Monthly Archives: December 2012

We Lead, They Follow: On Loyalist Political Incoherence

At last year’s DUP conference, the First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson lamented what he described as the existence of apartheid in the education system, whereby Catholic and Protestant children were segregated in different schools.

Segregation on the basis of religious denomination is surely a factor in the reproduction of sectarianism in Northern Ireland society, but it can get overstated in so far as there are areas of the North where even if you did have integrated schools the large majority of students in a particular school would be of one religion or the other, due to the way the population is distributed.

What is understated, however, is segregation in Northern Ireland schools on the basis of academic ability. Generations of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland have gone through a process of selection -which is to say, rejection- at age 11. The 11 plus exam result determined whether or not you went to a grammar school or a secondary modern, and the process of going through the exam could get you labelled as either a success or a failure.

By the standards of the system, the majority of children -Protestant and Catholic alike- were categorised as unsuitable for academic study at age 11. However, middle class Protestants and the emerging Catholic middle class on the whole have maintained an attachment to grammar schools, to the detriment of working class children’s education and self-esteem. Many of those who did not necessarily perceive themselves as failures still accepted the judgement of the system on their abilities, or the abilities of their child.

There have been plenty of images in circulation in recent days highlighting the poor spelling and syntax of signs held up by loyalist protesters, accompanied by derisive comment. But one of the reasons for this is the huge gap in literacy levels between grammar and non-grammar schools.

Even with the ending of the 11 plus exam, many grammar schools have chosen to set their own entrance exams to filter out undesirables. The segregated education system has created a certain kind of social authoritarianism in the North, in which many of those at the bottom believe they are there for a reason, and those on top believe the educational system has selected them to lead. There are also a substantial number of people from working class backgrounds who believe that the grammar school system was intelligent enough to identify them as worth saving from a dismal future, and support it as a consequence.
The particular relevance to loyalism is that whereas the nationalist parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, historically opposed academic selection/rejection, the unionist parties, the UUP and the DUP, have always supported it, without regard for the effect that it had on their working class constituencies, or perhaps even grateful for that effect.

The current Stormont Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, is a good example of the phenomenon of unionst support for selection. In the 2010 Westminster elections,

Wilson presented himself as ‘The only candidate defending grammar schools‘ in elections in the East Antrim constituency.

According to 2007-8 figures from the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, there were 6,562 students in post-primary education in East Antrim. A majority of these students went to non-grammar schools: 53% vs 47% at grammar schools. Entitlement to free school meals, an important indicator of poverty, was 17% for children at non-grammar schools in East Antrim, compared to only 4% attending grammar schools in the constituency. Throughout Northern Ireland the entitlement in 2011/12 was 27% for Secondary schools and 7% for Grammar schools.

Wilson’s constituency is typical of the class divide maintained by the North’s education system, with additional biographical piquancy in this case: the Finance Minister with responsibility for the implementation of local austerity budgets in keeping with neo-liberal doctrine, is a former head of Economics at a grammar school, and former Assistant Chief Examiner for Economics in the local examinations board. His public pronouncements are racist and misogynist, even by the standards of mainstream unionism.

The glaring contradiction between a unionist politician such as Sammy Wilson’s own interests and those of most of his constituents goes some way toward explaining why unionist parties mobilise people around the fear that their lives stand to be destroyed by the removal of flags from official buildings, and not the social and economic policies such politicians endorse as a self-evident necessity.

Above is a clip of Ruth Patterson, a Belfast DUP councillor, talking on Saturday about how the loyalist protesters needed a ‘leader’ to bring them out of the ‘wilderness’. Aside from the biblical overtones, this encapsulates an attitude characteristic of many unionist politicians towards the constituencies that elect them: we lead, they follow.

That they get away with such an attitude is due in part to the cruelty of an education system that tells people they need others to think for them and administer to them, since they’ve proven themselves officially incapable of doing it for themselves.

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The Full Flowering Of ‘Peace’

A comment posted in response to an article, titled Peace is a fragile plant that needs careful nurturing, published in today’s Irish Times by John Cushnahan, former Alliance Party leader and Fine Gael MEP.


It’s fitting that this article got published the day Enda Kenny is going to pick up the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the European Union.  

 The ‘fragile plant’ of peace so piously tended to here is the same kind of peace imposed by the European Union on the populations of Europe. This ‘peace’ means social misery for the many and prosperity for the rich, in the UK, in the Republic of Ireland, in Northern Ireland, and across Europe. It’s a plant of ‘peace’ maintained by neo-liberal social and economic policies, and brought to flower by a state apparatus dedicated to surveillance and pacification.  

 When this leads to manifestations of violent incoherence, these are explained away by mere ‘attitudes’, rather than the structural violence of an order dedicated to impoverishing the majority, through the stripping away of labour rights, welfare state provisions, and the privatisation of public goods and services.

In the Irish context, the violent outbursts on the part of working class populations in the North of Ireland are not treated as symptoms of deprivation and despair, induced by a particular political and economic system that guarantees that most people have little control over their own futures whilst political and financial elites connive to line each other’s pockets. Instead, they are presented as a warning about what happens whenever people develop an attitude problem.  

 Many crocodile tears are shed about how sectarianized Northern society is becoming, but the real contributing factors behind it are seldom addressed. So the re-militarisation of British society on the back of Britain’s recent military escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan plays no part in loyalist belligerence in Northern Ireland. Nor does the widespread demonisation of the working class. Nor does the paring back of the welfare state. Nor does the broad consensus across the main political parties in the North of Ireland, and in the South, and in the UK, that there is no alternative to austerity.  

 That’s because imperial war, the demonisation of the working class, the shrinking to death of the welfare state, the privatisation of public services –including, in Northern Ireland, the NHS-, and political institutions immune to democratic influence are all part of the new normal, all part of the full flowering of peace.

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The chutzpah of the Iona Institute is something to behold. Leaving to one side the controversy arising from shit lists brandished in public, the very fact that the Iona Institute has such a high profile is on account of a public broadcaster -one that stops for the Angelus twice a day- giving Iona representatives regular airtime. 

Not only do they get regular airtime, but their right-wing views are treated as representative of the views of lay Catholics in Ireland on any given social issue whenever a religious perspective is deemed relevant.

Whilst I don’t think the term ‘bias’ is useful, if this is not ‘bias’, I don’t know what is.

On the particular matter of RTE’s coverage of matters concerning Savita Halappanavar’s death and ensuing discussion of abortion legislation, it is plain to see that the dominant frame has been the matter of the woman’s life being preserved, in basic terms of biopower: would an abortion have saved her life, or not? There has seldom been any consideration of the question of the woman’s right to choose, or of how Savita Halappanavar was denied a choice.

Moreover, I have yet to hear any discussion at all of the matter of whether ‘the people’ have a right to exercise such ownership over a woman’s body.

Never mind: RTE’s ‘impartiality’, according to Breda O’Brien, is being compromised by personal opinions expressed in public by some of its employees and collaborators.

The real story here is not the Iona Institute’s chutzpah but the role of the public broadcaster in maintaining them as credible and reliable contributors on social affairs.

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Book ’em Dan O’: Hitting The Accelerator on The Miserly Road to Ruin

A little post-budget commentary. It’s hard to argue with Irish Times economics editor Dan O’Brien when he says the government sought to ‘minimise the risk of confrontation with any powerful grouping or those with vested interests’, seeing as the broad parameters of the budget were imposed by the Troika and backed by business groups here.

IBEC, the employers’ body, said in its post-budget briefing note that the budget was ‘by and large equitable and progressive’, and that those with highest incomes and wealth will be ‘hardest hit’. This description reflects the government’s own portrayal of the budget.

Therefore the consensus among ruling politicians and bosses is that someone on minimum wage with four children who has seen their child benefit payment fall by nearly €700 a year got off lightly by comparison with, say, Michael O’Leary or the Chief Executive of any IBEC firm.

In the wake of the budget, Dan O’Brien suggests here that the government could have adopted a ‘more radical route’, by slashing expenditure far more quickly. To do this, he finds justification in the growth in the size of the State in Ireland over recent years, by comparison with that of Germany: ‘the expansion in the size of the State also far exceeds that in Europe’s paymaster and politically most powerful state, Germany, where spending is projected to rise by just 28 per cent in the 11 years to 2013.’

But he only refers to growth; he doesn’t refer to the size of the State itself. Why is that?

Well, feast your eyes on this.


Above are the IMF’s predictions for government spending in the coming years. As you can see, Ireland, having funnelled shitloads of billions in public money into banks, is already well below Germany in 2012, and in the coming years, government spending in Ireland as a proportion of GDP will fall way below the United States and a United Kingdom that is slashing away frantically at its welfare state provision. I got the idea to put together the graph from an article in the Guardian by Aditya Chakrabortty, which showed the data for the US, Germany and the UK alone to illustrate the scale of the radical paring back in the UK. Chakrabortty wrote:

‘strip away the usual economic and financial alibis for such drastic austerity and what you’re inevitably left with is a purely political motive: namely, a desire to transform the British state from being recognisably European, with continental levels of public spending, to something sub-American in its miserliness

The Irish state, meanwhile, is being transformed into something sub-sub-American in its miserliness. But the hardest hit in this equitable and progressive process, if you believe what you read in the Irish papers, are Ireland’s boss class. Dan O’Brien, meanwhile, claims that accelerating this road to ultra-miserliness would entail ‘confronting interest groups, including the most powerful ones’.

But the most powerful interest groups are the ones with their pedal on the accelerator, and Dan O’Brien is one of their main cheerleaders.  


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Spreading The Bullshit Around

This is my comment, posted on the comments thread of the Irish Times leader column titled Spreading the pain around, in response to its claim that ‘there was little comfort for any interest group in the package of measures announced by the Minister for Finance’.

On the contrary, there has been plenty of comfort for interest groups. Not for the first time, the Irish Times omits the fact that the European Union, the IMF and the European Central Bank, the three components of the Troika, act in the interests of particular interest groups, not the populations affected by its policies.

There are particular interests -for example, those of financial corporations, or ‘the demands of foreign lenders’, as the Irish Times calls them here- served by the stripping away of welfare state provisions, the impoverishment of the working population, the shrinking of the public sector, and the outsourcing of public services, and they were handsomely served by yesterday’s budget.

The German government, for example, will be delighted at more evidence of a docile and masochistic population, whom it can continue to hold up as the poster child to justify both its destruction of the societies of southern Europe in collaboration with local elites, and the disciplining of labour within its own borders.

Closer to home, many employers will be cheered by the fact that on account of the impoverishment of the population and the jobs that this budget will destroy, they will have a more docile workforce at their disposal, both terms of potential employees prepared to accept lower wages and conditions, on account of personal desperation, and existing employees prepared to do so for fear of intimidation and dismissal. Certainly many employers will be cheered by the disincentives to having children introduced by the budget, both in terms of child benefit cuts and the taxation of maternity benefit, since it will mean fewer women on maternity leave.

Therefore the Irish Times should be a bit more rosy in its assessment.

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Notes on ‘The Most Vulnerable’

In Saturday’s Irish Times, former Mountjoy Prison governor John Lonergan wrote an article, in advance of this week’s budget, with the title ‘No economic crisis justifies what vulnerable are paying’. In it, he detailed many examples of how the programme of cuts undertaken by successive governments, with the backing of the Troika and in search of the ‘approval of the markets’, has produced catastrophic human effects, inflicted, as he put it, on ‘our most vulnerable people’.

But whilst John Lonergan -were he not a former prison governor I doubt anyone would pay him any heed- does well to name many of the social outrages perpetrated against those who have few if any defences in Irish society, this pervasive idea of ‘the most vulnerable’ informs his article.

The function of ‘the vulnerable’, or ‘the most vulnerable’, in Irish public discourse is to conceal a multitude of sins. No-one is in favour of attacking the most vulnerable.

Even the IMF, which has ruined hundreds of millions of lives through its imposition of neo-liberal economic doctrine in defence of finance capital, thinks budgetary measures ought to protect ‘the most vulnerable’. Hence Craig Beaumont, director of the IMF’s Ireland programme, cites protecting ‘the most vulnerable’ when advocating means-testing for child benefit payments and cutting the cost of medical cards. Eddie Hobbs, one of Ireland’s most prominent media right-wing commentators, calls for the removal of the Croke Park agreement because it is tantamount to a ‘cartel’ that means cuts are ‘targeted at the most vulnerable‘. The Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Finance makes precisely the same argument. Thus breaking the power of organised labour, dismantling universality and restricting access to health services can be justified by claiming you are protecting the most vulnerable.

In the same paper in an article published just above Lonergan’s, Stephen Collins, the Irish Times political correspondent, claims that ‘the Irish State has managed better than any other in the EU to protect the most vulnerable sectors in society from the worst hardship during this fiscal correction, which has already amounted to €23 billion.’ For Collins, there is no need to cite any evidence, of course. And by calling gargantuan cuts in public spending a ‘correction’, he is implying he can speak without fear of contradiction that dismantling public services and welfare is the right thing to do.

‘The most vulnerable’ are an alibi, then, for the elimination of public services and entitlements and the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. They are a lubricant for the ‘application of’ public debt as a lever for primitive accumulation’, as Karl Marx put it.

The category of ‘the most vulnerable’ serves to distract from the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have already been harmed and are currently being harmed by the structural violence of the Irish State and its preservation of a good business climate for finance capital.

Talking about ‘the most vulnerable’ is a way of setting back the clock to zero. Whatever happened in the past in terms of pain already inflicted is of no importance, indeed, no-one is actually feeling any pain, but is simply subject to the possibility that they may feel pain.

Not only that, but the category of the ‘most vulnerable’, whilst taking the place of any kind of class analysis, implies a continuum of vulnerability, along which there are certain people who are not vulnerable at all, as if for some human beings the possibility of getting old, frail and sick. for instance did not exist. This has the effect of turning those who are ‘most vulnerable’ into a kind of subspecies that the system and the ruling powers must manage appropriately, rather than recognising them as people with rights and dignity who are largely defenceless against the attack of a system run in the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

Furthermore, in the same way as talk about ‘deprived areas’ rarely entails talking about just who or what it is that is doing the depriving, talk about ‘the most vulnerable’ rarely ever entails specifying just who or what it is that threatens to cause harm.

And that is because ‘the most vulnerable’ are the object of the wealthy and powerful. It is the wealthy and powerful who name them, and it is the wealthy and powerful who threaten to inflict vicious harm on them, unless society conforms to their insatiable Procrustean expectations.


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