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I learned early that there is a great deal of pretence when it comes to choosing one’s appearance. Claims of comfort, fashion or even the word of God are often used to deflect questions or discussion. You see, I went to a Christian Brothers school, an appalling dump, managed and staffed by – let’s say – malefactors, and one of the ways I resisted and annoyed them was to grow my hair slightly long and wear mildly eccentric clothes. I knew what I was doing and never resorted to the defence of fashion or the common, “Jesus had long hair!” I remember a Brother standing over me fuming and spitting, “I know what you’re doing. You’re showing disrespect to me and all I stand for.” Knowing the risks of pushing provocation too far, I stayed silent, thinking, “How right you are, ye thundering bollocks.”

Now, that was a forceful – even antagonistic – statement expressed through appearance. But it’s not always the case. Dress is much more often a passive statement of a willingness to conform (to fit in, to dress appropriately) and/or an affiliation statement as in, “Hey look, I’m a manager cos I dress like you” or “Look, I never wear a tie; I’m just like the anti-establishment guys in Syriza”. Between the forceful and the passive are many mild but thoughtful statements. For example, I like to dress informally – routinely jeans and a casual top or tee shirt. However, as an adult when asked to lecture at University College Dublin, I presented myself quite formally. I did so for a minor and a major reason. Firstly, I thought it might improve my credibility. Much more importantly, I did so to express myself honoured to be working there and to express my respect for the students.

Those who attend the Dáil or Seanad wearing message-emblazoned T-shirts or studiously avoiding anything remotely formal, do so in a deliberate, thoughtful way.Their decision is like mine when dressing for my lowlife teachers and unlike mine when dressing for my respected students. Moreover, their expressive appearance says something which is not merely consistent with their political stance but goes to its core.

A requirement of their political stance is the reduction of the supremacy of parliament. Parliament, they contend, is simply one site for struggle and progress/concessions will be won there as well as on the streets and in workplaces. I’ve argued elsewhere that this approach is essentially conservative and easily accommodated within the Irish cargo/pressure political system.*

Parliament, moreover, is where the “establishment parties”, the “political class”, the “government” etc. reside. Everything about parliament signals establishment: it is constitutional, procedural, inhabited by the well off and the educated, and – yes – the well dressed/groomed who obey its rules and are respectful, and who seem to thrive in that environment.

Anti-establishment has been recently redefined as against all that sort of thing and anyone wishing to be so identified could not possibly dress and behave respectfully in parliament. The dress statement must be antagonistic to the institution of parliament and the establishment of which it is part. Elections are not fought to get into parliament to participate in government. They are fought to get into parliament in order to show disrespect for the establishment, especially the constitutional position of parliament, to show that an activist is consistent, whether in parliament or demonstrating outside the gate. The idea is that there’s nothing very special and certainly not supreme about parliament. It’s just an opportunity to confront the establishment.


* It’s what I’ve termed “left conservatism”: the integration of left campaigning to the point where it functions to stabilise the system.

The Dáil cannot sack the Garda Commissioner. That’s the prerogative of the Government. Now, if we want to change that – i.e. to make it that a Commissioner’s job is at the pleasure of the Dáil – let’s discuss it and if it’s desirable, make the change.

Let’s not, however, mess about asking the Dáil to vote no confidence, calling on the Government to act, and pretend that this doesn’t usurp the power of Government.

Assuming that the backers of the Dáil motion are not fools, unable to appreciate the significance of their move, then their motive must be to put two institutions of the state at loggerheads. There is a pattern here of trying to damage the wider (small ‘c’) constitution. Remember that there was an attempt to legislate for abortion in case of fatal foetal abnormalities, knowing that the move would be unconstitutional. Moreover, on water charges the Dáil is moving towards instructing the Government to act illegally.

Anti-establishment is no longer a matter of opposing the entrenched position of the rich or the structure of inequality. It has more or less changed sides. It is now a matter of opposing the established way of doing things, the slow processes built up over many years on which reform and progress, depend. This anti-establishment is no place for a socialist. Indeed, socialists must resist the temptation to strike a faux-revolutionary pose and oppose the thoughtless barbarism of the new anti-establishment.

In the matter of the Dáil motion aimed at removing the Garda Commissioner the best outcome would be a decision that it is not a matter for the Dáil, second best would be a majority abstention, leaving the “anti-establishment” with a ridiculous victory, and third would be to defeat their motion.

Dear Brendan,

When it comes to Labour’s approach to the next general election, I disagree profoundly with you. However, let me be clear from the outset that in the next election I will vote Labour and then transfer to Fine Gael. I will do so for the reasons that you outlined in your Irish Times article.* It is very important not to risk what has been achieved. So, how then do I disagree with you? I disagree on a more fundamental level. I disagree with your political outlook – your view of Labour’s purpose in entering coalition. In brief and I don’t mean to offend, I find you unnecessarily liberal and insufficiently socialist.

You see three main reasons for Labour being part of a new government: i) that proportional to its strength in the next Dáil, Labour will push FG in a leftward direction mostly to do with tax relief and improving state services; ii) that Labour has a particular interest in increasing employment; and iii) that Labour will try to have the 8th amendment to the constitution rescinded.

With the possible exception of i) these three are not specifically socialist and could be championed by any half decent liberal party. Indeed if the tax relief is given to middle earners as “middle” is currently understood and if income relativities within state employment remain unchanged, none of the three is specifically socialist.

Before looking at the three in a little detail it would be right to say why liberal as opposed to left ambitions are just not enough. The first reason is that we’re talking about the Labour Party and if it doesn’t have explicitly left ambitions, it has very little purpose. It becomes a caring liberal party among a number of liberal parties all of whom exist to advance liberal ambitions. Secondly, if Labour doesn’t offer left ambitions to the electorate, left voters have no one for whom to vote. No leftist would be attracted to FF or FG and no decent person would vote SF.** There is a group of small left parties but they offer no more than protest. Indeed their function in Ireland is to act as a lightning conductor for unhappiness and dissent.***

Turning now to your reasons for entering government, when Labour talks in clichéd terms about tax relief for low and middle earners, it sounds like every other party in the country. This is because “middle” is not to be taken literally. In Ireland and indeed in Britain “middle income” includes the majority of the rich.**** I can say this because I regard the top 10% of earners as rich and their inclusion within “middle income” as a distortion of public discourse.

When Labour talks about expanding state services without expressing an intention to change pay structures within state employment, the party again sounds like every other party. Worse than that, it expresses an intention to maintain the practice of becoming rich – entering that top decile – through public service. It also shows disdain for those who object to rich public servants along with ludicrous pensions and for those who take seriously the notion that apart from a good standard of living, being a public servant is not primarily about maximising income.

It is hard to be critical of a Labour Party minister being enthusiastic about job creation. Indeed in present circumstances it might be hard to be critical of anyone being enthusiastic about job creation. That’s the point: everyone is in favour of job creation. Liberals are very much in favour of job creation; they call it trickle-down economics. You and every party member know that that creates inequality and that it would be quite simply evasive to say that redistribution and/or labour law must wait until near-enough full employment is reached.

Having opposed Labour’s involvement in liberal objectives, it might seem strange that I would support your ambition to rescind the 8th (“pro-life”) amendment to the constitution. Labour has, however, considerable history on this, being the one party right at the outset to refuse extreme Catholicism its demand to insert a ban on abortion into the constitution. Opposition to this and the sorry, cruel mess it created has been a feature of the Party’s recent history. That campaigning to delete the 8th amendment might attract liberal voters is a bonus but fundamentally it is the moral thing to do.

This amendment then should be the one point of contact between liberal Ireland and the Labour Party, a shared ambition.

What then of your two other ambitions? They are liberal and could be decent. The problem is that in themselves they support, if not promote, economic inequality, specifically inequality of income.

Labour could turn firmly left by stating a modest ambition to reduce inequality of income. This would also drive a left-right wedge into Irish political discourse and at the same time give voters who dislike the existing structure of inequality something for which to vote.

What then of coalition? Few journalists seem to realise that Labour cannot enter coalition without the approval of a full delegate conference. Regardless of what happens by way of voting pacts or suggestions, if the numbers after an election suggest a coalition which includes Labour, there will be negotiations to reach an agreed programme for government. In other words, journalists are failing to emphasise that Labour is precluded by its own rules from doing other than campaigning alone.

However, it is no longer credible to ask for voter support for a whole raft of policies and say that implementation will be proportional to whatever numerical strength the party achieves at election. Voters need to know in advance that if Labour enters coalition something particular will happen no matter how many or few Labour TDs are returned.

We are therefore talking about preconditions. They have to be few and focussed – and this is crucial: they have to be divisive.

The liberal one is already chosen: a government supported referendum to remove the 8th amendment from the constitution. Alone that’s neither sufficient nor leftist. The problem with the other ambitions, remember, was inequality. A second pre-condition should be a programmatic reduction – year on year over the lifetime of a government – of inequality of income.

There’s no reason to be side-tracked in controversy over measurement. Of course there is a number of measurements of inequality from which to choose but let’s not mess about; we all understand the basic objective.

The reduction demanded cannot be big or coalition could be refused by any liberal partner. Each year’s target for reduction will have to be modest. The point is to set Ireland on a radical new path to reduce inequality of income, to make the totality of government policy subject to this modest ambition, to place income inequality at the core of public discourse, to divide Irish society on the question of inequality and to give socialists and mild egalitarians something for which to vote.

Brendan, I’m not dismissive of this government’s achievement in restoring a liberal economy. I’m very aware of the threats to that progress. I’m not opposed to coalition; on the contrary I see it as the only route to leftward reforms. However, it’s time now to set out on that route: nothing revolutionary just a noticeable change in direction.



** This might seem merely provocative. That is not the intention and I will argue it at length in a later blog.

*** Lightning conductor is an apt metaphor because these parties function along with media, activists and advocate groups to attract and conduct dissent harmlessly to ground, and maintain the structure of inequality.


In the Dáil on Thursday (12/02/2015) Joan Burton missed an opportunity to address just how mad the notion that Jobstown is under attack has become. Having missed, help came from an unlikely source, Joe Higgins, but this second opportunity was missed as well.

Under the guise of a parliamentary question Ruth Coppinger characterised inept policing as something akin to state forces trying to put down an insurrection. This is now familiar hyperbole but then she went a step further, taking the fantasy to a new level. She said that no previous member of government – bad as they were – had “called out the dogs”.

Joan and others didn’t get it, complaining that Ruth had referred to Gardaí as dogs. Joe then filled in the gap in their education; Ruth was making a Shakespearean reference. “Read your Shakespeare. Read your Shakespeare”, he admonished. Still Joan didn’t get it.

Let’s see what Ruth and Joe were on about. The dogs to which they alluded are “dogs of war”. The reference is to Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 1. The quotation usually given is, “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,” (“Havoc!” was an English military command to soldiers to pillage as they wished.)

Ruth and Joe are well educated. Both are teachers. They know what they are saying. This isn’t some name calling directed at An Garda as Joan seems to think. Indeed Ruth subsequently made it plain that she really was referring to Shakespeare:
“Today I compared the terror campaign unleashed on the working class community of Jobstown to the dogs of war that were unleashed in the play Julius Cesar by William Shakespeare. Perhaps that was too high brow for TDs in the Dáil. Obviously they chose to seize on the word dog as if I was targeting all of the Gardaí as dogs,” –

This is the fantasy world that Ruth, Joe and others inhabit. They really do think that a campaign of terror has been unleashed (“let slip”) on a Dublin suburb. As Ruth boasts, she may be too high brow for the Dáil but really Joan or someone else in the Dáil should have been able to see what she was on about and call it for the nonsense it is. I’m certain that there are many citizens of Jobstown who get it and are annoyed that their estate features in this bizarre fantasy.

Few may have checked Mark Anthony’s dogs-of-war speech in full. I’d be surprised if Ruth had not. With that in mind it’s worth reading:
O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever livèd in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy —
Which, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue —
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men.
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy.
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds,
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
– Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 1

I was talking to a T.D.* recently, a leftist one. He said that his basic function was to serve his constituents and that if he is re-elected to the Dáil, it will justify his political decisions. I disagreed, saying that his was a perfect statement of populism. The function of a leftist is neither to schmooze nor to patronise but to argue honestly and plausibly.

Now, Ireland is a society in which the overwhelming majority is comprised of liberals, conservatives and believers in the infantile notion that the “political class” is the ruling class. In this society honest and plausible argument would seem the road to electoral failure because it means opposing and possibly offending that overwhelming majority. That is why leftist parties seeking electoral success employ researchers who i) try to keep policy and statements in line with those of a majority or ii) try to be both vague and appealing to those receptive to facile slogans.

It’s a real dilemma: how to get elected while opposing (trying to persuade) the majority? The situation is made worse by a realisation that slogans and implausibility will drive away the thoughtful voter.

The good news in Ireland is that the leftist doesn’t have to appeal to the majority or convince a majority in order to win. In Ireland we have PR-STV ** and election can be achieved by way of a minority vote. This offers the freedom to argue, to oppose consensus, to offend, to break icons but it’s far from an easy option. It’s difficult and lonely to decide to be unpopular. It is however the only way for a leftist to win on a leftist platform in Ireland.

There are of course implications for participation in coalition government but that’s work for another day.
* Teachta Dála, a member of the Irish parliament.
** Proportional Representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote.

Take a look at this from

It is a longish piece but bear with it or at least scan through to its salient features. If it is remotely accurate, it predicts a single digit number of Labour seats and extraordinarily right wing parliaments for Ireland.

Attention focusses on the belief that, while Labour might hold on to a vote in the region of its traditional 10% support, it is reaching a tipping point at which marginal seats fall rather than are won. This will be a cause for celebration among Labour’s rivals both left and right. The problem for those celebrating on the left is that there is no leftward movement in voter support. The belief on the left (a very old belief) is that as soon as Labour is destroyed and/or joins a unified left, Ireland will magically have something like a 50/50 left/right electoral split. There’s not the tiniest shred of evidence to support this hope.

Here’s a different interpretation of what’s happening and it too is not based on anything that could be remotely described as quantitative research. Let’s leave gullible victims of populism aside and consider the citizen who is open to argument. The citizen is listening and knows the precarious state that we are in. The citizen can choose to support the left or the right. There are arguments presented from left and right. Neither set of arguments seeks to change the structure of inequality. The right argues that cuts are necessary to “restore the economy”. The left argues that cuts are unnecessary and will further damage the economy. I’ve always found liberal economics both daft and cruel so I won’t address the right wing argument here. It is the left wing arguments that concern me deeply. They pretend that if bond holders and banks were not bailed out, there’d be no shortfall between state income and expenditure. They talk about making the rich pay but exclude the majority of the rich, i.e. emphasis is on the top 1%, possibly the top 10% but under no circumstances will the top 20% be targeted. The left’s position is to try to convince citizens that life can return to “normal” as before the crisis. Yes, it’s a conservative argument but it is also implausible.

It is hardly surprising that a thoughtful citizen would turn right because the argument offered there seems less implausible.

There is no comparison between public service and private enrichment. Let us stop making one so as to attract “the right stuff” into public service.

“There may come a time some day when the country will have to face the question of paying the great heads of the Civil Service on a commercial basis. There is a constant temptation, and it is only those who, like the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Austen Chamberlain), myself and others who have had some experience, know what the temptation is. Great commercial undertakings are constantly trying to lure away our great Civil Servants by offers not of the same salary, not of twice, but of five or ten times the amount that they are receiving as Civil Servants. Some of them, for family and other reasons, succumb to the temptation, but most of them resist it. But there is an element of honour in the public service which will always be some sort of contribution and make towards the retention of these great public servants. When we offer £400 a year as payment of Members of Parliament it is not a recognition of the magnitude of the service, it is not a remuneration, it is not a recompense, it is not even a salary. It is just an allowance, and I think the minimum allowance, to enable men to come here, men who would render incalculable service to the State, and whom it is an incalculable loss to the State not to have here, but who cannot be here because their means do not allow it. It is purely an allowance to enable us to open the door to great and honourable public service to these men, for whom this country will be all the richer, all the greater and all the stronger for the un-known-vicissitudes which it has to face by having here to aid us by their counsel, by their courage, and by their resource.” –

The UK CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (David Lloyd George) moving his Payment of Members motion, HC Deb 10 August 1911 vol 29 cc1365-4831365

I was listening to an interview on RTE Radio 1 this morning with the Ceann Commhairle of the Dáil. He mentioned that he received many complaints from citizens about the boorish behaviour of some TDs. He worried about the impression that this behaviour gave to thoughtful citizens. He also said that he had taken aside some of the TDs who indulged in shouting and abuse, and told them that in terms of gathering support, what they were doing was counterproductive that people were not impresssed and were critical. He is wrong.

There are citizens who reject talk, debate, reasoned argument. Indeed they despise politics. They don’t want to change society. They want someone to stand up for them, to shout for them, to put the boot into all that they despise.

It is true that most of these people – though not all – are poor. It is also true that they are not working class but that’s an argument for another day. The point is that there is an appreciative audience for abuse and there are politicians who aspire to lead cynicism and opposition to discursive politics.

There are two reasons for having representative democracy rather than direct democracy. There’s the numbers reason and the deliberative reason. The former rests on the obvious; that in anything other than a tiny society, direct democracy is impractical and representatives are necessary. (Let’s leave to one side the decreasingly futuristic possibilities that ICTs offer for direct participation and their dangers.) The latter – the deliberative reason – refers to the requirement that decisions be made slowly, based on information, argument and thought. The idea is that a legislator needs to be “professional” in the sense that the deliberative role is a fulltime job.

Now, clearly parliaments and parliamentarians tend not to conform to the ideal and the Dáil is a particular example. There are many reasons for this but one is the people’s tendency to elect representatives who are not able for the role, never considered deliberation to be their role, or consider their role as one of “getting stuff” for their constituency. It is often argued that PRSTV should be abandoned as a reform aimed at ridding the Dáil of or reducing the numbers of “clientilist”, constituency workers.

This suggestion is met with two objections. Firstly, there is the inverted snobbery objection, that we don’t want the Dáil dominated by up-market, educated types with fancy notions. Secondly, there is the roots objection, that a TD who does not engage in enormous amounts of constituency work  and constituent contact will somehow become detached from reality and lose his or her true purpose: to represent “ordinary” people.

Leaving aside the argument that a low quota under PRSTV makes it easier for a well known, local constituency worker to be elected, let’s look at another but similar feature of PRSTV. It could be argued that the coming election will be the one in which Labour for the first time will have to face the full rigour of constituency competition in a Dáil election. Up to this, Labour’s ambition seldom extended beyond one seat in any constituency and so, intraparty competition was rare for Labour. From now on, Labour candidates will have to compete with other Labour candidates. They clearly will not compete on ideological grounds and will have increasingly to compete (like most FF and FG candidates) on the basis of constituency service, i.e. clientilism.

If it is accepted by Labour that clientilism is wrong in itself or that it produces TDs who are quite simply “the wrong stuff”, the conventional argument – that intraparty competition dictates that candidates must compete by offering constituency services – will have to be faced. Labour will then have to demonstrate that the conventional argument is erroneous or side with those who want to move away from PRSTV.

The usual objections to gender quotas are that some “right” person won’t be selected because a woman will be preferred or that it will be unfair to a particular man. These might make some sense if we were talking about 50% in a situation not far off 50%. The reality is that participation rates are often so ludicrously small that very modest quotas could make a significant difference.

Let’s take the selection of Dáil candidates. Now, while anything other than about 50/50 is odd, a conservative proposal would be that in a constituency in which a party runs two candidates, one must be a woman.

Did I hear howls?

Ok, ok, calm down. How about the following? In a constituency in which a party runs three candidates, one must be a woman?

Frankly, anyone howling now is opposed to women candidates.

Yes, I did say that anything other than 50/50 is odd! A predominantly male workforce would be odd too. Take the case of hiring staff. If one were recruiting, say, engineers, a reasonable outcome over time would be that one’s staff of engineers would reflect the proportion of engineers who are women. If one were recruiting staff where the educational requirement were, say, leaving cert, a reasonable outcome over time would be 50/50. Because the recruiter is not being asked to achieve anything very much in anything like the short term, any other outcomes would require a special effort!

You see, the size of a proposed quota DOES matter and it is right to call into question the seriousness of anyone who opposes a small quota aimed at making a small difference to a major discrepancy. Yes, I guess there are people who would erect a principle but then there’s no point in talking.