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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.



** 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:

*** 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.

The strike action at Dublin Bus is more significant and more serious than most commentators seem to imagine. This is because it calls into question the quasi-constitutional understanding of industrial relations and the central role of trade unions within that.

Leaving aside the layers of rules and institutions developed over decades so that industrial relations can be orderly and manageable, there is a base and it is this: a trade union involved in strike action cannot be sued by the company for the recovery of strike-related losses. It’s old (It was formative in the birth of the Labour Party.) it’s been effective and it’s generally supported. There are two groups who dislike it. Firstly, there are free marketeers who argue that it is restrictive. Secondly, there are leftists who see that it institutionalises unions within a capitalist economy. They are both right.

In short, the state has privileged most strike actions so that strikes can be resolved while causing relatively little disruption to the wider social system. The privileged or legitimate strike action is one directed by workers and unions against their employers. If the action extends beyond that, the union no longer enjoys state protection. If there is a strike in support of something over which the employer has no control, the Union is no longer protected by statute and could be held liable for losses.

This is where the bus strike gets very serious. It is clearly a political strike and it has been made so by government policy in giving the Transport Authority control over bus routes. The bus workers want to maintain their conditions and pay, and have struck against their employer to prevent the privatisation of routes. Their employer of course is subject to the Transport Authority and certainly cannot control the pay of workers in private bus companies.

It’s not at all clear what the privatisation is meant to achieve. The Minister says that the tendering plan is aimed at creating “competitive tension in the market” and that this will in some unexplained way deliver “greater value” and “more choice for passengers”. Clearly this is a fine example of complete bollocks, no more than the mumbled prayer of a dogmatic advocate of markets. Journalism however shares the dogma; media interviews, in failing to make any challenge, are cementing a baseless belief into the wall of common sense.

What we have is the potential to place at risk a developed and trusted system of industrial relations so that there will be “competitive tension” in public transport. The risk is real because according to reports the bus company is seriously considering suing the unions for losses. Now, those who want no connection between the state and unions would rejoice in awarding damages to the company but the rest of us who rely on good industrial relations practice do not want to lose a century of progress.

This confrontation must be avoided. This means refusing to listen to clichés about returning to negotiations. The workers and management within the company cannot negotiate a solution. The solution lies elsewhere in a public discussion of “competitive tension” and in the event that the term is not only meaningful but demonstrably and greatly advantageous, then the state must move to institute pay rates and conditions (a registered employment agreement) across the public transport industry. Again, a confrontation which jeopardises the very basis of industrial relations must be avoided.

An acquaintance of mine stupidly ran a business into the ground. Because he did it during the economic downturn he can still turn up at the Lions Club and lie about his “misfortune”. Something similar but far more serious is happening in the public service and specifically in the health service. A handy cover story prevents blame.

It goes like this: A case of extreme and wilful neglect in a hospital is reported. The “establishment” begin an enquiry which inevitably concludes “a system failure” and makes recommendations. Meanwhile, the “anti-establishment” blame the government and “austerity”. The result is that the perpetrators get away with the offence. A police investigation? Don’t be ridiculous.

One such case occurred recently in Beaumont hospital. Mr. Gerry Feeney, an elderly citizen, went there. He was treated in A and E and then for five days in an emergency overflow ward. Everyone is aware of the daily reports about underfunding, especially in Emergency wards. Nevertheless, Mr. Feeney was well treated. He was looked after, fed and respected. This is basic.

Despite his medical condition, he was then transferred to a geriatric ward and the crimes began. He was left sitting in his own urine and excrement. He was starved. Always so concerned about looking smart, he was left in public with with the lower half of his body exposed. The details are available in press reports.*

Had this been a case of parental neglect, the perpetrators would have been removed from the parental role and would face charges before the courts.

Imagine how many times, day after day, that hospital staff and outsourced/contract staff saw this man and decided to neglect him. There is no way to deflect blame. This wasn’t a mishap or a systems failure. This wasn’t due to lack of training or resources. This wasn’t the fault of the management suits. This wasn’t the fault of the government. This was criminal, wilful neglect.

Certainly in Ireland there is a well-developed method of evading personal responsibility; no-one ever did wrong, it is always down to “culture”, “the way things were”, the state etc. Generally this nonsense must stop but in this instance there is a pernicious variant. Inhumane activity – the work of perpetrators – is being afforded a screen. The offences are being obscured and – revolting as it might be to use the word – dignified by a political debate.

There is no place in the public service for someone who would walk by a citizen starving, exposed and dirty. There should be no place outside of jail for someone who would decide to commit such offences.


I get as much fun as the next person from the kind of language referred to as bafflegab, management-speak or simply, complete bollocks. I’ve gone considerably further, however, in suggesting that its users be sacked or at least demoted to positions from which they can do less harm. This can strike some people – perhaps, most people – as extreme, so I’d best explain.

The explanation has two parts. Firstly, I’ll talk about the takeover of management by a new and self-serving elite which changes the objective of a business or organisation. Secondly, I’ll explain why a tendency for a senior staff member to talk in riddles should lead not to jokes but to remedial action.

i) The drive to measure rather than produce
It’s important not to misunderstand the target of my attack. What I’m saying has nothing whatsoever to do with liberalism versus socialism or business versus public service approaches to problem solving. Neither has it anything to do with the traditional clash of interests between worker and manager. In other words, I’m not advancing anything remotely like a left-wing argument.

I am contrasting the relatively new parasite that is managerialism with old fashioned business and management. Management as it is usually understood is directed towards the objective of an organisation – be that profit or service. However, when the objective of those in control has less to do with the purpose of the institution/organisation/company which employs them and more to do with the common cause of similarly placed people in other organisations, management as traditionally understood has been usurped.

The managerial parasite works by making the production of management information the primary purpose of an enterprise. Again, there is a need to clarify because I’m not assaulting the production of management information or indeed effective management. Management information is both essential and costly. Its production diverts people from their work and requires support staff. Each and every management report has to be accurately costed before a decision can be made to begin producing it. In short, management information has to be kept to the minimum necessary to achieving an objective. In the absence of rigorous costing and an eye to the bare essentials, it is very easy for measurement, data collection and the manufacture of reports to get out of hand. Professionals in management information have been aware of the paradox for decades: management information is part of a control system but its production too needs to be tightly controlled. As with any product, if the distinction between production and control breaks down, management has broken down.

To get a hold in an organisation, managerialism must first oust efficient managers. Then it creates a layer of employees who live off information processes that effective management would never tolerate. Despite its cloaking image it is no friend of business.

The bloated salaries within this expanded elite are in evidence across companies and in both the private and state sectors. The same is true of bizarre new job titles. New structures are created which facilitate high level appointments. Most affected companies will have seen an expansion in the numbers appointed to what were once very senior – perhaps unique – well paid positions (e.g. “Director”). Most obvious is the recourse to a lexicon which is silly and frequently derided – the complete bollocks which is often termed, management-speak – as if a real manager would ever have need of such nonsense.

ii) Bafflegab as affiliation signal
There was a time when I assumed that the function of talking in obscure management-speak was to provide cover to a wasteful system by way of constant use of seemingly businesslike and efficiency oriented words. That is to say, I thought the bizarre language was a device to cloak futile activity in terms that give the impression of innovation, progress and effective decision making.

The problem with my early view of course is that the bizarre language is so transparently false. No thinking person would be fooled and the familiar reaction is laughter and derision. With the possible exceptions of some particularly dense practitioners, the speakers must be aware that people are laughing at them. It is certain too that they get the joke and know full well that they are talking bollocks. This prompts the question of why they persist with it.

Borrowing from anthropology, a plausible explanation is that the silly manner of speaking or – to be blunt – the complete bollocks is an affiliation signal. The adoption and use of the latest buzzword, the elimination of clarity, the overblown expression and the rest that go to make up management-speak is a signal that the speaker is a member of the new elite, will adhere to conventions, will not criticise, will support and promote his/her fellows or that the speaker aspires to membership.

This ease of identification is possibly the one advantage that a manager might have in trying to eliminate the problem in a company or organisation.

Regaining control
Depressing as it is to consider, there may be no way back. It is worth bearing in mind that quite large numbers of people earn a living from all this waste and any attempt by one organisation to reform will be resisted, characterised as backward and eccentric. On the other hand, as a whole it is unsustainable. What an organisation might seek to do is return salaries, staffing, structures etc. to those pertaining at a chosen time in the past. Apart from the shock to the system, the pay cuts and the numbers made redundant or demoted, the choice of date would be difficult and critical. Choose too late a date and the roots of the problem might be left intact. Choose too early a date and there’s a risk of going back too far in the history of ICT, thereby stripping an organisation of its ability to operate legitimate, up-to-date systems.

Then there is the opportunity presented by the affiliation signal. A reforming CEO or group of managers could first purge senior levels of those who are signalling membership and gradually work downwards. Once it becomes clear that new, reforming management is taking back control of the organisation and that the managerial elite is under threat, aspiring members will stop signalling, cohesion will be lost and the organisation should ever so slowly – perhaps too slowly – begin to revert to purpose.

Moreover, this will gradually confer a mixed blessing on the rest of us: we’ll be subjected to a little less complete bollocks, we’ll be aware that businesses and services are being liberated, and allowed to flourish but at the cost of making the fun of bullshit bingo a thing of the past.

In Ireland it is rare that particular classes of wrongdoers pay a penalty for their actions or inaction. When crime from dodgy dealing to hideous violence is dragged into the light, the clichés begin; establishment voices call for a line to be drawn under it and for new regulation to ensure that it can’t happen in the future. The anodyne call to forgetfulness is, “We are where we are.” Less popular are, “We must avoid the blame game”, “It was the culture of the time”, “Everyone was at it” or “We must avoid a tendency to demonise”.

What this nonsense means is that with a handful of sacrificial exceptions the elite in Ireland can avoid being held accountable. The political party responsible for the building scam which brought the country close to ruin is once again popular. Those in education, media and management who lacked the ability to see the property/lending folly or lacked the integrity to speak out at the time are still in place. The c.e.o. of Allied Irish Banks considers it a firing offence for managers to take out loans for speculation but no one who did it in the past will be fired. There’s a gunrunner sitting in the Dáil surrounded by colleagues who supported civilian slaughter for years but it is now considered “not done” to scoff at their concerns about inequality and suffering. Indeed looking to recent violent history is considered detrimental to the “peace process”. It would appear that no one guilty of assault or keeping slaves in laundries will face prosecution. Likewise teachers who ignored the rules in regard to corporal punishment can enjoy retirement. Then there are the auditors and board members …

The list can seem endless but around it is the protective, “We are where we are.” It suggests a new verb: “to go wawa”.* Like so many things, going wawa is not a method of escape for everyone. It’s reserved to protect the pillars of our establishment. While citizens will be asked to go wawa when it comes to managers, politicians, teachers, journalists etc., hell will freeze over before a judge says to a car thief, “I’ve agreed to go wawa on your offences. You may leave.” ___________________________________________________________________ *

My long-time friend, Eamon Tuffy, socialist and former county cllr, reminded me recently that it’s no longer clear if South Dublin County Council has a county manager. That post now seems to be Chief Executive.* It might be argued that this makes no difference. However, it is certain that the change was discussed and decided upon. In other words, there are reasons.

The change was, moreover, not done in isolation. There are now “Directors of …” and the council is adamant that it will redefine citizens as customers.

What we are witnessing is our local county council taking part in much wider phenomenon: corporatisation. **

Too many local politicians want to be community workers and to avoid bringing politics into … well, politics – and they’ll try to convince themselves that words don’t matter.*** Words do matter and these changes will appear over and over in media in order to drive home their acceptability and the acceptability of the political changes they reflect.

On two occasions in the past I’ve tried unsuccessfully to report to An Garda an on-line threat of violence. Today I tried a third time. Here’s what happened.

A newspaper report with a picture of a convicted sex offender was shared on Facebook with a comment that he was living on a particular road in Dublin. This drew a comment which read, “Petrol bomb the fucker out.” The person who made the comment seemed to do so under his real name and there was considerable detail on his page. I wanted to get a Garda to look at the FB thread and decide what to do.

I knew that reporting this to my local Garda station was pointless as they do not have unrestricted access to the net.

I didn’t think a 999 call was warranted so I rang the general number for Garda Headquarters and asked could I be connected to any Garda who had access to Facebook. Without speaking to me, the Garda transferred me to a phone system which was not in working order. I tried this twice more, explaining that the system to which I was being passed was not working. At no stage did this Garda utter anything other than a couple of grunts.

I then tried ringing the Garda Personnel Dept. I apologised to the Garda who answered and explained the situation. This Garda was helpful. She consulted her sergeant and tried to find me a phone number of a Garda with access to Facebook. Eventually we had to give up on this. She urged me to contact the station local to the incident and she gave me the phone number.

I rang them to be told by a helpful Garda that they had no access to the internet and that they couldn’t deal with me on the phone. I would have to come to the station. Alternatively, I could go to my local station and they would take details for forwarding on.

Petty managers in many organisations restrict access to the net in the belief that staff will do nothing all day but talk to friends. This sort of nonsense was said years ago in relation to the telephone. In this case we are talking about a police force and petrol bomb threat.

The new Minister for Justice should immediately lift all restrictions on Garda access to the net and seek the removal of the foolish manager/s who initiated and maintained this restriction.

There’s no point in attacking Frank Flannery or indeed Angela Kerins. His argument needs to be addressed. What he is saying is that because Rehab is a private company which sells to the HSE among others, the State has no business looking into its internal affairs. The problem is that the way things are he’s right.

Let’s leave aside the question of supplying citizen services through a private company and consider implementing public policy by way of placing conditions on the awarding of state contracts. We do this already in that companies seeking state contracts have to prove they are tax compliant.

If ludicrous salaries paid within companies working for the state are to be addressed, it will have to be a condition of the contract. A condition of a state contract could be that no employee or director or pensioner of the company has an income in excess of some multiple of the lowest paid employee or perhaps the legal minimum wage or the median wage in Ireland.

It’s really a matter of deciding whether or not we want to do anything about ludicrous salaries. If we do, it will necessarily mean discussing and deciding on an amount above which we do not want our state to facilitate.

Apart from stratospheric incomes like those of the top 1%, rich people tend not to consider themselves rich or to be in receipt of ludicrous salaries. They think their pay is moderate and that they’re worth it. They need to be disabused of that view.**

They also tend to resort to “fairness” to oppose any move to reduce inequality. They argue that it would not be fair to do anything to anyone until all of those similarly situated can be treated equally. Like all forms of “whataboutery” this argument should be vigorously resisted.



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.

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


The labour Party – my party – is in turmoil. Questions are being asked about leadership, management, a revised programme for government and more. However, now more than ever the most useful question that the Labour Party can ask of itself is what is its purpose? Many see its purpose as defending welfare payments, sometimes jokingly referred to as being the political wing of St. Vincent DePaul. In recent years it has become conventional to say that its purpose – like every other party in the state – is to create a fairer society. Since entering government its purpose has become the restoration the economy.

Defending welfare payments and restoring the economy are worthy objectives. “Fairness”, however, has become a weasel word. It has been emptied of meaning. Anyone at all can be comfortably in favour of fairness but essentially it is a conservative position because all significant change – particularly in wealth or income – can be described as unfair.

It might have been expected that socialism would feature. It certainly is mentioned regularly and is a focus of rows usually of a very technical nature. Open, iconoclastic discussion is rare because of the dominance – across decades – of conflict over socialism versus social democracy. While many seem to enjoy this jousting, it hardly qualifies as a debate. Indeed the Labour Party’s on-line forum, a model of openness and freedom, had to impose a rule that forbade questioning a person’s socialism. The reason was simple and born out of long experience: it was realised that as soon as a person is subjected to the “you’re-not-a-real-socialist” routine he/she would become defensive and discussion would rush down the old, boggy cul de sac of socialism/social democracy.

Many on the left would say that socialism/social democracy is the only debate, that it is fundamental, and that it must be addressed before any progress can be made. Ok then, perhaps it is worth risking a short discussion but it is a risk; it risks losing the attention of many leftists and it risks attracting comments about betrayal, principles, heroes rolling in their graves and the other traditional trappings of socialism reduced to a “faith”.

Socialists who favour a revolution generally treat with disdain those who accept parliamentary democracy and would want to describe them all as Social Democrats. However, the majority of socialists are opposed to revolution and regard the term “social democrat” as an insult. In truth insult is often intended.

One tradition sees a parliamentary route to a socialist society. The idea is that reform would be piled upon reform until capitalism is effectively replaced. This is now seldom discussed among socialists. Indeed, the question of transition to socialism is avoided. Non-revolutionary socialists anxious to avoid being labelled “social democrat” are often unwilling to let go of the term “revolution”. In seeking to redefine revolution to suit their peaceful intent, the term is drained of its meaning. This becomes downright silly when talk turns to a “spiritual revolution”.

There are socialists who are serious about a parliamentary road to socialism. They argue the need for a party or union of parties to win a left majority. This party/alliance then would not need to compromise with a right wing party and could legislate capitalism out of existence. A less ambitious objective is more common: a list of broadly leftist reforms. Again this would be delivered by a left majority. The problem of course is that the left programme itself would be a compromise and that there would be no plan B in the case of failing to achieve a majority. Indeed a plan B could never be developed because avoiding coalition with conservatives and/or liberals is their raison d’être.

So, leaving aside revolution there seems to be two leftist options: a majority left government or a coalition with liberals or conservatives.

It is accepted by many on the left in Ireland that it is coalition with right wing parties that prevents the emergence of a left majority vote. It is said that if the Labour Party eschewed coalition or if the Labour Party disappeared altogether, sufficient numbers of Irish people would in a relatively short period change their political views and elect a socialist government. The problem with this approach is that there is no evidence to support it. It is a hope in spite of the evidence that a large majority of Irish voters prefer the right.

Another problem is that the left majority project is usually linked to left unity, i.e. bringing all or most of the left parties together on an agreed programme. That is to say, there is acceptance that it will be necessary to maximise support. Now, apart from the fact that these parties tend to despise one another, there is the question of excluding Labour, Labour’s members and crucially the sizeable Labour vote. Until recently it was assumed that Labour’s reliable 10% or so vote would transfer unproblematically to a new force on the left. More recently this vote has been dismissed as right wing and irrelevant to the project of building a left majority. The truth is that this large (by Irish left standards) and curiously reliable vote is unresearched, and no one knows much about it. However, it is reasonable to suggest that dumping or antagonising what is possibly the largest concentration of left votes is not a sensible way to start building towards a left majority.

Consider this scenario: The Labour Party has been destroyed and no longer exists. A left programme for government has been agreed by a group of left parties. All of these parties honour agreements not to oppose one another in an election. Labour’s traditional 10% support base moves to support the left grouping. Huge numbers of traditionally right wing voters are convinced to vote left. With all of these unlikely events coinciding, what could possibly go wrong? The obvious answer is that the outcome could still fall short – probably considerably short – of a majority.

If no one right wing party had achieved a majority, then the vexed question of coalition arises. Unless this is quickly dismissed the left grouping will very likely disintegrate. However, should it remain united or should a significant portion of it remain united, the whole or part will be confronted by coalition. Because it made no serious plans for this predictable eventuality, it will be in the situation that Labour frequently inhabits: confronted by coalition and with no clear notion what to do. In other words, a left grouping is likely to have worked to eliminate the Labour Party only to find that it has replaced the Labour Party.

It’s long past time the thoughtful elements within the Irish left stopped messing about and started making life difficult for political opponents and for those who do well out of the Irish structure of economic inequality. In other words, if it is not possible to achieve some structural change by way of coalition, it is time to abandon the parliamentary route. That means socialists becoming activists who would join pressure groups in that burgeoning area which accepts rule by a “political class” and progress as achieving favour at the expense of a rival group. Truth be told, many socialists and progressives have already gone there.

That’s a depressing prospect: socialists reduced to a role in managing the system while retaining the trappings of protest and anti-establishment. It’s time to stare coalition with a right wing party straight in the face. State the basic price of coalition as well as the areas of compromise and negotiation. The basic price would have to be modest in socialist terms but exorbitant in right wing terms.

It is highly unlikely that large numbers of anti-coalition socialists will look afresh at coalition. The anti-stance has been held for too long and has been concreted into a principle. That leaves the battered Labour Party. It is not averse to coalition but is very unsure of its purpose. The Labour Party needs to open up a clear space between it and the conservatives who believe that fairness and social justice are meaningful. It needs to state that the Party’s objective is a measurable reduction of inequality of income over each year of the lifetime of a government. For that gain the Labour Party should coalesce with the devil but should not coalesce with a saint for anything less.

I wrote recently about how concern over commercialisation of the universities was masking the larger problem – and frankly, the scandal – that is the usurpation of conventional management. A relatively new elite have changed the objectives of the universities to their own interest. In doing so they have used a familiar lexicon to disguise their efforts, to make them appear efficient and business-like. They have misused access to information systems to invert the relationship between management information and management objectives.*

My reason for returning to the topic so soon is that reaction to the original piece, while oddly favourable, has missed the point. Many of those who’ve spoken to me about the piece assumed that it was taking sides in the entirely bogus debate that is frontline workers versus administrators. It’s worth emphasising that what has been done to university management is common to many – perhaps most – organisations. I’ve had lecturers and post grad workers say to me that I was right to comment on the growth of admin. staff and the decline in academic staff. I made no such comment.

With the rise of electronic and the decline of paper systems three things were inevitable. Firstly, many of those who operated the paper systems would have to go or adapt. Secondly, the electronic systems would require technical and user support staff. Thirdly, the increase in data production would create a need for more administration. In short, it’s not in the least paradoxical that more efficient systems would demand staff increases. All of this can and should be managed. Change is not a recent phenomenon and has always had to be managed. The contrived specialisation of the likes of “change management” is as much a fetish as the production of management information for its own sake.

Setting frontline workers – be they doctors, firefighters or academics – against administrators suits those who are the real problem. They will side with the frontline workers and condemn administration in the language of efficiency. If successful, they are so well entrenched that it is they who will decide which administrators will go and what is best done by contractors. Thus, aided by their apparent critics in academia, their grip on universities will tighten at the expense of poorly paid staff and those remaining managers who might have offered some opposition.


Arguments over the commercialisation of university education are part of two wider controversies. Firstly, there is a familiar dispute between extreme liberals and the rest of us. Liberals think that businesslike approaches and the imposition of markets will solve all or most problems. The rest hold that such thinking has limited application and that there are products and services which ought not be traded or subjected to competition and markets. There is, however, a second, less obvious and usually neglected controversy, and in this the universities represent one site in which a wider struggle over the future of management is being played out.

The ease with which this second controversy can be neglected is plain in a recent piece by Fintan O’Toole. It is also evident in a university manager’s attempt to get off the hook for what was done to universities in order to create a match with similar inefficiencies in other organisations.

The fundamental mistake in analysing the damaging process of commercialisation is to view it as merely a clash of market or business management values with those of public service. It is very definitely at odds with public service but it is also at odds with good management – even management whose focus is entirely business oriented. When Fintan points out that the apparently market driven university is failing in market terms, he gets close but misses the entrance to the more labyrinthine truth. That a commercial approach is failing in commercial terms should prompt a doubt that market success is the objective. What Fintan misses is that it has little to do with market success and a lot to do with turning the objective of a university into the objectives of a new elite.

Attention must turn to what is usually termed managerialism as opposed to management. Many of those made fat by the former deflect criticism by characterising all questioning as some kind of worker opposition to management. It is nothing of the sort; assaults on managerialism tend to be a defence of management in the face of a hostile, destructive takeover.

When the objective of managers has little to do with their institution/organisation/company and more to do with common cause of similarly placed managers in other organisations, management as traditionally understood has been usurped.

The bloated salaries are in evidence across companies and in both the private and state sectors. The same is true of bizarre new job titles, the creation of new structures which duplicate management and facilitate high level appointments, expanding the numbers in what were once very senior – perhaps unique – well paid positions (e.g. “Director”), reliance on a lexicon which is silly and frequently derided but which gives to waste the impression of being businesslike and efficient. Above all this is a shared change of “product” so that the creation of management information becomes an end in itself.

The production of management information is both essential and costly. It diverts people from their work and requires support staff. Each and every management report has to be accurately costed before a decision can be made to begin producing it. In short, management information has to be kept to the minimum necessary to achieving an objective. In the absence of rigorous costing and an eye to the bare essentials, it is very easy for measurement, data collection and the manufacture of reports to get out of hand. Professionals in management information have been aware of the paradox for decades: management information is part of a control system but its production needs to be tightly controlled.

Universities fell to the parasite as inflated salaries, new titles, changes in structures, a bogus business approach and way of speaking, and a drive to measure rather than produce became the predictable course. It is simply untrue to say that the HEA or any other external pressure caused this. The HEA is similarly troubled and is as keen to demand information as the new “industry” is to produce it.

The change was complex, thorough and involved a large number of staff. However, if one development were to be selected as typical and demonstrative of a university parting company with its age old objective, it might be the demand for stated “learning objectives”. While “learning” itself suggests the thoughtful, critical, creative aspect of a university education, a “learning objective” suggests the acquisition of a skill. At that point the desire to measure, to gather information was changing the role of the university.

Depressing as it is to consider, there may be no way back. It is worth bearing in mind that quite large numbers of people earn a living from all this and any attempt by one organisation to reform will be resisted, characterised as backward and eccentric. On the other hand, as a whole it is unsustainable. What an organisation (in this case a university) might seek to do is return salaries, staffing, structures etc. to those pertaining at a chosen time in the past. Apart from the shock to the system, the pay cuts and the numbers made redundant or demoted, the choice of date would be difficult and critical. Choose too late a date and the roots of the problem might be left intact. Choose too early a date and there’s a risk of going back too far in the history of ICT, thereby stripping a university of its ability to operate legitimate, up-to-date systems. One thing is certain: there can be no reform if the problem is understood as simple commercialism.

I seem to keep on returning to the notion of integrity. I don’t know why it doesn’t feature in public discussion of Ireland’s growing list of scandals, so many of which were caused by failure to speak up and do what was clearly the right thing.

The usual excuse for hiding in a crowd which is doing wrong or behaving stupidly is fear. That is understandable and a reason to forgive lack of integrity – until the nature of the fear is examined. If integrity might lead to death or injury or even losing one’s job, then let’s be forgiving. However, if the fear is no more than a vague feeling that one might lose out on a promotion or worse a fear of being excluded from a group of chancers or fools, then no! In such circumstances a lack of integrity is completely unacceptable and a person so lacking – especially one who has demonstrated the flaw – cannot have or continue to hold a position of responsibility. Does that seem harsh? It is and it needs to be because in Ireland at least we’ve been far too tolerant of the cowardly sleveens whose overriding virtue is to fit in and get along with people.

Here’s Fintan O’Toole laying the blame on an excess of loyalty and suggesting that showing integrity involved paying a high price: “We’ve seen this time and again: in the crushing of the internal auditors who warned that our major banks were up to their white-collared necks in skulduggery; in the systematic protection of child abusers by the Catholic Church; in the extreme reluctance of many health professionals to shout stop when they saw dangerous and even deadly practices; in the parade of politicians coming out to assure us that Charles Haughey was a patriot to his fingertips who would no sooner take a bribe than he would kiss a Brit; in the vicious shouting-down of those who suggested that the property boom might be a bubble.” *

“Crushing”? “Vicious shouting down”? This is silly exaggeration. 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 continue. Moreover, the position of the timid would be improved if proven lack of integrity were not tolerated and indeed punished when found out.

Ireland is about to appoint a new Garda (police) Commissioner and the talk is of the need to recruit outside the force or outside the country. This is evasive rubbish, prompting a straight response: If there is no one in Garda management with sufficient expertise, experience and integrity to be promoted, then they should not be in Garda management.

In the same article Fintan raises “a squalid event” in Waterford: Garda assault and the perversion of justice when a surveillance camera was turned away. Gardaí went to jail but Fintan also mentions the decent Gardaí who gave evidence of wrongdoing and implies that some did not. The latter should be gone by now because they have shown themselves to be the wrong stuff.**

Similar can and should be said of the quiet failures in so many institutions and professions whom Fintan (above) is prepared to whitewash in the lime of “culture” and exaggerated fear or ignore in a zealous attempt to get a handful of senior sacrificial victims.

A bricklayer found out as unable for or unsuited to the job would have to find alternative work. A professional found out as lacking a modicum of courage and integrity should have to find alternative work just as quickly.


“Former CRC boss got more than €700k pension package from charity fund”*

This has nothing to with theft. This has nothing to do with proper governance. This has nothing to do with private funding versus state funding. This has nothing to do with paying for exceptional talent. This has nothing to with capitalism.

This has to do with rich people looking after those similarly situated. While too many on the left rattled sabres at the richest 1%, quietly the majority of the rich – say, the top 10% of earners – were establishing and maintaining excessive pay, bonus, expenses and pension norms while pretending to be “middle income”** and very likely joining in complaints about the 1% rich. The movement started in private companies and spread to the elite in state employment.

I have argued for a long time that €50k p.a. is an exceedingly good pension and that all public service pensions and pensions in organisations funded or part funded by the state should adopt this figure as the maximum permitted. Some years ago it was objected that a court had decided that a public service pension was a private asset and could not be touched. Public service pensions, however, have since been reduced. That leaves the real objection: Rich people, the top 10% of earners, the ruling class, the elite (Give them whatever title you prefer.) don’t regard €50k p.a. as a great deal of money or as creating sufficient inequality to maintain elite status or lifestyle.

It’s long past time the 80% or 90% of earners insisted on straight talking and a grasp on reality. €50k is a fabulous pension and above that it quickly becomes ridiculous.

There is a report in today’s Irish Times on papers presented to this year’s McGill Summer School on the theme, “How stands the republic?” The report headlines the contribution of Professor Diarmuid Ferriter. ( )

Diarmuid says, “If we accept a definition of republicanism that is about participation, a say in our fate, civic engagement and realising freedom and self-determination among citizens, we face the conclusion that any exaggerated celebrations in 2016 will mask the persistence of ambiguity and the endurance of the gulf between rhetoric and reality.”

That definition would be at odds with a minority staging a rising and with the views of the founding elite of the new state. Moreover, there has never been a gulf between rhetoric and reality. Apart from misuse of the word “republican”, their rhetoric matched the reality they created.

He also says, “One of the chief causes of the contemporary crisis was the absence of alternative views and insufficient scrutiny of flawed decision-making,”

In a republic the media provide citizens with challenging viewpoints and citizens are expected to think, speak and come to judgement. This did not happen because we tolerate poor performance and lack of personal integrity particularly among our professional elite – journalists, academics, teachers, managers etc. The crisis was certainly caused by political policy and ideology but it was also caused by very many people failing to do what they were paid to do and thereby letting down their fellow citizens. Those people are still in place:

The McGill choice of theme, “How stands the republic?”, is revealing. It implies an argument: that we are engaged in evaluation of an ideal or a project, that we can go on as we are with some minor changes. A better theme would be, “Should we create a republic?” Such a starting point would argue that we are thinking about doing something that we’ve not done before, breaking with the 1916 founding myth and its tawdry legacy of oppression, cruelty and malfunctioning elites.

According to last Tuesday’s Irish Times, the following appears in an unpublished draft of the HSE’s spending plans.
“It is planned that the investment will take place in quarter 4, 2013 contingent upon the achievement of the PSA [public sector agreement] savings. A ceiling uplift is needed for these developments,” –

“A ceiling uplift”!! Jesus wept! Now, this kind of complete bollocks might be funny if it were not indicative of a parasitic scourge which prevents effective management. The parasitic element is usually distinguished from management by use of the term “managerialism”.

Whoever wrote the HSE draft should go and anyone more senior, who did not fire the draft across the room and insist that it be rewritten, should join him or her. Furthermore, the report itself should be disregarded because – being infected by managerialism – it will be self-serving. Its purpose will not be to improve the HSE or to serve the citizen. Managerialism doesn’t work like that; it uses a language deceptively close to the language of efficiency and business to ensure the prosperity and growth of its adherents.

To get a hold in an organisation, managerialism must first oust efficient managers; it is no friend of business. The bizarre language that is used cloaks futile activity in terms that give the impression of innovation, progress and effective decision making. It also creates a layer of employees who live off information processes that effective management would never tolerate. It is a very, very serious problem and dealing with will be difficult because its adherents now hold key positions and because doing away with it would result in many job losses.

However, many organisations could usefully look at their structures and staffing of about ten years ago and see what has been done to them as systems became central rather than service, as job titles increased and became bizarre, and as the language of effective management was reduced to complete bollocks.

Paul Acton died in Tallaght hospital in 2005 as a result of pneumonia, sepsis and crucially organ failure brought on by dehydration. His widow is to receive 320k in compensation. The hospital admits negligence.*

My purpose in writing is twofold. Firstly, I was shocked at the level of cruelty deliberately visited upon this man. He was diagnosed as dehydrated and in need of fluids. He was ordered ”nil by mouth” because of his other illness. He therefore needed intravenous liquid urgently and yet he was left to suffer for hours unto death. His son in law said in a radio interview that he died waiting for a doctor to become available to insert a cannula to deliver the fluid. The man was begging for fluids for hours before he died. (Jesus wept, he was dying of thirst!) These days it is routine to praise “frontline staff” working in under-staffed and under-funded hospitals but there is something fundamentally wrong with medical staff who, aware of the situation, do not act. People of this calibre should not be in the public service.

Secondly, I happen to have some personal experience to bring to this. I was in hospital a couple of years ago while an infection was treated with an intravenous antibiotic. One evening my cannula became blocked and needed to be replaced. I was informed that only a doctor could perform this insertion. I waited and waited and waited. A nurse became concerned and said that if a doctor did not appear within the next twenty minutes, she would break the rules and do it. A young doctor appeared shortly after that. Incidentally, he was not at all good at the operaation and succeeded on the fifth painful attempt.

This is a simple operation whose performance is improved by lots of practice. There is no need for the demarcation which restricts the work to doctors. At least two of my nurses were certified to do the work but were not allowed to do it.

In my case I was merely very late receiving medication but in the case reported in Tallaght a patient was allowed to die in agony. Clearly this carry-on is far too dangerous to be allowed continue.


On this morning’s Marian Finucane radio programme * a discussion began about the culpability of former Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, for Ireland’s economic mess. From former minister, Mary O’Rourke, came the familiar routine of “we all had a party, so no one is at fault” and then Eddie Hobbs offered the view that the ordinary person couldn’t be expected to understand an economic bubble and that those he calls “gatekeepers” failed to warn the general public.**

Eddie is wrong. Anyone with normal intelligence, a basic education and a little interest in their surroundings could see that – whatever about the wider world – Ireland was headed for a fall. Failing to see this required enormous stupidity or wilful blindness. It was a topic of discussion among ordinary people, many of whom could see that the property boom was a scam, bound to end. These ordinary people held on to their savings and/or didn’t borrow to buy property.

Eddie is right, however, to blame “gatekeepers” for failing. The term usually refers to media workers but Eddie included public service economists. Two points need to be made. Firstly, the distinction is correctly drawn here between people who are paid to think, write, speak up and manage and the rest who are merely expected to do these things. It is the difference between citizens and those whom society expects to do a particular job because they are paid for it. Who are these people? Clearly, elected politicians, advisers, civil servants, economics professionals, journalists, producers and researchers are included but so too are public commentators, lecturers, teachers and managers – particularly managers in banking and finance.

Secondly, nothing whatsoever has been done about this failure. Let’s be blunt: If an electrician or plumber failed to perform to the point of wrecking the house, they’d hardly be let continue. (Well, in view of the dangerous buildings now coming to light, that may be a topic in itself.) In the case of those paid to think, write and speak up … Nothing! They are all still there. They did not do what they were paid to do and they are all still there. They are known to be useless and they are all still there.

They didn’t fail to perform some difficult task. There are many failures trying to find cover in the fabrication that Ireland’s economic crash came as a surprise. It bears repeating that only a complete fool could have confused a building boom with a productive economy and only the wilfully blind could have failed to see the bricks and mortar evidence accumulating across the country. (That some did see the problem but remained silent is a different kind of failure. ***)

It is simply implausible to suggest that some kind of recovery could be achieved while so many of those paid to think and to manage are demonstrably unable or unwilling to do their jobs.
** At about 11.00 mins. into the programme.

Dr. Katherine Astbury, a consultant obstetrician to Savita Halappanavar, told the inquest into Ms. Halappanvar’s death, “The law in Ireland does not permit termination even if there is no prospect of viability [for the foetus]. That would be my understanding of the legal position based on the legal judgement in the X-case and the Medical Council guidelines.”

That is my understanding too. If we continue to give a foetus a right to life until the mother’s life is threatened, this will be the situation and no amount of clarification will change it.

The position in Ireland is that abortion is not a permissible part of the treatment/management of miscarriage. Now, I’ve no information on how often abortion might be considered in the treatment of miscarriage but it does seem to be an issue for Catholic hospitals outside Ireland.

“The experiences of physicians in our study indicate that uterine evacuation may not be approved during miscarriage by the hospital ethics committee if foetal heart tones are present and the pregnant woman is not yet ill, in effect delaying care until foetal heart tones cease, the pregnant woman becomes ill, or the patient is transported to a non–Catholic-owned facility for the procedure.” Freedman, L.R. et al “When There’s a Heartbeat: Miscarriage Management in Catholic-Owned Hospitals” in American Journal of Public Health. 2008 October; 98(10): 1774–1778.

The list of things which well-meaning people have suggested should be added to the school curriculum is endless. Karlin Lillington, a very good tech. journalist, has argued in The Irish Times Business and Technology supplement (March 28th 2013) that coding be taught at school.* The thesis is that since many companies have started with the lone, self-taught coder, having a mass of people able to code would prompt business start-ups and would make many young people ready to take up employment in the tech. sector.

On the face of it, it seems an attractive idea but – and surprisingly from someone like Karlin Lillington – it is strangely outdated and out of touch with the reality of work today.

Two of the central planks supporting the argument are very weak. Firstly, while it is very likely that those who started and built a business on their inventive coding were at it from age 14 or younger, that observation has a familiar ring because it is made regularly about all manner of industry. Media regularly carry anecdotes about business people being enterprising from a very early age and these reports are often linked to a demand that business and enterprise appear on the school curriculum.

Secondly, there is nothing to indicate that anything like the majority of jobs in the tech. sector call for coding skills. A cursory examination of the recruitment sections on the websites of the large tech. companies reveals an interesting research project. Some of these companies recruit some coders, some recruit none. All, however, require competence in operating the new technology and in the ways of working that the technology has created. Indeed it might be argued that the belief that coding skills should be universal rests on a simple misunderstanding around the term “tech. industries”.**

Aside from the basics of the argument, Karlin may be getting too close to the technology and paying insufficient attention to its effects. “Today’s children,” she says, “will graduate into an overwhelmingly digital world, where daily life is immersed in code.” That’s simply untrue and misunderstands mass use of digital devices and media. Most young people don’t understand the word “digital” and think it means “modern” or even “cool”. Their life is not immersed in code; they are unaware of the code running their devices. Their playful indifference to matters technological, coupled with ease of use, may even obscure something that flies in the face of the thoughtless consensus that “the kids are great with the computers!” At the heart of the error is the observation that children and young people generally use computer devices almost constantly. They seem to be very comfortable with them and they learn to use new devices and apps quickly. To complete the myth there’s an endless supply of old duffers prepared to feed the stereotype that is the older person, unable to adapt and acquire the skills to operate these new gadgets. The truth is that technology always develops from specialist to mass or domestic use. In the 1970s a basic video recorder was analogue, huge, expensive, confined to TV companies and required a skilled operator. Similarly, there was a time – and it is a long time ago now – when expertise was needed to do anything on a computer. Nowadays little or no skill is required for many uses.

Those young people who appear so computer savvy for the most part are doing little that is creative or clever.*** It is true that being inventive and developing new apps etc. requires skill but that kind of activity is rare. The difficulty is that not only do the majority of young people make little creative or intellectual use of the technology but they generally lack the skills to go beyond social media and games or even to maximise the potential. Imagine years ago if someone had admired a young person for being able to operate a television set! Well, admiring a young person for being constantly and comfortably on-line is almost as daft. It is also patronising.

There is a final theme in Karlin’s piece. It seems reasonable to suggest that coding skills would teach people how to think. There certainly is a need to teach young people to analyse, criticise, organise, solve problems and present their findings/arguments. However, teaching coding skills with this end in mind would be very restrictive and conservative. It would be a poor substitute for logic or philosophy more generally.

There needs to be a hard look at the easy assumptions that lead to demands for more and more training as opposed to education in schools. It was always the case that schooling needed to be general. Schools needed to produce people who could make their way in the world as both citizens and as workers. What technology has done is to emphasise this need. Put aside for now the making of decent, socialised people and of citizens prepared and able to participate in a republic. Those looking to serve the “jobs market” by reforming the education of children need to look more closely at the jobs.

It is absolutely certain that science and engineering specialists are required but there are two other things which are equally certain and they have been created by the technology at the heart of this discussion. Firstly, it is certain that aside from the most menial of jobs, there is now no employment in the developed world for the unskilled and uneducated. Secondly, outside of technical skills the world of work today calls for the generalist, someone who is adept with information, someone who can research, argue and present. These of course rest on literacy, numeracy and a great deal of general knowledge.**** In the short to medium term there is a demand for a second and third language.

There really is no place in the office (or at home or abroad linked to the office) for someone unable to speak and to write fluently and well, for someone unable to research independently, for someone without general knowledge and for someone with no grasp of mathematics, science and technology.

When thinking about the reform of education, it is a mistake to fall back on the centuries old division between humanities and science. It is a mistake too to emphasise training over education. These are not mistakes purely in terms of concerns that teaching should lead to the enjoyment of a full life. These are now mistakes in terms of serving industry.*****

If Karlin were to look around the office at the Irish Times and see what is actually being done and who does it best, and then travel to the tech. companies around Dublin, look again and perhaps sit in on a few routine meetings, she would see that teaching skills – other than literacy and numeracy – to children is a very outdated notion.