A note on the difference between left and right in Ireland

“How do they manage to make the bad guys look good?”
“Dead easy: the bad guys write the script”

A recent interview with journalist Gene Kerrigan, conducted by David Manning of MediaBite, was titled ‘Ireland’s invisible, but omnipresent, right-wing’. In it, Kerrigan noted how mainstream Irish politicians were seldom referred to as right-wing in the media, even when their policy approach was the same as the likes of Angela Merkel, and how the outlook of political correspondents was the same as that of mainstream parties, but they are seldom referred to as right-wing journalists.

Kerrigan’s claim about the description of politicians can be verified by a simple test.

A Nexis search of Irish news sources for “Clare Daly” in the past year returns 495 results. 22 of these, or 4.4% contain the adjective “left-wing”.

A Nexis search of Irish news sources for “Joe Higgins” in the past year returns 400 results. 34 of these, or 9%, contain the adjective “left-wing”.

A Nexis search of Irish news sources for “Leo Varadkar” in the past year returns more than 3,000 results. However, only 12, or an absolute maximum of 0.4%, contains the adjective “right-wing”.

So, roughly speaking, Clare Daly is ten times more likely to be characterised as left-wing by Ireland’s media than Leo Varadkar is to be characterised as right-wing. Joe Higgins is twenty times more likely.

In a 2010 interview with Leo Varadkar, Irish Times political correspondent Harry McGee noted that ‘If Varadkar lived in Britain he would clearly be Tory, or a Republican if he lived in the US.’ However, McGee continued, ‘he rejects the label of right-wing that is attached to him. He says people are ideologically illiterate in Ireland and, even though they think left is good and right is bad, they tend to vote centre-right.’

It’s hard to know what to make of Varadkar’s assessment about perceptions of left and right. I’m not so sure if people by and large in Ireland think of left as good, but maybe he’s on to something when he says they think right is bad. After all, he himself rejects the label of right-wing.

What is more, there is a strong popular rejection of the label of ‘Thatcherite’ in Ireland, even though successive elected Irish governments have pursued policies that are very firmly within the market belief system that Thatcher’s rule in Britain helped to entrench worldwide.

In one sense this popular rejection is curious, since whatever the ideological reach of Thatcher’s free market project, Britain under Thatcher bore more features of socialism than Ireland ever did, such as a national health service free on point of delivery, free education up to third level, including free textbooks. Of course, Thatcher hated all of this and wanted to destroy it; it is just that there was never any contemporaneous political will in Ireland to build it.

One reason, of course, that there is so little mention of right-wing politicians in Ireland is that there are no major left-wing media institutions. In the absence of such institutions, the civil society institutions of the right can shape people’s ideas about politics largely uncontested, such that what would appear as right-wing in countries with stronger popular democratic currents appears in Ireland as the uncontroversial way of the world.

People who advocate a stronger role for private enterprise, in the provision of what are usually seen as public goods and services, be it education, health, social welfare, roads, water, and so on, would, at other times and in other places, be described as right-wing. In Ireland, but not just in Ireland, you can do such things and be described in the media as centre-left. Indeed, a large part of the trade union leadership in Ireland sees such ‘centre-left’ figures as a counterweight to a right-wing government, even as that government privatises social welfare, endorses private health services, sources 75% of social housing from the private sector, subsidises rich people from the sector that created the financial crisis to send their children to private schools, and introduces effective regressive taxation in the provision of public goods, whilst forking out untold billions in public money to keep afloat an economic model based on financial speculation and the looting of public wealth, to offer a few stray examples. And there is no shortage of gall to go round among those who claim that this is precisely what the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece aspires to do, but doesn’t have the smarts of the suits of Ireland’s ‘Left’.

And this is only on the narrow terrain of political institutions. In Ireland’s public culture more broadly, there is seldom a dichotomy between left and right. ‘Left’ is seldom a descriptor applied to tendencies towards greater social equality and freedom from exploitation. Worse, tendencies that seek to maintain or increase social inequalities and maintain or increase exploitation, whether in homes or enterprises, are seldom described as ‘right-wing’. Take one example in the news in recent days: the Iona Institute. The Iona Institute is strongly committed to the express exercise of State power over women and LGBT people. Its founders are strong supporters of private health care and private education, US military campaigns, and the free market belief system (which entails the express exercise of State power over the working class).

And yet this strong right-wing tendency is seldom remarked upon in Ireland’s mainstream media. For example, a Nexis search for “Iona Institute” from 11th of January 2014 to today’s date returns 307 newspaper results. Only two newspaper articles in that period -which encompasses the reporting of the Panti/Rory O’Neill affair- referred to the Iona Institute as right-wing. One was a piece in the Sunday Independent by Sarah Carey, and another one was reported remarks by Paul Murphy, then an MEP, in the Irish Times.

That is, 0.7% of articles identified the Iona Institute as right-wing, in a period -encompassing both a high profile court action and a referendum campaign where the institute played a prominent role. Against this, it must be pointed out that the Catholic Church more broadly in Ireland also supported, and continues to support, private health care and private education, was vigorously anti-communist, and promoted private property as a means of quelling unrest that might take socialist forms. But the Catholic Church -whose Angelus bells sound every day on the State broadcaster- is never described, of course, as right-wing.

This suggests a remarkable degree of ideological domination exercised by the right wing through Ireland’s media: for all the high-minded claims about ‘balance’ and ‘objectivity’, the view of the world it puts forward is overwhelmingly right-wing in orientation, and this is all the more destructive of chances for a more democratic society precisely because it deprives people of the means of naming, and of situating themselves in relation to, the fundamental oppositions and conflicts that run through Irish society unreported.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A note on the difference between left and right in Ireland

  1. Reblogged this on critical media review and commented:
    Cunning Hired Knaves on how political orientation is represented by Irish news organisations:

  2. Brian O Boyle

    Very insightful piece. Thanks for sharing it

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