Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Irish Constitution and its ‘Weaker Sections’

Venezuelan children with illustrated copies of 1999 Constitution, distributed to all schools.

Venezuelan children with illustrated copies of 1999 Constitution, distributed to all schools. Credit: albaciudad.org

I left this comment on an article in today’s Irish Times titled Budget 2015: How constitutional is the behaviour of our Minister for Finance?. The article is by Gerry Kearns, Professor of Human Geography at Maynooth University, and is well worth a read for the data it shows.

The trends in relation to poverty, emigration and regional inequalities laid out in this article are shocking. The fact that the government is planning on introducing what the author calls ‘tax cuts for fat cats’ illustrates very clearly where their priorities lie.

However, Michael Noonan might well argue that cutting taxes for the wealthier strata of Irish society is intended to reverse these trends, and hence he is operating in keeping with the Constitution, and that, contrary to the author’s suggestion, he is indeed ‘safeguarding with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community’, or, in more common terms, ‘protecting the most vulnerable’.

The starting point of such an argument is the orthodox position that economic growth is beneficial to the whole of society because it leads to an improvement in public finances, and to pursue economic growth you have to maintain an attractive climate for investment. This in turn gives the government more leeway to ‘safeguard the weaker sections of the community’. This position is adhered to by all the main political parties. They all claim that maintaining an attractive business climate -i.e. tax cuts for fat cats- is the precondition for ‘safeguarding the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community’. They would likely argue that the primary economic interest of the weaker sections of the community is having a job and making sure their boss has a viable business. That’s why they say “jobs jobs jobs”, all the time, like crazed fanatics. Besides, what politician does not claim to be acting in the interests of compassion and social justice? Even the Tory party in the UK does that nowadays.

What is a constitution for, anyway? One of the major democratic events in recent decades was the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. After a massive social mobilisation, a new constitution was drafted that guaranteed the political and social rights of broad masses of people hitherto excluded from the political process. It is a common sight to see workers, women, peasants and people from sections of society previously excluded from political life taking to the streets with copies of the constitution in their hand: it is their constitution, and they charge themselves with enforcing it. The idea that the strong should look after the weak, expressed in Ireland’s Constitution and cited by the author here, is at odds with this kind of citizen-led democratic government. Democracy can never be the weak drawing attention to their weakness and calling upon the ruling powers to look after them – at best, that is benevolent oligarchy.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Let Them Drink Fluoride!” – further reluctant reflections on water fluoridation

SCIENTIST: David Costello

SCIENTIST: David Costello

Christ knows I should have better things to be writing about than water fluoridation but these things have a habit of lodging in my consciousness and the only way of flushing them out is to write something about it.

Last night a majority of councillors on Dublin City Council voted against the fluoridation of the water supply. Less than half an hour earlier a majority of councillors voted on a motion deploring the excessive mobilisation of Gardaí including the Public Order Unit into Dublin housing estates and the arrest of residents under the Water Services Act, and declared its support for peaceful resistance to water meter installation.

On the surface of it, the motion was an important statement of solidarity with people fearing the impact of water charges and treated like criminals for making their objections public.

The vote against the fluoridation of the water supply, however, has dominated attention on social media, the response largely negative, with people declaring that they would not vote for any person or party who had voted against fluoridation.

Such declarations and other negative responses are based on the conviction that water fluoridation poses no danger to the public and is in fact beneficial to public health, and in particular to the dental health of impoverished children. This conviction is based on a body of scientific evidence indicating the beneficial effects of water fluoridation in this regard.

For my part, based on what I’ve read about it, I think the conviction is largely correct. My main qualification would be that general discussion of water fluoridation rests on the assumption that the regulatory bodies and authorities tasked with the fluoridation of water are good enough to ensure that the quantity of fluoride in the water supply is not in excess of levels that would pose an identifiable health risk.

There are quite a few colourful characters mobilising against the removal of water fluoridation, and they make claims that do not stand up to scrutiny. But why does their message -and not, say, the message of those predicting the end of the world at some identified date before next summer- find traction? Is it because people are just stupid?

If people are susceptible to arguments that fluoridation as such amounts to an enforced policy of harmful mass medication, I suggest it is down, at least in part, to the fact that many are reluctant to take the claims of authorities charged with public welfare in Ireland at face value. What is more, this reluctance can, with justification, rely on the solid ground of bitter experience, whether in one’s personal encounters or in knowledge of real-life horror stories: symphisiotomy, caesarean hysterectomies, baby trafficking, child slavery, the Hepatitis C crisis, to name a few. The Sinn Féin councillor, who introduced the motion at Dublin City Council, Anthony Connaghan, referred to the case of the Irish government’s failure to issue a warning about Thalidomide.

Objecting to Anthony Connaghan’s motion was David Costello of Fianna Fáil. Highlighting his own background as a scientist, he insisted on the unreliability of the scientific claims being made against fluoridation, and singled out people wearing pink bikinis as a reasonable indication that the anti-fluoride campaign was not to be trusted, and that people backing Connaghan’s motion were ‘crazy’. He also said that it was

the only health initiative in the last hundred years in this country that has looked after the working class people

It’s quite a startling admission from a member of a party that has held power for 61 of the past hundred years. It indicates that the Irish State does not respond to the needs of Ireland’s working class, but to those of certain other groups.

I agree, of course, but that’s beside the point: the argument for the maintenance of fluoridation of water, typified by David Costello, can be advanced, and can appear perfectly reasonable in polite society, regardless of one’s broader perspectives on democratic government.

It is perfectly reasonable, according to this argument, to fluoridate the water supply because it is beneficial to the health of an impoverished minority, but this does not carry with it any obligation to include any wider consideration of why the socio-economic inequalities that it supposedly redresses actually exist in the first instance, including consideration of why Ireland’s political institutions consistently fail to address these inequalities.

A rigorous application of the scientific method, once it dawned on David Costello that his party had done next nothing to address the health needs of Ireland’s working class in the best part of a century would be for him to burn his Fianna Fáil membership card immediately. Assuming, of course, that he actually cared.

Nor does this carry with it, as far as I can see, any obligation to apply the scientific method to public health policies more broadly. The lethal effects of austerity policies have been widely documented. One such example is the work of David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu in The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills. And yet the hoots of derision that greet anti-fluoridation campaigners, or people concerned with fluoride in the water supply more generally, seldom greet the latest missive from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council or the Irish Central Bank.

Why is this? Part of the reason, I think, is that the idea, as far as conventional wisdom goes, that “the working class people” are there to be “looked after” but have no agency as political subjects, permeates right to the bone in Ireland. ‘The working class’ frequently appears in Ireland’s legislative history, but as a class that serves a particular function within a society where their proper place in the scheme of things is already known, and not open to question or alteration.

And anti-fluoride political positions, and anti-fluoride paranoia, are seldom -if ever- considered in terms of the paternalistic contempt shown by State institutions, including the Oireachtas, towards working class people.

One can be in favour of water fluoridation because it is in the best interests of ‘the working class people’ and one can, simultaneously, be in favour of austerity because it is in the best interests of ‘the working class people’ (usually incorporated to ‘Ireland’ or ‘the Irish people’) and feel free of any obligation to consider what working class people actually think, feel, say or do.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Irish Water: The Bowel Movements of Kleptocracy

Pravda

There are two major stories in Ireland at the minute. One is the tribulations of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and something of a crisis in the Fine Gael party. The other is the introduction of water charges through Irish Water.

Most of the attention is dedicated to the first story. Kenny’s attempt to get a failed county council election candidate for Fine Gael elected to the Seanad, via an appointment to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, has blown up in his face. This is the kind of story that gets political correspondents frotting their laps in excitement. Disarray in the court of King Kenny, that sort of thing. More broadly, it exposes the gap between the promises made by Fine Gael and Labour for a ‘democratic revolution’ and ‘political reform’, and the sordid reality: patronage, cronyism and disregard for transparency and accountability. So it provides good ground for earnest denunciations of low standards in public life.

Coverage of Irish Water deals largely with the effectiveness of its implementation, and the anticipated costs to the consumer. The fundamental political question arising from Irish Water -whether it is right to ration water on the basis of wealth- was seldom posed, bar the token allowances made for radical dissenting voices.

Irish Water, by these lights, is an established and inalterable fact. The legitimacy of its introduction at the behest of the Troika was, from this view, always self-evident. The role of the public, according to Ireland’s media, is now to calculate how best to minimise the cost of water to their household, how to maximise consumer value.

Outrage about Irish Water appears as legitimate when it stems from the principle of consumer sovereignty, but not when it stems from the principle of democratic equality. So Irish Water’s spend on consultancy may give cause for scandal, but on the basis of value for money, not because it is symptomatic of kleptocracy: of private interests seizing hold of public goods in order to mine rich seams of profit.

To put it another way, the Irish Water public relations campaign, which explicitly sought to change people’s mindsets regarding water from that of a citizen to that of a consumer, gets plain sailing in Ireland’s media.

What makes for plain sailing is not just the coverage of the story itself, but the general absence, in Ireland’s media, of any concern with democratic entitlements, beyond the right to vote (though not the right to expect that one’s vote should have an effect). You only have to look at the size of the business or property sections of the Irish Times or the Irish Independent, and compare them to the amount of space devoted to the concerns of wage workers -salary levels, employment rights, public services- to see where the interests of these institutions lie. You see these interests also manifest in the coverage of politics: politics is a professional activity subject to the occasional scrutiny of a sedentary electorate, not everyday people taking to the streets.

The concern with ‘political reform’ and with whatever happened to the ‘democratic revolution’, so much to the fore in recent days, is helping to cast a veil over what is really happening with Irish Water.

In reality, Irish Water is the appropriation of public resources for private ends. As Gene Kerrigan noted in the Sunday Independent this week, the legislation establishing Irish Water specifically allows for privatisation, at the behest of the Minister for Finance. Given that Ireland’s Ministers for Finance act in reality as Finance’s Ministers for Ireland, Irish Water is intended as a crucial step towards full-blown privatisation.

A more rigorous questioning of the term ‘democratic revolution’ might be: since when did democracy entail selling off public resources in the interests of profit, at the behest of unelected international entities? And, as a consequence, what kind of action is legitimate when such things occur?

Well, if you think politics is a matter for men -and occasionally women- in suits, and the only worry is whether such figures are behaving appropriately, you don’t need to worry your head about the likes of that. More time to spend on working out how much it costs each time you flush your loo.

If, on the other hand, you think that upholding basic principles of equality and solidarity requires more than expecting Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach who opens private hospitals, to do it on your behalf, then you have to take matters into your own hands.

That, in essence, is what protesters on estates across Dublin and beyond have been doing, driven by the unbearable financial pressure that the imposition of water charges will entail. In response, the Gardaí have been deployed to ensure kleptocracy goes unimpeded.

The central figure of the ‘democratic revolution’, Enda Kenny, tried to claim in the Dáil today, when challenged about Garda arrests of peaceful protesters, that the protests were the work of nefarious outsiders who were disturbing the locals who merely wished to get on with their lives and let the Irish Water contractors get on with their work. The kind of people, one imagines, like the man featured in yesterday’s RTÉ radio report, who was recorded receiving the gift of a half dozen free range eggs from an Irish Water contractor.

The reality of Ireland, right now, is that the people who are actually maintaining the kind of democratic resistance that gave Ireland some semblance of democratic institutions in the first place, are being criminalised by the government.

What is more, they are ignored, when not bitterly condemned, by middle class liberals who dribble on interminably about standards in public life but take fright whenever the public actually materialises on the streets. It is ordinary people in estates across Dublin and beyond who are acting to restore some element of democracy to life in Ireland, whereas conventional wisdom would be happy to see it flushed down the toilet. For a reasonable fee, of course: these things have to be paid for, after all.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Guanyem Barcelona: And they’ll ask us who we are

This is a translation of the speech by Ada Colau, in the video above, made 16th September during the presentation of the citizen platform Guanyem Barcelona (‘Let’s Win Back Barcelona’) as candidates in the municipal elections of 24th May 2015.

And they’ll ask us who we are – Ada Colau

We know that those who have power today are very well organised, because they’ve had power for a long time, and they are well used to having it and having it with impunity. And obviously, as soon as they see that we citizens are organising among ourselves, it’s clear they will not make it easy for us.

They’ll call us idealists, they’ll say we’re good people, that we’re nice, that we’re activists, they’ll call us ‘anti-system’, they’ll call us ‘alternative’, and they’ll try to ridicule us, silence us, criminalise us. And they’ll treat us as trespassers, in what they say is a democracy, when it ought to be the best of news that the citizens are organising themselves- to decide what it is that they want and how they want to do it. This is democracy, and everything else is just words.

We are not trespassers, we are protagonists, and we want to be protagonists in this city and in the democratic revolution that is underway.

They’ll say to us: “who are you?”

We will not be so arrogant as to say “we are everyone”. But we are the people who are out on the streets, we are normal people, ordinary people, who speak with our neighbours each day, who in contrast to professional politicians get onto public transport every day, we go out to precarious jobs every day, and we see what’s going on every day, and hence we are far more in touch as citizens with everyday reality than many professional politicians.

And who are we?

First of all let me say that we are women. We are many women who are under-represented in spaces of decision-making, in the spaces of political power, and we are over-represented in the invisible care work that makes life possible for all, for rich people and for poor people.

We are the neighbours, we are the neighbourhoods who have taken the lead in the finest victories of this city, which would not have happened if it were not for the neighbourhood struggles of recent decades. And we are also the neighbours who are getting organised today to confront the disasters that are being created by the political institutions in connivance with the economic powers that be.

We are also the working people, the people who have to work to get to the end of the month, because we don’t live off rent. And we are also the people who are unemployed, but although we don’t have a job, we have all the ability in the world and every right to take part and be protagonists of the democratic revolution and we have the right to a guaranteed income because everyone has the right to a decent existence.

We are also the people who are defending the economy of the future, the people who have and who defend small businesses, traditional commerce, economies of social solidarity, co-operatives, which are attempting to fashion a sustainable economy in the face of the speculative, predatory, plundering economy of the multinationals that come to Barcelona, reap all the profits and then take them off to tax havens.

We are also the education community and healthcare professionals who, at a time of absolutely unbearable cutbacks that are endangering basic rights and services, in our hospitals, crèches, schools and universities, well beyond their contractual obligations, are giving their all to guarantee our rights.

We are the migrants, those whose rights are not recognised, and here, no person can be illegal, and we will win back Barcelona because we want to shut the Internment Centre, a hole of shame, a hole that denies human rights, and we will not stop until we close the Internment Centre and we will do all that we can so that all migrants are full citizens and not just for them to have their social rights guaranteed, but also their political participation at all levels.

We are also the municipal workers. Many municipal workers have got in touch with Guanyem Barcelona because they are sick of seeing how the political parties make use of the institution, and because they want to place all their knowledge and all their experience in the service of this city, and of their neighbours.

We are many families and very diverse groups of coexistence, there is no longer any single family unit, this is not just a case of mums and dads with their children, here there are many families, many units of coexistence, diversity and plurality of sexuality and affections that enrich the city and they must have all their rights and their recognition guaranteed.

We are also, and first and foremost, the boys and girls of this city, the boys and girls who deserve to be able to enjoy the city, to have their rights guaranteed, but who also deserve to be seen as the bearers of rights, as protagonists. Very often boys and girls have a lot more common sense than many adults who have been warped as they grew up. We do not only need to look after our children and guarantee their rights, but we must listen to them and allow them to speak.

We are older people, our grandfathers and grandmothers, pensioners. Not only do we have to win so that every person has a decent old age, in which they are guaranteed all the attention that they need, but also because older people have a lot to say and they are not being listened to. Policies are being implemented for older people, in the name of older people, but without consulting them. And not only do they have a lot to say, about what policies they need, we also need older people, and enough of treating them as a nuisance when they are a mine of experience, of historical memory that we need to improve our present and our future. We need our older people and we need to look after them.

I’ll finish now. So, we are many people, as you can see we are a great many people. We are also our young people. Our young people who have been asked to make huge efforts, to get training, to do all sorts of studies, masters degrees.. But then they are given no opportunity to contribute with their knowledge, their strength, their energy, their ideas, and we are expelling them from our city. We want our young people to remain here and to give the best of what they have for the common good.

Let us never forget who we are and why we are here. Let us never forget it and let us never stop being who we are. Thank you.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized