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Bambie Thug should not have been making statements on Ireland’s behalf

Whatever the nature of Bambie’s protest – and of course they are right that Netanyahu’s actions in the Gaza Strip are abhorrent and deplorable – it was an inappropriate time, place and medium

Eurovision, not unlike the European Union, was a means of uniting a hopelessly divided continent. After years of being at each other’s throats, Europe’s nations were now on their knees. The Treaty of Rome – establishing the European Community, the spiritual predecessor to the EU – could move the continent towards an imagined economic and political panacea. But Eurovision was set to unite the countries’ souls: the entire project borne out of the admirably mawkish belief in the power of music (no matter how kitsch, no matter how shallow) to bring people together.

A nice idea and, as it transpires, a totally useless one at that. This year the contest was wracked with controversy. Namely, the host city Malmö (Sweden) was beset with weeklong protests at the inclusion of an Israeli entry. In the weeks running up to Saturday’s final the Irish contestant – Bambie Thug, who uses they/them pronouns – was met with thousands of calls to boycott the entire thing. The Israeli contestant, meanwhile, was ordered to camp out in her hotel room between performances, for fear of her personal safety. Eurovision 2024 was a far cry from the sunlit uplands the song contest once promised. Instead the energy was darker, political, jingoistic.

Eurovision merely holds up a mirror to the fault lines in Europe. It does little to heal them. In 2003 Britain was roundly shunned – it is perfectly reasonable to suggest, as Aris Roussinos recently did in Unherd, that this was some continentwide statement on the Iraq War. Ukraine’s victory in the same year as Putin’s invasion was a pretty thinly veiled comment, too. A blandly uncomplicated geopolitical temperature – say, Europe in 2015 – results in a blandly uncomplicated contest. A continent ravaged by war and anxiety will produce exactly what we saw in Sweden this weekend.

Organisers may aspire to a politically neutral event but this base naivete was thrown into sharp relief by Ireland’s Bambie. The singer was ordered by the contest to remove coded statements from their body – they had written “Ceasefire” and “Saoirse don Phalaistín” in Ogham on their face and legs. The European Broadcasting Union said the writing “contravened contest rules that are designed to protect [its] non-political nature”. By this point, of course, the horse has bolted: there was no universe in which Eurovision’s inherently political nature would not be turbocharged this year.

Bambie – who came sixth – was not gracious when they accused the EBU of not intervening following remarks made by a commentator on Kan, the Israeli state broadcaster. “The EBU is not what the Eurovision is. F*** the EBU, I don’t even care any more. F*** them.”

The EBU has since said it will conduct an investigation into the allegations against Kan. But nonetheless Bambie’s declaration that “we are what the Eurovision is” was remarkably defiant in the face of reality.

Artistic freedom is a foundational principle in any self-respecting liberal democracy. But Bambie was not acting as a sole trader this weekend: they wore the colours of the tricolor

Because, of course, the EBU that conceived the project, runs the project, designs and steers the spirit of the project is, in fact, exactly what the Eurovision is. The contestants that float in for one, maybe two years, are not actually the soul of the concept. The aggressive politicisation of Eurovision – though perhaps hard to avoid – is also not the soul of the concept. Bambie – in their capacity as an Irish representative on an international stage – ought to have been a little more in touch with the basics on this one.

There is a bigger existential question about Bambie’s so-called quiet protest. Artistic freedom is a foundational principle in any self-respecting liberal democracy. But Bambie was not acting as a sole trader this weekend: they wore the colours of the tricolour, they tried to write an Irish slogan in an ancient Irish script on their body, they were Ireland’s contestant. As a contestant in a song contest, speaking out against Israel is not Bambie’s prerogative. This principle is general and can be consistently applied. Just as it would not be reasonable for an Irish swimmer to proclaim their sympathies with the Chinese regime with an Irish flag draped around their shoulders at the Olympics this summer, nor should Bambie make statements on the nation’s behalf.

The attempted hijacking of the Eurovision is far from the protest of Sinéad O’Connor. First, Eurovision is hardly the acme of artistic merit. Second, O’Connor’s bravery was singular: tearing up a picture of the pope was genuinely radical and it came at serious personal and professional cost to the singer. Third, O’Connor did not do so in the name of Ireland and did not claim to speak for people she does not. Whatever the nature of Bambie’s protest – and of course they are right that Netanyahu’s actions in the Gaza Strip are abhorrent and deplorable – it was an inappropriate time, place and medium.

Not least because it contravened the entire spirit of the endeavour. Maybe the vision of Europe – imagined in the 1950s by the EBU – as a peaceful utopia was never going to come to pass. And as the continent sits between two poles – tugged by the United States and China – the darkness that has set in recent years may only worsen. But such negative thinking is all the more reason to indulge Eurovision in its fantasy: a glimmer of unity, a sentimental hologram of a better world.

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