator, do not think that I am afraid of you. I am afraid only of God. I think he knew then what was to come.

Are you a practicing Catholic?

You famously described Christopher Hitchens as a “drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay.” Have your feelings softened in light of his recent ill-health?
My religion precludes me from speaking ill of the recently dead. But since he’s still alive, I can tell you that my feelings towards him have not changed.

An old acquaintance of yours who is dead, on the other hand, is Saddam Hussein. Have you anything nice to say about him?
He had achievements to his name. But they paled into insignificance when stacked against the disastrous mistakes he made and the ultimate catastrophe into which Iraq was led.

What was he like in person?
I only met the man twice. He was not bombastic in any way, which was surprising. He listened as much, if not more, than he talked, which quite uncommon amongst world leaders. I met Bertie Ahern once and didn’t get a word in edgeways in the entire fifteen minutes. Saddam was not a mad man, but he made some terrible decisions.

After thirty five years of political activism, does it rankle that some people will always remember you as “that man who dressed in a catsuit on Celebrity Big Brother”?
I never dressed as a cat. That’s another myth. It was a white lab coat. But I went on that programme to spread an anti-war message.

That’s shit. They could at least remember you as the ‘anti-war activist’ who dressed in a catsuit. It’s the reductive power of television, I suppose…
(laughs) My problem, I think, was that I was just too good a cat. If I’d been less convincing, we might not be having this conversation now!