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“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.

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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.*

 

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* 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.

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*  “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.

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* 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.

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* 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 by lack of thought and 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.

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* 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/

Maurice McCabe wasn’t always a hero. At the start – before his saga began – he was an ordinary person behaving with an ordinary level of integrity. He became a hero by persisting when his managers, colleagues and even friends opposed basic integrity. This prompts a question that should not be avoided: What is to be done about those who are opposed to integrity?

To begin with, there is quite a difference between the relatively passive sleveens who did not support him and those who did wrong in order to damage him.

Some offenders have retired on pensions far greater than his. It is frequently argued that pensions cannot be withheld or reduced. The justification for this line of argument can be that it would be wrong to make pensions subject to a career performance review on retirement. Yes, that would be wrong but there is no question of looking at mere performance in the job. Equally there should be no question of routine pension payment when actual, conscious wrongdoing has been discovered.*

Another line is that a pension is an entitlement or is owned by the retiree and beyond the possibility of review. During the economic bust, pensions were reduced, indicating that they are not sacrosanct. However, even if they were utterly untouchable, that is not a situation that the state can allow to continue for the very simple and compelling reason that it saps the morale of the nation. Bluntly, a way must be found to prevent wrongdoers retiring with a full pension – sometimes an outrageously large pension.

The Gardaí who posted threatening and hurtful social media material directed at M.McC were active wrongdoers and should be dismissed but they seem to have been outnumbered by the sleveens who lacked the integrity explicitly to support him. Even colleagues and friends turned away. While it is very doubtful that there is any place for such people in public service, the notion that they might be promoted is deplorable; they are “the wrong stuff”. **

Ireland has history when it comes to tolerating proven lack of integrity. The banking scandals saw a handful of jailings but nothing was done about those who sat meekly at meetings and failed to utter a word of opposition to the mad nonsense. Indeed bank managers who competed with their own customers for investment loans kept their jobs. This time it’s more important and it would be a shoddy outcome if An Garda took the same course as the banks. It may be that whistle-blower legislation needs to be changed because it can have no long term effect if the sleveens remain secure. ***

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* The RTE documentaries point to three officers and a number of lower ranked Gardai as active wrongdoers.

** In another blog I have argued that demonstrable integrity should be a formal criterion for promotion.

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/in-recruitment-banking-an-garda-etc-what-is-valued-integrity-or-the-lack-of-it/

*** Here’s an expansion on the requirement to deal with the silent chancers: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/03/03/if-we-are-serious-about-whistle-blowing-we-have-to-talk-about-the-chancers-who-say-nothing/

It is interesting and revealing that journalists are complaining about how poor the debate was during the Presidential election campaign. With some exceptions, they speak as if journalism had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

The televised debates illustrate the fissure between journalism and those citizens who rely on media to deliver meaningful public debate. The questions put to the candidates on TV were deliberate, the result of thoughtful, editorial selection. If the debate was trivial, failing to deliver for participative citizens, that was determined by the questions. It could have been otherwise but that would have involved different editorial judgement and decisions.

The questions chosen reflected the campaign, referring to the news stories that had dominated. This is in keeping with the most prominent view of what journalism is about. It is a part of being dispassionate, neutral: “We don’t make the news; we simply report it.”

Let’s consider the “question” or the questionable proposition that occupied most time: That the President is variously a millionaire, a money-grabbing man who chooses to stay in fabulous hotels and travel by government jet, that he is a landlord whose property had been upgraded at state expense, that thousands were spent by the state on having his dogs groomed, that he is utterly out of touch with reality and can’t see how his extravagance appears, that he is not to be believed in attempting to address these charges etc. etc.

Clearly this was not worth the time devoted to it. At best it was hyperbolised gossip and at worst a smear, spreading accusations of corruption against a person who in a fifty year career in public service had not heretofore attracted a hint of scandal. More importantly, yes, it was incredible but it was news. It was “true” because someone really had made the allegations. Seeing a very popular President struggle to fend off allegations might make for “good” television and if it damaged his reputation and “opened up the race”, that would be a show-biz bonus. Indeed, someone with a perverse grasp of the concept could see it as a bonus for democracy.

It might be argued from principle that everything including the accusations had to be allowed rather than censored. However, the final RTE TV debate did not operate to that principle; in an effete show of outrage, the presenter/moderator came down heavily on the explicit use of the word “liar”. In effect the situation was that anything goes as long as it’s done politely. As Joan Freeman might have phrased her frequently repeated lie, “With all due respect, a hUachtarán, you – like the three dragons – are a millionaire.” She could do this because like the others she was confident that the presenter would side with news over truth.

The dominance of news is an old problem for mass political communication and this is not the place to explore it. Suffice it to say, that not everyone wants to engage thoughtfully with politics and serving those who do will very likely reduce audience numbers.

However, it would be a waste to let this occasion of unusually widespread dissatisfaction slip by without discussion of what is actually required of political journalism and broadcast politics in particular. At the very least the editors who decided on the questions owe the citizens an explanation as to whom they thought they were serving and what service was being offered.

Since Mary Robinson began the process, developing the role of the president while staying within the confines of the constitution, has to a great extent meant using the presidency to help normalise excluded, marginal or minority groups and groups needing/deserving a higher public profile.

Think about all those people pictured in the Áras who years ago would not have been seen and recognised as part of official, respectable, acceptable Ireland. Think about the individuals, civil society groups etc. who have received recognition by appearing at the Áras. Think too about the visits, the sites, events and people chosen – and it is a matter of the president’s deliberate choice – to be dignified by association with the president.

The candidates in the 2018 election compete by pointing to the different groups they would promote as president.

Now let’s think about the SF project of normalisation: They want to have their narrative, as they call it, of recent Irish history accepted. They want honour and recognition for the Provisional IRA’s struggle against foreign occupation and imperialism.

They have a candidate for president, Liadh Ní Riada. When she talks of a “pluralist and inclusive” Ireland “that respects the identities and traditions of all”, Irish journalism accepts it as the sort of anodyne comment that any of the candidates might offer. It’s nothing of the kind, because the inclusive plurality, the identities and traditions includes something that none of the other candidates would favour: honouring the history of the Provisional IRA. 

Much has been made of her agreeing to wear a remembrance poppy should she be elected president. However, a very different question becomes utterly conspicuous for not being asked. This is the question that refers to Ireland’s honour and decency. She must be asked if she would invite car bombers and other perpetrators of war crimes, their apologists and supporters to Áras an Uachtaráin, if she would use the presidency to normalise barbarity.

 

 

I was one of those interviewed for Kitty Holland’s silence-splitting article on “corporal punishment” in the Irish Times.* While it is unlikely that my abusers are still living, that is not true of later perpetrators. Should the public outrage prompted by Kitty’s article endure, the familiar Irish pattern must be resisted. That is to say, this time there there must be consequences for perpetrators.

The peculiarly Irish cover-up

Whether it is laundries, industrial schools, selling babies or illegal burials it goes like this: blame is placed on the state, religion, an institution or even culture. Blame is placed everywhere to protect the persons primarily responsible – the perpetrators of what are dreadful but (let’s face it) plain, ordinary crimes.

The alternative to cover-up: capture one and then keep going
Sure, these are historical crimes but here’s how it ought to go: Identify the most recent incident/crime and – with a view to pressing charges – check if the perpetrator is still alive or in the case of the babies check if anyone who covered up is still alive. Get one, just one. Then begin working backwards until we are absolutely certain that all living perpetrators have been brought to justice.

On school violence dates decide: crime or grounds for dismissal

In the case of national and secondary school abuse, there are two key dates 1982 and 1997.

In 1997 – yes, that late – teacher violence against a child was outlawed under the Offences Against the Person Act. This makes matters simple. If anyone has experience or is aware of a teacher hitting a child after 1997, the matter should be reported to An Garda. Citizens should demand that reports be treated with the utmost seriousness with a view to charges and court appearances.

Corporal punishment was abolished in 1982. The Department of Education’s new rule was clear – impossible to misunderstand – and well publicised – impossible for a teacher to be unaware of the change and the consequences: “The use of corporal punishment is forbidden. Any teacher who contravenes . . . this rule will be regarded as guilty of conduct unbefitting a teacher and will be subject to severe disciplinary action.”

Here’s the thing. On-line comments in the wake of Kitty Holland’s article make it clear that there was quite a bit of violent “conduct unbefitting a teacher”after 1982. These incidents and experiences and others not yet revealed must now be reported to the Department of Education and must then be treated with the utmost seriousness with a view to “severe disciplinary action.” Moreover, the only meaningful interpretation of “severe disciplinary action” is dismissal.

Now the real controversy: dealing with retired offenders

Dismissal will of course mean loss of pension. The question arises as to what is to be done about offenders who have retired. It would be utterly unjust if someone whose conduct while in employment was “unbefitting a teacher” were to enjoy old age on a teacher’s pension.

In accepting, investigating and pursuing allegations of violent conduct, the Department of Education and the State in general cannot allow an offender to get away scot-free on the basis of their reaching retirement without discovery. Bluntly, retired offenders must be pursued as rigorously as those still at work.

Finally, offences committed while corporal punishment was permitted

It is conveniently forgotten by offenders and their supporters that while corporal punishment was permitted in Irish schools up to 1982, it was subject to explicit Department of Education Rules. In other words, all teachers who decided that they would beat children knew what was permitted and importantly what was not: they could choose to inflict corporal punishment in accordance with the rules of their employment or they could choose to violate those rules.

Apart from the blatantly obvious that the rules did not permit attacks involving blackboard dusters, fists, kicks, brush handles, throwing children about, pulling them by the ears or hair, etc., the rules were utterly clear in other regards. Two such rules are crucial: i) Hitting a child for failure at lessons was forbidden; ii) Carrying about a stick or other implement for the purpose of corporal punishment was forbidden.

Though the overwhelming majority of teachers from the era of legal corporal punishment are either deceased or retired, it remains possible that a small number still work as teachers or in some other part of the public service. If they broke the rules – say, by attacking a child, carrying a stick or punishing for failure at lessons – they must go, they must be dismissed.

Clearly, it would be an outrage if similar but retired offenders were treated more leniently. It needs to be said that a question-mark appears over all of those now retired who were teaching prior to 1982. If witness reports are now brought to the attention of the Department of education to the effect that a teacher broke the rules governing corporal punishment, they must be treated with the utmost seriousness and urgency, and with a view to stopping pension payments to offenders. Urgency is vital as age is a factor; death should not provide the ultimate cover for an offending teacher.

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* https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/beaten-the-irish-childhoods-ruined-by-corporal-punishment-1.3643489

For too long now I’ve been arguing for the need radically to change the regulations covering broadcast politics. I really should get on with writing about it. I do, at least, have a starting point: re-cast the rules to serve the audience, the receiving citizen, rather than staff and contributors. This would of course impact upon the current complaints procedures. With that in mind and for now, I want to talk about a recent encounter I had with RTE’s complaints/compliance dept.

Now, no one could say that I’m other than an advocate for public service broadcasting or that I’m unsympathetic to RTE. I have argued that RTE is compliant and operates to the requirements of the law and the guidelines derived from it. It follows from this that I regard moaning about RTE’s performance as missing the point; RTE is acting in accordance with regulation, i.e. is compliant. Change, reform or improvement, requires regulatory change.

Nevertheless, I’ve been struck by the number of people on-line who think that there’s no point in complaining to the national broadcaster and particularly by those among them that I know to be thoughtful and reasonable.

Some time ago I was exercised by a programme which uncritically featured an alternative remedy. I reckoned that this was a matter of public controversy and that the broadcaster was obliged to treat it as such. I wrote and asked for their thoughts on this. Then began a series of what I interpreted as high-handed, antagonistic e-mails. A choice was put to me: I could submit a comment which would be placed in a complaints log distributed to senior editorial staff or I could submit a formal complaint citing the guideline which I was alleging had been breached. There apparently was no chance that I could have an ordinary, considered response to my point.

Now, I would be at pains to defend both the complaints log and the formal complaints procedure but clearly they are far too limiting and indeed forbidding to be of much use to the engaged citizen, i.e. the kind of citizen who might want to question, discuss and contribute to improving broadcast debate. Engagement of this kind is not the same as that of an aggrieved person – particularly a contributor or someone who thinks that they should be a contributor.

Some time later I was struck by a news bulletin which near its start covered developments in the Birmingham bombing inquest and later carried an interview with a SF spokesperson on a different matter. The interviewer made no reference to Birmingham. The usual defence offered by journalists is that in news about SF they cannot keep looking back to “The Troubles”.* However, in this instance Birmingham featured in the same news bulletin. Moreover, the interviewer did indeed look to something unrelated that was in the news not the same day but a few days previously, the selection of a SF candidate to contest the presidency. This looked to me like an editorial decision to avoid the particular, newsworthy controversy that was the bombing of Birmingham pubs and SF’s support for the Provisional IRA.

I decided to take up the matter and explored what might be the appropriate guideline-breach on which to base a complaint. This kind of research requires time and a little expertise. So, I took up an offer made during the previous correspondence: the Head of Compliance saw helping a citizen with the formulation of complaints to be part of the department’s function. I detailed what had happened and my concerns, and asked him under what rule I might submit a complaint. It took three e-mails and the best part of a month to get a response. Now, a new Head of Compliance had just been appointed but again when the response came, it struck me as defensive and antagonistic. He wasn’t trying to look after me, the citizen, but was resolutely defending his colleagues on the assumption – which I find bizarre – that I was attacking them. I should add that I had more than once explicitly made my commitment to PSB and my support for RTE clear.

The lessons I’ve taken from this? There is still the need for legislative reform which would focus the very purpose of broadcast politics on the specific needs of the participative citizen but now it’s also clear that every effort must be made to make new rules, let’s say, more user friendly. Moreover, the Compliance Department’s fundamental loyalty must migrate to this citizen; an element of this will have to be awareness that citizens cannot be expected to have expert knowledge of the rules and will need help to make their cases effectively. The experience around the second incident – the treatment of SF – has brought a new realisation: that editorial policy is a political and therefore a public matter. Its formulation and justification must be openly discussed and decisions must be open to question.

Well, I’ve made a start …

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* I discussed it here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/journalism-and-the-struggle-to-decide-what-is-normal-the-case-of-sfs-desire-to-celebrate-the-prov-ira/

Progressives – even socialists – too often face condemnation for associating with “terrorists”* with whom they may find a degree of common cause, e.g. in being anti-imperialist. The condemnation is usually met with wounded innocence and emphasis on their opposition to violence. They argue that ending violence involves talking to killers, while their critics see them as simply dishonest. Of course some may indeed be dishonest but taking what they say at face value, it is more plausible that they are naive, friendly and courteous, making a very silly, basic and public error.

The UK Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, offers a good start to a short discussion. He was quoted in the New Statesman (7th Sept. 2018)**, “It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table…”

John McDonnell could have said otherwise, “It was the targeting of civilians and the sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table…” and that would be equally true.


He might even have said, “It was the war crimes/crimes against humanity and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table…” and that too would be true.

You see, the problem is not that Labour Leaders or anyone would talk to those who choose civilian targets. Talking may be necessary to stop the killing and of course democrats will condemn violence. The problem arises i) when democrats are pictured not in talks with but socialising and befriending perpetrators, their leaders and supporters; or ii) are quoted using euphemisms (e.g. struggle or campaign) for intentional targeting of civilians. When democrats act in this way, they play their part in normalising the barbarity they routinely condemn. They also alienate decent people who would never socialise with a perpetrator, supporter or apologist for crimes against humanity. Thus progressive or socialist positions can be mired with the blood and tissue of civilians.

In brief, it’s like this for John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and indeed for everyone else: whether you are talking to war criminals, trying to understand them or discussing their place in history, you must stand resolutely opposed. You must always be unambiguously on the side of rudimentary civilisation against ALL those who would ever consider that targeting civilians is other than the most shameful barbarism.

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* The definition of terrorism is contested. Here’s a short look at it in relation to the Irish 1916 – 2016 commemorations: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2015/10/21/1916-2016-time-to-talk-and-end-the-confusion-over-terrorism/

** https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/economy/2018/09/who-real-john-mcdonnell

Last week a big media story was the crippling cost of childcare in Ireland and there were well-publicised calls for the state to fund it. No mention was made, however, of increased taxation or of less important spending that might be cut in order to fund it. This is the polite, accepted approach but very, very occasionally there’s an inkling of a different, troublesome way.

 

When some years ago a hundred million was spent on building a free-flow structure on the N7 at Newlands Cross, Peter McVerry had a letter published in The Irish Times. He asked what was presumably a rhetorical question but of a type that is normally excluded from public controversy. He asked if the hundred million spent on Newlands Cross might have been better spent on accommodation for homeless people. He said he’d have been happy to wait a few minutes in his car.*


It was unusual in Ireland because discussion of state spending is rigorously confined to “calling on”. That is to say, media promote a procession of advocates calling on the government to start or increase spending on childcare, drug rehabilitation, school overheads, a particular health provision etc. etc. The list is potentially endless. No journalist seems to feel motivated or be allowed to ask the advocate what taxation or cut to existing services they are proposing.

 

It goes on and on and creates a bizarre consensus in which everyone is in favour of everything but nothing much changes. Advocates are presented as heroic because they speak for the people and government is decried for failing to do as the people want.

 

The difference with Peter McVerry’s letter, however, was the suggestion not only that priority existed but that there were consequences to choice. Now, that debate did not progress and he didn’t insist. You see, talking priorities would ruin a perfectly serviceable system, a system which prevents dissent and meaningful controversy.**

Avoiding the issue of priority not only makes public discourse infantile but reinforces the dominant model of Irish politics, and that model is deeply conservative. What passes for public discourse involves rival claims on the public purse. It seems to be unthinkable that anyone calling for more spending in one area would be asked at whose expense it should be funded. Being an advocate – perhaps an activist – in Ireland is a doddle.

There’s a political model in operation here and it goes unquestioned. In brief the majority of journalists support the belief that we have a “political class” with access to unlimited funds which because of stupidity or meanness, they will not spend on worthy and needy causes – unless they are forced by “pressure” from civil society organisations, activists and media.*** It’s quite like a peasant society in which the ruler concedes a bit here or there in order to keep the structure as it is. It’s also like the child’s misunderstanding of family finance – the little kid who thinks that parents should stop being mean and just get more money.

The model, and the organisations, activists, journalists, elected politicians and citizens who operate it, guarantee that there can be no real change because when a person is “calling on”, it is out of the question to ask about their priorities. The established view is that all spending is equally important and everyone must be treated fairly. Indeed “fairness” has become the watchword of Irish conservatism.†

The left is hideously implicated, many having a romantic view that opposition to tax, cutbacks, government and politics generally is progressive. The notion of discussing priorities in state spending would be dismissed as helping the government rather than resisting it. They seem not to give much credence to Nye Bevan’s dictum that the language of priorities is the religion of socialism.†† The idea of using priority to effect change – even to assault inequality – can’t get a hearing. Progress has been swallowed by a conservative populism which essentially argues that – now the recession has ended – fairness requires the old incomes and inequalities be restored and maintained. Moreover, there can be lots and lots of “calling on”. The only change required is that the rich pay more tax – well, not all of the rich! Conveniently for the majority of rich people, they too can pose on the left and perform their share of “calling on” because the emphasis is invariably on the top 1% and never on the top 20%. In fairness!

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/debate/letters/speedy-aid-for-the-homeless-1.1446630

** It would be easy to confine this discussion to the degree to which motoring is favoured. It was decided to create a traffic corps while ignoring constant complaints about the lack of Gardaí on the beat. While far more Irish people die by suicide than are killed on our roads, the Road Safety Authority is favoured for funding.

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/now-that-almost-everyone-is-anti-establishment-whither-dissent/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

†† “We have woven it into the warp and woof of our national life, and we have made the claims of the children come first. What is national planning but the insistence that human beings shall make ethical choices on a national scale?…The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism. We have accepted over the last four years that the first claims upon the national product shall be decided nationally and they have been those of the women, the children and the old people.”


I’ve not said a word about the Papal visit. Perhaps it’s because I drifted away from the Church such a long time ago or because I can’t take delight in being mean to those who stayed, but mostly it’s because I don’t share the objectives of the overwhelming number of those protesting. I’ll go further: I fear that the protests will produce outcomes that protect the guilty.

You see, I don’t want an apology, I don’t want truth (We all know the truth!), I certainly don’t want reconciliation or love. I want perpetrators identified and tried by court or tribunal and if found guilty, I want them to face consequences. In particular I want to make damn certain that none are being paid state pensions.

An example of, let’s call it, progressive cover up: This morning on RTE Radio 1 the Minister for Children spoke about the Tuam babies. All sorts of responses are being considered except one: Identify the latest body dumped without burial, investigate that dumping and if anyone remotely associated with it or having any knowledge of it is still alive, identify and charge them. There may be Gardai and other public servants who knowing what was in that septic tank, failed to treat it as a crime scene; identify and charge them. It was and is illegal to dump human remains. This wasn’t one person acting in secret. This required numbers and greater numbers to look away.

Similarly, on the adoption/sale of babies scandal, the alterations of birth records were crimes – ordinary punishable criminality – perpetrated by individuals with the collusion of others.

The Magdalene Laundries and Industrial School closures are relatively recent and offer a wide range of criminality perpetrated by particular people and their associates.

Assaults by clergy, teachers and others together with associated failures to prevent and report them bring us right up to date.

Three things: i) If the statute of limitations offers protection, change that. ii) If we need a new Garda unit to hunt down perpetrators of historic abuse, let’s have one. iii) To make sure that perpetrators are not living in snug retirement, let’s take whatever steps are necessary to withhold pensions.

The difference between 500,000 and 150,000 or for that matter 150 attendees at the mass in the Phoenix Park is as nothing to me in comparison with one – just one – perpetrator before a court.

A constant theme among leftists who regret the success of right wing populists is that the traditional left parties are responsible for their own decline in that they allowed themselves to become out of touch with … well, with whom? That’s never made entirely clear. Vague labels, however, are liberally sprinkled: working people, traditional supporters, working class, middle class, ordinary people, ordinary working people etc. The thrust of this approach is that the people they have in mind were there for the taking and the likes of Trump and the Brexiteers in the cases of USA and UK took them. Essentially it is an argument for some kind of left wing populism, i.e. tell these people something they want to hear so that they won’t be seduced by right wing populists.

The problem for a left approach like this becomes apparent when some of its advocates talk simultaneously of left parties returning to or sticking with their principles. Again, there’s no clarity, no attempt to discuss principles or indeed values. Without such discussion – without critical examination – a very important doubt is suppressed. The question that seldom, if ever, arises is this: What if traditional left values or principles are incompatible with telling those “ordinary people” what they want to hear? That is to say, there is a fundamental problem when “ordinary people” want, say, tax reductions, privatisations, more competition etc. etc. or even the impossible, say, the clock turned back and jobs, long-automated, restored.

However, there are just two groups being in touch with whom is fundamental to socialism.

Out of touch 1

The industrial working class was identified by Marx as having historical purpose because their values and progressive demands were universal and certainly not because they were a rabble easily seduced by leaders offering political baubles.* Their heirs are present today, more than willing to listen, more than capable of political argument, knowing well when they are being subjected to patronising bollocks or offered some factional, preferential crumb to be denied to others. No party in Ireland is addressing the working class. For sure, there’s no shortage of parties – sometimes with an upper class leadership – who think that raucous, rude, sneering, anti-establishment, ignorance and name calling is somehow working class but they ignore the real deal.**

A major preoccupation of the working class today is that their ambitions have now more or less been thwarted by the latest iteration of capitalism, i.e. I.T. and the disappearance of huge numbers of middle level, satisfying, well-paid jobs. There is no point in telling these people that those jobs can be resuscitated, or replaced in sufficient numbers by new similarly good jobs or that security in low paid, low-skill, low-status jobs will have to do. They are working class; they’ll see right through it. Anyone seeking their attention – never mind their support – better have a good argument or at least show that they live in the 21st century and understand the problem.***

Out of touch 2

Almost everyone who makes policy tends to be out of touch with the poor. There are two aspects to the failure. Firstly, economics based on rational choice either discounts or utterly fails to grasp the short time-scale necessarily of interest to those with immediate money problems. That is to say, those with insufficient money this week cannot seriously be asked to evaluate medium or long term possibilities. Secondly, well off activists and policy makers tend to sacrifice the poor to grand policy. That they could lose their income or that they are dependent on the state should be uppermost in debate but it seldom – if ever – is. Bluntly, the precarious position of the poor demands that they be the priority. Paradoxically, when it comes to this kind of neglect, socialists combine little excuse and a poor record. Their universalist and egalitarian thinking, together with the likelihood that they will know poor, working class people, should ensure that they be constantly aware of the poor and certainly of the different outlook of those with immediate money problems. The failure for socialists is most likely rooted in the revolutionary tradition and the commitment to grand schemes which subordinate the needs of a group – even the poor – to the greater project. However, in truth this is as right wing as it is left. When in the UK the privileged Jacob Rees Mogg spoke of short term deprivation over Brexit which would take perhaps 50 yrs to work out, he was not very different to the Irish anti-austerity leftists of some few years ago. They, when the Irish state had a mere three months’ money left to pay state workers and welfare recipients, wanted to reject conditions demanded by the state’s only lender. In that scenario they hoped something would turn up so that the poorest in the country could be paid; they wanted at best to gamble and at worst to sacrifice the welfare of the poor on a long term objective.

In touch

Having excluded the working class and the poor, there would seem now to be even less clarity on “being in touch”. Not so. In fact it’s pretty clear. What Irish socialists and in particular the majority in the Labour Party want is to be popular with those they see frequently either in media or in person. These could be the attendees at a large protest, a popular campaign waged by a civil society group to obtain a concession from the “political class”, attendees at a political clinic or those whose doors were selected for a canvass.

The common feature is that there is no intention to argue or convince anyone of anything. Indeed the only out-group seems to be the top 1% and they are usually to be sacrificed not for egalitarianism but to maintain the structure of inequality across the 99%.

A note to the declining Irish Labour Party

There are two possible routes to survival. Because they are incompatible a decision is required. Neither offers certainty of success.

The first is to engage along with every other party in the state – without exception – in the crowded, competitive market of “fairness”. Labour’s objective would be to get a slice large enough to ensure survival. While that course allows for marches and fists in the air, it’s a conservative, managerial position. It’s a competition in ideas and policies (which any rival can steal) aimed at issues. It’s a competition too to have one’s best issues accepted as newsworthy. There is no requirement to have an overall achievable objective and no requirement to argue for anything that would change the existing structure of inequality.††

The second is to look to the working class and universal values, and to argue for change in the conditions of the 21st century. This would put the Party out on a limb, i.e. unlike all the competitors in the fairness free-for-all. The doubt that absolutely has to be faced is whether or not there are sufficient voters open to that approach as would ensure the Party’s survival. The audience is comprised of the working class (In the meaningful as opposed to the polling sense) and others who might – sharing the participatory/republican outlook – be open to an argument for change.

In crude marketing terms it’s like this: When you’re on 3%, the choice of competing in the consumer market or of being more specialised and quality oriented is a difficult one.

The temptation is to do the familiar regardless of changed circumstances.

____________

These are links to my blog. Each expands a little on the respective points above

* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/no-karl-marx-was-not-out-of-his-mind/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/working-class-has-meaning-it-should-not-be-twisted-misappropriated-or-trivialised/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/07/10/getting-a-firm-grip-the-labour-party-jobs-and-the-working-class/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

†† https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/its-odd-in-ireland-all-the-parties-like-grass-roots-campaigns-and-no-one-is-in-opposition/

There is a troubling misunderstanding at the core of the current health controversy. Be certain: The screening tests do not give a diagnosis of cancer or an “all clear”; they deal in probability and risk. The misunderstanding, however, is allowed to rumble on and on.

Way back when the then Head of the HSE, Tony O’Brien, made the matter absolutely clear before a Dáil committee, his interlocutor failed to explore it and went off on a rant, treating what had been said with dismissive contempt, as an excuse or possibly a lie. T.O’B. accused him of trying to spread a public panic. He could indeed have been trying to play to the gallery but it is more likely that he hadn’t a clue.

T.O’B. resigned shortly afterwards when the contents of a memo he received in 2016 were revealed. The memo is complex but has that same core: the tests do not deliver diagnoses. Moreover, it pointed out that if patients went to the media and journalists chose to run headlines and stories to the effect that “screening did not diagnose my cancer”, there would be public panic.

Now the worst kind of politician and journalist would be prepared knowingly to propagate and exploit a panic. The more likely problem is, however, far more serious. Presumption of innocence towards elected representatives and journalists suggests that they too are subject to the panic because they fail to understand or grasp the significance of what T.O’B. said at the Committee. They just don’t get the distinction between a test-marker and a diagnosis. Indeed they don’t get risk or probability but live in a binary world of certainty; in this instance that’s simply cancerous or all-clear and anything else is a failure of government to mind us.

This level of misunderstanding among citizens is a dreadful comment on Irish education but it is utterly unacceptable in a member of parliament or a journalist. It not only makes public discourse next to impossible but almost certainly makes health screening initiatives for the future at best