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There’s a reason I want to tell you about my experience teaching at a drug rehabilitation clinic but first the story:

Some years ago the then head of UCD’s Adult Education Dept. asked me if I’d be interested in presenting a lecture series to recovering drug addicts. Now generally I do politics with an emphasis on political philosophy and specifically I do political communication. I asked what he had in mind. He said the request was for a politics course and that was as much information as he had. I jumped at the chance of a new experience while doing – I hoped – some good. 

My first day was alarming. I was welcomed into an environment that I found very stressful. It wasn’t that I was scared. Far from it, the people there were nice to me. It was the chaos; I could find nothing familiar and dependable. It was the world of addiction. However, up a few flights of stairs and I was introduced to the students. Here there was no chaos but a group of people, recovered from whatever had been their problem and focused on making their futures.A short time into the course it became obvious that their primary interest was theory. Sure, they wanted to know basics about how elections worked, how the Taoiseach was elected and what was the function of the president but that was too easy for them. They were far more interested in hearing about equality, justice, democracy etc. I was fascinated and motivated by them; they were sharp.

The course progressed well and as I got to know them, we exchanged personal stories but there was one question I wanted to ask and my opportunity eventually arrived. I asked why was I there, talking to them about politics, what had prompted such a course in this clinic. The answer was fundamental and affecting. They had looked at the list of likely courses facing them – the “practical” courses – and said, no thanks. They wanted what they called “real subjects”. They had argued their case but believed their success came down to a succinct claim to normality. It had been put bluntly by one woman to a centre manager, “I said to her, ‘Look, we’re junkies, not fucking eejits’ and she said OK, that she’d organise proper courses.”

They did get real subjects and proper courses. They were well able for them, enjoyed them and did well.

Here’s where I reveal the purpose of telling this story now but I’ll return to the students and something that will always bother me.

When I’m told that “ordinary voters” or “ordinary working people” don’t want “intellectual argument” and want only “practical answers”, I wish the patronising, elite chancers who assume such nonsense, would be challenged by the likes of that student saying, “Look, we’re citizens, not fucking eejits.”

Of course there are citizens – millions of them – who don’t want political debate, intellectual material, ideologies, values etc. Some really don’t understand, some pretend not to and may even try to flaunt ignorance as a virtue, some are culpably uninformed, and most simply don’t want to be bothered.

On the other side are republicans (real ones – unlike US Republicans or Irish nationalists) who want to participate in the affairs of their republic, who demand to be addressed with respect and who want to think, talk and come to decisions. In this they don’t need leadership.

So, there is a divide in society between, let’s call them, passive and active citizens but that division does not break along class lines. Let no one say that ordinary people or ordinary working people – never mind the working class – are on one side and cannot cope with real politics. *

Ending the clinic story, I taught two groups, as far as I can recall, at the clinic in successive years and then it all stopped. I assume there was a change in management or in the programme itself. Here’s what bothers me. Those students were clever and wanted to continue with “real subjects” but there was nothing for them when they parted with the clinic. I pointed them towards university Access courses, in particular UCD Access on which I teach but I never saw them again. I’m left with the thought that a door was opened, giving them a glimpse of higher education, and then was slammed shut again. Sometimes that seems more cruel than forcing them to do “ordinary” training courses.

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* Here’s some more on this divide: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/worried-about-simplistic-lies-in-public-debate-consider-the-audience-for-them/

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Because it is in the constituency of a government minister the probable re-opening of Stepaside Garda station faces an outpouring of contrived disapproval. It is argued that reopening at Stepaside would be a disgraceful political stroke and no way to establish priorities in state provision. Gimme a break! In my local area (Lucan, Co. Dublin) another minister has been instrumental – or so she claims – in “delivering” a different “cargo”, a swimming pool. She has been praised for her efforts and her rivals are envious. A local on-line magazine sees delivery of cargo for the “local community” as the sole criterion when evaluating elected politicians. Moreover, politicians are regarded as an undifferentiated group, political values or ideology simply don’t feature. Leaflets from potential candidates and elected representatives almost without exception talk about getting stuff and supporting campaigns to get stuff; an over-used slogan is, “Delivering for the people of Lucan”. All of these deliverers are fighting an “establishment” which it is feared is delivering elsewhere.*

In short, Minister Shane Ross, is doing precisely what the overwhelming majority of the citizens see as his job. He is operating the Irish political system of cargo/pressure. If Stepaside Garda Station reopens, his rivals will be hopping mad, his reputation for delivery will be secured and his chances of re-election considerably enhanced. Now, Stepaside is a relatively prosperous area and very likely has a relatively educated electorate. We’re not therefore talking about poor people who will “sell” their vote for some personal or local advantage. They are just like the people in Lucan and other places who either think there is no other way of prioritising or who have thought about politics and see the Irish system as prefereable.

There is, however, some sense of shame. Otherwise the audience for ritual condemnation of “stroke politics” would be tiny but there is no substantial, real opposition. Ireland has a functioning, conservative system, supported by the overwhelming majority and one which no political party opposes.

It gets worse.

Ireland has regulated political lobbying and lobbyists. The idea was to take this shady activity and make it transparent. The lobbyists and their companies are of course pleased; they’ve been institutionalised (No, they’ve been quasi-constitutionalised.) made respectable and given professional status. They can say honestly that they are essential to the political system. In truth the reason a dodgy, undemocratic process of influence was not banned is that it’s integral to the accepted political system.

It gets worse still.

Many of those who would wield influence beyond that of a citizen consider themselves advocates and reject the idea that they are lobbyists. They argue that because their employers are not big business but charities, non-government agencies etc. and because their demands are praiseworthy, they are altogether different. Their demands are indeed different but in terms of wielding influence greater than that of a citizen, they are the same. Moreover, they are salaried professionals using their skill to operate within the system.

Then there’s the staff at independent stautory bodies. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) is charged among other things with advocating in favour of competition; it even has a Director of Advocacy.**

Do you think it couldn’t get worse?

At this point it becomes very, very serious because the cargo/pressure system has absorbed activists and they are not only happy about it, they also continue to believe they are anti-establishment. There might have been a time when a citizen motivated by political values or by an alternative view of what constitutes the good society, would join roughly like-minded people in a political party. The idea being to effect change by the parliamentary route. Today such a citizen would be decried as “establishment” and would likely face opposition to assuming the label, “activist”.

Political parties per se are now often rejected. That rejection reduces the liklihood that the orthodox will be challenged by a coherent view of a different good society. We now experience a tyranny of issues and if your issue is not recognised or if you want to talk about matters larger than issues, there is little chance that you’ll gain a place within public discourse.

The label political activist today is generally accepted without question. People become political activists. Some are full time. Others mention it in their portmanteau of occupations which helps express an identity. It is assumed that they favour social justice and that they are anti-establishment.

The political activist of today selects issues, becomes part of a campaigning group or joins a political party which is resolutely not an establishment party, a party of government. The objective is to force the establishment to concede on an issue which generally speaking and after a familiar struggle it does but always without damaging the system. Following a concession or “victory over the establishment”, activists refocus and attention turns to another issue. It is a stable, conservative system and processing or resolving isolated issues constitutes orderly management.

I’ve argued in an earlier blog that the Irish system prefigured or was at least well prepared for the arrival of

what some commentators see as a new form of democracy, a democracy changed so as to accommodate a near universal disdain for politics with citizens and politicians sharing what Peter Mair has called an ‘anti-political sentiment’.*** The term refers to the abandonment of any kind of universal objective and the decline of traditional forms of parties which represented such objectives. This is nothing less than the replacement of the demos with shifting civil society groups and alliances, together with “rational” or “practical” approaches to policy – doing whatever works without recourse to divisive debate about values or long-term objectives.

Apart from occasional outbursts of mock outrage over stroke politics this all works very well and has widespread support. Conservatives see little change. Members of the government can campaign for cargo to be delivered to their constuency and their re-election may depend on it. The influence of the rich and powerful is now codified, transparent and quasi-constitutional. Charity can lobby for a bit more. Media can accommodate and aid the campaigning of the causes they favour. All can make demands without being asked at whose expense they should be satisfied. With almost everyone keen to be seen as anti-establishment, real dissent is rare and unlikely to be effective. On the left revolution has been abandoned and the working class reduced to a campaigning pressure group.

I wrote some time ago, “In Ireland all of the political parties represented in parliament support the political system in which priorities are set, decisions are made, infrastructure is positioned by way of campaigns which put pressure on the government/political class. They may differ on campaign issues and interest groups favoured but there is no opposition to the basic system.”I’ve argued the need for at least one opposition party, prefereably a leftist party and I’ve suggested that Labour has the credentials and the motivation to risk taking this course.ᶲᶲ  The risk is very real because the number of republican/participative citizens who oppose the established cargo/pressure system is unknown.

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* A Cargo Cult is a group which believes that if proper ceremonies are performed shipments of riches will be sent from heaven.


** https://www.ccpc.ie/consumers/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/10/Org-chart-Oct-2017.pdf

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/ireland-is-a-leader-in-mairs-anti-political-sentiment/

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

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/time-for-labour-to-think-before-taking-the-familiar-path/

I couldn’t say that I know Kenneth Egan, the Olympic boxing silver medallist, but I’ve spoken to him a couple of times and I’ve heard him on radio and TV. He’s a decent man who would like to give something back to boxing and to his hometown. When I heard that he intended to be a Fine Gael candidate in the 2014 local government elections, I knew that the smart asses would attempt to flitter him. They did.

He was characterised at worst as a fool and at best as naïve, knowing nothing about politics. Well, he’s certainly not a fool. He readily admits that he knows little about politics and that he’s with Fine Gael because they were first to ask him.

Kenneth Egan was open and honest about his intentions. He wanted to do community work. He reckoned that being on the Council would facilitate this. He was elected.

A cursory reading of the 2014 local election material – leaflets and posters – reveals that he was not at all unusual. Local election material was of two familiar – almost ritualistic – types. Firstly, there were lies that national controversies like property and water taxes could be resolved at local level, and futile Labour/FG efforts to counteract the lies. A variation on the lie was that the County Council was irrelevant and that the election was a method of sending a message to national government. Secondly, there was canvassing to secure employment/recognition as a community worker. Completely absent from the election material was any suggestion that the council would be an assembly which would debate politically, a chamber in which local issues would be addressed from the standpoints of competing ideologies and political values.

A consideration of the role of lies and indirect messaging in election campaigns and how mass media encourage or at least facilitate them will have to wait for another day. Here the intention will be to consider the election of community workers to local government.

At first glance politics and community work are quite distinct and it is tempting to view the routine approach to local elections as a misunderstanding or even as a kind of corrupt populism but it might be better to treat it more seriously. There are two possibilities: 1. that candidates believe local government to be non-political; and 2. that the community-work approach reflects a political perspective to rival, say, both liberalism and socialism. Let’s look at the two possibilities in turn.

1. Belief that local government is non-political has its equivalent on the national scale where clientelism thrives. Here candidates compete to provide some sort of service while trying to avoid anything divisive, like a political argument or an overall political perspective. There is a view that a national interest exists which supersedes all divisions including the entire structure of economic inequality. Many people dispute this view and it is particularly rejected by the left. However, its equivalent in local government goes largely unchallenged. Leftists seem to be as committed to the notion of “the community” or “local people” as anyone else.

After the recent 2014 local elections Labour councillors formed a second coalition with Sinn Fein and others to govern South Dublin County. A party member objected on Facebook to involvement with SF. The last part of a Labour councillor’s reply is revealing, “In local government, the people are the focus. My community is what matters to me.”

It is true that power has been shifted to the county manager. It is also true that it is difficult to identify particular council votes that split along ideological lines. The problem is this: If the council is not a battleground of political values, then it has little function. That is to say, if it manages by reliance on a shared view, then it is no more than a supervisory management board and it could or should be replaced by a smaller board or even by an individual. The small board or individual could be charged with being the community’s representative to counterbalance the career managers. Whether or not election is necessary to choosing the counterbalance will be put to one side for consideration another day but the point is that if the council is not riven by political values, there is no reason to continue with its present quasi-parliamentary form when something a great deal smaller would suffice.

2. There is a danger that commentators and political scientists will fail to take the community-work approach seriously, that they will refuse to consider it as a political perspective – a complex, functional, conservative whole, very suited to maintaining privilege in today’s conditions.

A Fine Gael TD (MP) of my acquaintance – a very decent, hard-working person – argues that ideologies are divisive and unnecessary. He sees his election to the Dáil (parliament) as voter recognition for the years of hard work he put in as a county councillor. In other words, voters promoted him to a higher grade. He takes his role as public representative seriously but it is a role which many would dispute or indeed decry. He attends meetings, holds advice clinics etc. He is, to use the familiar term, “active on the ground”. His activity has a purpose: it is how he establishes what his constituents want. Once he’s established that they want something, his role is to do what he can to help them get it. He will write letters/e-mails, attend and speak at public meetings, lead deputations to government ministers or to senior managers in state services or companies. He uses his status and influence to apply pressure for the delivery of some local demand. He might operate similarly on behalf of a family or an individual provided it did not contradict what the community generally wanted. This is his political perspective; this is politics for him. He is aware of course that many criticise him on the basis that all of his activity is about nothing more than ingratiating himself with voters in order to be re-elected. He agrees that his activity “on the ground” is necessary to re-election but he also enjoys doing it, sees it as his function as an elected representative and supports the whole as a sensible, working political system. He is not in the least odd; he’s mainstream.

This is an old, conservative perspective perhaps best understood as the Fianna Fáil tradition of constituency service. They insinuated themselves into each and every locality and organisation and developed a reputation for “getting things done” or “delivering” and indeed bizarrely for being anti-establishment. Leftists behave no differently but they tend to have a different rationale for precisely the same activity. Leftists tend to be in thrall to “working people”, “ordinary people” or increasingly seldom, “the working class”. Like my Fine Gael acquaintance above, leftists sincerely want to advance popular demands but they also want to lead “working people” who are viewed as essentially progressive.

I know quite a few Labour county councillors. They are thoughtful and acutely aware of inequality and the class-divided nature of Irish society. They live to change that society by way of gradual reform, i.e. the parliamentary route. They realise that there is little or no conflict over political values at council level and that they must do community work. Some have ambitions to be elected to the Dáil and see the county council as a stepping stone. Again like my Fine Gael acquaintance above, they work “on the ground” hoping that voters will promote them. They are aware too that promotion to the Dáil will not mean elevation to a realm of political conflict with a constant clash of political values because re-election will to a great extent depend on that same work “on the ground”. There is no easy escape because not only is that the established way of things but the vast majority of electors shares the political view expressed by my Fine Gael acquaintance. Some voters, candidates and elected representatives may adopt a bogus anti-establishment swagger by talking in terms of the “political class” being pressured by “working people” but it amounts to the same stable conservatism: politics reduced to getting facilities or services for one group of citizens/constituents at the expense of others. Community work – together with protest, agitation and pressure – has become part of the management of dissent, a way of avoiding differences over political values.*

It is very different at party meetings. At times a meeting can inhabit another world, a world in which class, oppression, equality, legitimacy, power and their likes have real currency. Here’s the thing: A prospective council candidate seeking support at a Labour convention or – I presume – any other left party’s convention simply could not say that socialism was irrelevant and that they were putting themselves forward as an excellent community worker. The tradition (It may be a myth at this stage.) has to be maintained that community work, leading protests, etc. are directed towards socialism or at least a more equal society. The thought that they might be directed towards maintaining the system would be unbearable for most socialists.**

There is little point in suggesting or debating reforms at this stage. That is to say, there’s not much point in talking about elected county managers or elected supervisory boards because the overwhelming majority – including most of those who would see themselves as anti-establishment – support the system. There is a more basic argument to be addressed first. The republican approach which would include both liberalism and socialism views democracy as a matter of citizen participation in debates about the direction of the republic. It’s a tiny minority viewpoint. Given the forces opposed, it could be termed deeply unfashionable or even eccentric but it is old, basic, democratic and worthy of support.

Yes, council elections are for the most part about appointing/ recognising community workers. Voting for community workers or local-delivery agitators – even when they belong to ideological parties – is at best mildly democratic but in any republican sense might better be seen as counter-democratic.

It would seem time to recognise that a county or a city council is not a little parliament and making an explicit difference between the two might help to revitalise citizenship and push parliament back towards its neglected deliberative role.

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* This is not the place to consider the possibility of a post-political age.

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

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.

Sometime last week I heard on the radio a nasty little exchange between Alan Shatter of Fine Gael and Minister Martin Mansergh. It was about Euro 200K which had been spent on turning a car park at Leinster House into a lawn. At one point in defending the spending the Minister pointed out that the original estimate of 400K had been cut in half by the use of direct labour.

Now this is interesting on two fronts. Firstly, it is very rare to hear a FF spokesperson admit to an example of a saving achieved by the use of direct labour. Ideology demands that contracts and out-sourcing be cheaper. Secondly, the saving is enormous. I accept that direct labour is more efficient but surely not by 200K on 400K! I asked the Bord of Works and received a reply to the effect that the cheaper job was the complete project.

My next step will be to ask the name of the company which quoted a price 100% more expensive than the job actually cost?