Monthly Archives: June 2014

Podemos in Roscommon and Ming in Madrid


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.”

(Via Irish Election Literature)

(Via Irish Election Literature)

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.



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A Very Brief History of Irish Citizenship

2014 holds two significant anniversaries in the history of the idea of citizenship in modern Ireland. It is the centenary of the foundation of the Irish Citizen Army. It is also the tenth anniversary of the Citizenship Referendum, held ten years ago this week.

If we look at both events together, we can sketch a short history of the idea of Irish citizenship. The Irish Citizen Army vowed to ‘sink all differences of birth, property and creed under the common name of the Irish people’, a position largely in line with the radical republicanism of Wolfe Tone, who advocated putting the ‘common name of Irishman, in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter’.

The political name of ‘citizen’, in the eyes of the Irish Citizen Army founders, meant a rupture with the subjection to British rule, since, as James Connolly put it, ‘ justice did not exist for us,.. the law instead of protecting the rights of the workers was an open enemy, and … the armed forces of the Crown were unreservedly at the disposal of the enemies of labour’.

This idea of citizenship was inseparable from working class emancipation, the conquest of democratic rights, and was internationalist in outlook. As Connolly again put it: ‘the struggle of Ireland for freedom is part of the worldwide upward movement of the toilers of the earth’, and ‘the emancipation of the working class carries within it the end of all tyranny – national, political and social’.

This idea of citizenship, moreover, is embedded in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, in its guarantee of ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’, and in its ‘resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally’. ‘Children of the nation’ means citizens in this context, and not merely children, as the contemporary sentimentalist reading would interpret it.

Following the foundation of the southern Irish State, citizenship was granted to practically anyone born in Ireland. Such citizenship did not, of course, mean full participation in the political life of the new regime. The fact of partition, crucially, meant that a large number of Irish citizens living on the island of Ireland were excluded even from the most basic formal political possibility: that of voting on matters of common interest.

What took hold over a long period, instead, though not without contestation, was the view that ‘the people of Ireland’ could find legitimate democratic expression simply through the electoral decisions of people living in the southern State.

The established myth of 90-odd years of unbroken democracy in the south of Ireland ignores certain uncomfortable facts: the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few; the elimination of political rights for those forced out by the migratory safety valve; the panoply of disciplinary institutions -industrial schools, laundries, psychiatric facilities- trained on the victims of Ireland’s economic system; censorship; the oppression of women; the concentration of media power and the health and education systems in the hands of reactionary elites.

All of these things weaken the image official Ireland projects of an outward-looking young democracy, but they are powerful factors in shaping conventional wisdom on what democracy is, and what citizenship is.

What we see in the history of the Irish State, then, is a gradual distancing from the radical republican -and even socialist- conception of citizenship that played a part in Ireland’s struggle for independence, towards a conception of citizenship based solely on the fact of nationality, or belonging to a particular group.

We could sketch the trajectory of the idea of Irish citizenship like this: from membership of a political community committed to the expansion of democratic equality, to membership of a market society committed to meeting the demands of capital and competing against other countries, where myths about Irish national genius –‘Irishness’- bear close resemblance to the family narratives used by corporations to maintain strict hierarchical structures that naturalise distinctions of power and wealth. An imaginary ‘we’, then, forged in the image of the country’s ruling elites. A ‘Celtic Tiger’ showing its predatory prowess among the animal spirits of capitalism.

What is the basis of this ‘we’ in law? This is what the Citizenship Referendum of 2004 sought to establish. It would no longer be enough to be born in Ireland in order to have the same rights and entitlements as anyone else. It would now depend on who your parents were and where they came from.

This entailed constitutionalising racial biological criteria: the introduction of precisely the kind of hierarchies beloved of 19th century racial theorists who developed their ideas in the shadow of the democratic potency of the ‘worldwide upward movement of the toilers of the earth’.

The immediate political climate for the Citizenship Referendum was fostered by government politicians and mass media outlets casting migrants, and particularly migrant women, as devious foreign bodies incubating an evil that would subvert Ireland’s supposedly harmonious social and political order.

‘Citizens’, if they were really concerned with the common good, had to do their voting duty and secure Ireland’s borders against these contaminating infiltrators, and expel those who had managed to make their way in.

It was a long way from the solidarity-based citizenship embodied by the Irish Citizen Army, and, still further back, from the egalitarian principles that informed the Fenian proclamation of 1867, which held that ‘all men (sic) are born with equal rights, and in associating to protect one another and share public burdens, justice demands that such associations should rest upon a basis which maintains equality instead of destroying it.’

The immediate effect of the Citizenship Referendum was to strip certain people of rights and the formal status of citizen. As a consequence, there are thousands of children living and growing up in Ireland in a climate of fear and uncertainty, who have neither the formal rights nor entitlements of their contemporaries, often enduring family splits and living under extreme hardship and degrading conditions.

More broadly, Ireland’s now-formalised racial hierarchy, and the distinction introduced between citizenship and mere residency, all but deactivate the democratic possibilities of the political name of ‘citizen’. Reacting to the re-discovery of the treatment of babies in the Tuam Mother-and-Baby home last week, Fianna Fáil TD Colm Keaveney referred to the “800 bodies of Irish citizens”. After the Citizenship Referendum, it is hard not to interpret such remarks as suggesting, though perhaps indirectly, that there are other children who might be more deserving of such a fate.

To speak of what ‘citizens’ want now is to exclude those who are formally excluded from that category. What is more, since ‘citizenship’ in the Irish context is no longer ever a matter of the active conquest of rights, but rather the State affording certain privileges, there is little difference, in prevailing common sense, between the fact of citizenship and what was previously understood as subjection.

You might ask how it is that nearly 80% of voters – it was only a 60% turn out, so it was only 46.9% of the southern electorate who voted (remember, this is nowhere near all Irish citizens)- could have voted for a thing so destructive of human values such as solidarity and basic equality.

I don’t think this could have been possible were it not for the long unravelling of the concept of citizenship, its recuperation by the south’s ruling elites, and the reduction of democracy to the act of an isolated individual casting a vote in a regime where the economic and the political have been largely separated.

It is also worth remembering that in so far as ‘the people’ spoke on this occasion, this ‘people’ has always spoken in exclusion of large numbers of those it supposedly recognised as its fellow citizens, living just up the road. If equality is important to us, and if justice does not exist for our neighbours and friends, we should see the law, and this ‘people’ with all its cultivated racist and isolationist anxieties, as our open enemy.

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Tuam: Not our dark past, but our dark present

'To The Debris', El Roto, 3rd June 2014

‘To The Debris’, El Roto, 3rd June 2014

I left this comment on the article in today’s Irish Times by Sharon Foley, chief executive of the Irish Hospice Foundation, which is titled Death devoid of dignity at Bon Secours home.

I can only agree with the author when she highlights the cut to the bereavement grant as a fact that poses serious ethical questions about the type of society the government is creating. This cut is not an anomaly, but part of a vast range of cuts implemented by the government.

These actions are in keeping with a State that treated the babies in Tuam, and a multitude of other poor children, with cold indifference at best, and vicious sadism, depraved neglect, and institutionalised terror at worst. The cut to the bereavement grant, as with so many cruelties inflicted in Irish society, is justified in terms of a dogma impervious to any kind of democratic reason, as in past decades. Contrary to the insistence from official circles since the Tuam story began to capture the attention of the global public, these things are not part of our ‘dark past’, but our dark present.

The author says that the benchmark of any society is the way in which it takes care of its most vulnerable. But it depends who is applying the benchmark. Yesterday, Ireland’s 10-year yield bond yield fell below benchmark US Treasury yields for the first time since November 2007.

What this means, in simple terms, is that the Irish State has proven itself even more creditworthy than the US, due to the way it was able to burden the public with astonishing levels of debt racked up by financial crooks, and the way it has made the public pay by slashing public spending for vital services. We don’t need to read authoritative sources such as The Body Economic by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu to know that austerity policies kill: anyone prepared to use their imagination can figure out what the effects of high unemployment, the evisceration of public services, and attacks on working conditions will be. However, we have a government and a wider establishment that insists that this carnage is in the national interest, and a great many people who either accept this to be true and even desirable, or they resign themselves to a sense that nothing can be done about it.

Perhaps it is time, then, to focus less on what the government needs to do, given that it has been unstinting in its commitment to this barbarism, and start talking about what kinds of collective power are needed to turn benchmarks of decency into social realities.

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Does The Irish Times know what ‘innately’ means?

Voters may be disillusioned, but they are innately conservative.

Thus declares an editorial in today’s Irish Times. ‘Innate’ means you are born with it. It means that the thing you have is not contingent on life experiences or broader social or political conditions.

In other places, you would have to be a moron to make a serious claim that voters are ‘innately conservative’, because, where social and political conditions change, and where people have different life experiences, voters express different preferences.

More people voted for left wing parties at the last election in Ireland than in previous elections. Dublin in particular saw a rise in the left wing vote. If it is true that Irish voters are ‘innately conservative’, then the Irish Times is saying that it is not natural for Irish people to vote for left wing parties, because voting for things to stay the same is part of Irish people’s basic nature.

So, if you are Irish and you vote for things to change, you are behaving unnaturally, according to the Irish Times. You are, quite literally, a deviant.

ADDS: A correspondent writes:Maybe the IT meant that if voters weren’t so innately conservative – and had any sense – they’d have voted even further left.

ADDS: Another correspondent writes: Are left wing voters sinister deviants then, or is that a tautology?’

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Establishing The Facts on The State: A Brief Note

What is the difference between the State and the Church in Ireland? This is one of the questions that concerned the Magdalen Laundries investigation that was led by Martin McAleese. The main object of that investigation was ‘to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries’.

The word ‘establish‘, and the word ‘State‘ both have the same origin: the st- root that also appears in ‘institution’ and ‘stability’.

In order to establish the facts, it was first necessary to establish the meaning of “the State”. So the Committee adopted

‘the full meaning of “the State”, to refer to a body, whatever its legal form, which is or was responsible for provision of a public service under the control of the State and with special powers for that purpose. This encompassed not only Government Departments but a whole range of bodies, agencies and organisations, detailed throughout the Report.’

No meaning of any word can be conclusively nailed down, because the meaning of a word depends on the particular context in which it is used, and the purpose for which it is used. In this case, this is the State establishing the meaning of the State, and then applying this State-defined meaning in order to identify State involvement.

We might discern a problem here: in establishing the facts of State involvement, the State -through the body it has commissioned to conduct the investigation- is also establishing -in the strong sense of the word- what the State is, and it is shaping its own conclusions on those terms from the outset.

As a consequence, how the public perceives the State, once the report is completed and reported on, will be shaped by the meaning established by the document.

Is this good enough? You might say, well, you have to start somewhere. But should it be from here?

What we see in this particular occasion is an interpretation of a word that is necessarily and inevitably political, applied to an investigation about the role of institutions that are also political.

In one of his writings, Eduardo Galeano cites an African proverb: until lions have their own historians, the histories of the hunt will go on being written by the hunters.

Should a lion trust the definition of a lion as laid down by a hunter?


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The Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home and Ireland’s Unknown Knowns

"Give us your children and we will shape their souls, they said, but it was their bodies they desired"

“Give us your children and we will shape their souls, they said, but it was their bodies they desired”

Once again, light has been cast upon the dark deeds of the Catholic Church, and once again, people are declaring openly that they feel ashamed. The sense of shame is heightened, when not caused, by the fact so little media attention has been devoted to the matter in Ireland, by comparison with the attention it has received elsewhere. I doubt that shame is the predominant feeling, but I can’t know for sure, because lots of people who feel ashamed about things say nothing. It isn’t even, as far as I can see, the predominant voiced reaction either, but it is there, and I am going to start there.

Is shame a natural reaction to what the writer of this excellent piece correctly describes as the ‘re-discovery’ of the ‘796 tiny bodies, squashed into a septic tank’, at the site of the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam?

I don’t think it’s a natural reaction at all, but a reaction formed of habit. I think the reaction derives from the same sense of shame that consigned these children to their short lives of neglect and suffering, and that turned their stigmatised mothers into indentured slaves.

Shame has an isolating, paralysing effect. It emanates from the dread of being in the disapproving gaze of someone else. That someone else may be a vigilant God, or your parents, or your family, the rest of your community or congregation, or even a disapproving and demanding version of yourself.

When people say they feel ashamed at what certain people in the Catholic Church did, or at what certain others failed to do, who is it they feel looking at them? Is it the 796 babies and infants they never met? I find that hard to believe. In fact, I think that when people say vague things like “I am ashamed my country did this”, and leave it at that, they are autonomously reproducing the same kind of moral policing that used to issue directly from the pulpit.

No-one can do anything to ease the suffering of the eight hundred dead children, because they are already dead. People can berate others for failing to say anything, for failing to act at the time, when they knew full well what was going on, but opted to un-know it. Many of those people are safely dead too. And if there were others who tried to do something, however small, well, maybe they are dead too. Or maybe they are too damaged from the experience to tell anyone what happened.

There is a priest in the area where that “home” was located who is suggesting that these were different times. He is saying that “we can’t really judge the past from our point of view, from our lens”.

On one level, this is utterly ridiculous. Not only because most of us are unlikely to ever observe the world through the same lens as a Catholic priest, but also because it isn’t an ancient and indecipherable civilisation we’re talking about here. It is people who were alive at the same time and in the same country as other people we know. And we know from these people that gross cruelty and neglect towards children was seen as wrong.

On another level, though, maybe he has a point. We don’t really know that much about what prevented people from doing anything about it. Did they just accept with a shrug that such cruelty, however awful, was just part of the way things were and that there wasn’t much that could be done about it? It isn’t so long ago, after all that people thought it was normal to beat and brutalise children in school in front of their classmates, and that what is more, it never did them a bit of harm.

There are lots of things that we know, but we can opt to un-know. We know, for example, of children living in Direct Provision living in utter misery. We know there are 375,000 children officially living in deprivation. We know that there are very sick children with essential medical needs whose treatment can be withdrawn on our behalf on little more than a bureaucratic whim, and that the powerful private healthcare industry in Ireland, including the Bon Secours private hospital network is the product of the Catholic Church. We know that the State offers tax breaks to rich executives in the finance industry so they can send their children to the exclusive fee-paying schools -often run by Catholic religious orders- of Ireland’s elite whilst other children have their Special Needs Assistants withdrawn. We know that parents are compelled to place their children in crèches with names such as Little Harvard, where they pay extortionate sums of money only to have their children subjected to violent abuse and degradation, all in the interest of profit. Are these things just part of the way things are too? Is there not much that can be done about it?

Well? The word ‘infant’ means ‘unable to speak’. What prevents those of us who are able to speak from doing something about it? Why do so many people use their powers of speech to enforce the sense that the lethal effects of policies and disciplinary bureaucracies that serve the rich and shred people’s rights are just part of the way things are? Why do so many people go about telling others to keep their heads down, and berate them for being “emotional” or “immature” if they complain? It isn’t as if there are still clerics dressed in black roaming the land, ready to have you locked away and beaten up for deviating from God’s path. Are there?

True enough, Ireland’s media establishment –which is closely intertwined with structures of financial, economic and political power- has devoted little attention to these dark secrets to date. When it does give the matter more focus, as it eventually will, given the strength of public feeling, it will do so in a way that minimises the impact to the aforementioned structures. It will shield these structures from critical scrutiny, just as it always does. Some fitting and tasteful tombstone will be forged, so that the past can get a decent burial. One reporter at the public broadcaster yesterday divulged –does he have their ear?- that the markets will be pleased that Michael Noonan the steady operator would be remaining in situ after his recent treatment for a cancerous growth. Why would institutions that exalt public “maturity”, that is, submission to the rule of the markets, day in day out, be inclined to care about poor dead children? This “maturity” at its most basic, when it takes on the intended form of self-policing, means betraying the child you once were, and getting with the programme.

I have a question for you. What kind of radical transformation of society would be needed so that what is kept uppermost in the public mind by media institutions is not what ‘the markets’ think, but what will happen to the 375,000 children living in deprivation?

This kind of question stems from precisely the kind of thought that is treated as the highest form of immaturity. For all the cant –and wilful misreading, given that the Proclamation’s remarks about children concern citizens of a democratic country, not children per se- in relation to ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’, betrayal of children is considered one of the highest public virtues in Ireland, from the perspective of power.

That brings me back to the matter of shame. Shame, as I said above, is by no means a natural reaction to anything. It comes from habit fostered by particular social structures, and, perhaps principally among these in Ireland, the Catholic Church.

But there are other habits –ways of thinking, ways of reacting when confronted with some apparently august authority- that endure and thrive too. If we are genuinely interested in the welfare of children, we ought to start daring to think and speak about the ways we are imprisoned by those habits, the institutions that still shape them, and, crucially, how to break them.


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A new opportunity for internationalism

This was published before the stunning results won by Podemos in the recent elections, but it is still of great relevance. It is by Miguel Urbán, who is on the editorial board of the Viento Sur magazine (and also, as I understand it, a participant in Podemos, though the article was not written in that capacity).


A new opportunity for internationalism (Público, 20th May)

The forthcoming elections to the European parliament are a good opportunity for the construction of an internationalist discourse and practice, which are urgent for setting out a credible alternative to policies of cuts and austerity.

Setting out emancipatory politics from an internationalist point of view has become a necessity for those of us who aspire to change things. It is not merely an ethical stance, though we should not let go of the moral strength provided by solidarity with other peoples who appear far away but who are confronting problems that are more and more similar to our own. Feeling that there are other people who are struggling for the same cause as us is a good antidote against hatreds and the temptation to get confused as to who the enemy is.

Internationalism, as an ethical construction, is a strategic weapon that places struggles in terms of exploiters and the exploited. It is a great remedy for xenophobia and oppresive nationalisms. The loss of this horizon has led to major tragedies throughout history. This year will mark 100 years since the start of World War I and it is worth recalling one of the facts that allowed that horrible butchery to take place: the fact that social democracy abandoned internationalist stances, placing fidelity to the national ruling classes over alliances between the different peoples of Europe. Now, at the moment when the powerful have unleashed a war of the economic kind against the public, based on social devastation, we must bear in mind where forgetting our common interests leads.

I mention that it is not simply an ethical option to highlight that it is also a material necessity. The process of European integration has generated structural relations, both on an economic and a political level, that mean that the struggle in one isolated country against these policies of impoverishment is destined to fail. Syriza lays this out well when it speaks of breaking with the Troika without giving up on expanding change throughout Europe. Is it not the case that the current model of European institutions drives a process whereby the countries of the centre plunder those of the south whilst pushing all workers into precarity, independent of their nationality? This anti-democratic Europe, governed by what Perry Anderson in his magnificent book The Old New World calls regulationist institutions (no-one elected them but they set the limits on what can and cannot be done) has become a battlefield, a battle that takes place in different spheres and at many levels, a battle between those below and those on top.

What is clear is that it will fall to one country to be the first to break with the policies imposed by the EU. Let’s take a very likely example: the case of Greece. If Syriza wins the elections and can opt to govern, it will confront two challenges. On the one hand, winning elections does not mean holding power. Syriza would confront internal pressure, from sectors of the State apparatus and the ruling classes, who would resist any change. The only solution that would resolve this problem is a self-organised and conscious people that actively supports the government. So a businessman closes a factory? Then workers will have to take charge of it with the support of the State. In fact, similar cases have already occurred in Greece, but lamentably, the Troika government prefers businesses to be to providing support for workers.

The other problem would be the attempts by the European institutions and neoliberal governments to suffocate the Greek economy from the outside. The Troika and the EU would do all in their power to show that no other kind of politics can take place in Europe, that we are condemned to austerity and impoverishment. The government of Greece would no longer be an exclusively Greek phenomenon, but would rather be another European battlefield. If such a government were defeated, the idea that another model is possible would suffer a heavy defeat, but if a government along these lines were to resist, it would be an example to be followed by other peoples, opening up a real alternative for other kinds of policies. Syriza moreover has the historic responsibility of not betraying the expectations for change that its arrival in government would bring. Another disappointment would dramatically open the doors to the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn.

The only solution would be to show solidarity with a government of this kind from all corners of Europe, by exerting pressure upon the different countries and different institutions of Europe. If we want to win, it is urgent for us to start building links between the different resistances that are coming to the fore in Europe. The European elections are a good opportunity for this, because “if you can’t do it alone, you can do it with friends”.

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