Monthly Archives: September 2014

Experts Bad Cop Government Good Cop

'Lies in 3D!' 'More believable than the truth!'

‘Lies in 3D!’
‘More believable than the truth!’

I left this comment on an Irish Times analysis by Mary Minihan, titled ‘‘Prudence’ the buzzword of the new political season’.

If I was expecting the health service to give me a vital kidney operation, and Enda Kenny showed up personally at my house with some rusty saws and a hammer and started filling the bath full of ice cubes, it would certainly be a concern for me that the government’s approach to health policy entered into conflict with what medical experts have to say on the matter.

The author of this piece, however, thinks that the public ought to be concerned with the fact that the government is entering into conflict with what ‘a growing number of organisations with expertise’ are saying about the upcoming budget. But economic expertise and medicinal expertise are not the same thing. You can kill people with economic expertise and everyone forgets about it. In fact, you’ll probably get a succulent pension for your efforts, if you’re in the IMF.

The disasters of neoliberal austerity are well documented. The public ought to see the economic policy prescriptions of the European Commission, the IMF and the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council and so on as analogous to the medical prescriptions of Dr Nick Riviera. The trouble is that their track record of disaster and misery is effaced by the Irish Times, and each time they appear in the news, it is with a clean slate.

What *really* ought to concern the public is that the difference between the economic policy prescriptions of the ‘experts’ and the government is actually quite minor: there is no question of the government doing anything that might deviate from free market orthodoxy. I suppose it also ought to be concerned that Ireland’s media is reflexively presenting a sham fight between a right-wing political establishment and ‘the experts’ as some kind of democratic conflict

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A Translation of that FT editorial on Ireland

Here’s a translation of that FT editorial on Ireland that was proudly re-printed yesterday in the Irish Times.


You can forget democracy in Scotland because neoliberal Ireland is where you should really be paying attention.

Other countries need to follow Ireland’s example and smash their welfare states even though the factors in Ireland’s GDP growth have nothing to do with France or Italy.

In fact, Ireland hasn’t really done anything at all to influence economic growth. That has more to do with Mario Draghi and growth in the US and Britain. But the Irish government slashed public sector wages and drove down wages in the private sector too, and it protected the banks while inflicting lengthy suffering on the population, and we at the Financial Times thinks that’s a good thing in itself.

Come to think of it, Ireland is a basket case on many fronts, such as widespread impoverishment and massive public indebtedness as a consequence of bailing out banks, but that’s not important now.

What is important is that multinational corporations can use Ireland as they see fit and take advantage of a financially and organisationally weakened workforce, and that is a good thing in itself.

So, Ireland is recovering strongly, in particular because its people are not, and that is how things should be done, not like in Scotland, where ordinary people seem to think they should have some say in how things are run.

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Some Brief Notes Against The Decade of Commemorations

I can’t remember if it’s in Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies in which one of Hilary Mantel’s characters alludes to the liturgy of the Eucharist, and uses the word ‘commemoration’. Perhaps it was ‘in my commemoration’, or ‘in commemoration of me’, I can’t recall exactly. The version of the liturgy I’m most familiar with says ‘do this in memory of me’.

Most people in Ireland are well aware that the country is supposed to be engaged in a decade of centenaries, a ‘programme of commemorations’, as the official website puts it, relating to the events that led to Ireland’s independence a century ago. I was wondering about the religious dimension to this. I mean, why bother commemorating all this stuff, and why do it in this way?

The ‘decade of centenaries’ calls to mind a decade of the rosary, but it strikes me as more coincidence than anything. Commemoration, however, in the case of the Mass, has a purpose: to eat and drink in memory of the Last Supper in order to be filled with the Holy Spirit ‘and become one body, one spirit in Christ’. What is the purpose of state commemorations? Let me venture that there is an analogous purpose: to recompose the body politic in keeping with the supposed ideals of the State, that is, to renew the nation-state.

How that recomposition happens, and what those ideals are supposed to be, is a contentious matter. But in so far as State commemorations take place, and are recognised as necessary, then the nation-state is recognised as necessary, and hence renewed. The decade of centenaries, then, ought to be seen as a form of State religion. Its potency derives precisely from the fact that the events commemorated are contentious, and therefore, in the playing out of debates –such as John Bruton claiming that Home Rule legislation should also be commemorated- allow for reconciliation of divergent perspectives within the State, but not against it.

In William Blake’s eyes, ‘State Religion’ was ‘The Abomination that maketh desolate’, ‘the source of all Cruelty’. In The Rebel, Pádraig Pearse, who was influenced by Blake, envisaged the people of Ireland as calling on ‘the dear God that loves the peoples / For whom He died naked, suffering shame’ and then rising, to take what their masters ‘would not give’. Here Pearse consciously identifies the people of Ireland with Christ in a way that anticipates liberation theology in Latin America, where Jesus appears the crucial reference point of the multitude of the poor.

Witness this video of a guerrilla mass in Latin America, where Ernesto Cardenal along with guerrilla fighters interprets the ‘least of these’ passage from Matthew to present Christ as the proletariat, as the judge of nations, and as the people (‘el pueblo’).

In The Rebel, Pearse goes on to assert that Law is not stronger than life, or ‘men’s (sic) desire to be free’. Interesting here is the way Pearse himself became an icon of Irish State religion, in which Law, as any woman in need of an abortion will know, is most certainly stronger than life. To compound the irony, it is this Law that the decade of centenaries, with its programme of commemorations, is intended to uphold.

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Ireland and #indyref: Parallels and contrasts

Photo via @ewajasiewicz

Photo via @ewajasiewicz

Again, looking on at what’s happening in Scotland and the rest of the UK at the minute, I can’t help but notice certain parallels and contrasts with what’s happening in Ireland at the minute.

Today the Irish media is alive with the news that Phil Hogan, the deeply unpopular former Minister for the Environment, is going to be the new EU Commissioner with responsibility for Agriculture. Just in case you’d forgotten, Phil Hogan is the person who used his public office to make representations to a local council to make sure a Traveller family was not allowed to live in a particular area. He is also the person who received a preferential loan, personally approved by Irish Nationwide boss Michael Fingleton, to buy a house in Dublin 4 and a penthouse in Portugal. As EU Commissioner he will be paid €250,000 a year. The Irish Times has a profile of Hogan today that mentions none of this, but cites his ‘real passion for the electoral process’, his ‘huge enthusiasm’ for social media and new technology, and his ‘skills as a strategist and his electoral nous’.

Phil Hogan (credit: Dublin Opinion)

Phil Hogan (credit: Dublin Opinion)

So what, says you. Well, for a start we might ask why the appointment of an EU Commissioner is given so much importance anyway. The Irish Commissioner is not accountable to the Irish electorate. In fact, no Commissioner is subject to any kind of democratic accountability: that is the whole point of the Commission. The importance attached to Hogan’s appointment is not out of shock at the contempt for standards in public office displayed by the European Commission. It rests on the idea that the Commissioner in question is somehow ‘ours’, that he will go out there and do the usual job of helping Ireland to punch above his weight on our behalf. Again, the consideration that Hogan steamrollered through deeply unpopular policies and helped eliminate any vestige of effective local democracy in Ireland does not come into play here. This story is not to be filed under scandal but as a good news story, one more example of how this small nation is a canny little powerhouse, capable of bending the rest of the EU to its will.

This is a fantasy that was kept alive during the Lisbon Treaty referendum. If you recall the referendum debate, concerns over the concentration of decisive political power in the hands of unelected elites were far outweighed by the apparently dangerous state of affairs whereby Ireland stood to lose its EU Commissioner. And then, when the wrong answer was given at the ballot box, one of the main assurances in the Yes campaign the next time round was that Ireland would get to keep its Commissioner, despite the fact that this post is as useful to the broad mass of people in Ireland as tits on a bull. This is how managed democracy works in Ireland.

Today in Scotland the three leaders of the main UK political parties have theatrically cancelled Prime Minister’s Questions at Westminster to head north in order to convince Scottish voters to reject independence. The hope is that by sending these VIPs up to press the flesh and pretend to know something about Scotland, a good enough show will be made of just how important people in Scotland are to the UK political establishment, despite the decades of evidence to the contrary. This comes on the back of a raft of policy proposals for devolution that have been scrambled together without any kind of public consultation.

Will it impress enough people to secure a No? I don’t know. But what we can see are two different dynamics in operation. On the one hand, deliberative discussions with a common commitment to create a better future, arising in large part from a desire for a more equal society. On the other, sunshine and rain from above, and today, because it suits, the forecast is sunshine, but tomorrow, there will be no alternative to rain. The intense debates that are engulfing Scotland at the minute are an intimation of how real democracy ought to work. It means self-government. It does not mean the formulation of proposals by a narrow political and economic elite that leave your real concerns out of the picture, and then a campaign of threats and auguries of catastrophe should you fail to vote the right way. That was what happened with the Lisbon and Fiscal Treaty referenda in Ireland, but it is characteristic of Ireland’s political culture, north and south.

The great virtue of the pro-Independence campaign in Scotland has been to create a sense of possibility that people should decide their common political objectives in a free and open process, and then work out a way of meeting those objectives, mindful of the obstacles. Under managed democracy, in Ireland, but also in the prevailing political culture in the UK, every obstacle is always already too great, and every common objective is always too emotional, too populist, too wrong-headed, to contemplate. That is why in Ireland a figure like Phil Hogan is lionised as some sort of canny political bruiser: because he embodies the view from the top of society that the whole point of politics for everyday people is to gaze up at others ramming through unpopular decisions on your behalf and to either admire their guile or bury your head in resignation whilst they connive to strip you of what your resources for a decent life in common. The Scottish independence referendum, by contrast, has cast a light on what is really possible. It is the vocation of Phil Hogan, and the rest of Ireland’s political establishment, and the media apparatus that keeps them aloft, to put these lights out.

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O dry bones, hear the word of the Sovereign

My dad once told me the story of how he got stopped by Gardaí on a trip to Donegal. They asked to look in the boot of the car, where they found a roast chicken. They asked him what the purpose of the chicken was. He said he planned on making some sandwiches with it. They said: when you finish eating the chicken, make sure you bury the bones.

There is no moral to this story, it is just an anecdote about border crossings from the UK into other countries. To the best of my knowledge, his boot wasn’t searched on the way back. It seems the RUC weren’t so concerned with giving cooked animal carcasses a proper burial, for whatever reason.

In an article the other day, Labour leader Ed Miliband wrote that Scottish independence would mean the introduction of border controls. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems agreed with this position. Yet aside from impromptu customs checkpoints, by and large there are no border controls in place on crossing between the UK and the other independent state with which it officially shares a land border. So for Miliband to make such a claim relies on a general ignorance of what happens when a country becomes formally independent from the United Kingdom. For all I know he may be ignorant of this fact himself. As a friend pointed out, it also relies on the assumption that the migration flow would naturally be southward.

In a lot of the public discourse on the No side too, there is this fear of walls suddenly being erected, a vast security apparatus conjured up to make sure that undesirables do not make their way south of the border. Why? Is it just all part of what the Yes side has named Project Fear? Or are they more an anxious dramatising of the receding of political sovereignty from Westminster itself, in the manner described by Wendy Brown’s book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty?

It seems remarkable to me that when it comes to the No side on the one hand you have all these grandiloquently sentimental effusions about common bonds, but the hint that people in Scotland might spurn the common bonds -in the terms that they are proposed- brings about this threat of punitive securitisation. Stick with us, we love you, you are our friends, but if you don’t do things the way we want you to, we’re changing the locks because we can’t be sure who you are anymore. That is hardly the basis for a stable relationship. And, given that as things stand people in Scotland are still UK citizens as a matter of fact, and given the way the Northern Ireland experience is summarily ignored, it hardly bodes well for the State’s future treatment of English people either. All the more reason to hope that the No campaign’s goose is cooked, and that a Yes vote will impose some degree of good sense.

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Ireland and Scottish Independence: Notes on a Quare Gunk

This morning on the Black Mountain, Belfast via @rockbarbelfast

This morning on the Black Mountain, Belfast via @rockbarbelfast

I’m not one to get excited about anything these days but I am starting to get the odd tingle about the independence referendum in Scotland. Momentum currently lies with the Yes campaign, and Britain’s establishment is now in line for what we Ulster Scots speakers call “a quare gunk”, that is, a most unexpected and unwelcome surprise.

From this side of the Irish Sea it’s hard not to look on with envy at a referendum campaign that has democratic empowerment as its main concern instead of subjection to neoliberal rule, a referendum that stems from genuine popular initiative rather than dictates from on high. A referendum where the momentum lies with the side concerned with preserving the public institutions that deliver a decent quality of life, not destroying them. And, by contrast with the recent Fiscal Treaty referendum in Ireland, the momentum on the Yes side seems driven by optimism and a sense of possibility of a better country, rather than fear and resignation.

The No campaign in Scotland’s independence referendum has dealt in plenty of the same tactics used here in Ireland, presaging catastrophe, isolation and an upsurge in racist atavism and nativist nationalism. But it hasn’t worked. It’s all too obvious now to many Yes voters that Westminster politicians do not represent them. The sudden surge of concern for their interests and the sentimental drooling about cherished common bonds fail to convince because decades of neglect tell a far truer story.

In a recent piece in the Guardian, Douglas Alexander, the Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary, said that the Yes campaign had valued attacked Alex Salmond as being worse than Thatcher in the way he had ‘divided our nation’, and calling for rejection of ‘a politics of grievance and blame’. Again, distinct echoes here of the approach taken by Ireland’s political and media establishments in successive referendum votes on Europe. But this has little purchase with disillusioned Old Labour voters in Scotland, and none at all with young people from deprived areas who are voting for the first time. The life experiences are different and so is the scope of the referendum.

The political credibility of the British State is lower than I can ever remember it, and I don’t see how Humpty can be put together again. All of the three main parties at Westminster are so severed from the real life experiences of ordinary people in Scotland, and so entwined with the priorities of the City and big business, that no amount of manoeuvring on devolution is likely to prove satisfactory in the long term. The blue of Scotland is still on the Union Jack, but the flag looks different now.

The response from official Ireland so far is silence. It is hard to know what it is thinking, if we can concede that it thinks. If people in the North, whether unionist or nationalist, feel they have a lot in common with people in Scotland, Dublin is more inclined to cast its eyes towards London. Official Ireland may be more concerned with the prospect of the UK leaving the European Union than the implications Scottish independence might have for politics in Ireland. Even if the end result is a No, and that appears less likely as days pass, a moment of rupture seems to have happened.

And I think the implications of that for Ireland north and south are immense. Consider the outlook of Northern unionists. If you ever get into a debate with an Ulster unionist on the point of the United Kingdom, you may find that their argument doesn’t add up to much.

Few nowadays are likely to say that they want Northern Ireland to be part of the UK because they don’t want to be ruled by Rome. Not too many, beyond Orange Order brethren will refer to civil and religious liberties either. They are more likely to argue a purely conservative case (changing things will only make it worse), a largely nonsensical economic case that it is good to be part of a large national economy (as if everyone living in large economies lived more prosperous lives than anyone in smaller economies, and as if Northern Ireland were not an economic basket case), or, what I think most likely nowadays, a cultural and identitarian argument. To wit: we unionists feel a special affinity with the rest of the UK, and we do not want to see that endangered or diluted in any way.

A large part of the time this argument is couched in the same glittering generalities about ‘Britishness’ that issue from the two main neoliberal parties in Britain: Labour and the Tories. Crucially, however, it is the bond with Scotland in particular, because it is so close geographically and because of the historic links and also because, well, the people there are recognisably similar to people in Northern Ireland in many respects, that lends weight to this cultural argument. These cultural arguments are an effective substitute for any sort of political argument, any detailed consideration of just what kind of society you aspire to live in. And this is fine for people who want the neoliberal status quo.

But what happens when the weight of the cultural argument -and I’m not just talking about hypothetical debates here but rather the things unionists tell themselves about who they are- suddenly dissipates? That is what would happen if Scotland voted for independence, and even if it doesn’t, it will happen to some degree anyway. Would the unionist mindset become more like that of people in Gibraltar? What kind of flags would get flown from Belfast City Hall if the blue of Scotland no longer figures on the union ensign? How would this affect the relation between the unionist parties and their electorate? Just what is it that the unionist parties would now claim to preserve and protect? Would this not be the end of Ulster unionism as we have known it?

And what about Irish republicanism and nationalism? I get the feeling that Scots independence in and of itself will change the complexion of how republican and nationalist arguments are made. All the main parties in the south say they want Irish unification, but based on consent and guided by the assumption that you have a million or so unionists who under no circumstances want unification, and therefore the matter must be eternally put on the long finger because 50+1% in the North is assumed to be an intensely volatile state of affairs. The threat of a return to the dark days of the past is a control mechanism used to maintain the status quo. That is why both Ian Paisley Jr and Lucinda Creighton have voiced it in recent days. But what happens if unionists can no longer be the unionists they once were?

Well, given that what has been foremost in the Scots independence campaign has not been exclusivist tribalism but democratisation and the sense of possibility that comes with people debating and deciding matters of life in common for themselves rather than allowing career politicians to do it for them, and given the likely absence of such volatility in the Scottish example, and given a large chunk of unionism’s raison d’être falling away as I sketch out above, doesn’t that empty the southern parties’ all-Ireland nationalism of any credible content? To put it another way, doesn’t it inevitably undermine the cultural-identitarian character of Irish nationalism and clear the way for a debate about the kind of political institutions and the kind of society that people on the island need and actually want?

In sum I think the prospect of Scots independence is a major opportunity for a more democratic political regime in Ireland. Whether people know how to seize it is another matter entirely.

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Calculated Brutality

Yesterday’s Irish Times editorial refers to the ‘barbarous’ execution of journalist Steven Sotloff and the ‘calculated brutality’ of his death at the hands of Isis, calling it ‘almost medieval’. It might be worth thinking about how something can be at once ‘almost medieval’ and ‘in public on social media’, as if satellite and fibre optic technology and smartphones were part of everyday life in the Middle Ages.

It sure is convenient to cast the designated enemy as emanating from a different time, like some kind of Ozymandias. Doing so casts oneself –and usually, by association, the US military- on the side of progress and modernity, as part of the forces of enlightenment amassed to drive back the barbarian hordes. I suppose it would have been too much to hope that the disaster unleashed by the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan would have put paid to such imperialist binaries.

It ought to be needless to say that the journalist’s death is an appalling act, and that beheading is a deliberately gruesome spectacle. There is a need to say, however, that descriptions such as ‘barbaric’, ‘barbarous’, ‘the kind of thing that has no place in a civilised society’, and so on, form part of the work of Empire.

They, you see, are not like us, and that is why the bombing must happen.

(Older readers may recall the media frenzy accompanying the early days of the Iraq war of 2003, where the object of initial bombing was reported to be ‘decapitation’ of the Iraqi regime, i.e. to kill its leadership. Decapitation with a sword is barbaric; decapitation with high altitude bombing is, well, civilised.)

It turns out that this ‘we’, faced with the implacable threat from barbarians, expands to include ‘moderate’ states such as Saudi Arabia, a US ally that conducts regular beheadings, and whose royal family, as As’ad AbuKhalil notes, differs from ISIS in terms of foreign policy, but not in terms of ideology.

It also includes Israel, ever willing to characterise its murder of Palestinian children as part of the heroic work of being a bridgehead for Western Civilisation. Within a short space of time, a coalition of the willing –to use a phrase from a previous imperial catastrophe- takes shape in the public mind to include you, me, the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, RTÉ, CNN, the queen of England, David Cameron, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, the Fortune 500, as well as all bona fide left-wingers everywhere. Anyone else has either joined the ranks of the barbarians, in spirit if not in body, or they have gone irretrievably soft in the head and need tough-minded realists to tell them what’s what. Which side are you on?

A couple of days before the F-16s shown in the video above flew over Croke Park I was in the Mediterranean sea, maybe a hundred yards or so from the shore, when three warplanes flew in to land at a nearby military airport. I’m no expert on aircraft and have no idea which country they belonged to, though others on the beach seemed confident that they were American planes.

They flew in along the coastline, in full view of those on the beach. Then they turned to land in behind the beach, flying over holiday homes and apartment blocks. The noise was overwhelming. It was as though every atom of land and sea, including, of course, the thousands of half-naked bodies along the shore, were getting hemmed into order by the sound of the jets.

People froze what they were doing and turned their gaze to the sky, called to attention. Some parents rushed to cover their children’s ears. The planes had what I imagine were large fuel tanks attached to them, but one could just as easily have imagined them to be bombs, and I imagine many people did.

It was a terrifying moment. I looked on at people rooted to the spot at the sight of these monsters overhead. There was a glaring contrast between the fragile bodies dotting the shore, and the brutal indifference to human life radiated by the planes with their ostentatious capacity to incinerate flesh and reduce towns and cities to rubble. It put me in mind of Hollywood fantasy movies, where the whole population gets threatened by the awesome power of alien invaders, or Nazgûl and the like. And then people set aside their hitherto intractable differences to combat the common enemy. But what rarely comes into view in these movies is the way the images of the marauding wraiths are the shadow cast by the imperial war machine in real life. What are warplanes, indeed, if not one of the highest forms of calculated brutality?

When you’re confronted with something like this, it gives you a tiny hint of the awfulness of the sound terrorism, in the form of continuous sonic booms- inflicted continuously on the people of Gaza. To say nothing of actual aerial bombardment, and the death and destruction that inflicts.

You can only wonder how corrupted an ordinary person’s ethical imagination has to be in order to perceive such instruments of terror, in everyday detachment, as on their side, and that they, along with those who command them, are operating on their behalf.

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