Monthly Archives: April 2014

Paddy Does Not Need To Know: The Anglo Trial and The Single Transferable Scapegoat


Not sure what to make of the fact that the Anglo trial has ended with the accused walking free, and the judge concluding, as described elegantly by the legal affairs correspondent of the Irish Times, that this was a case of ‘ one arm of the State prosecuting individuals for doing something that another arm of the State had encouraged them to do’.

I think it’s partly a good thing, that as Rónán put it, the Republic was denied the catharsis sought by its political class.

At the same time, the focus of attention has now turned back upon the figure of the former regulator, Patrick Neary, and his faulty powers of recollection. According to an analysis by Tom Lyons in today’s Irish Times, Neary, during the course of the trial, said  ‘“I don’t recall” 30 times, “I don’t know” 23 times, “I can’t recall” 12 times, “I can’t/don’t/cannot remember” 12 times, “That’s a complete blank to me” once, and “I’ve absolutely no recollection” four times.’ Paddy did not know very much.

This gives weight to one of the planks of received wisdom in circulation since details of the banking crisis were made public: the regulator was asleep at the wheel. With the Anglo bankers now largely exonerated, it is now the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator, not the spivs in suits, who are chiefly to blame. Spivs in suits will do what they will; let’s go after the faceless bureaucrats! Piquancy is added by the fact that Neary is still in receipt of a pension that is eight times the minimum wage for those in paid employment.

So, whilst the show trial may not have produced the redeeming denouement that might quell popular discontent at the fact not a single banker has gone to jail, the focus on the regulator, and on other institutions of state, can give the dominant narrative of the crisis a different flavour. This flavour poses little disruption to ruling interests either.

We are still in the territory of ‘crony capitalism’, not capitalism as such. But the emphasis will now be on ‘crony capitalism’ generated by faceless bureaucrats in public institutions, and by the failure of the political system to exercise proper accountability. According to this new flavour, it will be regulatory shortcomings and the incompetence and corruption of elected politicians, that led to Ireland’s economic crash, not the animal spirits of bankers and speculators.

Such animal spirits must be appropriately harnessed in order for capitalism to work properly, and this is not the sort of thing you can entrust to a crowd of primary school teachers from down the country. For this to work, you need the input of experts who have cut their teeth in high finance and macroeconomics, not people susceptible to be led by mob passions. The idea that there is something wrong with capitalism is simply out of the question.

Today, the Central Bank Governor, eminent economist Patrick Honohan, urged that the Government ‘keep a tight rein on the public finances’ and leave the financial markets in no doubt about the maintenance of a ‘disciplined approach’. That is, more austerity.

One of the key factors in convincing people of the need for further austerity –or resigning them to it- is a sense that public sector institutions are in need of reform: they are incapable of functioning because the incompetents who run them have racked up too much debt and are spending too much money. They need to be run ‘responsibly’ –to use the term currently favoured in France. But to whom are they ‘responsible’? Not to the people who supposedly own them and depend on them, but rather, to the financial markets. The less said about the fact that much of the public debt was initially private debt, the better.

So, we find ourselves in a situation where the show trial and the fallout from it may, in fact, serve to bolster neoliberalism in Ireland, not undermine it. Experts, not public sector fatcats and soft touches, are what is needed. The last thing needed, from the point of view of the people running the country, is democratic accountability. True democratic accountability would entail disputing the matter of who ought to be paying off Ireland’s debts. But from the point of view of those running the country, there can be no dispute.


If you get your news mostly from the Irish Independent, the newspaper controlled by Denis O’Brien, it may have escaped your attention altogether that there is quite a lively debate about capitalism as a system going on at the moment. It concerns a book by Thomas Piketty, Capital In The 21st Century, which is the top seller on Amazon.

What the book shows is that, as Nobel Economics Laureate Robert M Solow puts it, ‘the rich-get-richer process is a property of the (capitalist) system.’ Absent any kind of political programme to address what Piketty identifies as capitalism’s inbuilt dynamic towards inequality, Piketty demonstrates, according to Paul Mason, that all ‘that social democracy and liberalism can produce, with their current policies, is the oligarch’s yacht co-existing with the food bank for ever’.

Moreover, Mason says, and this is particularly relevant to the matter of Ireland’s financial and economic crisis, ‘If the underlying cause of the 2008 bank catastrophe was falling incomes alongside rising financial wealth then, says Piketty, these were no accident: no product of lax regulation or simple greed. The crisis is the product of the system working normally, and we should expect more.’

The crisis is the product of the system working normally. The shift in focus onto the head of Patrick Neary, or whoever the demonic figure of the day might be, is part of the system working normally too: our interpretation of the world is shaped by institutions owned and controlled by the wealthy. Whilst in other countries there is a surprising amount of debate about capitalism right now –even though the long term effects of such a debate, if any, are far from clear- there appears little room in Ireland for contemplation of capitalism as a system as austerity grinds onward. It is certainly not the sort of thing that falls into the purview of priestly castes of economists who prescribe fiscal consolidation and competitiveness as the cure for all ills. Paddy does not need to know. The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, after all.

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A Brief Reflection on the Hard Left


It all serves to illustrate how frail the party’s position is as it comes under attack in its heartland from Sinn Féin and an array of hard-left candidates.

Gilmore must plough on and minimise damage on May 23rd, Arthur Beesley, The Irish Times, Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014

Why use the term ‘hard-left’ to describe candidates to the left of the Labour Party?

What is ‘hard’ about these candidates, by contrast with political parties who oversee draconian cutbacks to expenditure in health and education and social services, or parties who set the police on social welfare claimants whilst releasing fraudulent figures on fraud, or parties who normalise forced and unpaid labour in order to keep unemployment high and wages low? Such parties do all of the above, then tell us it’s all for our own good and puff out their chests telling us how brave they are, and how they saved the State.

How hard must the candidates to the left of Labour be, then, when the softest part of the Labour Party –in keeping with all the other parties of the political establishment- is its teeth?

I suggest that ‘hard-left’ has little to do with hard facts of political analysis, and a great deal more to do with the hard propaganda of the extremist centre.

If it is only ‘hard men’ who stand opposed to the structural violence of austerity, then the impression is created that any political alternative that emphasises democracy and protection of public services will prove more violent and more destructive of the social fabric.

So, in ‘hard-left’, we see how conservative discourse –whatever you do, it’ll only make things worse– shapes what we think, and seeks our acquiescence, by presenting itself as objective fact.

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The Irish Times, Education, and Hatred of Democracy


When asked about how he would react if a student of his own produced a megaphone in class, Andrew Phelan, the teacher who disrupted Ruairi Quinn’s speech at the ASTI conference last week, told the Irish Independent that “it would entirely depend on the context”. To me this remark expresses infinitely more intelligence than the sum of all that was said by the host of voices who denounced him for his actions last week by posing the question: what if a pupil did that in class?

It is so basic that you would wonder if it needs any explanation at all. The fact that so many people criticised Phelan’s actions in such terms, on screen, on air, in print, online, illustrates a glaring absence of critical democratic faculties in public discourse, and an authoritarian streak a mile wide in Irish society.

Why is it so difficult to imagine that a classroom and a trade union conference are entirely different situations? You would have to be an idiot to believe the same norms and rules should apply in both cases.

In fact, you have to wonder what kind of person believes that a really existing school classroom -with its emphasis on hierarchy, instruction, rote learning, obedience and uniformity- provides the ideal template for running society. Anyone who thinks the school classroom is the ideal basis for society has no interest in a society populated by critical citizens -for want of a better word- capable of thinking and speaking for themselves. Rather, they want little go-getter yes-men.

No surprise, then, that the Irish Times, the bastion of liberal opinion in Ireland, weighs in heavily on the side of those who think society ought to be run like a classroom. In its editorial last week, titled ‘Turbulence on the teachers front’, it depicted the Minister of Education as a warrior on the field of battle -‘bloodied’ and ‘unbowed’, and bitterly denounced the actions of the ASTI protesters, writing:

For teachers generally – and the public – the most distressing aspect of their conference season was the embarrassing scenes at the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) meeting in Wexford. In a civilised society guests are not insulted by their hosts. Neither should a Minister, as guest of the union and as a representative of the people, be treated with the discourtesy that Mr Quinn was shown by a minority of ASTI members, who attempted to shout him down. Teachers are role models, who lead by example, not least in keeping order. Pupils who behaved in a classroom as these teachers did in Wexford, would risk expulsion. What sanction do those union members face for their disorderly behaviour? Certainly, the distractions caused by that controversy and the divisions that it created between union members meant less attention was given to educational issues of particular concern.

It is as if a fox were writing an impassioned treatise out of concern for the welfare of chickens in coops. Do you imagine that the Irish Times and other Irish media institutions would have devoted a great deal more time to the matters of Special Needs Assistant cuts, cuts to capitation grants, pay cuts, maternity leave cuts, the removal of Traveller Education and Refugee Education Centres, class size increases, and the introduction of JobBridge schemes -to name a few matters- if only Andrew Phelan had not produced a megaphone? If you do, I have a very interesting monorail proposal for your town, or your teaching union.

Let us bear in mind as well that the Irish Times is just as much of a media spearhead for the privatisation of education as Independent News and Media, which at least nails its colours to the mast with its Independent Colleges initiative.

The Irish Times lends proceedings a more respectable veneer with its ‘league tables’ that repeatedly show -as you would expect- fee-paying schools emerging as superior in sending children to university than non fee-paying schools, thereby enforcing the idea of education as a commodity to be bought and sold, the object of consumer choice, rather than a citizen right.

It speaks volumes about the Irish Times’s commitment to anti-democracy that in the context of its broader commitment to supporting neo-liberal austerity -which tends towards the obliteration of any kind of collective solidarity and labour rights- as a self-evident necessity, it should present a minor act of dissent, on the part of a few teachers, as a grievous act of lèse-majesté to be punished by union authorities, because of the primary importance of ‘keeping order’.

It speaks volumes about the dull-mindedness of those journalists who treat it as their vocation to enforce this regime of fiscal sadism -of which the Minister for Education is a senior figure- and destruction of democratic rights that they should think society should be run like a classroom. You have to wonder what kind of school these people attended.

What makes the Irish Times’s stance in this matter all the more ridiculous is its claim to know what a civilised society looks like. It has been the uncritical supporter of social and economic policies that have placed an additional 180,000 in poverty since 2007. There are now 375,000 children living in poverty.

What has the Irish Times ever done to defend the social rights of these children? Nothing. Has it ever been as outraged at the assault on their dignity as it was regarding that of the Minister for Education after a bit of heckling? No. It is far more concerned with making sure that order is kept in their dilapidated classrooms, with their teachers and parents and communities bearing the cost, in order that the elite groups who benefit from the social, economic and educational policies promoted by the Irish Times can continue to enjoy an easy life. It hates democracy that much.

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Something Uplifting (for once)

Photo via.

(My mother told me yesterday I should post things that are more uplifting. I thought, what, more uplifting than they are already?)

Last night we took the kids into town for El Entierro de la Sardina, or the Burial of the Sardine, which marks the closure of the region’s spring festival. People in their tens, maybe hundreds of thousands make their way onto the streets to watch the closing parade, which has hours of spectacular and colourful floats and music and dance troupes. Then they set fire to an effigy of a sardine.

Personally I do not like it that much, in fact I hate one particular part of it. This is the last half hour or so of the parade where floats bearing the names of Roman gods -Mars, Saturn, Bacchus, and so on, throw avalanches of cheap plastic toys down at the assembled crowds. The toys are junk and most of them wind up in the bin after a day or so. Despite this, there is great fervour shown by some in attempting to gather as much of the crap as possible.

Most prominent are the fathers who seem to think being able to acquire as many cheap plastic footballs as possible is a validation of their status as a man and a father. In fact, given the goading you hear some of them receive, it is not just their own male imagination at work. It is the sort of thing a GAA midfielder would do well at. I remember the first time I attended. I was sent out to the front to bring back some goodies for a child who was there with us. As I limp and half-heartedly tried to will one of the plastic balls through the air into my hands, I was shoulder-charged into near oblivion by a barrel-chested stallion of a man. Or at least so he said. While dusting myself down and reeling from the shock, he turned to his son and spat “See that? The biggest dick round here belongs to your dad!” I am not making this up.

So this year we opted out of sitting through the whole thing. The kids’ grandmother valiantly volunteered to sit with them in one of the stands. Talking to her about the parade before the start, she said it was the only one she actively disliked. She is not given to strident political pronouncements but she said that this parade was run by “todos los fachas de la construcción” – literally, “all the fascists in the construction industry”. That it was all an ego trip for them -they’re the ones throwing things from the floats bearing the name of the Roman gods. She said there were even some people who had taken out loans in order to appear on the floats, and thus remain as privileged members of these circles, even if they were in financial trouble.

I did see the beginning, however. It was a rolling advertisement for a Mercedes-Benz dealer. Black Mercedes Benzes slowly moved up the main street of the city. Models dressed in black punched huge black balloons into the air. As you probably know, there is an unemployment crisis in Spain. It is partly the product of a construction bubble that burst, part the product of austerity policies imposed from Brussels and Frankfurt and enforced locally. I remembered an interview I had heard a few years back with Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek economist. He was saying he had been talking to a senior ECB officer, who had told him that the ECB, which was, as Varoufakis noted, nothing more than an extension of the German Bundesbank, was probably going to push periphery countries into permanent recession.

The ECB officer had told him that – I checked out the transcript of the interview, from Doug Henwood’s Behind The News show: “we are pushing wage deflation towards you. We are forcing you effectively to reduce wages. But you know what? Wage earners in your country do not buy Mercedes Benzes. It is the elites of countries like yours who do. And we are going to look after them. We are going to ensure there are transfers of European money, effectively German money, to Greece, to build roads and metro stations and improved telecommunications, and the people who will benefit from that are the elites.”

So here I was, looking on at this. To give things a strange symbolic weight, the name of the Mercedes dealer was ‘Pujante’, which means ‘forceful’, or ‘vigorous’.

While we were waiting for the parade to finish, safely at a short remove from proceedings, we sat in a terrace on one of the main squares. A television crew were broadcasting. The presenters were dressed in that conspicuously tacky but ostentatiously expensive get-up you usually see Spanish TV presenters wearing on special occasions, or on the country’s infernal and interminable Saturday night variety shows. They were doing a live broadcast of the event.

Various local luminaries, people involved with the organisation of the parade, were being interviewed. They were looking on at the live feed from different locations on the parade. They were using the feed from one camera as the focal point of the coverage. It was footage overlooking a bridge crossing the river, giving a comprehensive view of the whole parade, and framing it within the city’s landmarks, putting the parade, the city, and, of course, the organisers, in their best light.

We were sitting not that far from the bridge. We looked over at one stage and saw placards on the other side of the bridge edging into view, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Then, the parade stopped. The music stopped. The giant inflatable Super Mario stopped atop the bridge, and swayed back and forth, looking confused. A stream of police with batons ran along the street from our end in the direction of the bridge. I looked over at the screen that was showing the broadcast images. There was nothing of the scene of the bridge to be seen. I ran up the street and saw the placards. They were large placards, each bearing a letter. Together, they spelt RECORTES NO, or perhaps it was RECORTES CERO, that is, NO CUTS, or ZERO CUTS. Then the placards disappeared from view, and the parade resumed.

A few minutes later, the letters reappeared. This time I went over to the TV broadcast. The broadcasters were cutting out the scene from the bridge from their footage altogether. The images appearing on the TV were incongruous, boring, and the presenters seemed confused.

Later, we went back to the parade route. Middle-aged men were flinging mountains of tat down onto the assembled crowds. ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams was playing so loud it felt like it was shaking the lampposts. The men on the floats named after gods looked tired, disoriented. Maybe they felt nothing of the sort. But they looked that way to me.

And whilst it might not be much, I found that uplifting.


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Translation: The neoliberal economists who never left

This is a translation of an article by Isaac Rosa, originally published in on 21st April.


The neoliberal economists who never left

Let’s imagine a surgeon whose patients die again and again on the operating table; an engineer whose bridges collapse; a train driver whose trains frequently derail. Leaving aside the penal proceedings in each case, there is no doubt that they would not be allowed to go into theatre, plan another project, or go near a train station again.

Why is it different with economists? Why do the intellectual authors of this thing they call a crisis remain in their jobs? And not just in their jobs: but by influencing more than ever the politics of countries and organisations.

There was a moment, around 2008-2009, when it seemed that the neoliberal economic orthodoxy would find itself obliged to say sorry and reconsider its stances. Its main representatives appeared wary, they moved off the stage, they were singled out as the responsible parties by documentaries and reports that furthermore uncovered their lucrative intimacy with financial powers. Whilst world leaders spoke about “refounding capitalism”, the theorists of the free market and deregulation made themselves scarce, allowing other voices, of heterodox and critical economists to be heard.

What happened afterwards? How is it that not only have they kept their jobs and their influence, but that they are reconquering the little ground that they had ceded, expelling critical voices and recovering ideological hegemony?

Let’s turn our gaze back, because we forget where we came from. Part of their victory consists precisely of this: they have managed to obscure the financial origins of the crisis, to get us to take the spotlight off the banking sector, mortgage bubbles and stock market alchemy, so as to place it on States instead. We no longer talk about bankers, brokers, ratings agencies and toxic products. Instead all attention is on States, public spending, the debt, austerity, cutbacks, privatisations, the end of the Welfare State. A diabolical masterstroke. Geniuses.

But if we turn our gaze back and we are able to look above the web that has been spun, we discover that there they are. Them. The same ones who remain there today, and give lessons and set the pace. They were there. They were the ones who gave academic cover for the financial deregulation that took the brakes off the locomotive. It was they who theorized about models that never came true. It was they, the same ones who predicted marvellous futures that gave way to this miserable present. And what is more they did so by dressing up as science what was always ideology.

From their seats of learning, their research centres, their tribunes, their international bodies, their committees of experts, their government advisory panels, their jobs in supervisory organs, their conferences, their international meetings, their books and their sympathetic media, they put lyrics to the music being played by the financial orchestra, governments hummed along and citizens danced because it was the only thing that was being played: grinding and catchy.

They were here too, among us, theorising about the productive model, the bubble that was no such thing, the prices that would never fall, the need for more deregulation, less taxes and less social rights, the benefits of private management of what is public and the privatisation of all that can be privatised.

We already know what happened after, though it now seems that we are forgetting: the financial system went snap, our bubble went boom, the economy went pffff, the Euro went aiiee and everything collapsed. Abyssal holes had to be sealed with billions that came out of our pockets, and here we are today, with much of the private wreckage transferred, socialised, and turned into public wreckage.

It is not that they have come back. They never went away. The same neoliberal economists who derailed us have been those who did a diagnosis of the crisis and prescribed policies to overcome it, and today it is they who lay out the road for the supposed recovery and design the future.

And they do so without ceding even one of the spaces that they dominated, adding even new ones. The same failed experts from yesterday are those who today make up the expert committees that propose reforms to government. The same ratings agencies that we knew to be untrustworthy, are still placing their ratings on countries and firms. The same people who did not see the danger in the financial Russian roulette are those who today do risk assessments of the banking sector.

To say nothing of the main spaces of ideological production: the university and the media. In the first, it is scandalous how the training of new economists and research remain in large part in the hands of the same neoliberals. And if we are talking about media, after those first moments when critical voices received more attention, today the singular discourse has returned, with orthodox and fiercely neoliberal economists filling TV debates for a mass audience (where they get a chalk board so they can give us lessons), opinion pages, news features each time the opinion of an “expert” is required.

Going back to the first paragraph: for how long are we going to allow them to operate on us, to cross their bridges and get onto their trains? How many more times do we have to suffer their ‘accidents’?

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Don’t Be That Guy.


Every now and again I get an image appearing in my Facebook news feed. It is of a man standing amid a crowd of people making a Nazi salute. His arm is not raised. The caption usually says something like “be this guy”.

What kind of message is conveyed by this photo and accompanying text? The first time I saw it, I thought it reminded me a bit of the Milgram experiment, of the way in which only a few of those tested were able to resist the urging of formal authority figures to inflict pain on subjects, and, when they did, it happened after quite a lot of inner conflict. And so the message of the photo seemed to be: disobey, because that is how you stop evil systems from taking hold.

And then I thought about the photo a bit more. “Be this guy”. This is a person appearing at a particular moment and place in history, in which mass fascist rallies had a purpose to them: they cemented the authority of the leader and the fusión of the united people with the leader, their complete identification with him, their recognition that he was the one who would restore them to freedom and enjoyment and rightful glory. If fascism emerged again as a mass phenomenon, would it take this particular form? I don’t really know.

How did that guy get to “be this guy”? Being “this guy” could mean waiting for a massive wave of violent and totalitarian compulsion to take hold, and then staging your lone, momentary act of disobedience that doesn’t make a jot of difference in the overall scheme of things but immortalises you in a photographic image.

These days, all kinds of things get classified as fascist, because fascism is still considered -in its Nazi form at least, if not in its contemporary Ukranian or Greek forms- as the antithesis of our good society, our liberal democracy, our democratic capitalism.

Whenever the US decides it wants to invade or bomb somewhere or overthrow a government, a whole range of Nazi analogies and comparisons proliferate in media debate. Hence ‘Islamofascism’, or the single transferable Hitler label, applied to Khomeini or Gaddafi or Daniel Ortega or Saddam Hussein or Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chávez. Anyone who stands opposed to this amorphous kind of fascism is always already on our side. That is why right-wing racists with funding from billionaires presented Barack Obama as a Nazi on posters in the United States.

Fascists are the ultimate bad guys, and this creates strange historical confusions. A while ago I watched a Captain America cartoon. In the Captain America comics I used to read in the 1980s, Captain America’s arch enemy was the Red Skull, and the Red Skull was very much a Nazi, with a swastika, on the side of Hitler. The cartoon I saw a while back, which is from the 2000s, represents the Red Skull, at roughly the time of the Second World War, as part of a tentacular force emanating from the general direction of Russia, and engulfing the European continent. The new cartoon version of history has it that there is no difference between the USSR and Nazi Germany, and it uses images eerily similar to how Nazism represented the ‘Judeo-Bolshevik’ threat.

Here in Spain, where the country is ruled by a caste that has never renounced its fascist past, a ‘Nazi’, from the regime point of view-is he or she who publicly blocks the implementation of policies designed to immiserate the working class on behalf of the financial sector.
In this scenario, what does it mean to “be this guy”? When this photo is circulated on social media -without any kind of context- it strongly suggests that “being this guy” means seeing oneself as the solitary hero, the rugged character beloved of liberal individualists and fascists alike. Be a man. Stand out from the crowd. Do your own thing as society goes down the toilet. Be your own unique selling proposition.

In fact, “being this guy” – being unafraid to take a stand and speak one’s mind when everyone else is slavishly toeing the line – is standard fare these days for politicians and commentators who make a living from demonising minorities and calling for political and social repression.

It shouldn’t need to be pointed out that Nazi Germany did not fall due to minor and individualised acts of insubordination, but through an enormous military mobilisation. Confronted with this image, however, this is precisely what needs to be pointed out.

But this image, in the way it gets circulated, invites us to think otherwise: that there is an individual flame of righteousness carried by anyone anywhere, and all that is needed is the willpower to light it.

It is a fantasy that we can ‘be someone’ purely of our own volition. If we find it within ourselves to speak out against something, or stand up against something, it is because others have put it there and developed it with us, out of habits we develop socially, feelings we hold in common with others, social institutions of which we are a part.

The idea one can simply ‘be this guy’ is a ‘product of liberal economic calculus – the basic element of the Nazi-fascist mass‘.


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Nasty @ #ASTI14


It’s hard for me to say if taking a megaphone, and using it to disrupt Ruairi Quinn’s address to a teachers’ union, is going to make a useful difference. That is what teacher Andrew Phelan did at the ASTI conference, and it seems to have been the catalyst for a media furore.

The response of the ASTI General Secretary, Pat King, to the broader disruptive actions at Quinn’s appearance, will, however, make a useful difference: to a Minister for Education in a right-wing government concerned with the continued neo-liberalisation of the education system, and to the interests served by such a government.

King did two things: he accorded Ruairi Quinn a degree of respect that Quinn denies to teachers through his department’s policies. And he singled out, in public, those who loudly protested Quinn’s appearance as “anti-democratic” and, using the language of the war on terror, “extremists“.

What gives a general secretary the authority to make such comments about fellow union members? Even if one disagrees with the approach taken by these teachers, and even if one finds their actions a royal pain in the ass, there are basic principles of solidarity and equality involved. King -despite what his surname might suggest- does not have the authority to speak for ASTI against a particular section of its members.


How the Irish Times reported it. ASTI = Pat King. ‘Hecklers’ not part of ASTI. ‘Extremist’ requires scare quotes; ‘undemocratic’ does not.

The fact that King felt free to depart from such principles, and to use the terms that he did, points at a deep rot in union structures. It demonstrates -to teachers and to the public- that the union does not have the capacity to withstand a neoliberal onslaught, so much so that its general secretary appears more concerned with the humanity of an individual responsible for the humiliation of teachers and other workers in education through the introduction of JobBridge to schools, and, with particular reference to ASTI, through using the Dáil to threaten its membership with job loss unless they voted the right way, than he is with preserving a modicum of solidarity. Because it is not just those who disrupted proceedings who were the object of his remarks, but anyone who might consider open dissent: this is what you will get.

This concern with Quinn’s humanity is forelock tugging raised to the level of high art. It is not as if Quinn is in any way concerned, or a stranger to dishing it out. Anything that makes this vandal look like the reasonable and wounded party only strengthens Quinn’s position of power. It just burnishes his standing with Ireland’s media, which is uniformly right-wing, and his constituency of education privateers.

And so you have to wonder why these unions go through the annual rigmarole of inviting the Minister for Education in the first place. Couldn’t the union leadership just get him on a videoconferencing session and put it onto a webcast to be watched at delegates’ leisure? This ritual of acknowledging the authority of the Minister of the day is bad enough at the best of times, but when the effect is to bolster the legitimacy of an austerity government bent on unravelling public education…well, it just shows how much unions in Ireland are part of the State, and how much their leadership is inexorably drawn to make a beast of two backs with the government of the day.

The focus of the media is on the actions of a few teachers who disrupted proceedings. The portrayal of teachers as more infantile than pupils no doubt has a certain psychodramatic appeal for the belligerent ghouls who hold forth on Ireland’s schools in the media, and who seek to gin up public animosity against teachers. But maybe there is something ritualistic about the disruption too.

public education

‘Let’s defend public education – it belongs to everyone!’

I am writing this from Spain, where teachers and other workers in the education sector have formed militant alliances with parents and students in defence of public education in the face of cutbacks and privatisation. It has won a great deal of public support, and is far healthier and more productive for the teachers taking part than the grim spectacle of deference and dissolution that comes round in Ireland once a year like an evil Santa.

There are few things more destructive of genuine education, and the democracy ASTI’s general secretary claims to value, than the idea that the interests of the (neoliberal) State and the interests of teachers and students are identical. But Irish teaching unions give force to this idea every year with their embrace -whether more or less reluctant- of the Minister for Education. For those in the union bureaucracy that might be a good and flattering thing, but it is a disastrous state of affairs for teachers and students, and for society more generally.

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Before it gets too hot: censoring cartoons at the Irish Times


Above is the Martyn Turner cartoon that got pulled by the Irish Times. Why was it withdrawn? Others have pointed out that the Irish Times’s stated rationale for its withdrawal is inconsistent with its approach to other cartoons by the same artist. The Irish Times said that Turner had ‘taken a sideswipe at all priests‘, ‘suggesting that none of them can be trusted with children’. That, however, is merely the Irish Times’s interpretation of the cartoon. It is also, no doubt, an interpretation shared by whatever constituency of Catholics objected to the cartoon.

A different reading of the cartoon might conclude that Turner -since he is the regular cartoonist in the Irish Times and knows the readership is sentient beings, more or less, with a knowledge of Irish society- has already credited the readership with the awareness that not all priests are the same. That would be a normal enough assumption. There is no need, for example, for a cartoonist who draws a caricature of Enda Kenny or Gerry Adams to include a caption identifying them. What Turner is concerned with here is the way the Catholic Church as an institution -the priests are wearing vestments- has its clerics all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, a figure of speech Turner presents in his image.

The allusion to Meat Loaf’s “I would do anything for love (but I won’t do that)”, for me, is a suggestion that the Church’s position on mandatory reporting and the seal of confession is shrouded in histrionics. There is a neat contrast suggested by Meat Loaf’s thunderous pomp and the unctuous twee of official Church rhetoric with regard to children.

One might also interpret the under-the-breath afterthought, about staying away from children, not as a suggestion that all priests are paedophiles, but that the Church has a harmful effect on children’s development more broadly, in light of the control it still exercises over the education system, for example.

It might also be a suggestion that one of the reasons certain paedophiles were able to operate in the way they did within the Catholic Church was the degree of closeness, often unmediated closeness, between priests and children. It is hard to see how this could be interpreted as ‘a sideswipe at all priests’ unless you considered all priests collectively responsible. It is far from clear that Turner’s cartoon is saying such a thing.

That is only one reading, mind you. The point is, this is a reasonable alternative interpretation to the one put forward by Turner’s employers. But the Irish Times interpreted the cartoon in a particular way. Instead of saying, we will leave the interpretation of an ambiguous image -a great many cartoons are ambiguous- to our readers, they validated the interpretation of those who complained, and then they allowed the irrepressible Breda O’Brien of the equally irrepressible Iona Institute to slobber forth on the subject in her weekly column.

What this shows, I think, is the extent of the influence of a certain constituency over the Irish Times, or, at the very least, an obligation felt by the Irish Times to treat that constituency with respect, and even deference.

If this is true, why should it be so? What does the bastion of liberal opinion have to fear from publishing an ambiguous cartoon? Some people with whom I was in contact last week were not that impressed with the cartoon. They thought it was singling out Catholic priests as a facile target. One person said to me: if it was an image depicting all imams as bombers, there would be an outcry. I don’t think, however, that such a thought experiment works that well here.

There is a particular context for Turner’s cartoon: its publication in a society where many people are well aware of how the Church works and of the fact that only a small minority of priests are paedophiles. Crucially, in judging whether the publication of the cartoon is justified, we are also dealing with a society with a Catholic majority in which the Church exercised, and continues to exercise, a great deal of influence, over the education system, over the health system, and over questions of public morality and social teaching that extend well beyond the bedroom. The Iona Institute, but also the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (see David Begg lauding Catholic social teaching as the Church’s best kept secret). There are grounds for subjecting the Catholic Church to robust social critique, lampooning and ridicule. The absence of such things in Ireland would mean an absence of democracy. By contrast, the religion of Islam and its clerics have had very little role in Ireland, and Muslims have been a demonised minority in Western societies for a long time.

Or to put it another way: you will get articles demonising Muslims in the Irish Independent, but you won’t get articles demonising Catholics. And whilst many of the excesses of the Catholic Church have been well documented -the child abuse, the child abuse cover-ups, industrial schools, slave labour laundries, censorious teachings on sexual morality- it has only ever been the excesses that have been subject to public scrutiny. The role of the Catholic Church in sabotaging the prospect of universal health care because of its fanatical anti-communism, for instance, is treated with indifference by Ireland’s media establishment. Certainly, there is no reason why Denis O’Brien, now the proud owner of a private hospital, should commission his minions to examine the influence of the Catholic Church in this regard.

There are parallels here with the treatment of Ireland’s banks. Just as conventional wisdom in Ireland would have it that there is a fundamentally good banking sector that has been perverted by the greedy machinations of a few, so there is also a fundamentally good Catholic Church that has been tarnished by hierarchical arrogance and individuals unable to keep their urges under control. This fundamentally good organisation is personified by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, among others, and finds expression in organisations such as Trocaire and Social Justice Ireland, and, indirectly, in the particularly high esteem accorded to charitable organisations and voluntary groups, and, occasionally, in lay Catholics such as former President Mary McAleese (whose unqualified husband was handpicked by the government to investigate the Magdalene Laundries, an appointment that drew little scrutiny in the press).

And the thing is, there is very little critical treatment of this ‘good’ Church, whether with regard, for example, to the conformity imposed by its schools, or the preference it gives to private property and charity over social rights (its support for private schools and hospitals, for instance) and how this perpetuates consensus and social quiet. Of course, we shouldn’t expect much critical treatment of these things, since they are of service to Ireland’s ruling class. It isn’t hard to understand, in this scenario, how there is already a reservoir of sympathy for the average priest -who is not a paedophile but a member of the ‘good’ Church- in Ireland’s political and media establishment, even before the phone calls start coming in from Catholic lobby groups. From the perspective of ruling elites, this good Church is still a vital pillar of Irish society, pulling together the people needed to hose down the rabble with holy water if it gets too hot.


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The Gorgons of Corruption

So David Cameron was stung by a jellyfish on holiday. I mean, Cameron was on holiday, not the jellyfish. The word ‘jellyfish’ in English is no match for the evocative name for the same creature in Spanish: ‘medusa‘, recalling the figure of Greek myth. Medusa was one of the Gorgons whom Perseus had to slay. Rather than hair she had a writhing mass of snakes on her head, and if you looked straight at her face you would turn to stone. So Perseus had to use a mirror to aid him in chopping off her head since her reflected image, framed and captured, so to speak, was devoid of the horror of the direct encounter that left opponents frozen.


A few months ago my friend Eamonn Crudden did up this image with part of that story in mind. It is Colm Keaveney, the Labour Party chairman who joined Fianna Fáil, as a Gorgon. The thinking behind the image is not so much that the pompous, Latin-spouting Keaveney is a monstrous creature -which he is- but rather the sense that one’s gaze can become fixated on whatever monstrosity is on show.

More broadly, the procession of monstrous images -figures of corruption, public arrogance, cronyism- have the effect of rooting people to the spot. We might feel buoyed by the sensation that something is happening because these figures -Shatter, Kerins, Callinan, Flannery, Fingleton, Fitzpatrick, Ahern, and on and on- are paraded before us, but in the end, despite all the promises of a new era of public virtue, or the tough new investigation, or the day of reckoning fast approaching, and then: nothing happens. It is as it was. Why?

A while ago someone added me to a Facebook group intended to mark the anticipated departure of Justice Minister Alan Shatter from office, as a national day of celebration. I suspect the person who set up the group knew it was most likely not going to happen, and that the gesture of setting up the group was a satire -or a sigh- on the impotent collective spectating that is what passes for political life, the eternal expectation that some already existing mechanism might click into gear, move things along, put things on the right track.

Thus spectating in the age of social media seems to acquire a social dimension. Public affairs are no longer the concern of the solitary man or woman in the street who takes the form of vox populi on radio and TV, but rather, of a teeming ecosystem of solitary individuals, who, for all their frantic communicativeness, stand at no less a remove from proceedings.

Whose eyes and ears do we use to behold our Gorgons? Our encounter with them is through mediated images and sounds. Their framing and capture has, it seems, already been done on our behalf. They are at a safe distance for contemplation and weighing up. We are always already in a position to chop off their heads. And yet we do not. Instead, things take their course. Why is that? Is it because the public is wise and reasonable, and will wait its turn to punish them at the next election, as politicians and political correspondents often claim?

A more likely explanation is that our gaze onto these creatures is, inevitably, the gaze of the isolated and solitary individual, the unitary, targeted consumer of news events. We look on at these things, and try to make sense of them, through eyes and mirrors supplied by people who specialise in producing images of the Gorgons. But at the same time, in the way they condition our assumptions and our responses, in the way they disconnect us from our place in the broader social world, from the realm of class antagonism and economic exploitation, they are also producing… us. ‘We’, a constellation of isolated unitary individuals with the right to comment as much as we like and vote on occasion, but little else. It is this kind of ‘we’, otherwise known as ‘the public’, or ‘the people’, in whose name a government of the possessing class will always act.

What turns us to stone, in this case, is not so much the grotesque image -though it is that too- but rather, through this neverending chronicle of a noble order profaned, the erosion of any kind of shared ethical assumption that collective action and direct action are the only things that rid us of our monsters.

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The Injustice of Time Rendered Obsolete


Some speech in the Dáil by Labour Party Finance spokesperson Joan Burton, railing against the crony capitalism of Anglo Irish Bank and Fianna Fáil and Seanie Fitzpatrick, and drawing on past figures of corruption, like Ansbacher Man and god knows who else.

Some speech by Sean Fitpatrick of Anglo Irish Bank at the onset of the financial crisis, or maybe before it, calling for social welfare payments to be cut, in order to get the economy back on track and make the country more competitive, or to cut costs. To be honest I can’t remember the exact bullshit rationale.

Sean Fitzpatrick is acquitted of all charges.

Joan Burton sets the police on social welfare recipients.

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