Archive for June, 2009

Fianna Fáil and the Wasted Years

June 19, 2009

Interesting analysis over at the Irish Left Review of how Fianna Fáil used state power in the interests of the super-rich during the boom years from the Research Section of The Workers’ Party. I recommend that everyone read it. The Research Section of The Workers’ Party was a major force in the Irish left during the 1970s and 1980s, exposing the squalid reality of the banking system, the surrendering of natural resources to private capital, and other inequities in Irish society, while also offering detailed alternative socialist economic policies. It brought a level of sophistication to the Irish Left that had no parallel, and helped give The Workers’ Party its radical and disctinctive vision for Irish society. Let’s hope that this early effort is a step towards recreating a serious Irish left.

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Trouble at t’Mall

June 17, 2009

In March 2008, a massive shopping centre opened in Belfast after years of work that refashioned a significant part of the city centre. Victoria Square was opened with tremendous fanfare and trumpeted as symbolic of a bright new future under the new dispensation. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Several stores have closed due to the failure of their parent companies, and now comes the bad news that 100 more jobs are being lost with the closure of two restaurants in the supermall. Although those who run the centre have announced that four new retailers will create 70 new and part time jobs, it is clear that the mall itself has failed to meet the expectations of those who built it, and those who saw it as representing a bright new economic future.

This raises the question of the economic development strategy pursued by the authorities in NI over a number of years. Basically, all our eggs have been put in the basket of low-paid and unskilled jobs in call centres and the retail sector on the one hand; and begging the Americans and EU for investment on the other. This may have seemed logical after the failure of heavily-subsidised high-profile industrial enterprises – Delorean being the classic example – and the Thatcherite policy of destroying the UK’s industrial base. It was also a strategy facilitated by the massive expansion of credit on which the false economy worldwide has been based, but which governments and economists told us was bringing an end to boom and bust.

However, as we can see from our own experience as well as that of others, it is not and cannot be a sustainable economic policy. Even the very term, ‘the real economy’, that has become popular tells us where we should be focusing our efforts. If we wish to have a government strategy aimed at creating valuable and sustainable jobs, then the NI executive must focus its efforts on developing native – preferably state-owned – industry jobs, whether they be in technology or manufacturing. Will they have the courage to stop up to the plate and argue for this against the prevailing hostility to the state’s involvement in the economy (unless it is giving huge sums to banks and multi-nationals of course)? I doubt it. But I’d like to see them do so. And we need them to do so.

Racism Disgraces Belfast Again

June 17, 2009

Shocking news that over 100 Romanians have fled their homes after a series of racist attacks in the Lisburn Road area over the past week. There have been a lot of racist attacks in Belfast over the last number of years, leading to it being labelled as Europe’s capital for racist attacks. Most of these attacks have taken place in south Belfast, where most of the immigrants live. This area is near Queen’s University, and most of the previous attacks were in the loyalist village area. The recent attacks were not in the Village, but the attackers seem to have come from there.

While there has been some Combat 18 graffiti in the past, the recent attacks seem to have gone beyond previous ones in the extent to which they were openly Neo-Nazi. The BBC reported that the attackers shouted Combat 18 slogans, and pushed a letter containing text from Mein Kampf through the letterbox. There was also an attack made on a protest rally on the Lisburn Road, although this may or may not have been the same gang. The BBC report linked immediately above suggests that the attackers were heckled by the demonstrators before the attack.

It’s good to see the community stand against the attacks. What is less pleasing is the police response, and the response of unionist politicians, who have been largely silent. The police have said there is no evidence that the attacks were orchestrated. Now, the police may may right; or they may be downplaying the situation to try and keep tensions down. But the idea these attacks were unconnected does seem to stretch credibility a little too much.

Given the fact that the BNP’s call centre is based in Belfast, and that there have been repeated attempts to organise here, it is possible that the recent European elections emboldened the people behind these attacks, although I suspect it is nothing that sophisticated. Whatever the situation, the politicians, police, and community must act to isolate and convict the people responsible. And gaol them for this hate crime.

UPDATE: Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and junior Minister Jeffrey Donaldson have visited the familes, a welcome development. There has also been condemnation from unionist politicians and others. Details here and here.

UPDATE 2: The ICTU has released a statement calling for a structured response from politicians, community leaders and statuatory bodies, as well as the allocation to police of resources to deal with the problem.

UPDATE 3: Splintered Sunrise has some thoughts picking up important points I missed.

Thoughts on the Elections

June 8, 2009

Anyone who is interested can read some thoughts I’ve put up on the recent elections in Ireland, north and south, over at Cedar Lounge Revolution here.

The Ironies of History

June 6, 2009

Back last November, I posted up a review of the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex on Cedar Lounge Revolution. An excellent film it was too, and I think it will be on Sky Movies soon for anyone who has Sky Movies and hasn’t see it. The film recreated the shooting of a student protestor, Benno Ohnesorg, by a policeman in west Berlin during protests against a visit by the Shah. For many students in the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition, this was the moment that the repressive nature of the state was finally revealed, and it radicalised many, and contributed to the dynamic that led to the emergence of the Red Army Faction. And now it transpires that the policeman who shot the student, Karl-Heinz Kurras (who was twice acquitted of manslaughter), was a member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the ruling party of the GDR, and was working for the Stasi as an agent in west Berlin.

While some have claimed that this means the GDR was responsible, the director of the Federal government’s Stasi archives, points out that not only is there no evidence that the Stasi ordered the shooting, but that the Stasi cut contacts with Kurras afterwards. Presumably this was for fear of a revelation that he was an agent raising military tensions on the front line of the Cold War. While there will be those who construct a conspiracy theory around this revelation, it seems to me unlikely that this was anything more than what the Stasti called it – an “unlucky accident”.

Herr Kurras had a simple response when contacted by the press about these revelations

“And what if I did work for them? What does it matter? It doesn’t change anything.”

I admire his bluntness, and I’m inclined to agree.

This is just wrong.

June 4, 2009

Not the sort of surprise Kinder had in mind.

I’m a Depressed Mafia Boss: Get me out of here

June 4, 2009

Italy makes me shake my head in wonder. Quite a lot. The latest example of the, eh, unique nature of that country is that a mafia boss sentenced to eight years in prison has been released into house arrest after becoming depressed. Giacomo Ieni broke down in tears in front of the parole board, and cried constantly and had lost 55 lbs during his three years in prison. He was released on the grounds that he needed to be with his family for his health. Even a Senator from Berlusconi’s party is outraged.

“I wonder at this point what therapy is available to the relatives of those murdered by Mafia bosses whose hands are dripping with blood?”

As another Senator pointed out, this is likely to demoralise those engaged in the fight against the cancer that is organised crime in Italy. Italy for 40 plus years was effectively a state in alliance with the Mafia. Berlusconi has tried to frustrate the efforts of the magistrates investigating corruption, while claiming those days were finished. Looking at this story, I seriously wonder.

How History and Myth are created: An Example

June 2, 2009

Lalkar 1

As we all know, 1989 saw the collapse of the socialist states in eastern Europe, as well as the Chinese state not collapsing but employing military force against a challenge to its authority. These events are popularly know as the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the memory in the west, based on reporting at the time, is of tanks rolling over and shooting students in the Square. The image above, taken from Lalkar for May/June 2009 (the paper has its own website if anyone wants to follow it up and read the whole thing), is of an article from its August/September 1989 edition that challenged this narrative, accusing the western media of fabrication, and which unambiguously supported the Chinese government. It comes, effectively, from the CPGB (M-L), whose main figure is Harpal Brar, formerly resident in Dublin and of whom more can be read in the Left Archive.

I have posted the above image only because of this story from the BBC’s Beijing correspondent of the time, James Miles. Miles openly states that he and the other western journalists are responsible for the creation of a myth of a massacre in the Square, based on false testimony from locals. He does however state that they got the story generally right. This is on the grounds that violence did take place elsewhere in the city, and that their description of the aims of the protestors were correct.

The whole thing is an interesting insight into the nature of journalism, political progaganda, and the formation of public opinion and memory. Worth thinking about for our own island when we see so much history being falsified and adjusted to current political concerns, especially in the north. At one level, this is fairly harmless, such as when Gerry Adams mistakenly recollects singing a song in gaol that had not yet been released while he was there. At another level, it is a lot more harmful, such as when the discriminatory practices of the unionist regime are whitewashed or when state brutality is covered up or the sectarian realities of many murders and bombings are denied, either by politicians or academics. Competing versions of Irish history will always exist, but they don’t have to be a poison sickening the body politic.

NI European Election Debate: Same Oul Rubbish

June 2, 2009

Sunday’s BBC Politics Show had a special debate filmed at the Great Hall at QUB with all the NI European election candidates (full show available on iplayer here and extracts thanks to Pete Baker at Sluggerotoole here and here. And depressing viewing it made for too. The candidates were from the DUP, TUV, SDLP, PSF, UUP/Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force, Alliance, and the Green Party.

After some messing about with fancy audience voting buttons where 20% claimed to have read the Lison Treaty (liars) and UUP MEP Jim Nicholson talking about cooperation in the past between himself, Paisley and Hume, it got straight down to sectarian brass tacks with Jim Allister, elected as Big Ian’s replacement for the DUP but now the leader of Traditional Unionist Voice as he opposes sharing power with the Provos. When asked if he thought that European peace funding had been wasted, he replied that it had due to fraud, and being wasted on ex-prisoners rather than real victims. He would have preferred the money to go on infrastructure. A reasonable enough point. However, he went on to say that there had been “gross discrimination” against Protestants (whom he also referred to as the majority unionist community) in the distribution of peace funding.

The real scrap that dominated the show then started when the chair asked Diane Dodds, DUP candidate and wife of Nigel Dodds, her opinion, and Allister interrupted to correct her on details. That set the tone, with each trying to talk over each other – and in her case especially everybody else. This reflects the big question of this election – how will Allister poll? If he polls well, the DUP may not top the poll for the first time ever in a European campaign. And they are terrified at the prospect, and fighting hard against Allister to try and prevent that. Allister has been fighting back too, not least in complaining about DUP MPs’ expenses, double-jobbing, and the presence of several family dynasties in the DUP, including the Dodds’. Allister will not take the seat, but a good result sets him up nicely for Westminster and Stormont elections in the years ahead, and would give the TUV added credibility. A good result for Allister might just allow the SDLP to sneak the third seat depending on transfers, though I personally doubt it. So it is the most interesting European election in years. Not that that is saying a lot.

Dodds was easily the worst quite frankly. She came across as shrill, rude, and out of her depth. She also refused to be quiet for around two minutes when she had been asked to stop talking numerous times. She attacked Allister on his expenses, at which point Bairbre De Brun jumped in with a very effective hit, saying that as he was a DUP MEP they should know how much his expenses were. Then, without a hint of irony, Dodds complained about PSF defending the TUV. Hard to think of a clearer proof of how absurd the attempt to balance the DUP-PSF domination of the Executive with the continuation of the sectarian politics that got them where they are is. On such contradictions are hopes for a new type of politics built.

De Brun performed quite well, getting her message across very effectively, and saying she was focused on continuing the work she had been doing on important issues. She also challenged the DUP and TUV to concentrate on the issues instead of squabbling. Easily the most impressive performance I’ve seen from her.

Jim Nicholson also scored against Dodds when she, in a petty snipe, accused him of double-jobbing because of his family farm, by pointing out that it was his son that was trying to eke out a living on it in difficult circumstances. Not, by the way, that I believe every farmer who gives it the poor mouth. Nicholson claimed he could was the only unionist who could top the poll due to the struggle of what he called the two DUP parties. It was a decent enough performance, and its strongest point was how Allister’s attitude had removed the unanimity among the NI MEPs that had lasted since 1979.

Alban Magennis gave a very strong performance. I’ve heard him speak a number of times, and he is a very good performer, and always strong on the issue of sectarianism. From my perspective, he is wrong in his definition of sectarianism because I think that all the big parties are guilty of sectarian politics in their very nature, but there is no doubt he believes what he says. He put it forward very clearly that his was the most pro-European party, and argued that it represented a modern social democratic vision. Certainly he is an effective campaigner, and much better than Martin Morgan, the SDLP candidate last time. It’s always surprised me that he was never made a minister in the early days of powersharing when the SDLP had more, including a junior minister, but that reflects the lack of proper planning for the future that cost the SDLP so dear in 2003 with the partially enforced mass retirement of most of its heavy hitters and subsequent loss of seats.

Ian Parsley, the Alliance candidate, had both praise and condemnation for the Lisbon Treaty, doubting in particular that it is realistic to have a united foreign policy, citing Iraq. He was good on the double jobbing issue. To be honest, he left an impression of competence, but said nothing spectacularly memorable or effective. The jibes delivered by the other candidates certainly did that. I guess I am accidentally agreeing with the stereotype that Alliance are just too nice.

Steven Agnew, clearly the most inexperienced of the candidates, of the Green Party lamented the absence of a referendum, earning a smattering of applause, and Jim Allister. He called for a referendum in the UK. Not that he actually said whether he was in favour of Lisbon or not. He presented the Greens as the new kids on the block, different, without corporate sponsorship. Unfortunately nobody brought up the behaviour of the Greens regarding finance capital in the south, for they are one and the same party.

The nature of European elections in NI is simple. They have nothing to do with Europe, even more so than in most countries. They serve as a means of measuring the relative strength of unionism and nationalism. Hence the stress on topping the poll from the DUP. Dodds was quite open about this, and her desire to top the poll, unlike the other candidates. The debate itself reflected that reality, and the fact that most of this post is about the DUP and TUV is a reflection of how alternative options and non-sectarian politics get squeezed to the margins in every aspect of life.

Who is going to be elected? Dodds, De Brun, and Nicholson is my prediction. I think Allister will do quite well, but not as well as some are predicting. The TUV will come out of it as a credible force, and he will be well placed to take a seat at Stormont, which I reckon is his main aim. I think Magennis may well get a higher vote than the SDLP got last time, but won’t come close to taking the seat. Alliance and the Greens will cancel each other out to some extent, but for both the real aim I think is to build the profile for their candidates with the next Stormont elections in mind. In short then, this election has next to nothing to do with Europe, and everything to do with the same oul sectarian shite. Having said that, there was a less confrontational tone from nationalism, whose candidates assumed the moral high ground. But as this election will show, our politics remain frozen.