Skip navigation

Boris Johnson’s opportunity to become prime minister of the UK came in the context of Brexit. That meant he had to pick a side and in doing so he relied on what he knew. For years he had been paid extraordinary fees for journalism consisting of daft lies about the EU. However, he wasn’t lying in a meaningful sense because his untruths were open and transparent; being found out was not a consideration. He knew that he had an audience demanding his yarns on one side and a naive opposition on the other. What was unknown were the numbers of citizens on each side.

Dominic Cummings – among others – had access to the required data. Following Steve Bannon – Trump’s one time advisor – with his emphasis on Lenin, Cummings shared with some on the left a desire to destroy the democratic state and the establishment.* Crucially, he knew too the nature of the most significant divide in society, and he had the figures and the technology required. Unlike traditional Leninists, he and many others know how to use bourgeois democracy to destroy itself.

Perhaps in quiet moments Boris Johnson wonders how he got himself in among this lot but he realises that their analysis is essentially correct. He knew that his choice was between being a demagogue or a democrat, between siding with those citizens who despise participative, argumentative politics as “establishment” and those citizens amenable to argument. He chose because he had to; there is no effete middle ground.

The opposition, however, is fractured because too many liberals and leftists cannot or will not face these changed circumstances. They prefer to think and act according to their traditions.

When Hilary Clinton referred to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables”, there was adverse reaction from the left but the reaction was of two kinds. Firstly, there was distaste for the terminology but there was also a defence of the people to whom she was referring, the sort of people who – it was argued – would be supporters of the left were it not for lies told them. Similarly, in Britain a commentator, bemused by Johnson and Brexit supporters’ acceptance of lies, put it down to “the bovine credulity of the minority”.**

There is a very basic issue in political communication here. Consider that familiar old belief that citizens are alike and if treated with respect, told the truth and presented with arguments most will go with the best argument. There are two problems here – one for the Left, especially the Marxist left, and one for all thinking people.

On the left many socialists – even those who say they have abandoned revolution in the meaningful sense of the word – retain a dilemma: should citizens be won over by presenting them with compelling argument or should citizens be manipulated in their own best interests.

The former risks being dismissed as social democracy or even liberal democracy. The latter is a legacy of revolutionary socialism, and the idea is to grasp leadership of popular protest movements and try to give them expression in class terms. It quickly parts company with anything recognisably socialist for a very simple reason: an unwillingness to interrogate “class” means acceptance of opinion pollsters’ definitions. The unfortunate outcome is that “working class” loses its Marxist, transformative meaning. It comes to refer to a mere pressure group, a pressure group that is there to be led or represented in the competition for resources demanded of the “establishment”.

It is at this point that Dominic Cummings, Steve Bannon and their likes can see their best chance of winning. Society is divided between passive citizens who seek demagogues, and decry politics and debate, and participative citizens who rely on debate and the truth on which it depends. Because liberals and leftists are united in a refusal to confront passive citizenship, they go on talking among themselves about truth and discourse, and patronising passive citizens, never dreaming of confrontation – no matter how foul and right wing the beliefs expressed by “ordinary people”.

Democracy would be unthreatened if the number of passive citizens were small or if there was no effective means to mobilise them. The Brexit campaign – especially its on-line component demonstrated the opposite.

Democracy – representative democracy – is threatened because the means to destroy it by popular will now exist and its defenders “the establishment” cannot throw off their traditions to defend it. The idea of defending a progressive establishment against “ordinary people” is too much for them. The likes of Bannon, Cummings and Johnson must hope that it remains so.

_________________

*https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/06/lenin-white-house-steve-bannon


**https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/31/britain-has-become-a-land-of-permanent-crisis-suits-blustering-liars-of-brexit

There is a great deal of talk about a divided Britain. There is almost no talk about the nature of that division, a division which is present in other countries.

There are of course many divisions in British society but Boris Johnson, his adviser, Dominic Cummings, and others fully understand today’s primary division. This understanding produced a referendum result and explains subsequent Brexit tactics, especially the systematic lying which so bemuses thinking citizens. It bemuses to the extent that a commentator wondered about “the bovine credulity of the minority”.* It is both rude and inaccurate to describe these citizens as “bovine”. Though they are not deceived, they are certainly credulous in seeking untruths and charismatic leadership – they seek a demagogue. Their numbers are too great to be dismissed as a mere minority. Crucially, any aspiring demagogue now has the media to address them and to mobilise them into a potent political force.

It’s far from a secret. Firstly, Dominic Cummings is the unlikely bearer of a gift to democracy. He despises democracy and would destroy it, yet he tells how the Brexit referendum was won. He tells of a society with millions of disaffected citizens, uninterested in politics, argument, complexity or claims/counterclaims about truth, and the means to deliver the messages they want. Secondly, the whole thing was dramatised for television.** Thousands of people know about this.

Most democrats, however, spurn the gift and pretend that the TV drama never happened or was just a scary fiction. They prefer to believe in the existence of a society which if it ever existed, has vanished over the last several decades. It is the traditional belief in a Demos composed of equal citizens who participate through public discourse and if they have strange beliefs, it is because someone has successfully deceived them. The naive democrat thinks that merely countering the lies will bring deliverance.

The naive democrat simply refuses to countenance the existence of millions of citizens who prefer lies, who indeed demand lies, who want leadership and who utterly reject public discourse. This naivety is irresponsible and dangerous because it surrenders reality to the enemies of democracy.

Regrettably it is mainly leftists who refuse to confront today’s reality but it is understandable because they have a lot to lose. This isn’t the place to rehearse Marxist theory or history but some points have to be made. Suggesting that Leftists need to question their most fundamental thinking is asking a great deal but it must be asked of them because democracy and indeed left relevance is at stake. Essentially the left will be pained at the very notion that positions taken up by poor or working people are to be opposed, and at the harsh reality that so many of them reject the left’s patronising approach to liberation by telling them the truth. Most of all – and despite sharing their views – leftists will be embarrassed by taking sides with thinking liberals in defence of a democracy that relies on thought and public discourse and against a democracy that relies on huge numbers of those they consider their natural constituency. The very structure of political society has changed as has the technology to speak to it. For the left to opt out by pretending that it is still the 20th century is to abandon the struggle of our time.

Too few of those who would side with democracy and be inclined to save it, can bring themselves to acknowledge that Cummings is indeed right in just one terrifying respect: he’s addressing a new reality. They therefore fail to engage with it, fail to develop a relevant counter argument and strategy, and particularly fail to address, organise and speak for the thoughtful citizen – dismissed by Cummings, Johnson et al. as “the establishment” – on whom theoretically and practically democracy rests.

A change is urgent because those passive citizens – encouraged and patronised – may be inching towards the majority capable of ending the established laws and structures on which non-revolutionary-left advance depends. That is what Johnson and Cummings want; listen to them.

_________________________

*

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/31/britain-has-become-a-land-of-permanent-crisis-suits-blustering-liars-of-brexit

** “Brexit: The Uncivil War”, Channel 4.

 

 

Today a British woman tried to stabilise the UK constitution: the Queen did as the Constitution requires of her and acceded to her Prime Minister’s request. She knows full well that the constitution is in peril and she certainly wasn’t of a mind to do more damage. She’s aware too that she has very probably undermined the monarchy.

Earlier this year another British woman tried to do something similar. Theresa May tried to steer a Brexit deal through parliament so that the UK could appear to act according to the referendum decision while maintaining the sovereignty of Parliament. *

Both women know the importance of a constitution – a country’s basic law – on which all citizens depend. They know that lawless tyranny is the alternative to a functioning constitution. They know too that under the existing constitution the Brexit referendum was incompatible with the sovereignty of parliament.

A fundamental choice in the design of a democratic constitution is whether to make the People or their Parliament sovereign. It cannot be both; a choice has to be made. The good news is that there really is no need to pit people against parliament as long as constitutional provision is made to prevent it. The bad news is that the UK made no such provision.

Take a look at Ireland whose system of government is modelled on that of the UK. In Ireland referendums are relatively common because the constitution says the People are sovereign and yet there is a stable Westminster-like parliament and government. The whole works tolerably well because all the parts are subject to the constitution and the constitution – while changed from time to time by referendum after fraught public controversy – enjoys popular support. Referendums do not challenge the constitution because they are part of the constitution.

No such constitutional clarity exists in the UK. Following the Brexit referendum this has led to a clash between popular sovereignty and parliamentary sovereignty.

It’s a sorry state of affairs that will have to be addressed. Both Theresa May and the Queen have acted to try to maintain the constitution in the short term because its breakdown is unthinkable. Should the UK survive this intact, consideration might be given to a written constitution which would provide for referenda and circumscribe what they might decide. The danger is that if drift continues, constitutional change may be decided in the streets and the outcome could exclude democracy.

__________________________

* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/12/10/deciding-brexit-theresa-sees-the-constitutional-threat/


Since I moved to Lucan in the 70s I’ve enjoyed walking the Grand Canal towpath between the 12th lock and Hazelhatch. I’ve trained a number of fondly remembered retrievers here. I’m friends with other users of the path, anglers, walkers, cyclists and those who sit and drink beers near the old quarries where the kids used to swim until it was prohibited.

I was there yesterday and had my day spoiled. Ok, it could have been contact with one exceptional dickhead but I fear not; it’s the direction things are going and the casual elimination of existing amenities.

I was strolling with three dogs. Even on a sunny Sunday, there would be very few people about; on other days I might not encounter anyone. On seeing other walkers, runners or a cyclist, it is my habit to call the dogs to heel and sit them until the people pass. This normally results in greetings exchanged and sometimes conversations. I did this three times yesterday and spoke on each occasion with passing cyclists. Some time later I heard and suddenly realised that a runner was close behind me. I whistled the dogs to sit and asked the runner if he was ok with the dogs. He replied that he was fine and passed them. Then he turned to face me and shouted that they should be on leads. I tried to speak to him but he ran on giving me the finger with both hands.

I was almost back at the 12th lock when I met one of the regular anglers. He realised I was upset; I told him what had happened. He reckoned that our lovely place was in its last days, soon to be buried under a “blueway” and subjected to all sorts of restrictions, that I should enjoy whatever time was left there training my dogs to cross water on command.

I fear that public service is coming to mean the imposition of destruction, construction and catering to the demands of authoritarian dickheads.

The EU seems increasingly glad to see the back of the UK. However, they have a moral responsibility to the millions of British EU citizens who want to remain so. They also have a duty to avoid facilitating the Johnson plot.

Johnson and his cronies are reliant on the date October 31st. They view it as an expiry date that is positioned perfectly to suit their purpose. Their plan is to get out of the EU by passing the deadline and then criticise the EU for instituting border controls. In this atmosphere they will then fight a general election portraying themselves as “the people” versus “the establishment.

Should the EU act as it can, the plotters could have a problem. You see, the UK didn’t set the date, doesn’t own the date and in EU terms has no control over the date. The date was decided by the EU in the face of British opposition. It came about when Theresa May applied for an extension to June. The EU granted an extension but decided to impose October 31st as the end date. It is, therefore, the EU’s date and the EU could change it without reference to the UK.

If the EU were to move their extension end date to, say, January 2019, that could not of course delay Brexit. The UK could still consider itself out on November 1st. In that scenario there is considerable change because while the EU would do absolutely nothing, a resolute Johnson regime would have to express Brexit day in some form of border controls.

In other words, EU action on their own date would force Johnson to take responsibility and deny him not merely a fig leaf but handy cooperation on a date that has turned out to suit him.

Dominic Cummings isn’t running Britain and those who trot that out are missing a very real threat. Dominic Cummings is an advisor to the UK Prime Minister. His advice is taken because it is based on a plausible, compelling argument that crucially is located in the really existing present and in that respect it doesn’t face a rival.

What little opposition it faces is of three equally irrelevant types. Firstly, some are based in the vanished industrial world of the mid 20th century. Secondly, there is the tragi-comical pseudo-opposition, sharing the same “people power” sloganeering that energises the Cummings argument. Thirdly, there are the ad hominem attempts to portray Cummings as mad.

The first and second – sad to say – are leftist and their proponents would be upset by any suggestion that they support Cummings but that’s not the suggestion. It’s different and it’s more than a suggestion; the reality is that they inadvertently strengthen the Cummings argument. Firstly, the left is too often strangely unaware that thinking people find it easy to spot an argument made nonsense by reliance on conditions long gone – in this case the conditions of mid 20th century industrial capitalism – and whatever problems thinking people might have with Cummings, it’s clear that at least he’s talking about the world as it is today.

Secondly, Cummings advice to the UK Prime Minister is to try for a general election in which the P.M. would campaign for the people against the politicians. Familiar? Of course it is. Sections of the left have been positing the people against variously the government, the state, the political class, the establishment for years with no regard to whether “the people” were calling for left or right movement. They were simply “the people” and anti-establishment; they were to be followed until they could be led. Cummings, however, knows the difference between left and right and where the people are headed. He can thank those on the left who refuse to think for helping to mobilise his people.

Thirdly, ad hominem attacks are easy but pointless. Reading Cummings blogs etc. will reveal a man who reveres strong leaders, authority, manliness and Bismarck.* That’s certainly eccentric, some might view it as crazy and he’s been described as a sociopath. That’s all irrelevant because it leaves his argument and analysis of society untouched. Should those who despise the man achieve his downfall, nothing more will change. The views, analysis, argument will remain unchallenged by anything both plausible and relevant to today – and “the people” will remain mobilised against the establishment.

Cummings is astute but it would be silly to assume that he is unique. There are certainly others as aware. He knows a lot but three things are uppermost in his mind and make anti-democratic voting possible.

i) The flaw at the heart of mass democracy

A very old fear among democrats is that as the franchise extended and extended, greater numbers of passive, easily swayed voters became available to demagogues. This cannot threaten democracy as long as their numbers are relatively small or they are beyond the communicative reach of the demagogue.

ii) The antagonised passive citizen

With universal franchise many passive citizens declined all participation while some others voted for a variety of reasons other than deliberation and judgement but few were hostile to the system itself – the establishment. That has changed. Cummings is one who has watched the polls for years. He knows populism and the nature of it. He understands the current meaning of “anti-establishment” and the numbers involved.

iii) The demagogue’s medium

It is no longer possible for democrats to ignore the passive, inactive, disaffected citizen because now they are many and because now they can be reached and mobilised. Cummings proved this with his Brexit referendum campaign. Relying on data mined from social media he then used social media to deliver approaching-bespoke messages to citizens who wouldn’t normally pay any attention to politics or who seldom voted or who were otherwise disaffected. He knew the kind of message that would get their attention and he knew how to reel them in.

Essentially Cummings knows that he is dealing with a world changed and that he is threatening democracy which he despises. He concentrates on the passive, disaffected citizen. Communication is not directed at those who are concerned with truth and argument; they are the establishment and irrelevant. There is no need to confuse matters by addressing them. They are no longer essential to winning a majority; they are not needed.

The problem is that few of those who would side with democracy and be inclined to save it, care to acknowledge that what Cummings describes is indeed the new reality. They therefore fail to engage with it, fail to develop a plausible counter argument and strategy, and particularly fail to address, organise and speak for the thoughtful citizen on whom theoretically and practically democracy rests.

There is a degree of urgency in all this because while opponents of the Cummings perspective ignore the thoughtful citizen on whom democracy relies, his passive citizens may be inching towards a majority.

* https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/dominic-cummings-boris-johnson-otto-von-bismarck-brexit-a9045941.html?fbclid=IwAR3fTSMLgx-gquc7QWyT4OGSf_NTcZ2wVNQD-kYOCXNbJRttInzX5qKYlmE

The RTE Investigates programme on the greyhound industry has prompted demands for a simple ban on greyhound racing. Clearly this course has a final and brutal appeal but it is not so appealing on examination.

The barbarity uncovered by RTE is already illegal. It occurs because the law is not implemented. Indeed animal cruelty in Ireland tends not to attract serious sanction. Moreover, the controllers/managers of greyhound racing do not enforce their own rules and codes.

A ban will not end greyhound racing or coursing; it will end legal and regulated racing and coursing, and will do away with whatever humane forms have been developed over years.

Some of those favouring a ban admire the greyhound as a breed and would favour their becoming a common family pet. In this regard the greyhound temperament and demeanour has a lot going for it. What shouldn’t be forgotten, however, is that the breed – like all breeds – is the product of generations of selective mating to create a racing dog. Assuming all racing and coursing had been ended by a ban, the greyhound would continue in its familiar, pedigree form for as long as admirers ensured that the breed’s show standards were maintained but there’s still a problem.

Showing alone without regard to a dog’s ability to do what it was bred to do is a very poor idea. In the case of greyhounds after a racing ban, the show could do no more than ensure the appearance of sound dogs. The temperament that attracts today’s admirers could soon disappear.*

The key problem identified by RTE from which most if not all of the abuse and criminality flows is the extraordinary level of breeding (over-production). It is this that reduces the value of dogs and facilitates – even encourages – their rejection and disposal. Bluntly, if there were few dogs available, an owner would have to be damn careful about rejection.

Then if disposal of an unwanted dog were made difficult, commitment to the original choice of dog would be greater. That all greyhounds are tattooed and registered to owners led to barbarians cutting the ears off unwanted dogs. However, that all greyhounds are tattooed and registered to owners should ensure that the owner is held accountable for the whereabouts and welfare of their dog. It might be said that such a system would be too expensive to operate even in a computerised age. The reply of course is to point to the millions paid annually by the state and make it clear that there has been a management decision to avoid holding registered owners responsible.

When considering the amounts of money – especially state money – involved and the gross practices allowed to carry on unchecked, ignored, unpunished by the executive and management of the controlling bodies, it is impossible to avoid thinking of another Irish scandal: the FAI. Again, an enquiry is required to root out the chancers and time servers who presided over this mess and its ensuing cruelty. Similarly, if it can be established that staff at the Dept. of Agriculture continued funding while knowing about this maladministration, then they should be regarded as unfit for public service.***

_______________________________

* Look to what happened with the gundog breeds: there developed show strains and working strains, and much has had to be done by interested breeders to ensure both appearance and ability are maintained. Does that matter? Well, for pet owners of gundogs it is vital as the friendly temperament is a component of the working temperament.

** Again, there is a parallel with gundogs. Among those involved in working Labradors there is an ease in moving-on young dogs which, it is thought, do not show sufficient potential. Now, there is no need to euthanise them because there is a healthy market for quality, trained dogs among shooting people who do not need a working competition standard but the point here is that ease of disposal and availability of pups facilitates rejections and fresh starts. If interested, see here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/07/24/5-3-1-labrador-the-doubt/

*** The business case is well argued here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2574696522562837&set=a.454197071279470&type=3&theater

The editorial staff at RTE Radio’s “Today with Seán O’Rourke” on Friday 14th June 2019 chose a panel to discuss events of the week. They selected Fergus O’Dowd T.D. (FG) Mark Carthy M.E.P. (SF) Niamh Lyons (Journalist)  Sarah Carey (Communications consultant). Assuming the selection was done with deliberation, one would wonder why these people were chosen.

From a political communications perspective the best possible reason would be that this panel of people would bring diverse perspectives so as to serve citizen listeners. As it turned out, nothing unique was said by any of the panel. They could, therefore, have been replaced by any number of people with similar views.

Any SF member of a panel, however, offers the singular and utterly repugnant point of view, that war crimes (shooting and bombing civilians) committed by the IRA should be commemorated/celebrated. This, however, was not among the topics discussed and from a citizen’s perspective there was therefore no compelling reason to have a SF speaker. In other words, the decision to choose a SF speaker was not determined by a desire to present a comprehensive discussion; he could have been replaced by any number of speakers without hindering the discussion.

His inclusion, however, served to present him as ordinary, commenting on routine public discourse. This is precisely how normalisation works.*

Short of a desire to favour SF, there are other possible reasons for his inclusion. It might be that the programme editors or RTE generally do not consider support for war-crime commemoration a repugnant viewpoint. In that case normalisation is not an issue; they consider it normal. It might, however, be that despite his views, they want to be fair to him and give him airtime. The latter possibility reflects a deep-seated problem with the regulation of public service broadcasting in that it prioritises the concerns of those seeking a platform (politicians, advocates, prominent journalists) above the needs of the participative citizen. Now, this suggests the need for a quite fundamental change and addressing it is work for another day.

The question that remains is, if the SF speaker was not necessary, why was he on the panel?

______

*https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2019/05/22/morally-repugnant-views-and-morally-repugnant-people-calls-to-silence-racism-etc-misunderstand-the-process-of-normalisation/

 

*

 

There are two groups with quite different reasons for returning to familiar parties.

1. The conservatives and their rider

The majority of Irish people seem to want a universal health service, greater equality etc. etc. but there’s a fundamentally important catch: they want these things to happen without any other change, i.e. without their lives being otherwise affected. Lately, as Ireland increased Green representation through local government and European elections, and seemed enthralled by school children raising awareness, the welfare of the planet was added to the list of things that can “change as long as there’s no change”. Well, the phenomenon is not confined to Ireland and coincidentally the illustrative issue on this is the environment.

Peter Wilby in a New Statesman article* told how in the run-up to the recent Australian general election much of the talk was about how the two main parties were starkly divided on environmental policies. Moreover, polling revealed that more than 60 per cent of Australians thought that global warming required immediate action even if significant costs were involved. The Australian Labour Party said that if elected, they would aim at a 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. By contrast, shortly before the start of the election campaign, the Liberal coalition government approved a new coal mine and promised more, while warning that Labour’s plans would lead to increased energy prices. Yep, you’ve guessed it: against expectations the Liberal coalition was re-elected.

Too many Leftists take comfort in polls that show Irish support for all sorts of progressive reforms. Then when votes are counted, they express themselves surprised – even hurt and betrayed – by the outcome. They reckon – with an enormous degree of arrogance – that voters have behaved stupidly. The reality is that while it deserves to be opposed, there is nothing stupid in a conservatism that defends one’s place in the hierarchy or structure of inequality while also saying that as long as that is unchanged, progressive reform is fine. It’s not even a contradictory position. Indeed it is a position encouraged by leftists who sell the notion that it can be achieved by dispossessing the top 1% or big business while leaving the rest of the rich and privileged untouched.** It’s best termed, left conservatism and it’s rooted in a bizarre understanding of fairness: that the whole structure of inequality must remain unchanged until the ludicrously wealthy are reduced, while the ludicrously wealthy see that as … wait for it … unfair. Very little happens. Nice people express support for reforms and the protest marches can be a fun way to let off steam and pose as anti-establishment.

2. Seekers of a plausible alternative

There’s an under-researched group of voters – very likely a small group – who probably think differently. They are not wedded to short term self interest. Neither are they interested in disorderly or unqualified change, never mind revolution. Short of that, they are open to plausible argument about their republic changing its course. That they don’t hear such argument is because the left tends to ignore them. What they hear is a right-wing but plausible argument that is shared by rivals who claim to be the better managers of a stable, fair and unequal society. It’s hardly surprising that they vote for plausible managers over those implausibly and constantly “calling on” the government/ political class/establishment for concessions that are not arranged in any order of priority. If the left wants to win the votes of these people, a plausible argument will have to be presented. However, there’s a problem: opting to present a coherent, plausible argument for change means abandoning the “calling-on” which is for a different and incompatible audience.

* https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/05/first-thoughts-borisgraph-crisis-and-what-australian-labor-s-shock-defeat-tells

** http://piketty.blog.lemonde.fr/2019/06/11/the-illusion-of-centrist-ecology/?fbclid=IwAR1XlXe1QORP_DyExSKygowIRvwu7rV6oJPX1U77xYPtB8HphesWwDvavPg

There are two points to be clarified. One relates to what StarTrek were doing; the other relates to RTE’s operation of the Section 31 Direction.

I saw futuristic Data point back to Irish Reunification in 2024  and laughed; I got the joke. Had the Irish people been allowed to see it, they would have too. I recall writing a piece for a broadcasting trade journal and including the joke in Irish, “Tiocfaidh ár lá, ach caithfimid fanacht.” Like Orwell choosing 1984, 2024 seemed futuristic at the time of writing.

The decision at RTE to reject the StarTrek episode was hard to understand. The episode had aired in the US without controversy. There was no talk in RTE of an impending problem. The tape arrived in RTE as routine: rushed through because it was a mere day or two after release in the States and the priority as usual was to get it out ahead of the BBC.

Banning it most certainly was not a requirement under the Section 31 direction. My impression was that some were motivated to extend the ban by genuine opposition to SF and the IRA and some thought it a sensible position for a person with ambition. Others sought to ridicule the ban by extending it in a downright silly way while referring to … wait for it, it’s the usual Irish cover for lack of integrity … a “culture” of censorship or even fear.

The reality was that the Section 31 ban prohibited nothing more than interviews. Programmes, news reports etc. could have been made without interviews, as they frequently are. A combination of zealotry and a desire to discredit the ban led to bizarre decisions like banning a really good joke line in an episode of StarTrek, losing too an opportunity to have a public discussion of terrorism in the abstract setting of a distant planet.

Incidentally, an episode of The Campbells, a drama for young people set in 19th century Canada, dealt with a cross border raid by Irish nationalists based in the States. It too was banned. It would have made for calm discussion if recommended to every school in the country.

StarTrek had a bit of a thing with Ireland: the episode, Up The Ladder, involved bringing the long lost half of a race back to their home planet to breed with people who had become sterile by way of being dull. Guess what: The transported gene material was a race of singing, dancing, red headed, laughing, great-fun-altogether people called … again, wait for it … the Bringloidi. (Gettit?)

 

* https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-it-s-a-united-ireland-but-not-as-we-know-it-1.3900593

“Beliefs can be false, unwarranted by evidence or reasoned consideration. They can also be morally repugnant. Among likely candidates: beliefs that are sexist, racist or homophobic; the belief that proper upbringing of a child requires ‘breaking the will’ and severe corporal punishment; the belief that the elderly should routinely be euthanised; the belief that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a political solution, and so on. If we find these morally wrong, we condemn not only the potential acts that spring from such beliefs, but the content of the belief itself, the act of believing it, and thus the believer.” – Daniel DeNicola, professor and chair of philosophy, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania,

https://aeon.co/ideas/you-dont-have-a-right-to-believe-whatever-you-want-to

Among those who consider themselves decent, civilised people there’s unlikely to be disagreement over Daniel DeNicola’s “likely candidates”, i.e. his truncated list of repugnant beliefs/viewpoints. Then he goes further and introduces a more contentious proposition. The condemnation is not just of the harm that might flow from these beliefs, but their content and the act of believing, and thus, he says, condemnation falls on the believer. In short, he is saying that there are views so despicable that those who hold them should be despised also.

Hence, there are two questions: i) Can we agree a short list of utterly repugnant viewpoints that merit unequivocal condemnation? And ii) Should those who hold these views be reviled/shunned/excluded from one’s company or at least treated with some degree of special caution when it comes to public debate.

Confronting elitism and the dilution of “repugnant”

Before turning to those questions, something needs to be addressed. Look at the question: “Can we list morally repugnant viewpoints, convictions?” The reality is that many citizens already have such a list but, “We”? Yes, “We” because the reality is that these citizens belong to a group which thinks itself – and frankly is generally acknowledged to be – composed of decent people. They might also be termed civilised or thinking people.

There is a couple of dismissive reactions to the notion of “decent people”. To begin with, it’s easy to disregard decency as a latter-day manifestation of a moral majority. Indeed, that’s basically the line of attack when populists seek to lead ignorance and vulgarity by creating a new anti-establishment opposed to thought, expertise and concern with values. There’s no way out of this. It’s the struggle between civilisation and barbarism.

Another way to resist the claims of decency is to try to dilute them by the inclusion of more everyday political controversies like, say, a particular tax. That’s a familiar and popular tactic among extremists; they try to label routine matters as equally extreme. It’s a “what-about” of the sort, “We’re not the only killers. Taxation drives people to suicide.” It’s to be expected and resisted. By contrast, decency’s list is short and basic, and supports the civilised behaviour on which democracy relies. That too could be derided as bourgeois but unless there are conditions that call for revolution, decency supports democracy.

Populating the list

At the time of writing Ireland is experiencing local and EU election campaigns, and decent people are appalled that racist, anti-gay, anti-vax comment and candidates are being tolerated, indeed given public media platforms. That would be fairly typical. Decent people tend to condemn racist, sexist, homophobic viewpoints as morally repugnant. Lately, on public health grounds they increasingly include anti-vax opinions. Moreover, few would want to exclude Daniel DeNicola’s examples, to reiterate, that proper upbringing of a child requires ‘breaking the will’ and severe corporal punishment; that the elderly should routinely be euthanised; that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a political solution, and so on. The point is that while repugnant viewpoints tend to be few, enduring and universal, the list can be discussed, extended or reduced, e.g. in Ireland in particular it can be argued that a belief in celebrating public bombers/bombing is a morally repugnant viewpoint.

Dealing with the list in an open society

Decent people tend to demand that repugnant viewpoints be censored, be denied a public hearing because such views are so bad as to override rights to freedom of expression. Censorship, however, is unnecessary, undemocratic and plays into the hands of those perpetuating repugnant viewpoints. Perhaps censorship is not the decent response!

The sensible and effective way lies through Daniel DeNicola’s second proposition, that those holding repugnant viewpoints be treated exceptionally. The way to address the spread of repugnant notions is to maintain a spotlight on those holding them. That is to say, the repugnant viewpoint must be heard – indeed, must be broadcast – according to routine liberal freedoms but in addition its sponsors and supporters must be marked out as very different, as morally repugnant.

This approach deals with the real fear that decent people have of giving a platform to vile viewpoints. They fear that these views will become commonplace and be accepted by greater numbers in society. They fear normalisation but here’s the thing: having vile views expressed and challenged publicly is not how normalisation works. The process is much more insidious.

The view and the person holding that view are both repugnant but while the person wants public attention, they seldom if ever want that attention to focus on the extraordinary viewpoint that sets the person apart, the viewpoint that above all else defines their character, marking them as a repugnant person. That viewpoint attracts far too much attention and they know full well that they’ll struggle to justify it. What they’ll seek to do is participate in all the routine discussions so that they can appear normal. Thus the repugnant viewpoint is normalised by saying as little about it as possible while allowing its holder to present as a normal, nice, friendly person with something to offer on all the issues and debates of a society. It is this quiet, creeping process of normalisation that decency must prevent.

An open, liberal society needs the expression of all viewpoints, no matter how hideous. They have to be out in the open to be rebutted. It is wrong to prevent expression. It is right to demand expression while letting their holder speak of nothing else. If there is a compelling reason that they be heard on routine matters, then let their utterances be bookended by emphases on their morally repugnant stance. Under no circumstance should the morally repugnant viewpoint be alienated from the morally repugnant person who holds it because the morally repugnant viewpoint is normalised by allowing the morally repugnant person to speak of normal matters.

Very seldom do needs and ambitions combine to create a unique opportunity. It’s happening in Inchicore.

The League of Ireland football club, St. Patrick’s Athletic, are asking local election candidates in Dublin City to support their plan to build a new centre for Inchicore with community facilities, shops and extraordinarily a new football stadium on the roof. It involves demolition of the old Richmond Park stadium and a land swap.

Now the football club are seeking the support of all political parties for what they see – correctly – as a viable proposal. For candidates with working class credentials, however, it assumes an enormous significance.

Inchicore is an old, industrial working class town. What it needs most at present is a vibrant centre so that its citizens and visitors can have ordinary facilities – shopping, walking around, drinking coffee, meetings etc. The Pats  plan offers to deliver without spending state money. Opponents want to build houses on the prime central site.

Objections to the plan can be summarised as arguing that it is too good for Inchicore and there is a patronising class perspective running through them. These objectors (Let’s be blunt: they’re mostly middle class outsiders.) just don’t get it that Inchicore needs the kind of development that all towns strive for theses days.

Here are some of the objections.

The quite mad basic objection is that the stadium would be too big given the modest attendances at Pats games. Leaving ambition aside, what these objectors fail to see is that the stadium is on top of the centre and its size is dictated by the centre.

It is objected that a centre isn’t needed as there are lots of old shops in the streets which could be developed. On a commercial front, such old shops tend to spring into life again when a centre is developed nearby. Moreover, this centre includes a little stadium bringing people to those shops. On a class front, the objection is that citizens of Inchicore shouldn’t have a centre but should live in a museum-like old town, walking up and down their main street in all weathers with their shopping bags. Feck off!

It’s said that houses must be built on the land. Houses are indeed desperately needed and there are lots of places to build them, including the land made available by demolishing Richmond Park. However, this is a one-off opportunity to redevelop a working class town; build houses on the shopping centre cum stadium site and the opportunity is gone forever.

It’s objected that Pats is a private company and they cannot be given public land. Apart from the land swap involved, the objection is based on a complete failure to understand the nature of a very local football club. No one at all wants to vacate and demolish Richmond Park. It is loved beyond reason. Everyone would prefer to keep and develop it but there are physical and financial constraints.

The Pats proposal is a package: the shops finance the centre and the stadium. It’s the opportunity to bring a working class town up to the standards expected by the working class. That makes it more than business; it’s a class issue.

Lyra McKee was a 29-year-old journalist who was shot dead during riots in Derry on April 18th. Early reports suggested that a gunman had fired on police and that Lyra was an unintended casualty. It’s nonsense of course but the IRA (of whatever stripe) and SF push the lie that there’s been a war of liberation with attacks mounted on army, police and employees of the state. There was a possibility therefore that the old perverse argument would be given an outing, that the killing of Lyra McKee was an unintended outcome of a military engagement.

Then the video of the killer in action emerged. It might have been expected that he would crouch with a rifle, take aim and unfortunately hit a bystander. Then the conditions would be present for that perverse argument. It cannot, however, even be advanced because the video record does not show a “volunteer” carefully aiming a rifle. It shows a man with a handgun shooting not at a police officer but in the vague general direction of the police. The target in this instance was not the police; it was anyone at all. In stark terms, civilians were targeted and that means it was yet another unambiguous war crime.*

 

++++++++++++++

* Here’s a blog on commemorating Irish war crimes as such: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2019/03/19/the-dignity-of-the-nation-requires-that-irish-war-crimes-be-commemorated-as-such/

 

 

DAMNATIO MEMORIAE is a modern Latin phrase which usually refers to excluding or deleting someone from official accounts – from history -because typically their actions were shameful or not compatible with a country’s myths. It reflects the weakness and fear of a state; it is an official, wiping condemnation of a memory.

There is, however, an alternative meaning: memory as condemnation, purposely remembering so as to make sure that despicable people and actions are never forgotten. This wholly different meaning is an official recognition of shame and is a reflection of the strength and confidence of a state.

The difference between the two interpretations of DAMNATIO MEMORIAE suggests a way to remember officially the actions of the Provisional IRA and its supporters, while preserving the dignity of the nation and the country’s international standing.

Since the Good Friday Agreement the establishment or conventional view is that Sinn Féin should be facilitated in moving into mainstream politics. This usually involves treating them as one would any political party and making as little mention as possible of their support for and affinity with the IRA, previously the Provisional IRA.

Now, the campaign waged by the IRA was dominated by intentional attacks on – deliberate targeting of – civilians by way of gun attacks but most spectacularly by way of bombing public places. In short, the essence of their campaign was the commission of war crimes.

Sinn Féin’s project to become a mainstream political party might work if they were prepared to put the IRA behind them but they’ve created a problem: they want the Provisional IRA to be honoured in Irish history, recognised as having fought an admirable war against a colonial oppressor.

The IRA of course is not unique in committing war crimes; it may well be true that all armies have their own murky, shameful history. Colonial armies, national armies or indeed armies involved in wars commonly regarded as praiseworthy, like that against Nazi Germany, without doubt commit atrocities – war crimes – and yet are celebrated, made a part of their national story or myth. However, they tend to exhibit shame and try to ignore or cover up the crimes. Those in the UK who stand before the Cenotaph or wear their poppies know full well that there were atrocities and for the sake of commemorating heroics or what they see as honourable battle, they ignore the atrocities. It is a case of damnatio memoriae in its conventional sense; don’t mention that which was criminal and shameful.

This is not a course open to the IRA or Sinn Féin for the simple reason that their war consisted too largely of war crimes, especially public bombings. In other words, were they to brush away or “forget” the war crimes, there would be too little left that could be considered honourable. To gain acceptance as a mainstream party Sinn Féin had a choice: i) push the recent IRA war and their support for it into the past and hope that it will be largely forgotten or ii) have it accepted as an honoured part of Irish history by convincing the nation to accept war crimes as part of our identity.

Journalism – media generally – gives SF every opportunity to avoid the shameful memory. Their statements, policies, events are covered as news while studiously avoiding mention of dead and disfigured civilians and the desire to commemorate the perpetrators as Irish heroes. Irish media are committed to the normalisation of SF, making them part of the political process. However, what journalists want to normalise and what Sinn Féin wants to normalise are irreconcilable; journalists want to forget, while SF wants to honour.

There is in any event too much that is shameful and fearful in the contrived loss of memory which most of the “establishment” now favours. It is unworthy of modern Ireland which is quite capable of saying that, like other nations, we have shameful parts of our history but unlike many, we have the stability and confidence not simply to recognise truth but to memorialise it.

It is repugnant to think that a civilised, decent people would ever honour someone who would place or attempt to place a bomb in a public place, or admit into ordinary company or discourse someone who would support or attempt to dignify such an unambiguous war crime. The Irish however are heading towards that outcome: official acceptance – normalisation – of barbaric events and despicable people. The established view is that SF is to be normalised because it has shed its past. The SF view is that their past and that of the IRA is honourable and worthy of normalisation. The SF view is likely to prevail because paradoxically in the interests of peace and normalisation, there is a reluctance – bordering on censorship – to discuss what exactly is to be accepted as normal, mainstream.

There can be a different outcome but it will involve a struggle to ensure that bombing public places or supporting such attacks on civilians will never be accepted – never mind, honoured – in Ireland. It starts by establishing as mainstream not just occasional and ritual condemnation of Irish war crimes but an intention to remember, immortalise, those crimes as Ireland’s shameful exception. It is DAMNATIO MEMORIAE in the second sense, the creation of memory as condemnation. It is, yes, to Sinn Féin’s desire for official recognition of the IRA’s campaign but on the terms of a decent and civilised nation. In short, the Irish state must have commemorative events, memorial plaques, monuments to highlight Irish war crimes explicitly as war crimes, to say that like all other nations we have among us those who fall far short of the standards expected of our people and we will not forget them or quietly pretend that they never existed.

State recognition, commemoration and memorialisation of the evil done in Ireland’s name would embolden quiet, decent citizens who might become comfortable with the confrontations necessary to let it be known that they will never accept as normal someone who would do less than unreservedly condemn public bombing.

_____________________

*  “Commemorate” may not be a term that seems appropriate here as it usually suggests pride or joy. However it also suggests that an occasion is marked by observances that remind one of the origin and significance of the event. 

Irish media tend to facilitate the normalisation of SF by allowing them to talk of all manner of things while ignoring their desire to celebrate IRA bombings. Today something a little bit different happened but just a little bit because a line of questioning was abruptly abandoned. Lynn Boylan, the SF MEP, appeared with others on RTE Radio One’s Saturday with Cormac Ó hEadhra. They discussed radicalisation and ordinary people becoming participants in ISIS.* Lynn Boylan contributed to the discussion as if the IRA campaign had never happened. Then, apparently prompted by text from a listener, Cormac asked her what was the difference between an ISIS and an IRA bomb attack on civilians. Having failed to avoid the issue, she tried to imply that bombing civilians was a part of the long Irish nationalist struggle, then she settled on a controversial but not unique justification: IRA public bombings – unlike jihadi public bombings – were morally superior because they were part of a campaign against British occupation, i.e. our war crimes good, their war crimes bad.** The next question was obvious but it wasn’t asked. The tone felt was flight: the presenter and the other panellists were relieved to return to normalisation.

* It’s at c. 14.20 and the programme is available on the RTE Radio Player: https://www.rte.ie/radio/radioplayer/rteradiowebpage.html#!rii=b9_21523166_26960_09-03-2019_

** This notion of a good war crime was advanced around the time of the 2017 murder of children in Manchester. It’s challenged briefly here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/13/isis-the-ira-and-choosing-targets/

There were two alarming pieces about decline in university standards in the The Irish Times recently.* The paper did not facilitate readers’ comments but here are some brief points that the articles ignored.

Student literacy
The decline in literacy among students is not new. I attended UCD as an adult night student in the eighties and I recall a lecturer saying to me that while he should be teaching a demanding final year elective, he was often – because he cared – working on remedial English. Now, it can seem unfair to fail a student at this level over inadequate literacy. They tend therefore to be awarded degrees. The passage of time makes it likely that today’s students have had teachers with inadequate literacy skills.

A university has no business teaching such a basic skill. In the medium term the responsibility for this teaching should be fixed firmly where it belongs. The transition from primary to secondary school involves a step into educational objectives and material that presuppose literacy. A secondary teacher of course should correct errors in written work – as many at third level have been doing for decades now. Unfortunately students progress into secondary school without it being established that they have the literacy skills for the type and level of education on offer; there is no entry requirement for secondary education.

In the short term universities should act. They must try to shed the “remedial English” workload by making high literacy a requirement for admission and testing for it.. This can be done relatively cheaply by way of a secure computer application, yielding yes/no results.

Incidentally, while these comments refer to literacy, the problem extends into numeracy, basic science and general knowledge. Indeed it can be argued that these failures make it impossible to function meaningfully as a citizen.

These thoughts are developed a little here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/pushing-remedial-teaching-higher-and-higher-risks-making-a-laughing-stock-of-irish-education/

The function of a university

There is an old and continuing debate about the proper function of a university. It centres on the question of the degree to which education should serve industrial/employment policies. These days, however, it is a debate which obscures the reality that is crippling higher education. You see, the objective of universities was changed in relatively recent years when management in the conventional sense was dislodged. Management, whose role it is to ensure that an institution achieves its objectives, has been usurped and replaced by a different leadership which has imposed their self-serving objectives on the university. That those objectives are expressed in a seemingly business focused way makes it seem as if the objective is support for employment policies and this ensures its damaging survival. This is developed here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/cui-bono-the-commercialisation-of-universities-is-more-complex-and-durable-than-many-critics-imagine/

The truth about poor degrees

There was a time in UCD when there were two distinct courses, one leading to a pass degree and the other to an honours degree. They had different examination papers. This ensured that among graduates with a pass degree were highly educated people who had achieved very high marks in their examinations. The abolition of the two courses meant that pass and honours were determined wholly by results percentages and later by grades. A forty percent score delivered a pass degree, while fifty was the threshold of third class honours. The meaning of a pass degree had changed. All of the holders were now performers in the 40 – 49% range; there were no longer highly educated people emerging with pass degrees.

This continued after the move from percentages to grades. Guidelines for grading reveal the standards and they go very, very roughly like this: a basic knowledge will get a degree; evidence of reading will get third class honours; evidence of more extensive reading will get a lower second class honours (a 2.2); creative use of the material – constructing an argument – brings the elusive and highly sought upper second honours (the 2.1); and a very fine creative performance merits a first.

Failure is down at so low a level that there are graduates emerging whom the university doesn’t want. A 2.1 degree is the entry requirement for most post graduate study. Even to get a second chance of further study by way of taking a qualifying examination requires an honours degree of some sort. While the higher education system places little or no value on a low level degree, the public at large may accept that because they are graduates these poor performers are highly educated. Moreover, degrees once awarded to weak students almost ad misericordiam now seem to be incentivised.

Bluntly, a person with basic knowledge, lacking extensive reading and without proven ability to research, formulate and argue is not highly educated and should not have a degree. Add illiteracy, poor numeracy, little or no basic science and very little general knowledge and they cannot be said to have had an education that warrants the term.

– – – – – – – –

* https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/higher-education-is-being-turned-into-an-extended-form-of-secondary-school-1.3803854
and

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/student-literacy-levels-it-is-almost-as-if-they-are-word-blind-1.3803913

 

The TV drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, gave an entertaining, accurate and worrying glimpse of the future of political communication and of democracy itself. It would be comforting to think it particularly British but it could happen anywhere. The conditions are certainly present in Ireland and the methods will be applied where and whenever possible.

A first glance can lead off into the mistaken view that this is all utterly new and a product of the net society. The reality is that today’s technology is being used to exploit something that has been ever present in democracy and feared by democrats.

The Brexit e-campaign
Before going on to talk about that old and feared weakness in democracy, lets look at what the Brexit campaigners did and which is available to any campaigner, party or candidate with the will and the money to emulate.

1. They studied the issues, fears, prejudices etc. which preyed on the minds of their target voters.
2. They distilled these feelings into a small number of slogans which connected the feelings of their targets to the political objective of their clients.
3. Knowing what their target voters wanted to hear, they told them: that delivery – or indeed their voters’ deliverance – was not only possible but crucially it was without any risk of negative consequences.
4. They achieved messaging that was close to bespoke. Using extensive data, amenable on-line voters were identified and sent simple, tailor-made messages – telling them what they wanted to hear.

In brief, this amounts to nothing more than routing quite particular, near-personal messages to voters, messages telling them that voting the client’s way will sort out their issues or whatever concerns them. Familiar? Of course it is. That’s because it’s not new. However, the delivery system and the scale of information on the targeted voters are new, i.e. there is now the web and the ability to mine it for masses of personal data.

There is, moreover, one other new feature – and it’s crucial. Opponents of democracy with deep pockets have become aware of something radical. They know that undesirable election results can be achieved by using today’s technology to exploit democracy’s oldest and most intractable flaw: the manipulation of passive citizens, their target audience. Mass manipulation has become both possible and affordable.*

The risk of tyranny inherent in democracy
Generations of democrats have worried about the dangers of passive – as opposed to participative or deliberative – voting. The march towards universal suffrage consisted of reforms allowing wider and wider participation in voting. Each enlargement was supported by democrats who saw all as equal – at least in terms of voting – and opposed by conservatives who feared what the uneducated mob or easily swayed herd might vote to implement.

As any democrat would be quick to point out, the conservative arguments were not only elitist but served to defend wealth and other privileges. However, the arguments were not dismissed as nonsense. Democrats could see the danger of huge numbers of votes cast without deliberation. John Stuart Mill for example feared the masses, feared that they might impose majority doctrines and limit liberal freedoms, might be easily swayed by and elect demagogues. Mill considered weighted voting – giving more than one vote to the educated – but eventually he placed his faith in people. He argued that the responsibility of voting would change voters, that – aware of the power of their voting decisions – they would engage, examine arguments, deliberate, come to judgement and only then vote. In other words, voting would improve them: make participative, engaged, republican citizens of them.

Fairly similar arguments appeared in recent decades when the democratic potential of the net became apparent. Net optimists felt that those deprived of the information necessary to full citizen participation would find it on-line; citizens would free themselves of the influence of demagogues, conventional wisdom and anyone who would stifle information.

Today’s demagogues and other anti-democratic chancers who want to win an election without winning an argument know full well that Mill’s faith and the hopes of net optimists have not been realised. Not only are there masses of voters – perhaps constituting a majority – ripe for manipulation but the technology exists to find and message them.

There is of course a question of law here. The e-Brexiteers certainly violated electoral laws – laws on funding – and they violated emerging norms, soon perhaps to become law, in relation to gathering and effectively selling personal data. This raises the question of whether electoral law is capable of protecting democracy from an inherent flaw which has been routinely exploited largely without criticism by virtually all parties and candidates.

The little anti-democratic attacks that became the norm
What the e-Brexiteers did differed only in scale and efficiency from conventional campaigns. Indeed, it’s likely that for a very long time now electoral success has been impossible without patronising passive voters who have no wish to be addressed with political arguments or talk of risks, priorities, alternatives, unpleasant consequences, clashes of interest etc. On the contrary, they want to be soothed, told that their problems will be solved or that sought-after resources will be delivered. Candidates know this and crave effective methods for delivering a simple, preferably local, targeted message. In Ireland cynics reduce this to the cliche, “All politics is local.”

Political campaigners use many different media. Taking a look at one of the oldest reveals it to be a small, inexpensive version of what the e-Brexiteers did so spectacularly on a huge scale. The similarity is so great that the difference is almost pathetic.

Now, very few people will admit to paying a blind bit of attention to political leaflets/pamphlets delivered into their domestic letterbox. Most regard these as junk mail and bin them on sight. This is well known and it can be hard to explain why campaigners resort to them. Explanations are offered: they’re relatively cheap; they give some level of public visibility; delivery can give loyalists and activists something to do; and crucially in a world of mass media, leaflets can be localised.

The most cursory look at leaflets reveals that they tend to have little or no political content in any meaningful sense of the term. They deliver useful public information on the likes of welfare entitlements or changes to the tax regime. They tie the candidate to the locality in two ways: pictures in the locale or with local notables at an event; and expressions of support for local campaigns for, say, a swimming pool, a library, playing field or school.

There is no intention here to open up a discussion of local political leafleting. The practice is raised merely to illustrate that patronising local, passive citizens is a mundane, accepted feature of political campaigning. That it is so accepted is telling: democracy has been reduced to numbers and the thoughtful, deliberative, participating, republican citizen has been largely forgotten. Securing a vote has become a tactical affair of showing concern for or involvement in resolving issues. Argument is not uppermost and contradicting a voter would be almost out of the question. Indeed pointing to the existence of thoughtful, republican voters risks being dismissed as elitist or “out of touch”.

Long promised comes to pass
It is hardly surprising then that when the technology and data became available to exploit the passive citizen, it would be used enthusiastically by those smart enough to realise its potential. What is surprising is that so many who ought to know about or who pretend to know about democracy express shock at a large well-executed attack on democracy while they have been unconcerned at the thousands and thousands of small but similar attacks that have been allowed to form an accepted part of the political process. What the e-Brexiteers did was waiting to happen and the ground was prepared by activists, many of whom now appear shocked and silly.

– – – – – – –
* There’s a seeming paradox here which will be left for now: the mass is accumulated by near-bespoke messaging.

The damage done to Maebh’s tomb at Knocknarea, County Sligo, is an example of what can be wrought when lack of thought has a budget.* It is an example of what passes for development and opening up access. It is a result of the belief, widespread in Ireland, that it is acceptable to destroy an existing amenity in order to build another.


Let’s be clear about Knocknarea. No one argues against the preservation of a burial cairn that has been on top of a mountain for five thousand years. It must be emphasised too that getting up there for anyone interested has never been a problem. The problem begins when someone with public money to spend and a bizarre understanding of development decides to build an easy pathway for casual walkers. A thinking person could not possibly be surprised by the outcome. Firstly, preserving the new footpath in such exposed, elevated terrain means preventing it becoming a water course and so a deep drain has been gouged down the mountainside. Secondly, the increased traffic, the messers and the vandals have and will cause damage.

What’s to be done? Well, the person with the budget and the bizarre understanding of development will further the destruction by starting their response with information and appeal signs – probably lots of them. When that doesn’t work, the signs threatening consequences for walking on or removing rocks from the cairn will appear alongside the earlier signs. When that doesn’t work, fencing will appear, most likely along with an encircling footpath.

Having reached that stage, something new will have been created, something quite unlike the very reason that people wanted to go up there in the first place: atop Knocknarea there will be signs, fences, rules – and at the centre of the mess will be Maebh’s tomb which resisted millennia of weathering and visitors but was powerless against a budget under the control of a person bent on destruction.

Incidentally, the whole mess will be topped-off when the walkers are “protected” by a further set of signs, forbidding dogs, cyclists and horses.

The conscious destruction of the existing Knocknarea amenity and its replacement is by no means unique or even rare.

23Kms of the disused Middleton to Youghal railway is to be buried under a cycle road, described in Orwellian terms as a Greenway. The ridiculous point has been made that the cycle road/greenway is designed so that the railway could be excavated should it be needed in the future! No doubt the new cycle/walking route will be advertised as travelling a disused railway. People so attracted will be disappointed to find a mere road with little or no evidence of a railway. The thing is there’s no need for a road and no need to sacrifice the existing railway amenity. Other countries make old railway lines attractive and accessible by building a pathway to one side or a boardway right down the middle of the line. Here in Cork, as at Knocknarea, the amenity – that which makes the thing attractive – is to be unnecessarily destroyed.**

Sadly, the creation of these bogus Greenways is based on a very good idea. The problem is that its implementation is half-assed (i.e. is being done with too little effort or care). The good idea is a network of roads specifically for cyclists and pedestrians. The half-assed implementation begins with a look around for handy existing routes that could be paved, tarmacked or otherwise covered over, destroyed. There seems not to be the slightest clue among the developers that the existing routes are amenities. They are not unused, vacant corridors, handy for bits of cycle-roadbuilding. They range from old railway lines to river and canal banks that are used by those who love them.

A few things need to be said. No one at all wants to deny access to a canal towpath to a cyclist on a road bike, a wheelchair user or a parent with a baby buggy. No one is predicting a lot of traffic, so a relatively narrow, shared footpath would suffice. The very reason people walk, cycle and horse-ride towpaths and river banks is not merely to get away from motorised traffic but to get away from roads – and indeed signs/notices. If the developers destroy their amenity, most will go elsewhere.

Here’s the tolerant and decent proposition: a public amenity is not to be destroyed in the creation of another public amenity.

* https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/hikers-putting-5-000-year-old-co-sligo-cairn-at-risk-1.3756379

** One of the more bizarre reasons given for the wide cycle roadway is that it has to be that wide as that is the width of the construction equipment!

RTE reported a warning from the UK’s PM, Theresa May. She put it that every MP raising the issue of another Brexit referendum “needs to consider very carefully the impact that it would have”. She said: “I believe it would lead to a significant loss of faith in our democracy. I believe it would lead many people to question the role of this House and the role of members in this House.”

She’s too late. The damage to the UK constitution has already been done by the first referendum and by its aftermath. Before the Brexit referendum parliament was sovereign. After it, even to say that parliament was sovereign invited being called a traitor.

Since then there’s been struggle and the UK parliament has failed to perform as the constitution requires. A sovereign parliament would heed the people and then decide. Today’s parliament is looking to the people (in a referendum) not for advice but for a decision.

Theresa May recognises constitutional change when she sees it and she realises the dangers for a country without a written constitution but she has presided over parliament’s decline. After the referendum parliament should have asserted its authority. Instead noisy, populist street fighters were allowed to assault with impunity the UK’s old constitution.

Paradoxically, the damage having been done, the safest course might be another referendum but it would have to be such that the alternatives are tested and it would have to deliver a decisive result. It’s a risky course but it might steady the boat for long enough to allow parliament to assume its primacy once more.

The UK might also consider a written constitution which would provide for referenda and circumscribe what they might decide. The danger is that if drift continues, constitutional change may be decided in the streets.

In every part of the world there are remains of abandoned towns – indeed, cities – whose purpose, utility, evaporated. Dotted around Ireland are the remains of tiny villages, groups of houses, which were similarly abandoned. This is to say, the decline and abandonment of human habitation is a long established phenomenon. It can certainly prompt sadness and wonder about the lives of those that lived there and of those who experienced the end and left.

These are the thoughts that can and should come to mind when considering rural decline in Ireland and particularly the closure of post offices. It can be seen as a familiar, age-old process determined by markets, technology and changes in human expectations. That is precisely the view of those advocating closures: the time has come, the criterion is commercial viability, this is natural, the way of the world.

But, this is nothing remotely like the approach taken in other situations. For the most part, the state intervenes. For good or ill, there is planning. Moreover, unlike ancient times people today don’t wander off into virgin territory and make new settlements. What we are faced with today is analogous to the choices over landscapes and the environment.

There is no wilderness in which to start again and when it comes to landscape, we are forced to choose which man-made environment and historical period is to be protected. We then go about doing so in the knowledge that it will require effort, maintenance and money. Similarly with villages, towns and societies, there can be no question of hiding behind nature, commercial viability or the market generally. Decisions have to be made about what is to be protected, preserved and that will mean – again – effort, maintenance and money.

It has become routine to select towns and regions for economic development but even if all are successful, it is hardly enough. Though liberal economics is the accepted view in Ireland and the economic argument for the closure of post offices is generally supported, it is doubtful that there is public support for closing down villages.

Closing down a village is an emotive concept which is seldom if ever faced. As shops, post offices, pubs, filling stations go, it is generally thought that something will survive; there will still be people there, perhaps in reduced numbers but there will not be an abandoned town with fallen leaves drifting and a door banging plaintively somewhere along a once happy street. This is true: Ireland is not faced with the prospect of classic ghost towns but what remains may be worse: pretend towns.

A pretend town or village appears nice to a tourist driving through but should they stop, the reality is pretty brutal. Some people clearly still live here but there is no school, no pub open, there is no post office, there is no shop, there’s nowhere to get a cup of tea. There may be no one about from whom to enquire. The people who sleep here work elsewhere, shop elsewhere, socialise elsewhere. Ah, jaysus, that newly decorated shop front across the street is a mere facade. The place has more in common with a film set than a village.

This kind of conservation has an analogue in the countryside when some will be happy with sterile green, without people, livestock, wildlife or anything that might offer more than a view.

The truth is that it is not conservation, not really. Meaningful conservation arises from a decision to keep something old and valued alive and in working order long after its commercial utility has gone. This approach is true whether it is a village, an urban area, a landscape, a locomotive, traditional breeds of farm animals, horses, poultry, game or working dogs.*

In the case of conserving a village, an uneconomic post office, pub or shop may have to be subsidised. It is not unreasonable to hope that at some stage a commercial function may reappear. For now, however, it is a question of conservation, of paying the price to keep alive something that is valued but is no longer commercially viable.

– – – – – –

* These may be of interest: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/10/25/on-wilderness-landscape-conservation-and-shooting/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/retriever-breeds-use-them-or-conserve-and-use-them/