Ireland: Country On The Verge of A Communications Breakdown

'Forget the fire, what matters is people not seeing the smoke!'

‘Forget the fire, it’s people not seeing the smoke that matters!’

Let’s review some rueful episodes of Ireland’s recent past.

Irish Water. Complete disaster. The firm has failed to communicate properly with people regarding how they can pay for their water. The government has failed to communicate properly to people that they need to pay for their water. Fortunately there is time for Irish Water to get it right, with the help of conscientious journalists.

Property Tax. A fiasco. The authorities failed to communicate properly with people regarding how to fill out the forms, and how to assess the value of their homes. As a result, the public mood was inflamed by siren voices preaching mayhem, and could have taken the nation to the brink of chaos had Revenue not taken matters in hand.

Bank bailout. An outrage. The authorities failed to communicate to people that property developers racking up astronomical debts was in fact their fault, and that things such as driving down wages, or cutting budgets for health, education and social welfare, were in fact in their best interests. What is more, they failed to make people understand that a thriving financial speculation sector is an essential part of a thriving society. As a consequence, people have fallen prey to populism, endangering long term economic prosperity.

Symphisiotomy scandal. Dreadful dereliction of responsibilities. The authorities failed to communicate to the women affected by symphisiotomy that sawing through their pelvis was not only in their best interests but in the best interests of society as a whole. It is understandable that this is an emotive issue for many, but we have to see these things in the context of their time.

Magdalene Laundries. An appalling story. The authorities failed to communicate to people that these institutions really operated in the best interests of society as a whole, and were motivated largely by concern for the welfare of those who worked in them. Surely a calm debate is now needed.

Industrial schools. Shameful episode. The authorities failed to communicate to people just how much effort the religious orders actually put in to look after those in their care, and just how troublesome their charges could prove. A balanced account is urgently required.

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Neighbours vs. Residents: Some Thoughts

I can clearly recall the day, some ten years back, just after we had moved into our house and were out in the street taking delivery of some household appliance, how the man from across the way approached me, and, stretching out his hand, said with a smile, “Hello resident!” From that day on, we have got on very well, helping each other out with this and that, chatting about this, that and the other.

No, sorry, that’s not quite right. He said “Hello neighbour!”.

There is a difference between being a resident and a neighbour. There’s nothing necessarily good about being a neighbour, especially if you’re the kind who likes nothing better to do a spot of arc-welding in your terraced house in the dark of night.

But ‘neighbour’ implies some kind of relation to others, a common bond, whereas ‘resident’ does not. Residents reside, nothing more. Perhaps this is one reason why the most prominent voices at Residents’ Association meetings can be those most concerned with matters like delineating the boundaries between their dwelling and someone else’s, or getting the police in to give a talk on why everyone should install a burglar alarm.

The difference between being a resident and being a neighbour came to mind a little while ago when I was translating a speech by Ada Colau at the launch of Guanyem Barcelona. You can watch the speech here, with my subtitles. Even if you read no further of this post, I promise you that watching the speech is worth it.

At one point in the speech she says

But we are the people who are out on the streets, we are normal people, ordinary people, who speak with our neighbours [in Catalan, las veïnas i els veís] each day, who in contrast to professional politicians get onto public transport every day…’

And then she says:

We are the neighbours, we are the neighbourhoods [els barris] who have taken the lead in the finest victories of this city, which would not have happened if it were not for the neighbourhood struggles of recent decades. And we are also the neighbours who are getting organised today to confront the disasters that are being created by the political institutions in connivance with the economic powers that be.

So the operative word of ‘neighbour’ carries with it, in such a context, a common human bond that ‘resident’ lacks in English. I thought it was interesting how, when it comes to the Irish Water protests, the emphasis is on what ‘residents’ are doing, and how, from certain perspectives, if you’re not a ‘resident’, you have no right to be entering a particular area in order to protest. In fact, ‘neighbour’ isn’t a word that fits into the overall discourse around the opposition to water charges. ‘Resident’, on the other hand, neatly fits into an atomised view of the world, in which water charges are the sole responsibility of individual units.

(Bible enthusiasts might like to know that the word for ‘neighbour’ as in ‘love your neighbour’ in Catalan as with in Spanish is not the same word for the person who lives in a dwelling near yours, but simply the person next to you: el teu proïsme)

‘Resident’ is also an administrative category from the perspective of the State. You are entitled to certain benefits, for example, based on the criterion of ‘habitual residency’. So it is also worth thinking about the effects of talking about ‘residents’ of Direct Provision centres.

I’m afraid I don’t have any name that works as a better fit for these contexts. But sometimes it isn’t so much about inventing a name to put on things, but of accumulating forces, of building forms of solidarity, so that the established order can no longer rely on words to bind what can be said and what can be done.

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Stephen Collins and ‘the Irish psyche’

'What matters is not what is happening but who defines the events'

‘What matters is not what is happening but who defines the events’

This is originally a comment left on a post-budget analysis in the Irish Times by its political correspondent Stephen Collins, who, evidently responding to the mass opposition to water charges that has materialised in both active resistance in housing estates and a huge demonstration in Dublin city centre last week, wrote that:

A fundamental problem is that paying for water offends something deep in the Irish psyche. Living in a country where it rains so much, people find it hard to accept the notion of paying for water. Of course what they will actually be paying for is its treatment and distribution but that is not easy to explain.

I’d love to see the poll questions and methodology Stephen Collins uses to assess ‘the Irish psyche’. Eamon De Valera once said that to know what the Irish people thought all he had to do was look into his own heart. I imagine Stephen Collins is more methodical, and commissions MRBI/Ipsos to launch a probe deep into his own raging id.

Meanwhile in the real world, that is, anywhere outside the general vicinity of Leinster House, anyone you speak to is well aware that the treatment and distribution of water has to be paid for. It is just that most people are aware that they are already paying for it through general taxation, and, given that they are already paying for it, do not see why they should pay even more for it in the form of a regressive tax. It seems that the only people incapable of grasping the reality of this situation are those whose job it is to ignore this reality.

While we’re on the subject of tax, it’s worth noting that throughout all the years of austerity measures designed to protect the sectors of society culpable for Ireland’s economic crash, I cannot recall a single instance where a political commentator in an established media outfit identified cuts to public spending and the consequent withdrawal of vital public services as effectively a higher tax burden on the working people who depend on these services. Indeed, they actively sought to dispel such thoughts by framing previous budgets in terms of a choice between raising taxes and cutting expenditure. I think this is down to something buried deep in such commentators’ collective psyche. I might get MRBI/Ipsos to do a survey on the matter, then torture the data until it confesses I’m right. (For the context, see here).

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Irish Water Protests: The View from Beijing

'Water that flows is money that is lost'

‘Water that flows is money that is lost’

I had a listen to Liveline today, the popular phone-in show on RTÉ, Ireland’s public broadcaster. There was a discussion about the protests against the installation of water meters taking place on numerous estates in Dublin, though the focus of the discussion was Clare Hall, in North Dublin.

Apparently one of the earliest callers, who I missed, advocated using tear gas to disperse the protesters. Another caller said that rule of law was the cornerstone of democracy and that the protesters had no business obstructing Irish Water from doing their work and these things should be addressed in the ballot box. Another said her husband worked for Irish Water and that people should only protest at designated times after seeking permission from the authorities.

Joan Burton’s comments about protesters using “extremely expensive mobile phones” were played several times, and concern was expressed for the welfare of the police. A resident of Clare Hall complained about the “gangs” of “vigilantes” roaming the estate and intimidating people. This complaint was countered by a caller who said that other people on the estate had been welcoming, inviting them into their house to use the bathroom, providing tea, and so on.

On the whole, the comments of most callers opposed to the protesters echoed the comments by Enda Kenny and Joan Burton in the Dáil. To wit: a small group of people, unrepresentative of the bulk of society, acting for their own selfish purposes, was failing to show respect for the rule of law. They were paralysing transportation, disrupting business, and interfering with the daily lives of residents of the area. There are ample ways of communicating discontent, they said, but not through this kind of confrontation.

Not only does this sentiment echo the comments of the main government figures in the Dáil, but they also echo, perhaps even more perfectly, the statement of the Chinese Communist Party regarding the protests in ‘Occupy Central’ in Hong Kong, as you can read here. Doubtless there are many Chinese people who share the Chinese Communist Party’s view.

Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party’s view that the ‘vast majority of people in Hong Kong agree that economic growth and the improvement of people’s livelihoods are the most important challenges facing them today’ would fit well in with the standard view of protest expressed both by figures in the Irish government and Ireland’s established press. It would not sound out of place in a Stephen Collins column in the Irish Times, for example.

I would like to focus on one particular aspect of the negative comments expressed on Liveline, which I am prepared to imagine reflect the feelings of a substantial number of Irish people. This is the idea that there is something illegitimate and base about a small group of people from outside an estate protesting on an estate against the wishes of the residents. In so doing I will ignore the many images of people who are indeed from the areas where the protests are taking place, and who are participating in meetings there. Like in this picture here, from Kilbarrack this evening.

The idea that there is something wrong with people protesting in an estate where they do not live shows scant understanding of how democracy works and how the law works. Let me explain. Irish Water meters are being installed on public property. Indeed, the Taoiseach has said as much in the Dáil. In democracy, members of the public have the right to contest and protest what the State does with public property, at the very minimum..

Based on these principles, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference if you got out of your scratcher at 4am and travelled from Mizen Head to protest in Dublin: it is the same as if the meter were being installed right outside your own gaff.

Thus objecting to protesters on the basis that “they’re not from round here” has as much sense as saying that Enda Kenny has no right as Taoiseach to be making decisions affecting Dublin because he is from the Wesht.

The Irish Water installation is not happening across the country on the foot of a process whereby residents of a particular area have freely decided whether or not they want them installed in their community; it was a decision centrally taken, regardless of whether the residents of any particular area objected. The Troika and the Irish government are as indifferent to the wishes of the protesters in Clare Hall as they are to the fearful curtain twitchers who look outside and hallucinate about rampaging vigilantes.

In democracy, the claim that an entity such as Irish Water has ‘unshakable legal status and validity’, to use the Chinese Communist Party’s term in objecting to the legitimacy of the protests in Hong Kong, is only true for as long and as far as the demos consents to it.

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The Irish Constitution and its ‘Weaker Sections’

Venezuelan children with illustrated copies of 1999 Constitution, distributed to all schools.

Venezuelan children with illustrated copies of 1999 Constitution, distributed to all schools. Credit: albaciudad.org

I left this comment on an article in today’s Irish Times titled Budget 2015: How constitutional is the behaviour of our Minister for Finance?. The article is by Gerry Kearns, Professor of Human Geography at Maynooth University, and is well worth a read for the data it shows.

The trends in relation to poverty, emigration and regional inequalities laid out in this article are shocking. The fact that the government is planning on introducing what the author calls ‘tax cuts for fat cats’ illustrates very clearly where their priorities lie.

However, Michael Noonan might well argue that cutting taxes for the wealthier strata of Irish society is intended to reverse these trends, and hence he is operating in keeping with the Constitution, and that, contrary to the author’s suggestion, he is indeed ‘safeguarding with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community’, or, in more common terms, ‘protecting the most vulnerable’.

The starting point of such an argument is the orthodox position that economic growth is beneficial to the whole of society because it leads to an improvement in public finances, and to pursue economic growth you have to maintain an attractive climate for investment. This in turn gives the government more leeway to ‘safeguard the weaker sections of the community’. This position is adhered to by all the main political parties. They all claim that maintaining an attractive business climate -i.e. tax cuts for fat cats- is the precondition for ‘safeguarding the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community’. They would likely argue that the primary economic interest of the weaker sections of the community is having a job and making sure their boss has a viable business. That’s why they say “jobs jobs jobs”, all the time, like crazed fanatics. Besides, what politician does not claim to be acting in the interests of compassion and social justice? Even the Tory party in the UK does that nowadays.

What is a constitution for, anyway? One of the major democratic events in recent decades was the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. After a massive social mobilisation, a new constitution was drafted that guaranteed the political and social rights of broad masses of people hitherto excluded from the political process. It is a common sight to see workers, women, peasants and people from sections of society previously excluded from political life taking to the streets with copies of the constitution in their hand: it is their constitution, and they charge themselves with enforcing it. The idea that the strong should look after the weak, expressed in Ireland’s Constitution and cited by the author here, is at odds with this kind of citizen-led democratic government. Democracy can never be the weak drawing attention to their weakness and calling upon the ruling powers to look after them – at best, that is benevolent oligarchy.

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“Let Them Drink Fluoride!” – further reluctant reflections on water fluoridation

SCIENTIST: David Costello

SCIENTIST: David Costello

Christ knows I should have better things to be writing about than water fluoridation but these things have a habit of lodging in my consciousness and the only way of flushing them out is to write something about it.

Last night a majority of councillors on Dublin City Council voted against the fluoridation of the water supply. Less than half an hour earlier a majority of councillors voted on a motion deploring the excessive mobilisation of Gardaí including the Public Order Unit into Dublin housing estates and the arrest of residents under the Water Services Act, and declared its support for peaceful resistance to water meter installation.

On the surface of it, the motion was an important statement of solidarity with people fearing the impact of water charges and treated like criminals for making their objections public.

The vote against the fluoridation of the water supply, however, has dominated attention on social media, the response largely negative, with people declaring that they would not vote for any person or party who had voted against fluoridation.

Such declarations and other negative responses are based on the conviction that water fluoridation poses no danger to the public and is in fact beneficial to public health, and in particular to the dental health of impoverished children. This conviction is based on a body of scientific evidence indicating the beneficial effects of water fluoridation in this regard.

For my part, based on what I’ve read about it, I think the conviction is largely correct. My main qualification would be that general discussion of water fluoridation rests on the assumption that the regulatory bodies and authorities tasked with the fluoridation of water are good enough to ensure that the quantity of fluoride in the water supply is not in excess of levels that would pose an identifiable health risk.

There are quite a few colourful characters mobilising against the removal of water fluoridation, and they make claims that do not stand up to scrutiny. But why does their message -and not, say, the message of those predicting the end of the world at some identified date before next summer- find traction? Is it because people are just stupid?

If people are susceptible to arguments that fluoridation as such amounts to an enforced policy of harmful mass medication, I suggest it is down, at least in part, to the fact that many are reluctant to take the claims of authorities charged with public welfare in Ireland at face value. What is more, this reluctance can, with justification, rely on the solid ground of bitter experience, whether in one’s personal encounters or in knowledge of real-life horror stories: symphisiotomy, caesarean hysterectomies, baby trafficking, child slavery, the Hepatitis C crisis, to name a few. The Sinn Féin councillor, who introduced the motion at Dublin City Council, Anthony Connaghan, referred to the case of the Irish government’s failure to issue a warning about Thalidomide.

Objecting to Anthony Connaghan’s motion was David Costello of Fianna Fáil. Highlighting his own background as a scientist, he insisted on the unreliability of the scientific claims being made against fluoridation, and singled out people wearing pink bikinis as a reasonable indication that the anti-fluoride campaign was not to be trusted, and that people backing Connaghan’s motion were ‘crazy’. He also said that it was

the only health initiative in the last hundred years in this country that has looked after the working class people

It’s quite a startling admission from a member of a party that has held power for 61 of the past hundred years. It indicates that the Irish State does not respond to the needs of Ireland’s working class, but to those of certain other groups.

I agree, of course, but that’s beside the point: the argument for the maintenance of fluoridation of water, typified by David Costello, can be advanced, and can appear perfectly reasonable in polite society, regardless of one’s broader perspectives on democratic government.

It is perfectly reasonable, according to this argument, to fluoridate the water supply because it is beneficial to the health of an impoverished minority, but this does not carry with it any obligation to include any wider consideration of why the socio-economic inequalities that it supposedly redresses actually exist in the first instance, including consideration of why Ireland’s political institutions consistently fail to address these inequalities.

A rigorous application of the scientific method, once it dawned on David Costello that his party had done next nothing to address the health needs of Ireland’s working class in the best part of a century would be for him to burn his Fianna Fáil membership card immediately. Assuming, of course, that he actually cared.

Nor does this carry with it, as far as I can see, any obligation to apply the scientific method to public health policies more broadly. The lethal effects of austerity policies have been widely documented. One such example is the work of David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu in The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills. And yet the hoots of derision that greet anti-fluoridation campaigners, or people concerned with fluoride in the water supply more generally, seldom greet the latest missive from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council or the Irish Central Bank.

Why is this? Part of the reason, I think, is that the idea, as far as conventional wisdom goes, that “the working class people” are there to be “looked after” but have no agency as political subjects, permeates right to the bone in Ireland. ‘The working class’ frequently appears in Ireland’s legislative history, but as a class that serves a particular function within a society where their proper place in the scheme of things is already known, and not open to question or alteration.

And anti-fluoride political positions, and anti-fluoride paranoia, are seldom -if ever- considered in terms of the paternalistic contempt shown by State institutions, including the Oireachtas, towards working class people.

One can be in favour of water fluoridation because it is in the best interests of ‘the working class people’ and one can, simultaneously, be in favour of austerity because it is in the best interests of ‘the working class people’ (usually incorporated to ‘Ireland’ or ‘the Irish people’) and feel free of any obligation to consider what working class people actually think, feel, say or do.

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Irish Water: The Bowel Movements of Kleptocracy

Pravda

There are two major stories in Ireland at the minute. One is the tribulations of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and something of a crisis in the Fine Gael party. The other is the introduction of water charges through Irish Water.

Most of the attention is dedicated to the first story. Kenny’s attempt to get a failed county council election candidate for Fine Gael elected to the Seanad, via an appointment to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, has blown up in his face. This is the kind of story that gets political correspondents frotting their laps in excitement. Disarray in the court of King Kenny, that sort of thing. More broadly, it exposes the gap between the promises made by Fine Gael and Labour for a ‘democratic revolution’ and ‘political reform’, and the sordid reality: patronage, cronyism and disregard for transparency and accountability. So it provides good ground for earnest denunciations of low standards in public life.

Coverage of Irish Water deals largely with the effectiveness of its implementation, and the anticipated costs to the consumer. The fundamental political question arising from Irish Water -whether it is right to ration water on the basis of wealth- was seldom posed, bar the token allowances made for radical dissenting voices.

Irish Water, by these lights, is an established and inalterable fact. The legitimacy of its introduction at the behest of the Troika was, from this view, always self-evident. The role of the public, according to Ireland’s media, is now to calculate how best to minimise the cost of water to their household, how to maximise consumer value.

Outrage about Irish Water appears as legitimate when it stems from the principle of consumer sovereignty, but not when it stems from the principle of democratic equality. So Irish Water’s spend on consultancy may give cause for scandal, but on the basis of value for money, not because it is symptomatic of kleptocracy: of private interests seizing hold of public goods in order to mine rich seams of profit.

To put it another way, the Irish Water public relations campaign, which explicitly sought to change people’s mindsets regarding water from that of a citizen to that of a consumer, gets plain sailing in Ireland’s media.

What makes for plain sailing is not just the coverage of the story itself, but the general absence, in Ireland’s media, of any concern with democratic entitlements, beyond the right to vote (though not the right to expect that one’s vote should have an effect). You only have to look at the size of the business or property sections of the Irish Times or the Irish Independent, and compare them to the amount of space devoted to the concerns of wage workers -salary levels, employment rights, public services- to see where the interests of these institutions lie. You see these interests also manifest in the coverage of politics: politics is a professional activity subject to the occasional scrutiny of a sedentary electorate, not everyday people taking to the streets.

The concern with ‘political reform’ and with whatever happened to the ‘democratic revolution’, so much to the fore in recent days, is helping to cast a veil over what is really happening with Irish Water.

In reality, Irish Water is the appropriation of public resources for private ends. As Gene Kerrigan noted in the Sunday Independent this week, the legislation establishing Irish Water specifically allows for privatisation, at the behest of the Minister for Finance. Given that Ireland’s Ministers for Finance act in reality as Finance’s Ministers for Ireland, Irish Water is intended as a crucial step towards full-blown privatisation.

A more rigorous questioning of the term ‘democratic revolution’ might be: since when did democracy entail selling off public resources in the interests of profit, at the behest of unelected international entities? And, as a consequence, what kind of action is legitimate when such things occur?

Well, if you think politics is a matter for men -and occasionally women- in suits, and the only worry is whether such figures are behaving appropriately, you don’t need to worry your head about the likes of that. More time to spend on working out how much it costs each time you flush your loo.

If, on the other hand, you think that upholding basic principles of equality and solidarity requires more than expecting Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach who opens private hospitals, to do it on your behalf, then you have to take matters into your own hands.

That, in essence, is what protesters on estates across Dublin and beyond have been doing, driven by the unbearable financial pressure that the imposition of water charges will entail. In response, the Gardaí have been deployed to ensure kleptocracy goes unimpeded.

The central figure of the ‘democratic revolution’, Enda Kenny, tried to claim in the Dáil today, when challenged about Garda arrests of peaceful protesters, that the protests were the work of nefarious outsiders who were disturbing the locals who merely wished to get on with their lives and let the Irish Water contractors get on with their work. The kind of people, one imagines, like the man featured in yesterday’s RTÉ radio report, who was recorded receiving the gift of a half dozen free range eggs from an Irish Water contractor.

The reality of Ireland, right now, is that the people who are actually maintaining the kind of democratic resistance that gave Ireland some semblance of democratic institutions in the first place, are being criminalised by the government.

What is more, they are ignored, when not bitterly condemned, by middle class liberals who dribble on interminably about standards in public life but take fright whenever the public actually materialises on the streets. It is ordinary people in estates across Dublin and beyond who are acting to restore some element of democracy to life in Ireland, whereas conventional wisdom would be happy to see it flushed down the toilet. For a reasonable fee, of course: these things have to be paid for, after all.

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