Posts Tagged ‘Irish politics’

Gilmore says no to the north. Again.

November 19, 2008

A very interesting post at South Belfast Diary, where (an angry) Jenny has mounted the leaked section from the Irish Labour Party’s now delayed 21st Century Commission dealing with Northern Ireland. The short version is that the Irish Labour Party has ruled out standing in elections in NI while the SDLP still exists, and Eamon Gilmore has written to NI members confirming that this is the case. Should the SDLP merge with Fianna Fáil, which is now no longer a serious possibility, the Irish Labour Party would hope to use the Party of European Socialists to avoid having to organise in NI.

If the SDLP, in whole or in part, chooses at some future stage to merge or create formal links with Fianna Fáil then it would automatically lose its membership of the PES. In all likelihood, in those circumstances a potion of SDLP members would decline to follow the party into such a merger or alliance. It would then be important that we, along with the British Labour Party, ensure that the social democratic and labour movement is adequately represented in Northern Ireland politics. Under the Statutes of the PES it would be possible for the new party to allow for dual membership for Northern Ireland members. Accordingly, an activist could be a member of the new party and the Irish or British Labour Party. Such a provision could accommodate the dual community identity (“British or Irish or both”) that remains at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.

Instead, the Commission recommends increased coordination with the SDLP, in pursuit of what I can only describe as a bizarre interpretation of the 1916 Proclamation’s line about cherish all the children of the nation equally:

Such a covenant would entail:
· A community where no child is ever left behind because of disability, or left out because of colour
· A Nation where to be a child of Ireland does not have to mean a child of Irish parents
· A society where parents of an autistic child do not have to research, lobby and petition various service providers as though they are the first
· A culture where young women are safer on our streets and young men are safer on our roads
· An island where children and their families will be protected against persecution and prejudice as well as poverty
· An economy that invests in the skills and values the talents of all young people including those with learning disabilities
· A country whose services and systems, laws and budgets truly proclaim “Every Child is our Child”.

As I pointed out in the comments at South Belfast Diary, this should come as no surprise. One of the main motivations behind the decision of Gilmore and the other five TDs who split from The Workers’ Party in 1992 in pursuit of a move to the right and government positions, was to cut their ties with the north so they could concentrate on the south. Although the Democratic Left did organise in NI during its brief existence, and even stand in elections, it never gave much attention to the north. When DL was wound up, its northern members were told to join the SDLP, despite the fact that for several decades they had been arguing that it was as much a part of sectarian politics in NI as any other party. It seemed when the Irish Labour Party agreed to accept members in the north, that they had been offered another chance, but this has now been revealed for the purely cosmetic exercise it always was.

So where does that leave the people who are in the Labour Party in the north? They can try and get permission from the British Labour Party to stand in elections, but this looks like being a long way off, given that they were only allowed to join after a court case. I also suspect that many of the NI members see themselves as more left wing than New Labour, and would not be entirely comfortable with it. Many of these people are genuine about wanting strong socialist politics in Northern Ireland, and about fighting sectarianism. I think that they will have to look elsewhere. Even if an organisation like The Workers’ Party would be too far to the left for many, the ongoing discussions about an agreed left candidate in Europe or some such coalition in the future may provide them with a home that allows them to be active on all fronts.

Paddy Murphy on The Celtic Tiger and Irish Economy and Society

October 19, 2008

Paddy Murphy is the pick of the Irish News columnists, and over the last few years has been hitting the nail on the head time and again with his expositions of the petty sectarian politics at Stormont and the incompetence of the regime there, and of the attitude of the British and Irish governments. He mixes a scepticism about the squalid sectarian carve up with a sense of social justice, and witty and acerbic writing. So it is with great interest that I read his take (subs may be required after about a week) on the death of the Celtic Tiger. The article discusses both the madnesses of economic behaviour in the south, and the effects of the boom on attitudes down there.

The article opens with an obituary

Tiger, Celtic (nee Cathleen Ní Houlihan) Suddenly, but not totally unexpectedly, at her residence off the coast of Europe. Mother of an estimated 33,000 millionaires, 75,000 cocaine-users and 170,000 people who paid more for their houses than they are worth. Deeply regretted by property developers, politicians and lawyers at public inquiries into alleged corruption. Her funeral service was conducted by Brian Lenihan in his budget speech on Tuesday.

Murphy asks where the Celtic Tiger came from, why it ended, and what its lasting impact is liable to be. “The answers are simple – its causes are unclear, its demise was inevitable and its impact is debatable.” On where the Tiger came from, he says “economic growth appears to have been a combination of chance and the ability to grasp that chance when it came” (When Roy Foster said the same thing in his Luck and The Irish, the reviewer for the Irish Times amongst others accused him of failing to accept that Irish people were capable of manufacturing their own prosperity. I wonder how people will think about that after recent events).

On the Tiger’s demise, Murphy comments

Its demise is easier to explain. It was caused by uncontrolled property speculation. About 88,000 new homes were built in the Republic last year, roughly half the number built in the UK for a population 12 times larger. Workers from across the world built houses at prices which few could afford and at a rate which only speculators could understand.
Fianna Fail believed the country could live on borrowed money. In reality it was living on borrowed time.

That is an amazing statistic on housebuilding, and a demonstration of two things. Firstly, that the speculation and unchecked housebuilding in the south has gone mad, and secondly that not enough housing is being built in the UK, despite there being apartments springing up everywhere you look. And yet the price of housing kept rising, and the demand remained there. This level of house building is both financially and environmentally unsustainable, and tighter regulation is needed on the use of land in future (I’m sure we all know people with horror stories about drainage, subsidence etc in poorly constructed homes built where they shouldn’t have been, never mind the transport issues etc). It also demonstrates the extent to which the boom of recent years sprang from an act of collective delusion – apparently no-one in the south (or much of the north for that matter) was looking at Britain in the early 1990s.

Murphy then turns his attention to the consequences of the Tiger.

So now that the tiger economy is dead, who gained the wealth, what was it used for and what type of society did it produce? Much of the new money went to an exclusive few. One per cent of the Irish population now owns a third of the wealth. They probably spent it on big houses and helicopters, which would explain the 1,200 helicopter flights in and out of the Punchestown race meeting last year.
More modest earners appear to have splashed out on alcohol, foreign holidays and wooden floors. The 7 per cent who remained in poverty had nothing additional to spend.

One percent of the southern population owns a third of the wealth. That is a frightening statistic, and an eloquent condemnation of the inequality generated by the boom. It might be a little more palatable at least had the government put the increased tax take to good use. Yet, as Murphy pointed out, it was used to cut taxation and build roads, including through Tara, which

symbolised the government’s problem with wealth. It forgot Ireland’s past and thus had no conceptual grasp of its future. Heritage and environment gave way to business. Yet in this week’s budget, Brian Lenihan ensured that the economy’s coffin was carried by the poor, the elderly and children. He called it a rallying cry to patriotic duty.
It included an end to free medical care for all those over 70, an increase in VAT and a �100 fee for emergency visits to hospital. That certainly sounds patriotic.

The figures Murphy provides certainly demonstrate what a sick joke the levies of 1% on income up to 100,000 Euro and 2% on everything over it on the population are. It is hard to imagine a more unfair tax. And the stark reality of the budget becomes clear. To be honest, I had somehow missed the 100 Euro fee for emergency visits to the hospital. Had I noticed it, my initial reaction to the budget would have been peppered with a lot more swear words. It’s hard to express the outrage I -and most people – feel at the idea of having to fork over money because you are having a heart attack.

As if this isn’t a telling enough indictment of society and government in the south,

What became known as rip-off Ireland pushed food prices to New York levels, while unemployment stayed at about 5 per cent. Meanwhile, Dublin airport became Ireland’s Ellis Island and many Irish people, so recently removed from the tyranny of landlordism, adapted remarkably quickly to being landlords themselves.
The new society is reflected in the levels of crime. The US did not have to teach us about guns and corruption. History shows that we taught them. But the new culture of individualism, the demise of organised religion and the introduction of illegal drugs all combined to create Chicago-style gangsterism in Dublin and Limerick. Dublin has the fastest growing murder rate of any European capital.
Meanwhile, as the Morris Tribunal showed, gardai persecuted the innocent rather than pursue the guilty.
While Ireland plc became a corporate brand name abroad, internally it neglected its cultural identity. Can anyone claim that the national sport of hurling or the Irish language benefited from 20 years of the Celtic tiger? Instead, Ireland became Europe’s favourite pub. The lasting impact, north and south, is that the tiger ate much of what was Celtic.

Has Ireland been culturally enriched by its new wealth? To return to Roy Foster’s Luck and the Irish, his chapter on culture certainly suggests so. The flourishing of Irish novelists, symbolised by numerous Booker prize wins, the popularity of Irish bands, and even Irish dancing (suitably jazzed up by Michael Flatley et al) suggests yes. The self-confidence of the place does the same. Yet Murphy is partly right too. Certainly he is correct on the criminal culture, and the explosion in drug use among the middle classes that fuels much of it. The cultural life of the ordinary person has probably been expanded by easier travel and wealth, but the Irish language certainly has not benefited, and the sense of community and solidarity has in many places been destroyed by individualism and shallow materialism reflected best in the Sunday Independent. Murphy’s critique then is a patriotic one, but it should not be mistaken for narrow nationalism of the type found in Desmond Fennell’s writings or that fuels anti-immigration hysteria elsewhere in Europe, and has the potential to raise its head in Ireland, and which may well have had a significant part to play in the very welcome rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.

The environmental and cultural questions Murphy raised should be at the centre of the debate of where we go from here. And yet, while it is easy to produce critiques of what is wrong, it is much harder to find solutions. Of course, we shouldn’t expect them in 750 words from a columnist, but we can and should expect them from the left, which must now mount a sustained attack on the greed, corruption, crass materialism, arrogance, recklessness, and short-term profiteering that has wasted such a glorious opportunity, and done so much damage to the fabric and culture of Irish society. We don’t have to agree with everything Murphy says to agree with his final sentence, a lament: “It all could have been managed so much better.”

Budget Follow Up

October 16, 2008

I thought it was worth following up on reaction to the southern budget, just to remind people what an utter bunch of callous incompetents are running the show.

“It was a Government decision” so stated Brian Leninhan about the decision to end automatic entitlement to medical cards for the over 70s. The government is removing the entitlement of the top third of pensioners, a huge number in real terms, and if we think of this in terms of taxpayers, we can see how far down the scale it will hit. All this to save about 100m Euro per year. Peanuts. Especially in terms of the sums the southern government has had at its disposal, and the amount being expended to shore up financial speculators. This also helps put in perspective the commitment in the Lisbon Treaty to constant spending and upgrading of military capability. And by the way, I would hope that decisions taken by any minister are government decisions. Doesn’t say a lot for the efficiency of the thing that this needed pointed out.

What of some of the other reactionary aspects of the budget? The INTO is warning that with the removal of substitutes for uncertified sick leave, children will probably be sent home from January, and that the removal of substitutes for teachers on trips etc will hit sport and other extra-curricular activities. The Minister for Education has confirmed that the government was aware of the particular challenges” this will pose to those running schools. Not often you hear a government brazenly admit it is too cheap to educate your child properly. And so much for the health of the nation’s children. Not so much cherishing the children of the nation equally as telling them to go take a running jump. But only metaphorically, as there won’t be any PE.

The ICTU has stated that it will seek those earning 23,000 Euro and under be exempt from the Lenihan levy, but David Begg continued to defend the pay deal, something a lot of those he represents will be less than pleased about in light of the budget.

World By Storm has a piece of the usual high quality over at Cedar Lounge Revolution mocking the squeals of the guilty, as the Irish Times bemoans the fate of the middle class under the budget.

I’m not really going to add a great deal to all this. Just to say that the southern economy has been in “negative growth” (a linguistic trick if ever there were one) for not that long, and already we are seeing the slash and burn instinct coming out in the government. What will the Budget of 2011 be like if we are still in recession then? A cheery note on which to end.

Fianna Fáil’s Eighties Revival

October 14, 2008

Quelle surprise. Economic difficulties rear their head in the Republic, and Fianna Fáil reacts in the only way it knows how – a reactionary budget that punishes ordinary people, amidst a great deal of talk of belt tightening, difficult conditions, the need for patriotism, and hard choices. We’ve heard all this before, most recently in the 1980s, while the late and unlamented Charlie Haughey was having his suits handmade in Paris, and his buddies were making fortunes from corruption – a house of cards brought down, lest we forget, by Tomás Mac Giolla’s exposure in the Dáil of the nature of the Goodman company. The south, through a combination of EU membership, a young, English-speaking, relatively well-educated and relatively cheap workforce, low corporation tax, and being in the right place at the right time, has as we all know been transformed in the last two decades. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget an unsustainable Thatcherite housing bubble. There has for a large number of the last fifteen years been a large budget surplus, and some good has come out of it – investment in transport and infrastructure (although of course with the usual incompetence and stupidity as over the Dublin Port tunnel, the trams, and the failure to deal with the gridlock in Dublin), investment in education, better services in some areas, more employment, and an undoubted rise in living standards. The liberalisation and secularisation of society has also been accelerated by these trends. Those who raised doubts about the extent to which the money being made was being transferred out of the country by the multinationals, or concern about the short life span of factories owned by multinationals, or the failure to develop a significant native-owned industrial sector, or the vastly uneven distribution of the new wealth, or the failure to tax it properly, were mocked as remnants of the past, economic illiterates, begrudgers, and fools who refused to recognise the profound transformation wrought by recent economic development.

Hmmmm. The arrogant assumption that the Celtic Tiger was a juggernaut impossible to roll back, and that the economic growth would inevibatly continue looks a lot more silly than the questions raised during the height of the boom. What has happened is that a problem centred in America has radiated out from there and is on the verge of wrecking the southern economy. Obviously, every country in the world will be hit, and hit hard, by serious difficulties in America, but the south is particularly vulnerable as probably the most open economy in the developed world, with a huge proportion of its investment coming from the US. That is all understood. The question is, what resources does Ireland have to fall back on when its main sugar daddy cuts the purse strings? The answer is simple. The money accumulated during the boom years has been frittered away, and a government that makes a great deal of its skills in economic planning through its much-trumpeted National Development Plans has done precisely sweet bugger all in creating and sustaining native industry that was not almost completely dependent on the goodwill of others. This was of course very much a consequence of ideology. Not I admit a word much associated with Fianna Fáil, for whom the famous quip “You don’t like my principles? Wait, I have others” could have been invented. However, Fianna Fáil for the last five decades has been committed to a policy of free market economics and reliance on foreign capital for economic development, as have the other main parties in the state.

And we can see the consequences of this in the Budget. Here we have the Minister for Finance:
“The Government is determined to retain and enhance Ireland’s reputation as a pro-enterprise economy and as an attractive location for foreign direct investment. The most important action we can take in this regard is to stabilise our public finances.” The budget speech also spoke at length about the importance of foreign direct investment, added to some references to indigenous industry. There was a great deal of discussion of cutting the debt, ensuring fiscal stability, and all the other buzzwords so beloved of the right internationally – except when it comes to bailing out multinationals and funding armies. So what does all this actually mean? It means that the budget is dominated by the interests of foreign capital, and the people expected to make the sacrifices are the ordinary taxpayer, the young, and the old. As usual.

Corporation tax will stay where it is. Irish government policy will continue to serve the needs of the multinationals. And the Irish bourgeoisie. A 1% levy is being added to incomes – to the gross of all incomes – up to around 100,000 Euro. 2% on anything over that. So much for all the talk of fairness. 1% of 20,000 Euro means a lot more to the person earning that than two percent does to the barrister or whoever earning a million Euro. Not only that, but child benefit is being restricted, numerous education grants – including to Travellers – are being cut, and automatic medical cards are being taken away from the over-70s. This last measure in particular is quite simply barbaric. And turning the clock back not so much to the 1980s, but to the Dark Ages. In a demonstration of how little has changed in government priorities since the creation of the Free State, farmers are getting a great deal of continued support and relief.
Let’s make no mistake. This is not far from the most reactionary budget thinkable in the current circumstances – a budget for the multinationals and the rich at home. A budget right out of a different era, despite the populist pay cut for Ministers.

At least in the 1980s, there was a vibrant movement opposed to the right-wing initiatives of government. The PAYE workers’ campaigns, a less pliable union movement, and a serious and committed left voice in the Dáil in The Workers’ Party, which was active in promoting an alternative set of economic priorities through its Research Section. And, as we have seen, exposing the corruption of the establishment. We lack that voice now. And we are going to suffer for it.

Reform or Revolution? Civil Rights Debated

October 7, 2008

Reform or Revolution? – that was the question debated at The Workers’ Party Northern Ireland Regional Conference on October 4th. The conference saw a panel discussion and question and answer session involving Des O’Hagan (WP), a founder member of NICRA, Professor Paddy Murphy, one of the organisers of the student protest marches against the ban on the Republican Clubs in 1967 and the author of NICRA’s official history from 1978, and Mary Gray of the Communist Party, standing in for Edwina Stewart, who was unable to attend.

Paddy Murphy opened the debate with an analysis of the origins and the effects of the Civil Rights campaign. He saw its origins in two disparate elements. The first was the 1947 Education Act, which opened the way for the rise of a new and more articulate generation, better able to challenge the unionist regime than the old Nationalist Party. It was the students of this generation who mounted the first protest march for civil rights, when they marched to City Hall (at the request of the police instead of Bill Craig’s house) in protest at the march 1967 ban on the Republican Clubs, and secured the support of 1,500 out of 5,000 students for the rigt of the QUB Republican Club to exist. The other element was the failure of the Border Campaign, and the turn towards socialism and political and social agitation by the Republican Movement under Cathal Goulding. The new strategy required that republicans be able to organise politically, and so they followed the civil rights strategy as meeting both these aims. He also talked about the oher influences on the civil rights campaign, such as the Mc Cluskeys and the Campaign for Social Justice, the British Parliamentary Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, and the culture of the time, with protests in America, France and elsewhere.

Addressing the question of reform or revolution, he urged people to look at where we are now. The civil rights movement had been killed by the sectarian violence. He argued that the state had not been reformed, but re-formed, into a different sectarian state – with two sectarian parties, not one. He argued that though things were different, and in some senses better, we got counter-revolution as opposed to the progressive aims of NICRA.

Mary Gray read a statement from Edwina Stewart, and recalled her own experiences of being involved in NICRA marches in Armagh, and in the discussion raised the question of civil rights for women in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK, especially regarding the issue of abortion, and she spoke about the activities of the Alliance for Choice.

Des O’Hagan also talked about the Butler Act allowing working-class children such as himself better access to education, the importance of non-violence and anti-sectarianism to NICRA and for today, and condemned the ultra-leftist adventurist element in the civil rights movement. He also recounted how those interested in terrorist violence regarded NICRA as an obstruction, and wanted it out of the way, explaining their opposition to it in things like the Northern Resistance Movement. The civil rights movement he reminded the audience was about democratising the state, and thus utterly changing its nature.

Eamon Melaugh was the first speaker during the debate. He spoke of how he had been determined that something like October 5th was always going to happen, and that he would not leave the legacy of apathy and indifference to his children that had been left to him. He talked about how his family had been the victims of sectarian intimidation in Belfast in 1933, and of how the poor conditions he was agitating against affected Protestants as well as Catholics. He described how he selected the route of the march into the Diamond knowing that it would be banned, and that it was likely that the marchers would be attacked by the police – but he stressed at the time and again at the conference that the marchers would not be responsible for the violence. He believed that the arrogance and strength of the unionist regime would prove its achilles heel. And so it had. He spoke of the attempts made to write him and others like Brigid Bond out of the anniversary and the story of the civil rights campaign. He also spoke of his pride in combatting sectarian unionism and nationalism in the years after the civil rights campaign, and of how sectarianism remained the main problem in our society, a point echoed by the other speakers in the debate and by the panellists. Paddy Murphy made the telling point that there is no right not to hold a religious view in the current set-up in NI, and that this was a violation of civil rights.

The morning of the conference had begun with a discussion of the future of the left in NI ten years on from the Good Friday Agreement, with a panel of Justin O’Hagan (WP), Martin Stroud (British Labour group in NI), and Ciaran Mulholland of the Socialist Party. A good deal of the debate naturally focused on the current economic crisis and its possible implications for the left. The panellists and those participating in the debate stressed the need for as much left cooperation as possible, while recognising that differences would remain. The possibility of a left candidate in the European elections was discussed, and Ciaran Mulholland spoke about the SP’s vision of how a new left party could come about in the future. The panel debated the role of the trade unions, and whether it was time for them to become more politically engaged. All agreed that left cooperation around strong social democratic demands at the least were essential to engage working people in left politics, and to reactivate the old Northern Ireland Labour Party constituency. The conference was also addressed by Noel Carillo, Cuban Ambassador to Ireland, who spoke about the devestation wrought by the recent hurricanes, and the government’s efforts to restoer the country, and the need for solidarity. A social night in aid of Cuba will be held in the Lower Falls Social and Recreational Club on October 18th.

The conference was a wide-ranging one, dealing with issues of both historical and immediate importance for progressive politics in NI, and on the island as a whole. It finished with presentations by Tomás Mac Giolla to some of those involved in the civil rights campaign – Eamon Melaugh (see photo above), Eugene Little, Edwina Stewart (accepted by Mary Gray), and in memory of Brigid Bond and Paddy Douglas, the footage of whom being struck unprovoked by the RUC on October 5th became emblematic not only of the day itself, but of the nature of the unionist regime.