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The RTE Primetime programme of February 9th 2017* performed a solid public service by exploding the story of the HSE’s and Tusla’s involvement in smearing the reputation of Sergeant Gerry McCabe. The programme of February 14th ** had the makings of something similar but the framing decided upon led it down a different path right through the obsessive question about a change of party leader and to the ridiculous suggestion by Paul Murphy T.D. near the end of the programme that the crucial issue is the credibility of the Taoiseach. No, no, no, the crucial issue is the operation of a system of silence operated by politicians and journalists which allows those who whisper falsehoods to remain anonymous. “Sources”, it would appear, must remain anonymous; they must remain so even years later when it is recognised that they were lying.

There would seem to be just one exception: John McGuinness, the former chairman of PAC, provided a name. He told the Dáil that he was approached before Sergeant McCabe’s PAC appearance by then Commissioner Martin Callinan who allegedly tried to discredit Sergeant McCabe.

Contrast this with Mick Wallace T.D. at c. 4 mins into the 14th Feb. programme who names people under privilege except that he withholds one name: that of a journalist spreading the smear.

Then watch Pat Rabbitte at about 21 mins. tell of being approached by a retired Garda who smeared Sergeant McCabe. Even at this stage – years later – Pat did not name the retired Garda and David McCullagh didn’t ask him.

Now go to 25 mins. and listen to John Deasy tell of being approached by a “very senior Guard” who smeared Sergeant McCabe. John did not name the senior officer and Katie Hannon didn’t ask him.

Journalists generally talk of culture and a quite comprehensive system of smearing but it would seem that just two have come out and said that there is no public benefit in keeping confidential the names of liars.***

Primetime has a team of respected journalists. It is inconceivable that they have not discussed the practice of protecting the anonymity of lying sources, the chancers who exploit for nefarious ends and undermine the accepted protection of sources.

Primetime could perform a public service by turning their attention to journalism and confidentiality generally. Right now there is a newsworthy vehicle available: the role of confidentiality in creating the current scandal whereby decent police officers were smeared.

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* http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/prime-time-30003251/10685085/

** http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/prime-time-30003251/10687165/

*** Justine McCarthy: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/name-and-shame-the-rumour-mongers-who-slurred-maurice-mccabe-sl29g5f7c

and

Colum Kenny: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/whistleblower-row-malicious-sources-have-no-right-to-protection-1.2971029

In contrast, here’s a case in which a journalist, having reported lies from Garda sources, invoked the guidelines of the National Union of Journalists in declining to reveal the identity of his sources. https://www.gardaombudsman.ie/docs/publications/Report_October2008.pdf (See in particular paras. 10 and 13.)

People are frequently asked to choose between two things neither of which they particularly like. Sensibly they think about preferences and make a decision. That’s what happened in the USA. Millions of voters preferred Trump to Clinton and the other candidates. There are commentators – and unfortunately some are leftists – who try to create not merely a bogus equivalence between two candidates but an absolute equivalence. They want to say that in choosing between Trump and Clinton, one might as well toss a coin. Well, coins weren’t tossed. Citizens thought about it and expressed their preference. Millions of them preferred Trump and there is no way of whitewashing their choice.

Don’t patronise Trump voters. They are not deluded fools, victims of a trick or even misguided. His voters prefer his views, his policies and him.

Those who reckon the result is down to Clinton’s candidacy are trying to avoid facing up to the fact that just less than half of the US citizens who voted preferred a man of this calibre. When people decide to do something truly awful, it’s best to face it.

At this late stage it may seem unforgiving to argue that membership of or support for Sinn Féin cannot be made a routine, acceptable matter. It may seem too to be dwelling in the past or indeed to be showing a preparedness to risk the peace process. However, the problem with SF is not that it is an organisation putting a criminal or military past behind it. The problem is a great deal more serious; there can be no question of tolerance for anyone or any group with a history or record of involvement in or support for crimes against humanity. The true nature of what is now whitewashed as “the armed struggle” creates a categorical difference and places SF among those parties whose 20th century horrors make their existence in the 21st century an affront to civilisation.

SF argue not merely that the IRA has ceased to exist and that they are fully committed to peace, they also argue that the terrible things which happened during the troubles or the armed struggle were typical of wars anywhere and are best forgotten, that it is time to move on. Their proposition is that a war has ended and that its participants were good people caught up in a conflict and can now return to civilian life. This is a parody which decent people will never accept.

There is, however, a moderate case that wrongdoing should be forgiven and forgotten. That can apply to all manner of offence from traffic violations, through thievery and on to murder but it cannot apply to crimes against humanity. Such crime is a category in itself; it involves not an offence against the person or the state but against everyone and against what it means to be human. It cannot be tolerated, forgiven or be wiped away by a local peace deal. Perpetrators, their commanders and facilitators must be hunted for the rest of their lives; they must know that they risk being treated like those frail, old people finally apprehended decades after the end of WW2. Their supporters must never be allowed fully to enjoy the society of ordinary people.

There is variety in the pit of horrors that faces anyone looking at crimes against humanity and war crimes but one thing stands out: the intentional targeting of civilians. Let something be absolutely clear: all combatants select targets, they make a choice. Some choose civilians. That is to say, they choose to kill civilians rather than soldiers. 

SF will say that the IRA was involved in a war of liberation, that they were fighting an army of occupation and crucially they will claim that civilians unfortunately die in all wars. Yes, civilians die in wars but when they are intentionally targeted, it is deemed a war crime, a crime against humanity.

Furthermore, the IRA campaign was not a military campaign blighted by the unfortunate deaths of civilians. Neither was it a military campaign during which war crimes were committed, crimes which dishonoured the majority of the fighting force. Rather it was a campaign in which civilians were routinely chosen as targets; the preference for civilian deaths was punctuated by military engagements.* The reality of the IRA’s armed struggle is a hideous inversion of SF’s warrior tale.

The Good Friday Agreement approved by the majority of Irish people involved among other features an end to IRA attacks in return for the Irish and UK states’ virtual amnesty for perpetrators, commanders and facilitators. It did not absolve, forgive or change the horror; it was a deal approved by citizens under duress. The IRA’s campaign remains a sordid series of crimes against humanity which was and is approved by SF. The Good Friday Agreement does not oblige any Irish citizen to join or vote for SF. Neither does it oblige any Irish citizen to engage socially with members and supporters of SF.

Well, there’s a small caveat. There is a constant low-level threat to end the “peace process”. In other words, if SF is denied what it sees as its rightful place within the establishment of a peaceful Ireland, that might lead somehow – despite the disbandment of the IRA – to renewed violence.

Their view is that SF must be successful and opposition – especially being truthful about their position in support for crimes against humanity – constitutes opposition to the peace process. Citizens are expected to accept the goblin tale of an honourable armed struggle, worthy of remembrance, even celebration. Dissent is met with anger and cries of betrayal.

SF has recruited many members, quite a few of them born after the end of IRA violence and enjoys the support of roughly 15 – 20% of voters. These people are not deluded, mistaken or intimidated. They are aware of what they are doing, they are making informed decisions, but their feigned innocence is aided by a common thread among journalists: that SF needs to break with its past by changing its leaders. It is a particularly sneaky argument which pretends that a veil of ignorance and innocence separates older from younger members. The reality is that those who might replace the current leaders joined the organisation before the killings stopped. Their present finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty, joined the year that Garda McCabe was murdered, a year in which civilians were bombed in Britain. It might then be argued that skipping a generation of potential leaders would work. However, a look at the celebrations on the election of their MEPs reveals pictures of Lynn Boylan hoisted on the shoulders of an alleged bomber. Her partner, Eoin O’Broin, is the SF spokesperson on Housing, Planning & Local Government. It is ludicrous to suggest that such people were unaware of the nature of their chosen party and do not now discuss it.

There are even younger members who, it is argued, were born years after the killings had stopped and who know nothing of the crimes. This is patronising nonsense which rests on the plainly silly suggestion that the decision to join a political party is a trivial matter, done without thought. Not so. When a young person joins a party, it is deliberate, a choice, the selection of one party from among others.

A similar range of choice faces voters of whom something in the region of 20% choose SF. It is this figure that reveals the extent of a dark stain on Irish society. A variety of evasions is offered to explain that these citizens are innocent of support for any kind of violence, never mind crimes against humanity.

It is said that at this remove from the ceasefire they know nothing of what happened or regard it as a history which should now be ignored. It is said that while they are aware of the crimes, they are voting for current policies and/or personalities, or are voting tactically against a despised government. It is argued that SF has become socialist or vaguely leftist and their relatively large support offers the possibility of a left-alliance majority government.

These are the arguments of those who despise ordinary citizens, who regard them as utterly uninformed, incapable of reasoned voting. That’s simply not true, though there are voters who may try to avoid responsibility by feigning ignorance. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of voters – including SF voters – are well aware of what they are doing.

The line that the past does not matter or matters less than current concerns merits consideration. It cannot be uncoupled from a clear look at what is being said not to matter or is being rated as relatively unimportant. Past involvement in minor transgressions or petty crime could be deemed unimportant with the passage of time. Major crime or even murder might be so regarded in some well argued circumstance. However, choosing to target civilians – crimes against humanity – time and again can never be disregarded. Similarly, when it comes to voting intentions, the very idea that such crimes could be less important than a policy or programme is abhorrent to civilised thinking.

It is time that Irish citizens paid attention to this phenomenon. Rather than pretend that it is something innocuous or some sort of misunderstanding or mistake, face it: a sizeable minority in Ireland are not overly concerned that a party with a record of support for a campaign of crimes against humanity continues to exist and/or they approve of that campaign.

There is an obligation on the rest of us to stand up for a basic point of civilisation: that the targeting of civilians is unforgivable. In this republic each citizen faces the decision of whether or not to acquiesce, to socialise without dissent with the one fifth of citizens who do not accept that point.


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* It might be pointed out that of the deaths attributed to nationalist paramilitaries the ratio of security force to civilian casualties is not as bad as the ratios for loyalists or the security forces. However, three things must be emphasised. Firstly, the numbers killed by nationalists were greater. Secondly, the people injured – often hideously so – numbered in the tens of thousands. In discussion of casualties they generally receive relatively little attention and they were overwhelmingly civilian. Thirdly, the bombings of public places which characterised the conflict were repeated instances of a choice of targeting civilians.

Forget about whatever feelings or views you might have about the Labour TD and former minister, Alan Kelly, and read the part of Miriam Lord’s piece headed, “Lowry’s secret meeting sends Kelly off rails”.* The Irish Times published this on the same day (19/11/2016) that it ran an editorial on the term “post-truth politics”. The editorial was headed, “The truth will out”.**

Now, Miriam Lord is billed as a “colour writer”. What she does when writing about Alan Kelly is that she speculates, gossips. What she doesn’t do is present a shred of evidence. The fact that she admits that she has no evidence or rather that she flaunts her lack of evidence seems to be key to avoiding a charge of lying. That what she is writing about is relatively trivial may offer another excuse.

This political gossiping – making up stories – may also figure in discussions of an earlier fashionable term, “truthiness”. However, it suggests two things. Firstly, that the Irish Times is compromised if it chooses to take a line against fake news, truthiness, post truth or media lying. Secondly, that there is nothing new in the production of fake news. It is more plausible to suggest that it has recently dawned on real and dangerous chancers that the pillars of the media world produce made-up political gossip which some citizens like and/or believe. The chancers are not fools and they see that it makes commercial sense and attracts “political” advantage to go the whole hog and let “colour writers” loose to do their stuff.

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* https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/miriam-lord-on-military-manoeuvres-at-leinster-house-1.2874018

** Prompting thoughts of the X-Files!

As an interest in wildlife conservation developed, perhaps my most important realisation was that wilderness – understood as a primordial habitat – is now vanishingly rare. What we have is man-made landscape, the product of centuries of work and exploitation. Conservation is now a question of deciding which of our created landscapes we want to maintain, what we want to re-create and what new grounds we might build. These decisions are tightly fastened to deciding the flora and fauna that we want. While there are exceptions, in most cases ignoring the land and “letting nature take its course” – a superficially attractive notion – will create wastelands. Conservation has become a matter of husbandry; it needs to be seen as an industry which is surprisingly labour intensive and expensive. It will happen by way of direct state action, state subsidy, regulation and successful, sustainable agribusiness, tourism and catering.

A component of this industry is shooting and the production/rearing of game birds. Yes, a landowner /farmer will profit from it. Yes, birds will be reared and killed for the table – not unlike any meat industry. However, what separates it from the meat industry is that it is utterly uneconomic without the relatively rich people who pay to shoot. It is their money that bridges the enormous gap between the cost of a mass produced chicken and a partially wild pheasant. That is to say, because those who shoot are prepared to pay a great deal, this form of farming is viable.*

Viability is not sufficient justification for any enterprise and a major part of the argument for supporting the shooting industry is that it is environmentally desirable. The landscape that needs to be created and maintained for shooting not only appears as pleasant and traditional but supports the kind of living diversity that has fallen victim to more recent farming methods.

Moreover, the people involved – in particular the gamekeepers but also the landowners, guns, beaters, dog handlers and others – are interested in and committed to conservation; the shooting landscape with its mix of vegetation – open field, woodland, wetland, cover – and wildlife is the environment they want not only for themselves and for anyone who will respect it but also for their children.**

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* Apart from the driven shoot discussed here, there are gun clubs doing more or less the same thing but they are not operating as a business and their labour input is voluntary.

** If you have a grá for poetry along with gundogs and shooting, this collection by my lifelong friend, Maurice Spillane, may interest you:  http://sciroccopublishing.com/our-first-poet-maurice-spillane/

 

There is talk again of re-naming the Artane Band*. Opponents say variously that the name is the band’s own business or that locals in Artane like their band. Until it admitted girls it was called the Artane Boys Band but there was never anything normal or even joyful about that band’s longer history. Its boys were picked from the children incarcerated in the Artane Industrial School which name scared most Irish children and was a byword for evil. When the band was paraded in public, everyone knew the truth behind the flags and uniforms, and everyone understood the message they carried. This is no local issue; that band has national significance. It was a contributory cause of the Irish silence in the face of child abuse.

In Ireland to this day child abusers seek to evade personal responsibility by appealing to a myth. The myth is that they operated at a time when Ireland was a cruel society in which child abuse was common if not almost universal. In other words, everyone was at it in a violent culture. The truth of course is that Ireland was never like that. Generally parents were kind and treated children well. The myth endures because its supporters manage it carefully and rely on one item of evidence: that there was silence as mass child abuse took place in primary and secondary schools and unspeakable cruelty was visited on incarcerated children.

The decent people of Ireland who would never dream of beating a child spoke among themselves of the abuse but very little was said in public because they felt that objection was pointless. Their caring decency was compelled to silence by a power that was demonstrable and the flaunting of the Artane Boys Band was emblematic. Artane was a crucial component in controlling and maintaining the mass abuse – and the Artane Boys Band signalled the power of the perpetrators.

This is how it went. The primary and secondary school abusers made light of their offences by reference to what they told their victims was done in Artane. They boasted that nothing could be done, that they were in control. Several times a year the The Artane Boys Band was paraded in front of thousands of people at the most important games in Croke Park and the Gaelic Athletic Association facilitated the display. These were great, Irish occasions, celebrations of what we were. The games were attended by church and state dignitaries together with thousands of ordinary Irish citizens, while the radio and TV audiences ran to hundreds of thousands; the occasions were then reported in the print media. Absolutely everyone knew the truth but spoke it only quietly among family and friends. Year after year the radio and TV sports commentator, Michael O’Hehir, covered the spectacle of this Irish band and its colour party leading the teams onto and around the field of play. In decades of commentary there wasn’t a word of sympathy. The worst moment of media support came late, when in 1976 RTE allowed Liam O’Murchú to present a special tribute on the programme, Trom Agus Eadrom, to the ghastly Brother Joseph O’Connor for his work on the band.

Some of the collaborators may say that they knew – even approved – of the routine abuse in the schools but that they were unaware of the horrors of Artane and its Band. They are not to be believed because it bears reiteration that the perpetrators in the schools boasted about Artane and citizens discussed it quietly. In short, every child feared ending up in Artane because they knew that it was a place very much worse than school.

The Artane Band needs to make a clean break with its hideous origins. It needs to realise too that it can never be a local or a mere band. However, it doesn’t need to abandon or ignore its roots in Artane. It needs now to change sides, to become the band whose every appearance is a rebuke to the perpetrators and an expression of solidarity with its former members and their classmates. The addition of one word would mean a lot: a national institution called The Artane Memorial Band.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/diarmaid-ferriter-artane-band-name-a-useful-reminder-1.2785741

 

 

 

Perhaps Deaglán de Bréadún cannot write completely as he pleases in his Irish Times column, ‘Synger’ – An Irishman’s Diary on Synge Street CBS in the Sixties* or perhaps he’s unaware that the Department of education had rules. Nevertheless it should be pointed out that the column reinforces a mistaken view of what was permitted in Irish schools by way of beating children. If it is said without qualification that corporal punishment was permitted in schools, the statement is so lacking as to be a virtual lie but it is a lie which protects very many brutish retired teachers and perhaps some that are still working.

The truth is that while beating a child was permissible, the Department of Education had explicitly circumscribed that permission by a set of rules which – if obeyed – would have protected children from almost all of the beatings.

In other words, the majority of these teachers were in breach of their employer’s rules and were committing criminal assaults to satisfy their own perverse ends. It is quite simply not the case that in harsh times they were doing what was permitted or what was usual in society generally. Let’s be clear: what they did was explicitly forbidden.

Prepare to be surprised. The following are rules of the Irish Dept. of Education:

Corporal punishment should be administered only for grave transgression.”

In no circumstances should corporal punishment be administered for mere failure at lessons.”

No teacher should carry about a cane or other instrument of punishment.”

Teachers should keep a copy of these rules and regulations suspended in their schoolrooms in a conspicuous place.”

The pretence that it was otherwise is an instance within the shabby practice adopted in Ireland when dealing with child abuse. The practice is to avoid personal responsibility so that the state or the culture at the time can be blamed. The state may pay damages, the Taoiseach may apologise. However, not only will the guilty never be brought to account but their ill-gotten pensions will be paid.

It is not certain that it needs to be so. There was a time when it was believed that a pension was personal property beyond the reach of the state and the only course when dealing with an ill-gotten pension was the possibility of considering it a criminal asset. Since austerity it is clear that pensions are not untouchable.

Like those still alive who committed greater crimes in residential schools and Magdalene laundries, and who rigged illegal adoptions, it is completely unacceptable that guilty national and secondary teachers should be permitted to live blamelessly on comfortable pensions.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/synger-an-irishman-s-diary-on-synge-street-cbs-in-the-sixties-1.2767159

 

We all love a redemption tale and Gerry Moriarty worked to give us just that in the story of Laurence McKeown (Irish Times, Weekend, August 13 and 14, 2016) The title reflected the project, “From gun to pen: An IRA man’s story”.* What followed was a whitewash.

There is no doubt that Laurence McKeown suffered and had the strength to turn his life around. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder; he had fired on a police Land Rover whose occupants returned fire. He also admitted to involvement in bomb attacks. Gerry Moriarty did not explore the bomb attacks but went on to tell of the horror of the blanket protest, a near-death hunger strike and the process of redemption by way of an Open University Degree, release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a Ph.D. from QUB and on to becoming a successful playwright. Researching a play, Laurence McKeown had dinner with a police officer who spoke of shovelling body parts into bags. At this point in the story Gerry Moriarty again evades the question of bombs.

You see, the bombs and body parts are the essential truth. The whitewash is the myth of a struggle against armed opponents in which unfortunately civilians occasionally died. The truth is that while armed opponents were sometimes attacked, the preferred targets were civilians; the “armed struggle” was a long, long succession of crimes against humanity. It may be possible for a person involved in, facilitating or supporting crimes against humanity to seek redemption but it’s not likely and it certainly shouldn’t be a facile process.

It is right that people should attend and discuss the plays of Laurence McKeown but no one with a shred of decency should socialise with him and no journalist with the smallest commitment to truth should so trivialise crimes against humanity as to let them pass without comment in a redemption tale.

Bluntly, when civilians are targeted, it is a crime against humanity. When a story concerns crimes against humanity, they must become the story. Anything less reveals a perverse sense of priority.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/a-former-ira-gunman-and-hunger-striker-tells-his-story-1.2754240

 “A specially commissioned Irish Times poll in 2014 revealed most people had no idea the bulk of government spending went on social welfare payments, including pensions, and public service pay. Most people believed politicians’ pay accounted for more spending than either of these items.” – http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/stephen-collins-ireland-not-immune-to-virus-that-spawned-donald-trump-s-success-1.2747037

The media, according to the author of the article, Stephen Collins, must take some responsibility for this ignorance. He’s wrong. For once the media cannot be responsible. Ignorance – no, let’s be blunt, monumental stupidity – on this scale wasn’t caused by media. The survey result suggests a spectacular and basic failure in the Irish education system.

Regularly a citizen hears it said or reported in the media something along the lines of, “If politicians weren’t paid so much, there’d be plenty of money for …” Average intelligence and slight education should prompt reaction, “Hang on, that can’t be true!”

Right, let’s admit intelligence for all. That means turning attention to education. It is unacceptable that the majority of respondents in a properly conducted survey are incapable of participation in a basic public controversy. That such mass incompetence has been found should prompt a rush to research in order to find the root of the failure.

Ok, let’s not over-react. It was one survey and its purpose was not to measure educational attainment, but it does accord with my experience as a lecturer, a consumer of media and a citizen who engages in casual conversation at bus stops.

Apart altogether from the concern that a significant number of citizens cannot participate in a public controversy, there should also be concern among those who view education as training for work. That is to say, there is little point in fussing over the proportion of students taking higher level maths in the Leaving Certificate or the general maths needs of industry, when it would seem that perhaps the majority have no grasp of numbers and quantity.

Returning to the degree of blame for public ignorance which journalists should bear, it may be that they are as much victims of a failure to educate as the citizens whose views they report. Consider the possibility that many journalists think it makes sense when someone says, “If politicians weren’t paid so much, there’d be plenty of money for …”

Most of the debate on repealing the eighth amendment accepts the pro-life position. The difference between the two sides is this:

Pro-life – There is a person present from conception with a person’s right to life for however long that might be and regardless of the circumstances of conception, i.e. there are no exceptions.

Repeal – The circumstances of rape and fatal foetal abnormality are exceptional.

The two positions are engaged in debate over exceptions and are not essentially different. This is because the repeal side refuses to engage with the core pro-life argument, that a person is present from conception, and the media on whom public discourse depends are content to let this happen.

The pro-life argument is meta-physical but shouldn’t be dismissed for that. It is easily dealt with because it is a poor argument. Now, at least some of those who make the argument are used to being treated with an inordinate amount of respect because it is assumed that arguing metaphysics requires great expertise and is hard work. This is a carefully cultivated impression. It is also uniquely accepted, while every other branch of philosophy is expected when necessary to engage with citizens who have no particular expertise.

Once we address and consider the argument that a person is present from conception, and assuming we find it implausible (There won’t be universal agreement that it is.) we can begin to examine abortion from a moral perspective.

Here are two facts:

i) No one wants to permit abortion right up to birth.

ii) No one strives officiously to find and protect the lives of all fertilised human eggs (zygots).

The moral decision lies between i and ii. It involves both banning and allowing abortion in the public interest. It is a hard decision because it necessarily means a time limit. It is a debate that can and should go on and on as we struggle to do right, to fix a time limit that, all things considered, is moral.

There is no escaping this awful decision; it is part of the human condition. Well, there is one way of escaping: accept the pro-life argument. This is not to say that those who accept the argument are evading responsibility but it is to say that acceptance rules out having to consider what should be done about unwanted pregnancies.

Addressing the pro-life (ensoulment) argument moves pregnancy by rape and viability down the public agenda. It removes much of the heat from public discourse, and there are many – not all of them working in the media – who thrive on heat.

If activists and media are unwilling or if they feel themselves incompetent to debate metaphysics, let us hope that those who will make up the forthcoming citizen assembly are treated as thinking adults capable of going to the core of the issue.

Complaints that news coverage of terrorist attacks generally fails to give much idea of context – i.e. the longer history, the grievances, the circumstances that led to the bloodshed – are by and large justified and the complaints ensure that that particular context is at least mentioned. There is, however, another context which tends to be utterly ignored. Terrorist attacks exist not only in the context of their particular struggle but also in the context of terrorism itself – i.e. its history, the many organisations, their methods, successes and failures.

In order to appreciate concerns about the neglect of context, it is necessary to mention “framing”. News is a product created by media workers and all news stories are told within a frame chosen by those workers. They might decide to relate an event as good news or as bad news. An easy example would be the reporting of increased numbers of air travellers; this could be framed as good news for the tourist industry or it could be framed as bad news for the environment. News staff decide how it will be told, framed. Looking to the audience, the citizen who wants full information in order to form a considered viewpoint wants all frames, while the citizen with little interest in public affairs would like it kept simple.

Another choice when it comes to frames is whether to relate events as isolated episodes or as events in a much larger theme. In the early 1990s Shanto Iyengar argued that for the most part news stories are presented as unconnected events – episodes – rather than as incidents best understood in a longer process or theme. This, he argues, depoliticises them – prevents their being the subject of effective political controversy.* News reduces great controversies to a series of anecdotes, e.g. the likes of inequality might be reduced to isolated stories about poverty.

So too with the reporting of terrorism, the complaint is that it is reduced to stories of carnage ripped out of their political context, or – as Iyengar would put it – episodic framing is preferred to thematic framing. The citizen with little interest in politics is served at the expense of the thoughtful, participative citizen.

Journalists, presenters, researchers, editors, producers etc. are of course well aware of the choices to be made and sometimes decide to place events in context often in a longer special report or even a current affairs programme. Almost inevitably, the choice is to place the attack or series of attacks in the context of the struggle from which they emerged. While this is an enormous service to the thoughtful citizen – one which may have commercial consequences as less interested citizens tune out – something is still missing: that other neglected context of terrorist attacks.

When media staff decide to place current attacks in context, they usually opt again for a degree of isolation that limits political discussion. That is to say, a terrorist attack or campaign is seldom considered in the context of decades of similar attacks and campaigns mounted by different groups in different countries. Recent Jihadi attacks are treated as new and unprecedented when the reality is that they are part of a recurring and developing tradition stretching back decades into the twentieth century.

This is not the place to develop a history of terrorism. Suffice it to say that adequate consideration of the latest terrorist attack or campaign of attacks depends as much on understanding their commonality with earlier attacks and campaigns as it does on understanding their particular context. Putting it more plainly but provocatively, the context to Jihadi attacks on Western civilians includes the IRA and others.

This is where it gets controversial and where something akin to censorship appears. There are people – almost certainly the majority of people – who would regard such attacks on civilians as crimes against humanity and who would want perpetrators, commanders and facilitators hunted and brought before the courts. There are also people who are selective, who think that targeting civilians is sometimes justified. Now should anyone but especially a producer of media present jihadi atrocities in the context of earlier struggles, those selective citizens will go ape. They will demand a degree of censorship; they will demand that coverage of terrorist attacks never be framed in a context which includes the killings of which they approve. It would take brave journalism to defy them.

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* During the 1980s Shanto Iyengar analysed US coverage of socio-political issues – poverty, unemployment, crime – and found that news was biased towards events rather than their context. He labelled the difference “episodic framing” as opposed to “thematic framing”. The former reduced complex issues to anecdotes and hindered public understanding of controversial issues. (Shanto Iyengar, Is Anyone Responsible?: How Television Frames Political Issues, University Of Chicago Press, 1994)

 

 

Jess Philips, a Labour member of the UK parliament has submitted a file on the misogynist abuse she’s experienced for investigation by her party.* Here in Ireland I watched on-line as Joan Burton, Labour T.D., former Labour Senator, Lorraine Higgins and others were subjected to the same kind of depraved comment.

A surprising feature of this is the extent to which it seems to come from the political left and is seldom addressed or disowned by leftists. When I’ve challenged it on-line and when I’ve asked ostensible leftists why they stand with it, the routine reply is that it is “understandable” by reference to what the targets are said to have done wrong in their political careers or what they’ve said by way of disagreement with a particular left organisation. In other words, the message to supporters is that anyone we oppose may be maligned without let or hindrance.

It is too easy and probably untrue to see this as political skulduggery which at once directs obscene pressure on to political opponents while keeping the support of even the most vile degenerate. A more likely explanation is a basic theoretical failure: some leftists have come to confuse anti-establishment with socialism.

Leftists – other than revolutionaries – must realise that parts of the establishment have to be defended; they were hard won in the first place. The expectation that political controversy will be conducted in a decent, respectful and truthful manner is a component of the establishment. Its rejection along with expertise, education and even parliamentary democracy is no small matter and is incompatible with a progressive stance of any kind.

It might be argued that “the establishment” refers to people but that’s not at all plausible. Office holders like members of parliament or union officials are selectively seen as establishment or anti-establishment. Their categorisation is not a matter of office or personality but of their political views.

The establishment indeed contains laws, conventions, practices and some of those are basic to the conduct of politics and decent behaviour but they are vulnerable and prone to attack. Socialism must always oppose barbarism whether it is found within the establishment or the anti-establishment.

_______________________________
* http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/jess-phillips-submitted-96-pages-of-abuse-to-labour-investigation_uk_578cb8dde4b0daae46fc2579?edition=uk&utm_hp_ref=uk&

In the matter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour Party, there are two distinct issues. One is crushingly obvious and should be boring but it excites media. The other is great and ignored. One is the need for ordinary – even collegiate – leadership and management within the parliamentary party. The other is coming to a decision about the nature of the party.

It is untenable that the party leader in any party be opposed by a significant minority of their parliamentary party. It is plain daft to continue when opposed by the majority. Either the leader goes, their opponents go, or one so changes as to placate the other side. Appeals to party unity just aren’t enough because it’s not a matter of one decision. It’s a matter of working together day after day – for years.

Party Leader is a difficult institution. Leaving aside more thoughtful considerations, the leader is the party figurehead for both the party generally and for its parliamentarians, and must enjoy the confidence of both.

There was a time when members played no role in electing a party leader. In recognition of their membership and in a spirit of democracy many parties changed. They developed different ways of selecting their leaders but always to prevent two outcomes: i) A leader popular with parliamentary colleagues but opposed by the wider party; and ii) A leader popular with the members but unacceptable to parliamentary colleagues. Now, it might be argued that all members are equal and that a parliamentarian should have no special role in selecting a leader. This refuses to accept that those working closely with the leader have a special interest or that that interest should simply be disregarded. In short, it is deaf to a parliamentarian’s plea, “Jaysus, we have to work closely with this person day in, day out. We must have some say.”

The UK Labour Party led by Ed Miliband devised a system of one member, one vote while effectively giving the parliamentary party a veto. Nomination for leadership is the preserve of the PLP and then the members vote for their preferred candidate. The idea is that members of parliament would hardly nominate someone whom they didn’t generally support. However, that is exactly what they did in nominating Jeremy Corbyn – while explaining that they did it to encourage contest and debate.

His election was assured by another development. Ed Miliband and co. made party membership inexpensive and undemanding. Registered supporters pay a fee of £3 and are entitled to vote for a leader. Members of long standing were lost in a huge throng of new arrivals. To complicate matters the new people are predominantly affluent and urban; they are middle class in the sense that pollsters use that term and unlike the constituents with whom the majority of Labour MPs would identify.*

Interestingly, the profile of the new member is a good match for that of a remain voter in the Brexit referendum, while the “heartland” Labour voter is a good match for a leave voter. Clearly the composition of the party and its relationship with voters is far more complex than is often presented.

Turning to the more basic question of the nature of the Labour Party, there was a time when the fundamental division on the left was between revolutionaries and those who chose parliamentary democracy. As more and more leftists abandon revolution and the nature of exploitation changes – at least in the West – a new division is apparent between those who remain with parliamentary democracy and those who see parliament as part of a wider struggle in which activism, street politics and pressure on the establishment is more important.

This is not the place to offer a critique; the point here is merely to emphasise that the two components of leftism are markedly different and cannot be reduced to policy differences, to “Corbynistas” versus “Blairites” or to “real socialists” versus “Tory-lite”. While it may be presented as a struggle for the “soul of Labour” or who represents true Labour values or who is more in touch with the people, the division is more basic. It’s about how the left should operate. It’s about parliament.

For this reason the best course now might be for Labour to split. Of course there are many arguments against that. It will be characterised as a split over policy or some tawdry question of the “electability” of Jeremy Corbyn. However, in time – most of it being out of majority or left-led government – the two approaches can contend openly in public rather than pretending that this is a mere squabble within a party.**

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* http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/01/how-middle-class-are-labour-s-new-members

** In Ireland where the left is much smaller this essential difference focusses not on a split but on whether the tiny Labour Party should follow the other left parties into protest, pressure and campaigns or should adopt a more socialist position by opting exclusively for parliament. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/time-for-labour-to-think-before-taking-the-familiar-path/

At the heart of all the fretting over populism there is a dispute about the essential meaning of citizenship. Populism is often defended by reference to its root, populus, and presented as ordinary people taking control. The reality is that the last thing on earth that a supporter of populism wants is control over their own or the affairs of the republic; they are passive citizens. When thinking people complain of the lies and simplicities which fuel populist campaigns, they fail to appreciate that this content is not directed at them. They are irrelevant onlookers to a play for the support of fellow citizens who have a fundamentally different outlook. Crucially it is journalists who ensure that content reaches its intended target.

You see, one view of citizenship pays little or no heed to meaningful participation – to deliberation – and cedes thinking to an elite. Because adherents complain about elites (variously labelled the establishment, the government or the political class) a fake anti-authoritarian image can appear; in truth it is more like petulant but dependent children complaining about their parents. It is a view that reduces citizenship to a desire to be well managed or led by a patriarchy which the dependent, passive citizen hopes will be benign.* There is competition then for the support of these citizens.

Competition for the votes of such citizens is characterised by political communication which plays down, ignores or lies about risk. The most recent example is Brexit. Passive citizens were told that they could leave the EU without fear of adverse consequences. They could have been asked to assess the risks and decide on balance what would be best but that would not have served them. It would have made them unhappy and prompted cries for “leadership”.

The first Syriza election win in Greece was another example. Frightened citizens were told that everything would be fine, that they could be delivered unproblematically from austerity. It turns out that a whole swathe of the coalition that was Syriza was fully aware of the risks, were talking among themselves about the Drachma and an isolated fresh start but they stayed quiet rather than perturb the simplicity.

In Ireland we are burdened with the same authoritarian nonsense. When our entirely predictable property crash finally arrived, citizens who would prefer to be untroubled by risk assessment were offered a wide choice of potential parents. All said that there was an easy way out of austerity, that a country in desperate need of loans to pay welfare and state salaries could refuse to accept the conditions imposed by its one remaining lender and that there would be no adverse consequence.

It is difficult to imagine a political controversy which does not involve the consideration of consequences, of advantages for some and disadvantages for others. However, the idea that a controversy over matters as large as the above could be presented by anyone as having small or few consequences is not merely absurd. It is an authoritarian gambit.

The citizen who doesn’t want to be troubled with participation, argument, evaluation, judgement is a willing target for the authoritarian who will reassure, will relieve them of meaningful citizenship by offering leadership. This is the authoritarian who tells them not to worry, that nothing bad will happen, who talks in terms of being in touch with the people, who will likely even try to identify as anti-establishment. Crucially, complex argument and possible consequences will be dismissed as “scaremongering”, while expertise will be spurned as “establishment”.

Familiar? Of course it’s familiar; it’s the parody of political discourse that has become not merely acceptable but normal. If you are not a citizen in need of a leader but one who wants to participate in the affairs of the republic, wants to have all the information and arguments in order to discuss what matters before coming to your decision, you may wonder how the repeated lies and simplicities could gather supporters. You may even have a haughty disdain for your fellow citizens, questioning their intelligence. The reality is that many citizens seek soothing codology because they prefer a quiet life. Moreover, the populist leader knows this and has no intention of wasting time in addressing the republican citizen. Indeed, there is no need to do so because the number of passive citizens is sufficient for success at the polls and may constitute a majority, even a large majority

There’s nothing new about concern over citizen passivity. It has a track record from before J.S. Mill’s fear of the herd, through the Frankfurt Marxists, on even into music with Roger Waters *, inspired by Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and on it goes. In short, it’s a staple in theorising about democracy and the nature of citizenship. **

Finally, where do journalists come into this? Well, they have a problem and a decision to make: they cannot at the same time serve the republican citizen while holding the passive citizen’s attention or serve the passive citizen without dismissing the needs of the republican citizen. Generally they stay out of trouble by covering everything in a fair, objective, impartial way and that’s one reason why public discourse and republican participation are threatened.

 

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* A note to leftists who might be tempted to lead populism: The citizen who wants to be patronised is working class only in the way that the term is used by pollsters.

** https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsspXqCe4kI

*** http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/citizenship/

Far too many in the Labour Party are behaving like football supporters whose team has fallen on hard times. They want to revitalise, fund raise, put new structures in place, re-establish rapport with the traditional fan base, put the club firmly under the control of ordinary members etc. The purpose being to return their team to at least a mid-table position in the Big League.

For a smaller group of members this won’t do. They didn’t join the Party to play the game; they wanted to change the game. They still see this as the Party’s very purpose.

 

The game and left conservatism

The Irish structure of wealth, inequality of income and privilege is secured by a vibrant, healthy, system of support. Perhaps uniquely the Irish system has neutralised opposition to privilege and economic inequality by accommodating almost all dissent within a safe mechanism which paradoxically allows anyone who so desires to pose as anti-establishment. It’s certainly not new; the Fianna Fáil way – inherited from the early Sinn Féin – has been to insinuate themselves into local and civil society organisations in order to bring pressure on government or the establishment on behalf of “ordinary people”. In this way the most powerful political party historically in Ireland and having governed for the greater part of the state’s history, can pose as anti-establishment.

The conservative mechanism operates firstly by way of “cargo politics” in which candidates are elected to deliver public resources to a local area at the expense of other areas, and secondly – more importantly, here – by way of similarly competing civil society and pressure groups. Journalists can be more or less anti-establishment by favouring praiseworthy pressure groups, while the most admired political activists are similarly attached. Meanwhile, any citizen no matter how rich, well-connected or conservative can be anti-establishment by calling for more resources for a deprived group.

The “establishment” is variously the “government” or the “political class” and it reacts to the shifting pressures by giving a bit here and a bit there. Public discussion of contending political values, never mind rival versions of a good society, is vanishingly rare. Indeed discussion of priorities for state spending is prevented by hearing all claimants equally and accepting a fairness doctrine which dictates that no one either gains or loses a great deal. There are small, occasional changes determined by “public pressure” but overall the structure of economic relativities is maintained.

Political parties within this system tend not to offer a universal argument but vie to represent sectional interests, i.e. to be their voice against the establishment. Much of the left is more than implicated; it is comfortably part of the system. Class, if mentioned at all, is no longer concerned with values, revolution or even reform. The working class no longer has universal significance or a historic role. Having deserted a Marxist perspective in favour of accepting class as a polling category, leftists have reduced working class to a mere pressure group. The working-class as pressure group has interests which can be represented and left parties tussle to be their champion, to lead them in the competition to secure favours from variously the government, establishment or political class. Gino Kenny, a leftist T.D. (member of parliament) for Dublin Mid-West, went so far as to say that his role is that of a union shop steward representing his working class constituents in their dealings with the establishment.

 

The conservative path or the left path

Labour – especially in opposition – can join this and all the indications are that this is the intent; most members seem relieved and pleased to return to campaigning “on the ground”, representing “our natural” support base. Thus Labour can slot comfortably in among all of the other parties and seek to lead/represent groups seeking preferment.

In stark terms, Labour is thoughtlessly sauntering onto the inviting path to left conservatism, joining those who help maintain the structure of economic inequality by representing parts of it in pursuit of concessions.

There is a different path: become the one party of opposition in Ireland – opposition to the generally accepted structure of economic inequality and privilege. This will mean a break with Labour traditions because it will mean a stated intention to lower the height of the economic pyramid rather than defending the relative advantages of all but the distantly safe one percent.

On this path Labour would leave the club of parties who talk in terms of fairness. In contrast Labour would talk in terms of income, of reducing the shameful – no, ludicrous – gap between the minimum (or if preferred, the living or industrial) wage and the top 10%. All policy and reactions to current controversies would be formed with reference to the Party’s objective. Labour’s party spokespersons operating within their remit would know that the party had an overall objective and that their policy development and public comments were to serve it.

Moreover, any liberal or conservative party seeking Labour support in government or participation in coalition would know in advance that the price was measurable structural change.

Taking this path would mean unpopularity and withering attacks from the well off but it would also mean that all actions and statements had to be coherent and plausible – and this would change Irish politics for this reason: It’s essentially about leaving the passive approach to representation and addressing those citizens who demand to be truly republican, i.e. who are amenable to and wish to participate in argument.

Why then would anyone want to go in such a difficult direction? The answer is that there are people within the Party and in society generally who want not revolution but meaningful, measurable, visible change and who see no point in Labour at a crossroads deciding to march with everyone else.

You’ve come across it many times in the media: a journalist or interviewer full of admiration for the principled socialist and full of hostility for the socialist in government who has made compromises.

The objective of the conservative or liberal journalist is to help prevent left wing reforms. This journalist, faced with a compromised socialist – usually one in a position of power to make a reform or to withstand the pressure to impose market solutions – and working in a media climate of tender feeling towards the harmless idealist, sees a smart, attractive and ultimately dishonest approach: use the idealist to discredit the real threat.

 

METHOD

The trick is to portray leftist reformers and reforms as at best lacking integrity and at worst a complete betrayal.

i) Make the harmless the ideal

This is done by presenting an uncompromising socialist as morally superior and absolutely incorruptible by virtue of being true to his or her principles.

ii) Get a leftist to do conservative and liberal dirty work

Set up the uncompromising (“principled”) socialist to attack reform-minded socialists as apostates who have sold out.

iii) Make left failure a virtue

Present years of fruitless, uncompromising talk as self-sacrificing success.

 

Looks like everyone is a winner … well, yes, apart from socialists and those who would benefit from their reforms. The right wing journalist and their privileged audience get to show how much they approve of socialist principles – if only they weren’t so impractical! The “principled” socialist gets to reassure everyone that revolution is out of the question and in return gets public recognition and appreciation, and encouragement to remain pure in their anti-establishment.

We were discussing the YouTube material posted by activists opposed to water charges. I opened my laptop to show some videos in support of a point that I was making. Having viewed a number of these videos, my companion said something which made me sit up and pay attention:

Karl Marx must have been out of his mind.”

What?”

He pointed at the screen, “Marx must have been out of his mind if he imagined that lot would change the world.”

What do you mean?”

Would you look at them and their antics, the working class. Either he was mad or taking the piss.”

It looked bad for Marx, the crude abuse, the chanting, the provocation, the ridiculous attempts to feign injury.

He wasn’t talking about them”, I heard myself say fractionally before I realised that in this company a cogent response would be expected rather than a glib and hazy denial.

Ok here goes. It’s about “teleology”, an interesting word and a fascinating concept in history and for politics. The Greek “telos” translates as “end” and in teleology we have the idea that human history is progressing towards some ideal or developed end. Thus a person – a king, a general or the likes – or a group taking action can be seen as doing history’s work, pushing society towards its purpose. The important figure in this way of thinking is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and Karl Marx was his student.

Now when Marx writes that all history of hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle, it follows that some class must be doing history’s work by being progressive and others not. In an industrial capitalist society he saw an historic role for the working class: to secure comfort in food, drink, shelter and clothing before moving on to pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc. (This is more Engels than Marx but never mind.)

It is more common today to talk in terms of belonging to a socio-economic grouping defined by reference to a person’s occupation or that of a parent/guardian. These are the categories (11 in all, according to the Irish Central Statistics Office) familiarly used by pollsters and denoted A to J inclusive plus Z.* Unfortunately for the plausibility of left argument the lettered labels are often abandoned and one or a group of these categories is described as working class. This leaves “working class” open for anyone to define not in terms of historic purpose but in terms of categories devised for statistical research.

Once “working class” has been detached from its Marxist significance, anything goes. Any group can be said to be working class and any demand expressed by members of that group can be regarded as progressive.

It becomes worse when aggression or an aggressive pose strikes a nostalgic chord, a reminder of abandoned revolutionary ambitions. The scene is now set for socialists to praise and support reactionaries who should be resisted, to ignore the views of citizens who proudly consider themselves working class by reference to their culture and values, and who are likely appalled by the demeanour of some activists seen as crude, foul-mouthed, overly aggressive, intolerant and inane.

So, no, Karl Marx wasn’t out of his mind. For him and for those of us privileged to have been reared working class it means a lot.

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*

A – Employers & Managers

B – Higher Professional

C – Lower Professional

D – Non Manual

E – Manual Skilled

F – Semi-skilled Manual Workers

G – Unskilled Manual Workers

H – Own Account Workers

I – Farmers

J – Agricultural workers

Z – All other gainfully occupied

The 2016 general election in Ireland saw the two largest political parties (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil) share a combined vote of less than 50% and the Labour Party reduced to a small wounded cadre of seven parliamentarians. The conventional interpretation of this outcome is that there has been a leftward shift in overall Irish political sentiment which has made the Labour Party at best a mild left irrelevance and at worst a party of poseurs when compared to the emergent “real left”.

There is a possibility that the Labour Party in its weakened state will accept this established account and move simplistically to compete within rather than challenge the orthodox view. From a socialist perspective the problem with the orthodoxy is that increasingly the left in Ireland is implicated in a stable, conservative system of competing interest groups. It is important, therefore, that the Labour Party take time to think about the nature and complexity of this system with a view to confronting it rather than cutting a dash within it.

Despite their relatively small size a great deal of attention focusses on the “real left” or “socialist left” parties who refuse to countenance any form of support for a government which includes “right wing parties”, never mind entering into coalition government. When parliamentarians elected under the AAA/PBP* banner are asked if they are involved merely in protest rather than wishing to govern, the interviewer is failing to grasp the significance of what is happening. On the one hand these leftists are stating their traditional opposition to liberal parliamentary democracy – a position based in long standing theory – but on the other hand they are stating their role within the system. Now, while there is no possibility that Labour will join their tradition or at this stage find that theory plausible, there is a real risk that a demoralised and tiny Labour Party will thoughtlessly emulate their activism.

The quagmire into which Labour could very easily disappear is made of “grass roots”, “traditional support base”, “founding principles”, “the people we represent”. “listening to our members” etc. To survive Labour must look hard at the tempting system which has so developed to protect privilege that it easily accommodates dissent, anti-establishment and traditional revolutionaries. To survive and more importantly to keep alive the socialist minority in Ireland Labour must decide to turn away from the community service which most members crave and instead address the Demos – the masses – though the rest of the left opt for competing pressure groups.

***

Perhaps uniquely Ireland has neutralised opposition to privilege and economic inequality by accommodating almost all dissent within a safe mechanism paradoxically seen as anti-establishment. It’s certainly not new; the Fianna Fáil way – inherited from the early Sinn Féin – has been to insinuate themselves into local and civil society organisations in order to bring pressure on government or the establishment. In this way the most powerful political party historically in Ireland and having been in government for 61 of the past 84 years, can pose as anti-establishment. The mechanism operates by way of “cargo politics” in which candidates are elected to deliver public resources to a local area at the expense of other areas, and – more importantly here – by way of similarly competing civil society and pressure groups. Journalists can be more or less anti-establishment by favouring praiseworthy pressure groups, while the most admired political activists are similarly attached. Meanwhile, any citizen no matter how rich, well-connected or conservative can be anti-establishment by calling for more resources for a deprived group.

The “establishment” is variously the “government” or the “political class” and it reacts to the shifting pressures by giving a bit here and a bit there. Public discussion of contending political values, never mind rival versions of a good society, is vanishingly rare. Indeed discussion of priorities for state spending is prevented by hearing all claimants equally and accepting a fairness doctrine which dictates that no one either gains or loses a great deal. There are small, occasional changes determined by “public pressure” but overall the structure of economic relativities is maintained.

***

Now, the left would reject this characterisation of establishment and anti-establishment. They would see themselves as real anti-establishment but they would make this point while they move further and further, and more prominently into the stabilising or conservative, anti-establishment mechanism. There are three linked features of this move which – though they have a familiar radical veneer – illustrate the extent of left conservatism.

i) Class reduced to mere interest group

Unfortunately it’s becoming rare to hear socialists mention class. This has lead to the term functioning merely as an affiliation signal. Credibility among some leftists depends on stating explicitly that society is class based but there is little requirement beyond using the word. The kind of Marxist analysis which sought to define working class by attributes and then to calculate possible numbers has been replaced by acceptance of the class categories used by pollsters. This has led to the neglect of working class values, abandonment of the universal significance of the working class and acceptance of the working class as no more than a relatively deprived social bracket, i.e. a large pressure group demanding concessions from the government, political class or establishment.

ii) Representing and defending communities

The increasing emphasis on marking out territory is a further drift away from a meaningful view of class. The notion of deprived housing estates in revolt, besieged by the establishment and in need of defence is attractive to activists and has recent roots in the experience of Northern Ireland where territories were marked out for defence by one side or the other. There is now competition to establish exclusive political leadership within geographic areas identified as “working class estates”. It is common for activists from other areas to move to “defend” these estates.

It is nonsense of course. These housing estates are long established, comprised of family homes and are an integral part of society. The notion that – because they are relatively deprived and troubled – they are attacked by the state and its workers, and are no-go areas for unapproved political canvassers and politicians is a gross imposition. Moreover, it is an authoritarian affront to residents to suggest that they need leadership, particularly from outsiders with a more privileged background.**

iii) Favouring the street over parliament

In theory and in sentiment the sight of workers marching and organising in defiance of capitalist rule and the oppressive state apparatus is vital to the revolutionary left. In theory they should be marching for something which cannot be conceded and thus hastening the final crisis of capitalism. In this view the determinants of change are people in the streets and not representatives in parliament whose role is the secondary one of agitating within the foremost institution of liberal democracy.

Because it is now so clearly implausible, understanding the sentimental attachment to this tradition is easier than understanding the endurance of its place in left theory. Senior police officers routinely say that the force not only accepts protest but will facilitate it and it is odd that this seldom prompts doubt among those committed to street protest. However, some leftists do see the problem and distinguish between protest and effective protest. The former has been institutionalised to the extent that it is now quasi constitutional. Its primary function is that of a lightning rod which runs dissent safely to earth. An older safety metaphor might be preferred: it let’s off steam. Its other function is to display numbers. That’s why after a protest march there is inevitably dispute over attendance; the larger the attendance, the greater the pressure for a concession. (RTE, the national broadcaster, now reports estimated attendances as rival claims and leaves citizens to judge numbers from the TV pictures.)

The latter – effective protest – in reality isn’t protest as conventionally understood. It is political action aimed at some immediate end, usually preventing something happening, e.g. installation of water meters or the holding of a meeting. In seeking publicity it clearly has a genuine communication component extending beyond the ritual chanting of “peaceful protest”. However, it is also clear that while thousands are prepared to attend a “respectable” march, only a small number involve themselves in “effective protest”. In short, the masses accept the quasi-constitutional protest but reject direct action.

From a socialist perspective these trends have little or no reformative – never mind transformative – value and are fatally unconvincing to potential supporters. The working class is properly characterised by – among other things – admirable and universal values, not support for concessions from rulers. Its reduction to an interest group to be served, patronised, organised or led is an affront to the citizens concerned and to socialism. Moreover, the citizen who is likely to support either a socialist alternative or a somewhat more equal society can see the yawning chasm between sectarian chanting and a plausible argument.

***

The Labour Party is in more than enough trouble now. It is vital for two reasons that it is not sucked deeper into the conservative system of issues, competing demands and policies determined by focus-group research into interests. Firstly, while they come from very different traditions, every other party is serving and supportive of that system and there’s not much point in Labour joining that competition. Secondly and more importantly, there is a role for Labour in opposing the conservative system of cargo politics and competing interest groups.

There is no way of knowing the electoral consequences of Labour making a break with tradition and directly disputing the views of the majority. Indeed, there are no data on what binds the relatively stable minority of people who vote Labour. This essay assumes a significant minority of citizens who are really – as opposed to apparently – opposed to the observable, established system and are well disposed to hearing a political argument rather than mere contending pleas for preferment – pleas addressed to rulers carelessly referred to as the government, the establishment or the political class.

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* The most prominent components of this alliance are the Socialist Workers Party marketed as People Before Profit and the old Militant Tendency relaunched as The Socialist Party after expulsion from The Labour Party. Its more complex alliances can be found here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People_Before_Profit_Alliance

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Austerity_Alliance%E2%80%93People_Before_Profit

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/the-anti-austerity-alliance-and-people-before-profit-1.2520628

** Counter establishment

Ruling a working class estate reflects a history in Ireland that has had some success. The idea is to make the state illegitimate or powerless and to usurp its functions in serving the people. This is what Sinn Féin did during the War of Independence; while making areas ungovernable or taking control, they established a parliament and a law enforcement system. The approach reappeared in the Provisional SF/IRA campaign in Northern Ireland when the UK state ceased to function in quite a few areas (Security forces could enter only by force of arms.) and in the Republic when the role of An Garda was usurped in tackling drug dealers. It was in evidence again in the details of enquiries and kangaroo courts addressing sex abusers in the ranks of SF/IRA and in the alternative celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

 

 

Ireland is a small component part of western liberal democracy. For that reason it shares current concerns about the direction or the very future of democracy. However, its dominant political model uncannily prefigures the emergent model in other countries.

A number of theorists are convinced that the kind of liberal democracy that has existed for the last century or so has arrived at an existential crisis. It is argued that democracy is in the throes of change in order to accommodate a near universal disdain for politics with citizens and politicians sharing what Peter Mair has called an ‘anti-political sentiment’.* The term refers to the abandonment of any kind of universal objective and the decline of traditional forms of parties which represented such objectives. This is nothing less than the replacement of the demos with shifting civil society groups and alliances, together with “rational” or “practical” approaches to policy – doing whatever works without recourse to divisive debate about values or long-term objectives.

Ireland, it will be recalled, during the lberal-democratic century was never typical. Ireland preferred a system which heaped disdain on politics, universal values and ideas – and this was long before other countries arrived at this juncture. Such considerations were seen as “intellectual” (frequently a term of abuse in Ireland) and unnecessarily divisive when compared to “pragmatic” policies. Ireland, for so long seen as unlike other countries in which left and right clashed over political values, now finds itself in the post-political mainstream: an example of a system without need of discursive politics in any meaningful sense of the term. It might indeed be possible to say without laughing that western liberal democracy is tending towards the traditional Irish model!

That model sees a ruling “political class” faced by pressure groups with attendant activists who demand concessions. It is a stable, conservative system in which the best supported civil society or interest groups are favoured over their rivals. There is no question of debating social priorities, never mind political values or contending visions of a good society.

The media play two roles. The most prominent one is publicising the various claimants and helping to decide which will receive favour and to what extent. Their second role is less obvious. It involves presenting the political model as common sense, as “realism” or the way the world works. Their presentation places the model beyond criticism, and certainly outside of the accepted realm of political controversy. In short, media relentlessly promote this singular view without the slightest thought that it could be challenged, never mind that it ought to be “balanced” by a different perspective. **

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* Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy by Peter Mair, Verso, June 2013, ISBN 978 1 84467 324 7

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/conservative-journalism-and-the-victims-of-austerity/

 

 

A citizen has just one vote. The voter expresses preferences by using the ballot paper to instruct the returning officer as to what to do with that one vote. The number 1 says, “That’s my preferred candidate”. The number 2 says, “If my no. 1 cannot be elected or doesn’t need my vote, then give it to number 2.” And so it goes.

At every election some fool will argue that later preferences are to be opposed for fear of electing candidates a voter might oppose. That’s simply not true.

If a voter has expressed preferences for a small list of desired candidates and then has absolutely no preference as to which of the remaining are elected, then it makes sense to stop. However, the application of a little thought might reveal some preference as between the remaining candidates, e.g. a voter might prefer a woman over a man from the same party or a candidate who has expressed a mildly different view from the others remaining.

Moreover, if the voter really has no preference whatsoever between the remaining candidates and stops at, say, number 3, that voter has no further effect on the outcome either to oppose or to elect someone from the remaining candidates. They simply say to the returning officer, “I don’t care beyond my number 3. At that stage count me out.”

Say there are eighteen candidates. Sensible advice to the voter would be as follows. Give your 1st preference to the candidate you most want elected. Give the candidate you least want elected your number 18. Now list the remainder from 2 to 17. It might be hard to decide between some of your lower preferences but at least you can say that you prefer them more than number 18!