I couldn’t have conceived of this image a short while ago. In fact, I haven’t quite got my head around it yet. Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, sitting in the GUE/NGL formation in the European Parliament, directly behind Pablo Iglesias and Podemos MEPs Teresa Rodríguez and Lola Sánchez, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s name card to the left.
Do Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan and Podemos have anything in common politically, apart from a distinctive figure with a pony-tail and beard?
Many people I encounter in Irish left-wing circles are quite suspicious of Ming. Not because of the pony-tail or the beard, but because of his political stances, which on the whole make him hard to pin down into a pre-defined category. They suspect he is, at heart, behind the beard and the ponytail and the support for the legalisation of cannabis, a variant of the localist right-wing populism that has featured so strongly in Irish politics in recent decades, usually found in Fianna Fáil.
They point to his alignment with turf-cutters who want to cut turf on areas that have been designated as areas for conservation. I assume this is because they view such conservation measures as common sense (but it may also be because they view such people as bog-trotters, I can’t say for sure). He does not use any of the keywords that would identify him as socialist or left wing in any way, nor does he ever seem to say anything about capitalism as such.
Further to the right, by which I mean the Labour Party, Ming is looked upon with outright contempt, when not disgust. Someone I know said she had given her preference (their number 2 preference, I think) to Ming in the MEP elections just past. She was criticised for having voted for the Irish UKIP. What the critic meant was that Ming is a politician who seeks to mobilise an anti-European and right-wing nationalist sentiment for either the purposes of imposing right wing policies, or his own self-aggrandisement. In doing so, according to this point of view, he appeals to a sector of society whose passions can be easily led in such a direction.
For someone inclined, say, to support the Labour Party leadership of the day, there is something objectionable about Ming that goes beyond the political stances they attribute to him. He can be sharp and confrontational. He is typical of the kind of figure who, in their eyes, embodies the empty populism they abhor. They prefer smooth party machines, policy-driven approaches, and receptions in the Institute For Chartered Accountants. He is not a barrister or an accountant or drawn from the ranks of any of the other respectable professions. For those whose highest political ambition is to take a leak in the jacks next to Martin Schulz, the thought of him occupying a seat in the European Parliament brings horrifying shame and embarrassment.
Even further to the right, by which I mean the right wing of the Labour Party, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Irish Times, everything owned by Denis O’Brien, and RTÉ, Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan is despised. These people like their politicians to dress like the people they serve, i.e. businessmen. They hate anything that gives even the impression of undermining the prestige and pomp of the political establishment, of the business of politics, i.e., politics as business.
These people use Ming as a voodoo doll and a convenient figure of fun, as a means of policing the public tone, as a means of showing that we are the ones who mean business around here, and that ye have no business sticking your noses in to affairs that are beyond your comprehension. The Taoiseach in the Dáil, displaying the same kind of discomfited reaction as when he encounters women with English accents on Ireland’s streets, recently sought to cast Ming as a drug dealer, when Ming posed uncomfortable questions about Garda surveillance activities in relation to whistleblowers.
Campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis is habitually treated as a joke, on both right and left. For the right, especially in the Irish political establishment, people concerned with such things are oddballs and dropouts who are far too drug-addled to say anything. There may be a minor ‘libertarian’ strand who advocate drug legalisation because they believe in freedom from the State as long as the regime of private property and wage labour is safely nailed down, but they are politically invisible, and they normally make their points safely within the bounds of their private residences, not out on the streets.
On the left, there is broad agreement that cannabis ought to be legalised, but it will rarely form part of public campaigns. It isn’t seen as that important. As a political issue, it tends to be seen as a matter that, if given prominence, would alienate the people left campaigns usually seek to reach. Making the legalisation of cannabis a key issue runs the risk getting painted as an oddball or a dropout. This would damage the political credibility of your broader platform. There may also be others who see the image of dope-smokers as corrosive of the image of committed, vigorous and politically serious activists they wish to project, even if they are partial to getting baked the odd time themselves. There is a tendency to see campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis as a largely apolitical activity, concerned more with private property and consumer rights than with opposing illegitimate State control.
If you watch The Life and Crimes of Citizen Ming, a documentary following Ming’s early activities in standing for election, and his pursuit by the law for cannabis use, it becomes clear that what motivates him in his political campaign isn’t the fact of being prohibited from smoking or growing cannabis as such, but rather, the political regime and social climate that treat this activity as an abnormality to be prohibited.
This campaigning leads him to witness first-hand the way RTÉ, the public broadcaster, serves to impose anti-democratic limits on what is politically acceptable, and what is not. He is prevented, physically, from participating in radio debates as a candidate. He declares publicly that RTÉ are “a shower of bastards”, and mordantly notes that Independent Newspapers’ phone number comes up as 666-666. He gets 5,000 first preference votes in the 1999 European elections.
The film delivers the image of someone who is largely polite, highly articulate, calm, dogged, and speaks in plain and accessible language. There is a Bartleby-like quality to his insistence to keep on smoking cannabis despite fines and imprisonment. He goes to prison with a bag full of political literature. He goes on radio shows to denounce the way alcohol floods into Irish towns and washes everything else out (in the government previous to the current one, the Minister for Mental Health was also a publican). He goes to register as a candidate for elections in 2002, and is told by the Returning Officer that she cannot accept his description of himself as “politician” (“That’s what I do, that’s basically what I do. All the time”) because he is not a TD or a Senator. “No”, he replies, but “a politician has nothing to do with whether you’re elected or not.”
It’s an illuminating scene: the Returning Officer has to look up the meaning of “politician” in the dictionary, but decides that since it contains a political reference, it is not an admissable occupation. It highlights how under Ireland’s electoral regime, politics is seen as a professional competitive activity and how a basic guiding assumption for someone’s suitability for practising politics -given that you actually have to specify some occupation in order to stand for election- is one’s occupation. The documentary is well worth a look.
Following election to Roscommon County Council, Ming became a TD in 2011. He was cast as one of a crew of misfit independents by Ireland’s media establishment, as ‘nasty’ and a ‘loudmouth’ by the Evening Herald.
He used the Dáil to denounce Ireland’s illegitimate debt burden, reading the remarks of the Ballyhea Says No campaign. In the debate on the 1913 Lockout, he supported Joe Higgins’s motion, and denounced media power as an instrument that destroys democracy. He suggested looking at workers’ rights from a different angle: not only in terms of how money was coming in, but also how money was going out, in the form of debt. He spoke of a different kind of lockout: the lockout from basic public services as a consequence of illegitimate debt.
Ming supported Clare Daly’s abortion bill, supported the campaign to save the A&E department at Roscommon Hospital; supported the campaign against fracking (and described having fracking on one side of the border as like “having a pissing section in a swimming pool”). The exposing of Garda corruption, in which he played a part, has had the effect of undermining the political credibility of the government and the political regime more broadly.
Outside the Dáil last year at a demonstration calling for the jailing of bankers, he said “the first thing I’ve got to say is, don’t wait for people inside to solve your problems. The only people who are going to solve it is the people out here, and in the words of my favourite band Rage Against The Machine, it’s time to take the power back. When the banks were making massive profits, anyone who suggested that money should go to the people were put down as lunatics. Then when the banks started losing a fortune, you were put down as a lunatic if you said you shouldn’t pay their debt, and that is the reason why we are in the hole we are in now. The government’s solution is to try and divide the country people -the culchies- from the townies and the city people. Don’t let them do that.”
What this shows, I think, is a far more sophisticated understanding of how power operates in Irish society than he is given credit for. It shows an understanding, borne of experience, of how social norms, pressures and stigmas shape political power. In a debate on bullying in the Dáil last year he said:
“My secondary school experience and that of many of my friends was more difficult than was my experience of prison. School was a complete jungle. Is this because school reflects society? That seems to be the case. What else can one expect in school when, upon turning on a television, a decision on whether someone is a good singer requires being tortured by a bully and a decision on whether someone is a good business person involves being tortured by a bully and eventually being told that he or she is fired? There is bullying everywhere one looks in society. To remove it from schools, it must first be removed from society.
The world’s main economic focus is neoliberalism, an idea that is based on the concept of the survival of the fittest. This concept depends on bullying thriving. If we want children to stop bullying one another, we need to set the example. Nothing else will solve this problem.”
At the MEP elections, Ming was elected to the North West constituency with 129,561 first preference votes, more than twenty times the total he got the first time he went for MEP. Podemos won about ten times that, but that was in the whole of Spain. Ming’s achievement is quite striking, then, by the standards of this supposed new era of so-called ‘anti-politics’ opened up by neoliberalism.
Unlike Pablo Iglesias, Ming did not have a crack team of political scientists around him to come up with an analysis and a way of speaking that articulated far better what many people were feeling than politicians from established parties, or mass media. Podemos’s success arises chiefly from a remarkable phase of public mobilisation and occupation of major urban spaces -which we can call 15M for short- that laid the basis for a new democratic common sense in the Spanish State, and repoliticised vast numbers of young people. Nothing similar has happened in Ireland. Podemos’s success also arises in a place that has a far stronger left wing and anarchist tradition. Ming, on the other hand, is from Roscommon, and draws his support from people living in rural areas and small towns that are hardly hotbeds of left-wing sedition.
Pablo Iglesias had both a TV show of his own and a great deal of public appearances in which he was able to embark on his audacious and confrontational approach, emulating the likes of Hugo Chávez and Rafael Correa in Latin America. Ming, in a country dominated entirely by right-wing media, did not. Those involved in Podemos were able to draw on a reservoir of credibility in left wing circles in order to win support for the initial idea. Ming was not. He did have a Facebook page, though.
A commenter on Cedar Lounge Revolution noted, quite rightly, that Ming’s MEP victory was all the more remarkable given that he had topped the poll in what was the heartland of Ireland’s grim anti-choice movement. Podemos has a detailed understanding, drawing on theorists like Ernesto Laclau, of the democratic possibilities of antagonism, conflict and populist figureheads who can articulate public concerns. Maybe Ming does too (it would be interesting to know what he read in prison), but if he does, he doesn’t like to talk about it.
And this takes us back to the photo at the top of this post. The strange and new image, representatives from the most isolated and rural parts of the European periphery, alongside those who have emerged from its urban centres, occupying Europe’s political institutions. Ireland’s political and media establishment think that Ming’s whopping vote -and let us not forget that he was denied an appearance in the main RTE debate- is down to a variant of xenophobic nationalism similar to that of Farage in UKIP. This image is a negative projection on the part of cringing pro-EU elites in Dublin, not an accurate reflection of what those who voted for Ming are really like, and their motives. What are they really like?
Maybe the best way of answering that is that we don’t know what they are really like at all because all they are ever portrayed as is xenophobic culchies and the only thing that has ever been asked of them politically is that they vote and then shut up. On this occasion, however, a resounding number of them have elected someone who is painted as a freak by Ireland’s media establishment, and who is yet able to communicate in ways that do not rely on presenting oneself as an heir to a tradition but that rather speak to people’s sense of disgust with the way those at the top run things, and who is acutely aware of the limitations of depending on elected representatives to practise politics on your behalf. That puts these voters in the same soup as the million or so people who voted for Podemos in Spain. The picture of these representatives in the same image, above, as part of the same European grouping, allows us to visualise and feel part of a different Europe, one that is radically opposed to the one relentlessly peddled by power-hungry Troika groupies: a Europe of its peoples. The more images and encounters like this we see take place across Europe, the better the chance of getting shot of the anti-democratic Beast stalking the continent.
POSTSCRIPT: Just on the particular issue of Farage, Ming was asked about him on his Facebook page the other night. His response was: ‘if Farage was around(politically) in the sixties when my parents went to Britain I am not convinced he would welcome them. His answer on having Romanians live beside him showed him up for what he is. Romanians today. Paddy yesterday. The enemy is not the immigrant pawn worker it is those that have structured a world in such a way that puts us all second to profit.‘