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It’s very easy to be glib about the approach of those Irish left politicians and parties who prefer street agitation to participation in government.

Despite their relatively small size, a great deal of attention focusses on the “real left”, “socialist left” or “hard left” parties who refuse to countenance any form of support for a government which includes “right wing parties”, never mind entering into coalition government. A journalist/interviewer asking them if they are involved merely in protest rather than wishing to govern is failing to grasp the significance of what is happening. On the one hand these leftists are stating their traditional opposition to liberal parliamentary democracy – a position based in long standing theory – but on the other hand they are stating their role within the system.

Supporting and fomenting popular protest without due regard to its political content – i.e. whether or not it is right or left wing – while discrediting and distancing themselves from parliament, makes revolutionary sense. While it is certain that socialist revolutionaries still exist, it is decades since I’ve met one. I’ve tried but in recent years my discussions with, let’s call them, militant socialists have failed to discover a revolutionary.

There are many who use the word “revolution” but their use is meaningless within ordinary political discourse. When questioned about their intentions, i.e. when asked explicitly if they want to overthrow or break the existing political system and replace it, their replies are pretty consistent. They tend to be shocked, suspicious or hurt and they deny any revolutionary intent. They are essentially playing with the word. They don’t mean a revolution in the conventional sense; they don’t want to create a crisis during which they will seize power and rule for the common good.

Neither do they want to join the socialist tradition which seeks reforms through parliament.

This approach is by no means thoughtless. On the contrary it is a developing strand of leftism with old and deep roots. Historically, left revolutionaries viewed the bourgeois state as irredeemable, to be smashed and replaced by popular, local, grass-roots institutions run by workers. The revolutionaries had no time for socialists who favoured a parliamentary route of winning elections in order to govern in the interests of the masses or gradually to create socialism by reform piled on reform. The former went their way and governed huge areas of the world but fell into a rapid decline in the late 20th century especially with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The latter went on to become part of the establishment, supplying Labour and Socialist Party governments, especially in Western Europe.

Reducing parliament to an area of struggle alongside street protest makes little sense without revolutionary intent. However, for activists who have spent so long decrying slow reform by way of parliament as mere social democracy, the abandonment of revolution and integration with the Labour/European Socialist mainstream, would probably seem a humiliation or even some kind of betrayal. They have come to, however, a solution – a workable compromise and yes, I’m afraid, it’s yet another third way – which maintains the trappings and style of revolution while becoming integral to the cargo/pressure system of politics. That system is one which has long dismissed universal objectives or political values as a basis for policy and instead operates by way of competing groups (some interest and some geographic, a polyarchy) which exert pressure on the government/political class/establishment to achieve a higher priority in state spending or delivery of infrastructure against rival groups. Leftists who have little or no time for parliament and government have found a niche: they now compete to represent workers not as the working class making universal demands but as a group confronting the establishment in pursuit of favourable treatment.

Apart from single-issue independents, it is new and fresh in Ireland to take explicit pressure group campaigning into parliament and to be seen to be confronting government rather than participating – even as loyal opposition. Should this course be successful, imitation is inevitable.

It’s a paradox really: that without revolution, revolutionary socialists have established a role within the cargo/pressure political system, a system that has the support of the overwhelming majority of Irish citizens. Stated bluntly, they are now conservatives. The task of achieving reforms aimed specifically at changing the system and at altering the structure of inequality then falls to socialists who will demand such reforms as the price extracted for governing in coalition with supporters of the system. They will be decried in and out of parliament by those who prefer that political decisions and priorities be determined by the constant struggle of competing pressure groups and they will unfavourably be compared by establishment journalists to “principled” or “real” socialists – the “hard left” – who strike revolutionary poses while dependably supporting the cargo/pressure system, campaigning like all other parties for delivery to a locale or preferment for a group. Sadly, that group seeking preferment is what they are making of the working class.

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Ordinary citizens appear increasingly to be democracy’s and indeed decent, civilised behaviour’s last line of defence. In their day-to-day interactions it now falls to citizens to struggle against those who promote and support barbarism. That is to say, if it was ever sensible to remain silent – to opt for a quiet life – while someone in the company – perhaps a friend or family member – spouts nonsense or savagery, it’s no longer a safe option; democracy and decency are now under too much pressure.

During a recent BBC Panorama documentary on the rise of racist attacks in the aftermath of the Brexit poll, a social scientist made a telling point: it’s not that the racists have majority support; it is that they think they have.*

Those who hold and express vile views seldom if ever face an adverse reaction in social and family circles. Too few people or perhaps no one at all expressly disagrees with them, tells them that they should be ashamed of themselves or refuses to socialise with them. Moreover, they are allowed to take part in routine conversation and banter without reference to the knowledge that their most basic views are an affront to civilisation. To borrow a term from communication and media studies, racist thugs are being normalised.

The same failing has resulted in the current friction over what men can and cannot say to and about women. There are those who hold that despicable behaviour is part of routine banter. The thing is, they are telling the truth and it is the truth because no one in their circle says otherwise. Colleagues, associates, friends and family – knowing their views and character – are willing to socialise with them, are willing to normalise them.

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A key moment for me came some years ago on a bus queue of all places. I tend to talk to strangers. I engaged when the person beside me started on about what was wrong with Irish society. Soon it became apparent that immigrants were the cause of Ireland’s problems. It got worse: each race, it was contended, brought particular failings and these were enthusiastically listed. Certainly I was shocked to be talking to an extremist but more shocking was that someone so extreme would be open with a complete stranger. When I gathered myself and began to argue, it was her turn to be shocked. Clearly she was unaccustomed to questioning and contradiction. She fell silent shortly before the bus arrived.

Thinking about the incident afterwards, I was made despondent by the idea that those views had become utterly routine, that in this woman’s circles her views were accepted as ordinary. My belief now while still chilling, is a little better. Yes, her views are held by many – far too many – but she is mistaken in thinking that she enjoys near universal approval. She is lulled into assuming approval by the absence of confrontation, contradiction and criticism and by being made welcome into the company of decent people.

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Tolerance is now so pervasively misunderstood that public discourse is endangered. “I’m entitled to my opinion” has come to mean, “I’m entitled to say what I like without having to answer for it.” An added variant is, “I’m entitled to talk about drains and football without mention of my more basic, noxious views.” Too many thinking people now consider trenchant argument to be impolite. They flop into an effete silence while racists, misogynists, liars, conspiracy theorists, even supporters of war crimes, and others with similarly vile views move and operate as if they were normal citizens of a decent and democratic society.

There might have been a time when journalists were expected to act but nowadays they are almost completely in thrall to news values and have for the most part left the field of struggle over fundamental values. They prefer to report comments on current issues without reference to a speaker’s basic and sometimes vile views; bluntly, they are activists in the process of normalisation.

That leaves the last line of defence: the thinking, participative citizen, aware of three things: i) that democracy is recent and fragile ii) that it depends on effective public discourse; and iii) that beyond issues, current affairs, even the differences between conservatives, liberals and socialists, there is a small number of shared positions that mark out democracy, civilised behaviour and human decency. That is now threatened and quiet politeness is complicity.

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* About 22mins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yetFgoAkrGE

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone gets through life without occasionally having their integrity tested.* There are rare situations where showing integrity might bring appalling consequences – even death – and in such a situation fear unto dishonesty is understandable and forgivable. In most other situations the risk is small. Indeed the most common motivation for failing to act or speak with integrity is an ambition for career advancement. Now, let’s be quite clear here. If someone feels compelled to dishonesty for fear of being sacked, then that may be forgivable but only if the matter is relatively minor. However, a person who abandons their integrity for the hope of career advancement reveals a paradox: They progress by being precisely the kind of person who is unsuited to a position of trust or of any importance.

It is true too that in our times a calculating, professional, strategic way of thinking tends to be lauded and this provides a ready cover for acting without reference to good or bad.

There are, however, ordinary people who behave properly when their integrity is tested. They are rarely dealing with matters very serious but they speak up and/or act according to what is right – either morally or for the good of the organisation that employs them. In the short term they accept that they will anger the boss and their career may stall. In the long-term they may never recover that impetus for promotion but on the other hand they may come to be seen as having integrity, precisely what is required in a more senior position.

Lack of integrity was a root cause of economic collapse in Ireland. As the Irish property bubble/scam was deliberately developed, there were those in banking, management generally, media, politics, the professions, education, public service, consultancies etc. who knew that it could end only in tears. Few of them passed the test: They lacked the integrity to speak up time and again. They preferred to take their chances by pretending that they believed in nonsense.** Particular blame falls on banking staff who sat silently through meetings, listening to what they knew to be complete bollocks. They were in place for the subsequent scams in “stealing” tracker mortgages and they’re still there. No one could seriously think that their characters will change and that in future they will behave with integrity.

It is unfortunately true that chancers lacking in integrity often make career progress. However, when they are found out, it is imperative that they be identified as “the wrong stuff” and asked to go.

At the very least there must be a demand that recruitment and promotion seek to identify candidates with integrity. If a person cannot speak up in the face of a shouting or overbearing fool, he/she is either too timid or too lacking in integrity to be appointed. How about, “All Candidates must be prepared to discuss instances when their integrity was tested.” An interview board prepared to explore thoroughly that area of a c.v. for, say, a Garda or banking appointment would weed out the chancers and in time eliminate the excuse/whitewash of culture.

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

** Integrity is at the core of another, older post on this blog: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/time-for-a-clear-out-who-misled-and-who-remained-silent-as-a-completely-irish-made-fiasco-developed/

It is understandable and indeed predictable that activists, having found that protest is utterly pointless, would resort to something else – something distinguished by the term, “effective protest”.

When activists express a desire to have effective protest, they make the point that protest is ineffective. That’s true. While an exceptionally large turn out or the attendance of normally compliant people may prompt a government to pause for thought, the days of authorities quaking when people decide to march are long gone. The talk now is of security and stewarding, with organisers looked upon as managers. Indeed, it is now usual to hear senior police officers say not only that people have a right to protest but that police will defend that right.

Long experience has revealed that protest is unthreatening but there’s more: protest has been institutionalised. It has become quasi-constitutional, a part of the way that politics is done. It is now an effective lightning conductor, discharging anger and resentment safely to earth. It is conservative, part of the management of dissent.

Political activists tend to enjoy protests. They rate them as good or relatively good and reminisce about protests they’ve attended. It’s a badge of honour to be able to claim attendance at some of the famous ones. It’s even a way of meeting up with old friends and comrades or resuming association under a respected banner.

It is not uncommon, however, for those activists who oppose this established practice to attend a protest, leave the main body of protesters and take an action thought likely to cause some disruption or a confrontation with the police. This would lead perhaps to a fracas which could be characterised as state opposition to protest. There have been amusing outcomes as when the confrontation stops traffic and prevents law abiding protestors getting home from their protest.

During the campaign against water charges comments on social media began to make an interesting distinction between protest and effective protest. Typically a protester would be told by a Garda to stand aside from the installation of a water meter and to protest nearby. This they would see as pointless since the objective was to prevent the installation of water meters. Standing aside with a placard was not deemed effective protest. Effective protest is aimed at preventing something or perhaps causing something to happen, while protest as facilitated by An Garda is essentially communicative – protesting about something.

It might seem sensible at this point to tidy up the terminology but it’s not that simple. The inviting course would be to distinguish between protest – institutionalised as communication – and direct action. Here’s the problem: since the controversy is essentially about widening the definition and therefore acceptability of protest to include actions that are not exclusively communicative, creating a distinction right here between protest and action would prejudge the outcome of the discussion.

Peaceful” seems to present a complicating factor. Many protest actions are now accompanied by chanting “peaceful protest, peaceful protest”. The proposition would seem to be that any action that does not directly offer violence is legitimate protest and should be defended by the state.

As mentioned above, examination of the institution of protest was brought forward in Ireland by activists opposed to water charges and the installation of water meters. They actively tried to prevent the work being carried out by standing into earthworks, blocking roads to contractors and slow marching in front of contractors’ vehicles. Leaving aside the claimed justification of acting on behalf of the people, the proposition here is that preventing or delaying work is legitimate protest and should be defended by the state. It’s by no means a new proposition; environmental activists have occupied tree tops to prevent projects that involved the destruction of the trees. Blockades preventing workers or supplies reaching a disputed site are quite common.

While they sometimes lead to violent clashes when police try to keep a road open, the blockade or slow march is now increasingly accepted as legitimate protest. The activist gets to make an effective protest which prevents, say, work happening for a time. The state accepts that protest will cause delays but projects tend to completion in the longer term and it is recognised as necessary to dissipate anger and opposition. Occasional clashes between protesters and police are inevitable as an accommodation is achieved between two accepted rights: the right to protest and the right to go about lawful business without hindrance. The currency here is essentially time.

The activists involved in the Jobstown protest directed at a visit by the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) to an educational conferral proposed that preventing or disrupting the visit or preventing the Tánaiste and her assistant from leaving was legitimate protest. The Director of Public Prosecutions disagreed and some were charged with illegally detaining citizens. This outraged activists who saw it as undermining the institution of protest. Indeed, in closing argument a defence barrister argued that the prosecution was an intentional assault on effective protest. In doing so, he ridiculed conventional protest as both old fashioned and akin to Father Ted holding a banner inscribed with “down with this sort of thing”. *

Two distinct arguments have emerged. Firstly, it is argued that a blockade preventing entry is not the same as preventing a citizen from leaving.** As the charging of the Jobstown protestors indicates, the State is intolerant of protesters detaining a citizen but this intolerance does not sit easily with police facilitating the slow marching of workers on a contested project trying to go home. Indeed, at Jobstown the slow march home was apparently negotiated between police and protest leaders/managers as an accommodation which would end the protest.

Secondly, a strange new proposition was advanced by a defence barrister: that because one of the detained citizens was a government minister she could be detained in order to ensure that she listened to the views of the protestors. In other words, the freedom of the minister to walk away from communication was contested. Like the slow march this could be developed into a peaceful accommodation: that a citizen can be detained in order to ensure that they hear some viewpoint. Again the currency would be time.

Now clearly there’s a great deal of pretence going on. On the state’s side there is a pretence that protest leads to change. In Ireland where decisions are subject to the delivery/pressure system, protest is just one pressure among many; e.g. interest groups, non-government organisations, sympathetic journalism.

On the side of the activists there is an implied pretence that if the state recognised a range of actions as protest, they would support the state. The reality is that since the state has assimilated protest, something else has to happen if the state is to be confronted.

In other words, one side says that protest is a right, encouraged, recognised and protected; the other side says any limitation on direct action undermines the right to protest. The two sides simply are not talking about the same thing.

Let’s take both at their word: that the state really does approve and encourage dissent, and that the activists do not seek confrontation but want to extend legitimate action beyond marches and standing with placards.

As suggested above the currency is time, delay. Negotiations are already the order of the day. The proposition is that activists may do as they wish as long as they are not violent. In many cases this will work out fine. A blockade of some engineering project is very likely factored into costs. Workers delayed by slow marches can probably be compensated by overtime payments. An extended list of accommodations might suggest that this is easily resolved but switching attention to different more basic examples of rights clashing reveals something far more problematic.

Leaving aside all question of violence like attacking an individual at whom a protest might be aimed or breaking up property, the extension of legitimacy (state recognition and protection) to all activity labelled protest could cede rights to groups at the expense of citizens. This returns consideration to the nub of the matter.

Citizens tend to be content to have rights limited in order to ensure public safety but this necessarily involves threat. It would be quite another matter if, say, freedom of movement were denied indefinitely or for a considerable period in order to defend a right to protest. While the state now negotiates with protesters, an authoritarian paradox emerges.

Should the institution of protest be extended to include all actions that a group or individual was willing to claim to be a protest, then a group or individual could rely on the state to constrain others. Thus the word “protest” – never mind “peaceful protest” – would trump all other liberties. Clearly no state with the slightest pretence to being liberal could cede such power to anyone willing to take action.

Rather than worrying excessively about what might happen – what obscure or mad action might be adopted to oppress fellow citizens – it might be better to consider codifying protest actions that are regularly claimed to be so, for example:

i) There is now no dispute over the protest march. It is a recognised institution.

ii) The sit down protest in a public street is disputed. It will normally be respected/tolerated by the state until it inconveniences a large number of citizens or a smaller number for a protracted period. Business interests tend to intrude as shops fear disruption of trading or the creation of the impression that going into town is subject to disruption.

iii) Slow marching is now virtually recognised by the state as a useful way of ending confrontation while allowing activists to feel that they’ve been effective in at least causing delay.

Come on, though, let’s be frank. If activists are committed to opposing the state, none of this is relevant because they must devise actions such that the state will oppose them. The position would seem to be that while protest is quasi-constitutional and effective protest can be accommodated, the last thing that anti-state/anti-establishment activists want is to be part of an effective lightning conductor, discharging anger and resentment safely to earth, part of the management of dissent. Though they frequently say that they are no longer interested in revolution, they still cling to some undisclosed role for confrontation and crisis***.

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* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gT9xuXQjxMM

** In answering irrelevant questions at the trial of Paul Murphy et al, witness, Karen O’Connell, made an interesting distinction. She suggested that while blocking citizen entry is “peaceful protest”, preventing a citizen from leaving is not.

*** It’s hard to imagine what non-revolutionary street politics is about. It seems to be a compromise between joining that strand of socialism which opts for reforms within the system (frequently mocked as social democracy) and a revolutionary style/tradition without the substance. In practice it sides with all popular movement/sentiment including that which is right wing. It views class in terms of polling categories rather than political values and seeks to represent those it views as working class by putting pressure on the government/establishment/political class. Thus class is reduced to a pressure group and activists termed “hard left” operate within the Irish cargo/pressure system of politics. 

 

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.

Consider this. One of the following was copied from an on-line recruitment message. So, which of them is the real one?

By joining Fine Gael you will join a … strong grass-roots led, campaigning organisation.

By joining Fianna Fáil you will join a … strong grass-roots led, campaigning organisation.

By joining Sinn Féin you will join a … strong grass-roots led, campaigning organisation.

By joining The Labour Party you will join a … strong grass-roots led, campaigning organisation.

By joining The Social Democrats you will join a … strong grass-roots led, campaigning organisation.

By joining The Green Party you will join a … strong grass-roots led, campaigning organisation.

By joining Solidarity you will join a … strong grass-roots led, campaigning organisation.

By joining The People Before Profit Alliance you will join a … strong grass-roots led, campaigning organisation.

Difficult to decide? That’s because any of them could have said it; it’s the way they view politics.

Right then, the sentence was copied from Fianna Fáil. They have a confidence and supply arrangement to support the present government and for decades since the foundation of the state they provided the government. Nevertheless, they see themselves as anti-establishment and hardly anyone thinks it odd. It’s not odd because what they mean is that they will work the cargo/pressure system of politics. My local leftist TD takes up the same position; he sees himself campaigning for and being like a shop steward to some of his constituents, reducing working class to a pressure group.

In short, when it comes to the cargo/pressure way in Ireland, there is no consistent parliamentary opposition.*

Incidentally, the ellipsis in the party sentences above is because the original FF sentence referred to the number of party members and including that would have given the game away.

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* I argue that Labour should become a party of opposition: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/time-for-labour-to-think-before-taking-the-familiar-path/

 

On Sunday morning April 23rd 2017 Joanna Tuffy put a proposal to the Irish Labour Party Conference and it was adopted. If this decision is ignored, the Party can go on as before but if it is implemented, the Party will be changed.

Here’s the text:

“That Labour make measurable reduction of income inequality our basic objective. All policy proposals are then to be at least compatible with this objective and a year-on-year, measurable reduction in income inequality is to become a precondition for any talks on participation in government or on support for minority government. It is accepted that alterations in pay structures within the public service and/or within companies and organisations dependent on the state for finance or contracts may be implemented before more general changes in the wider economy.”

This conference decision has opened up a divide between Labour and all other Irish parties. It signals a refusal any longer to share their support for a meaningless “fairness” and to tolerate the restriction of equality to social concerns. It is a clear decision to move at last against the inequality that offends decent people day in, day out: the extraordinarily stable structure of income inequality – not the safely distant 1% but the gap between those on a minimum wage and those on high salaries.

The decision has three components.

The first changed the position of the Labour Party not to anything revolutionary but nevertheless to the start of something very different and radical: the reduction of income inequality. The reduction will at last become a topic of public controversy because this small party has made it its basic purpose and crucially has linked it to measurable change.

The second component addressed voting and the fraught question of coalition or support for a minority government. It says to potential voters that if you are offended by income inequality, Labour wants to begin reductions, that regardless of other compromises, without a commitment to have a year on year, measurable decrease in inequality of income, there will be no talks on government formation.

The third component is a matter of anticipating the whatabouters, the conservative messers who will try to prevent change by claiming that each and every move is “unfair”, that the whole nasty structure from, say, 15,000 per annum to 300,000 per annum must be maintained because to change any part of it would be – as usual – “unfair”.

So that’s it. It means change. Anyone who has been out talking to citizens knows that it is time to do this. There’s been obfuscation over the degree to which taxation is progressive and over the various methods of calculating inequality but it’s time to stop messing. The Labour Party’s basic aim is now the reduction of income inequality.

Thanks Joanna.

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.

Lorraine Mallinder, writing in New Statesman (17th February 2017), illustrates a particular case of what is a growing problem.* She tells of Ebrimah Jammeh who like many lost family in the Gambia. He now wants not simply peace and reconciliation but retribution. The likelihood is that he will not get this within Gambia because those who have committed crimes against humanity will be given an amnesty. This is not a problem for Africa; increasingly, it seems, that a free pass is a price paid for a peace agreement. Such a deal formed part of the Good Friday Agreement. The Irish and British states gave amnesty to those who had placed bombs in public, and respectability to their leaders and associates.

A crime against humanity is so called because it is beyond the scope of any state; it is a crime against all of us and for that reason we have international courts. As hideous local deals proliferate it is time that participants were made aware that they cannot absolve or be absolved in the name of humanity. In other words, for the sake of peace a perpetrator may walk free within a state or region but he or she should face justice if ever they leave their sanctuary and that risk should dog them for the rest of their lives. The best that Ebrimah can hope for is that Gambian perpetrators will some day be arrested in the name of humanity in another country.

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* http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/observations/2017/02/dictator-family-why-ebrima-jammeh-wants-retribution-gambia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


______________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

The game and left conservatism

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

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

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

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

 

The conservative path or the left path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Marx must have been out of his mind.”

What?”

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

What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________

*

A – Employers & Managers

B – Higher Professional

C – Lower Professional

D – Non Manual

E – Manual Skilled

F – Semi-skilled Manual Workers

G – Unskilled Manual Workers

H – Own Account Workers

I – Farmers

J – Agricultural workers

Z – All other gainfully occupied

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

i) Class reduced to mere interest group

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

ii) Representing and defending communities

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

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

iii) Favouring the street over parliament

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

** Counter establishment

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

I’m supposed to be lecturing on politics but in reality I’m teaching remedial English.” It would be comforting to report that this was heard recently but it was decades ago. A basic failure in Irish education is now long standing and anyone active in social media can see that it is extensive. It’s in the news again because an OECD report bears out what university teachers see daily and talk about constantly.* It is in stark contrast to the belief in Ireland that the education system is basically sound.

Decades of remedial teaching at university point to a fundamental failure and right now that failure is in particular need of clarification because it is becoming entangled in a more complex set of concerns over 3rd level student performance.**

Here’s a proposition: There is no point in admitting to secondary education someone who is not literate and numerate, and is without a good level of general knowledge.

Here’s a second proposition: There is no point in admitting to university someone who is not literate and numerate, lacks extensive general knowledge and a good grasp of science/technology, and who is incapable of independent study and thought.

The two propositions are based on the simple belief that it is futile to ask someone to do something which they are clearly incapable of doing. It is ludicrous at 2nd level to set out to teach, say, literature or maths to someone who cannot spell, punctuate or cope with numbers. It is equally ludicrous at 3rd level to attempt higher education with someone who is not already educated to quite a high standard.

Almost everyone teaching at 3rd level talks of illiteracy and they regale one another with fabulous examples of lack of general knowledge. Many realise too that their students cannot do basic maths and – while proficient domestic computer users – have little scientific or technical knowledge.

Of course the problems are not universal; there are many students well-prepared to thrive in higher learning. However, the difficulty is not that an occasional unprepared student slips in but that they are not at all uncommon. It is tempting to ask how someone lacking the skills mentioned above could possibly have been awarded a Leaving Certificate of any kind, never mind one carrying the points required to gain entry to the next level of education.

Part of the answer and an obvious partial remedy lies at the transition between primary and secondary school. Thanks to technology it is now relatively easy and inexpensive to ensure that no one can enter 2nd level education who is as yet incapable of benefiting from it. A basic test of literacy, numeracy and general knowledge is required. There is no question of grades; it’s a matter of ready or not ready and it’s certainly not the reintroduction of the Primary Certificate. The test could be on-line and inexpensive. It could be taken any time a teacher thinks a pupil is up to it and it could be re-taken as many times as required. ***

Having taken steps to ensure that primary education fulfils one of its functions the foundation exists for secondary education to perform. If doubts remain, however, that the holder of a Leaving Certificate may still be unable to profit from higher learning, it would be open to the HEA to require all applicants to pass an on-line test which too could be re-taken as required.****

By neglecting basic education Ireland is creating significant inefficiency in the entire education system. Remedial learning is being pushed higher and higher. Unless similar is happening in comparable countries, Irish education risks becoming a laughing stock. Our own education professionals are laughing already; that’s how they cope.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/oecd-finds-literacy-an-issue-among-university-students-1.2515918

** student retention rates, the mistaken belief that students of modest ability are not suitable degree candidates, the effect of reducing students to mere consumers, managerialism leading to reliance on on-line lecture notes and reaching “learning objectives”, lack of reading etc.

Carl O’Brien’s Irish Times piece on the OECD report is published with a companion piece which muddies the water: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/universities-offer-literacy-clinics-for-students-1.2515864

*** There is no point in pretending that this does not have profound ramifications for children with learning disabilities and for children who do not speak English. The point here, however, is that no one should be asked to do that which they cannot. Indeed it might be argued that sending a child to secondary school on the basis of age alone is abuse.

**** Clearly it could be argued that the pre-3rd level test obviates the need for the earlier test. This however would be to suggest that entry to 3rd level is the only purpose of education and fails to share the responsibility for good basic education between primary and secondary educators.

The 3rd level test also opens the possibility of a significant 3rd level access sector.

What happens before an outrage like those perpetrated in Paris is that someone selects the target and associates participate to a greater or lesser extent. That is to say, there is deliberation leading to intention or indifference to civilian casualties. A military or industrial target could have been selected but wasn’t; the decision is to kill civilians. In short, there is a wilful choice to commit a crime against humanity.

Because a crime against humanity is essentially target selection it cannot be justified, lessened or even explained by reference to context or circumstances. There are, however, thinking people who want to explore the context of particular acts or campaigns but there are also those who want to use context to deflect attention and responsibility away from the deliberate commission of mass murder. When people go down the latter route or allow themselves to be drawn down this route, the objective is selective approval of some crimes against humanity.

When a member of an organisation that already supports crimes of this nature, discusses context, they cannot be taken seriously. They are merely seeking consistency in trying to find circumstances in which a crime against humanity is defensible.

Listen at about 10.5 mins into the link below as Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin places the Paris attacks in context: alienation, poverty, invasions in the Middle East. These are outrages in themselves; they are the causes of conflict but they are not the causes of the mass murder of civilians. However, if the pretext for mass murder in these islands was “the British presence”, it would be inconsistent not to find a pretext for similar in Paris.

http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/the-week-in-politics-17/10496107/