Monthly Archives: May 2015

‘The problem in the Mediterranean’ and the problems with the Irish Times Poll

By El Roto

By El Roto

The poll results published by the Irish Times today in its story headlined ‘Poll: Majority against taking in fleeing migrants’ present an appalling picture of Ireland’s attitudes toward what the paper refers to as ‘the problem in the Mediterranean’.

‘The problem in the Mediterranean’ relates to the fact that this year alone, between 1,500 and 1,750 women, men and children have died in attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa into Europe. The Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization, Koji Sekimizu, predicts that half a million people could cross into Italy this year, by comparison with 170,000 last year, of whom 10,000 died in the attempt. (source)

The headline and poll data, on the surface, suggests a striking depth of animosity felt towards migrants in Irish society. There is no point seeking to improve it, or redress it, in accordance with the terms in which it is presented. However, that does not mean we should accept the data at face value.

It’s worth highlighting several key features in the poll and the accompanying report.

The question that provides the headline is ‘Should Ireland offer to resettle migrants rescued in Mediterranean?’ The Irish Times says 52% of those polled said Ireland should not offer to do so, and 48% said that it should. As others have pointed out, there is no ‘Don’t Know’ option for this question.

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The absence of a ‘Don’t Know’ option is worth reflecting on. A government minister is unlikely to know what to do in many situations in the absence of further information and advice. There would be nothing wrong with that: it is in the nature of problems that we start out not knowing how to solve them.

But the Irish Times question, thus presented, suggests that everyone already knows what to do about the issue. Or, to put it differently, it suggests that out of 1,000 people, not a single one did not know what to do when it came to resettling migrants.

There is a far more accurate term for ‘rescued migrants’: refugees. These are people seeking refuge -as a New York Times article in April puts it- from war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East, or, as Peter Sutherland in an Irish Times report on May 11th puts it, ‘escaping persecution’.

The question does not mention refugees, and it does not mention what it is these migrants are fleeing –including the responsibility of EU member states in producing the situation they are fleeing. It is, as with previous Irish Times surveys, a loaded question.

The survey seeks to gauge the level of support or opposition to resettling refugees rescued in the Mediterranean on the basis of how many people the respondent thinks it would be appropriate to resettle. But since it does not quantify how many ‘fleeing migrants’ there are needing resettlement, a low number is not necessarily indicative of strong opposition, and a high number is not necessarily indicative of strong support.

That is, if you think there have been 1,000 refugees rescued in the Mediterranean, then 100 -one tenth of the overall figure- does not necessarily reflect a reluctance to accept refugees, bearing in mind the collective responsibility of all EU member states in this regard. One’s familiarity with the figures involved, as well as the overall background story, will have an influence.

The survey data presented gives no indication of the contextual information provided to the respondents in order for them to give their answer. One piece of contextual information, for instance, might be the overall death toll to date this year. Another might be details of the persecution such people are fleeing. Another might be the fact that the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union guarantees the right to asylum. I will leave it to others to judge whether this is likely to have been provided.

It is worth considering the conception to politics that such an approach to polling –where the respondent is not given data on which they can make their decision- might reveal. In democratic societies, citizens are supposed to decide upon how society is to be run. For this they need reliable information that they can evaluate, and they need time to deliberate and discuss. Under the approach to polling demonstrated here, however, what matters is not whether the respondent has evaluated the information and reached a decision accordingly, but what the implications are for the political parties that seek the respondent’s vote, since it is they who will ultimately decide the policy to pursue.

The accompanying editorial says that ‘Fine Gael and Labour show significant positive support (61 and 56 per cent respectively) while Sinn Féin supporters are most strikingly resistant (70 per cent against)’. This gives a false impression of what various party supporters actually think. There were 1000 people surveyed. This is enough to give a reliable enough estimate of overall support for a political party. But it is not enough to give a reliable picture of what voters for that political party actually think.

For example, the poll finds that Labour is on 7%. That means that 70 respondents said they would vote Labour. Whereas Sinn Féin is on 21% support, and so 210 respondents said they would vote Sinn Féin.

To get an adequate picture of what the 220,000-odd Labour supporters think, using, for example, a 3% or so margin of error, you would have to survey around 1,000 Labour supporters, and roughly the same number of Sinn Féin supporters.

So, in neither case is the number of respondents adequate for a rigorous survey of Labour and Sinn Féin supporter opinion, or a rigorous survey of the opinion of supporters of any other party. That does not prevent the Irish Times from presenting it as such. It may well be true that the ‘Government is not substantially out of step with the majority of its support base’, as the Irish Times claims, but the survey data does not provide reliable enough evidence for this claim.

There is a more insidious aspect however. It ties in with assumptions underpinning the current referendum campaign, namely, the idea that the rights of persecuted minorities are a matter for majority opinion, without any reference to fundamental guarantees enshrined in law. Similar assumptions underpinned a survey from October last year, also covered by Stephen Collins, that sought the opinion of the electorate, and had the headline Majority are in favour of direct provision, poll finds.

Here, too, the Irish Times cites what ‘the electorate’ thinks. But this electorate does not include a large number of people living in Ireland who might have an opinion on the matter, i.e. migrants from other countries.

Such migrants are by and large irrelevant to the matter of how the Government can go about its business, because they are unable to vote in legislative elections. And so the Irish Times ignores them outright, whilst affecting to be worried about ‘the sort of anti-immigrant party that has poisoned the politics of many European states’.

The grim irony is that the basic standpoint underpinning the Irish Times poll questions and conclusions –one of a national electorate that vests a legislature with the power to decide which categories of people deserve to live and which can be left to die- is precisely that of the anti-immigrant parties it decries.

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True love is always against the State

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There is something profoundly disturbing about the ease with which Irish people in the South see ‘the State’ as the all-encompassing entity that is essentially good and what binds people together.

The State, in this view may do things wrong, or may fail to do things, but that is because certain people have refused to be sufficiently loyal, or obedient, or they have failed to grasp the need to comply for the sake of the common good.

We are told this is our State but we do not respect it or look after it. But who is this we? Not migrants, and not Irish citizens north of the border, for starters. But beyond that, why respect a State that denies you the same access to healthcare, or education, or food, or decent working conditions, as available to those who call on you to be loyal to the State and respect it?

Why respect a State that deems your sexuality abnormal and deprives you of basic rights as a consequence? Why respect a State that claims ownership and control over your body and compels you to give birth, and considers that what you want, what you think on the subject, is to be automatically disregarded?

It is “our State”, apparently. You even hear supposedly left-wing trade unionists speak of “our” State, in the same way as a worker in a multinational might speak of “us”, encompassing both the speaker and the CEO earning 350 times as much and who would eliminate that worker’s job and thousands more like it without a moment’s hesitation, if push comes to shove….

Lately I hear people talk about the State validating love, in relation to marriage equality. But the State can never administer, create, validate or promote love, of any kind.

There will always be those who claim that it does. Statum caritas est. Recall the provisions for charity supposedly informing social institutions in the Irish constitution, then bear in mind the degrading treatment systematically meted out by those same institutions to thousands every day.

Anti-choice campaigners even claim Ireland’s draconian abortion laws are an expression of love (“Love them both”).

‘The Family’ is part of the State.
It is ‘the necessary basis of social order’. It is ‘indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State’.

When campaigners against rights for LGBT people or against rights for women conjure up nightmare scenarios of a totalitarian State tearing mothers away from their children, they tend not to mention this point: it is the State that upholds their ideal of the Family. It is the State that keeps alive their sad dream of that isolated and self-contained unit, deprived of wider social supports, teaching obedience to the natural order of things, teaching deference to patriarchal authority, and extolling the happy enslavement of women. All such families are nightmares. If we still love our parents or brothers and sisters and other relatives, it is despite such a nightmarish design for life, not because of it.

In The Garden of Love, William Blake’s vision of the terrain where love flourishes is blighted by the brutal architecture of repression in the service of commerce, in the form of a chapel, a symbol of what elsewhere he called ‘State Religion’, which he described ‘the Abomination that maketh desolate’ and ‘the source of all Cruelty’.

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Amid Blake’s ruined garden there are priests ‘doing their rounds’ (the way prison guards do), and ‘binding with briars’ (as with the crown of thorns placed on the crucified Jesus) his ‘joys and desires’. Organised religion and the State are not the embodiment of love: they are its corruption. For all its exaltation of The Family, some of the most heinous abuses in this society were perpetrated by people who, acting on behalf of the State, called themselves ‘Father’ or ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister’.

The power relations reproduced by the State -“our State” are inevitably opposed to any form of love that threatens property. Icy cold calculation, not love, will always prevail by the State’s logic. And that is why we should be suspicious of people who bluster about love and equality whilst proclaiming their steadfast support for the State. True love is always against the State.

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Why I’m voting Yes

I notice a lot of people are excited at the prospect of voting Yes. I’m finding that quite hard.

I’d prefer not to be voting Yes. I’d prefer not to have to answer the question. Why do I find myself in a situation where I and others are granted the power to decide whether or not other people should be treated as full and equal human beings, with the same rights as everyone else?

Why should I get to decide that? I don’t want to be part of a collective that arrogates the power to decide such things. No-one should be part of such a thing, be it with regard to LGBT people, women, or migrants. So, it’s my duty to vote Yes, because people have no business and no right to make decisions such as this, as if they had a legitimate power over others. Anything that weakens this despotic sense of entitlement, anything that weakens its oppressive hold over people’s lives, is all to the good. So: yes.

I’ll be glad that people will feel a weight off their shoulders when the Yes vote wins. No-one should have to go about their lives fearful or ashamed or traumatised or bullied simply because of who they are. I’ll be glad that people will feel a sense of a victory won, one that will have arisen because of decades-long campaigns and courageous struggles for equal rights, despite horrendous ingrained bigotry, state persecution and generalised homophobic violence. Such struggles are the things to be truly celebrated, since they created the possibility of such a referendum, the nation-state hosting the referendum, not so much: even if a Yes vote might appear a marker of progress, even if it makes Ireland a more attractive place. You’re not supposed to oppress people: why congratulate yourself for stopping?

I think it’s great that lots of people are getting out and canvassing for a Yes vote, and I think it’s great that the rearguard action being fought by the most reactionary right-wing elements of the Catholic Church appears headed for ignominious collapse. The same people emoting about children’s rights can be found on other days cheering on high-altitude bombings of civilian populations conducted by the US or Israeli military. They affect concern about families and the ‘right to a mother and a father’ whilst supporting policy measures that drive families into poverty and misery and deprive children and their parents of the semblance of a dignified life. For them, the family is a happy little concentration camp where children learn time-honoured proper order and respect for arbitrary authority. Anything that strips away their hold on Irish society is all to the good, too.

It’s important to remember, however, that Article 41, even with the amendment allowing for marriage equality, is still a revoltingly reactionary piece of text, in which ‘mothers’ have ‘duties in the home’, but such ‘duties’ are not recognised as labour; rather, a woman’s ‘life within the home’ is a ‘support’ to ‘the State’.

What is more, why should the State ‘guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded’? There are countless families in many shapes and sizes where there is no marriage involved -and hence ‘the Family’ remains an ideological abstraction in the image of ultramontane reactionaries. The provision for marriage equality operates within a very particular framework, one designed to maintain the regime of private property, and hence one that militates against other substantive expressions of human equality, including economic justice. But a Yes vote will ease those problems, not deepen them.

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Some notes on the Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government

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What does ‘Progressive’ mean in Ireland? The 1950s saw the formation of a small socialist party called the ‘National Progressive Democrats’. Its founders included Noel Browne, who, as Minister for Health in the Fianna Fáil – Clann na Poblachta coalition government, had sought to introduce the Mother and Child Scheme.

The scheme, which Browne and others hoped would lead to a system of universal health care in Ireland, along the lines of the National Health Service in Britain, was seen by the Church hierarchy as ‘a ready-made instrument for totalitarian aggression’.

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No-one remembers the ‘National Progressive Democrats’ these days, save historians and political anoraks.

But everyone remembers the Progressive Democrats. This was a band of Thatcherite fanatics who, with some skill, staked out a space in the public mind for the idea that what was truly ‘progressive’ was to give free rein to market forces, under the veneer of doing away with corruption in political life.

Hence:

  • It was progressive to insist on the need for inequality as the basis for progress;
  • It was progressive to create a ‘good business climate’ by slashing the top rate of tax and employers’ PRSI;
  • It was progressive to make sure that public expenditure did not rise beyond the rate of inflation, that is, it was progressive to shrink public services;
  • It was progressive to cheer on the US destruction of Iraq and denounce anti-war protesters as in league with Saddam Hussein;
  • It was progressive to view free GP service as an idea of the “loony left”, according to Michael McDowell.
  • It was progressive to create ‘public-private partnership’ gulags. Whilst casting himself as the scourge of the corrupt, McDowell oversaw the forking out of €50m in public money, twice the market price, for Thornton Hall, the intended site of a mega-prison, currently used to grow vegetables.

And not only was all this progressive: it was democratic. No matter how much it deepened inequality, no matter how much it undermined living standards, no matter how much it stripped away the possibility of what were considered matter-of-fact social rights in other Western European countries, such as universal and free public health care and education systems, it was democratic because it would be implemented by an elected government with the Rule of Law on its side.

A few months ago, pre-Renua, Lucinda Creighton was asked her views on the need for a new political party. She said that parties did not need to aim to exist in perpetuity. Rather they could appear on the scene, shape the political agenda in the way they wished, and then disappear once they had achieved their aim. This is what happened with the Progressive Democrats. And although the party has disappeared, the entire political establishment is now Progressive Democrat. Not in name, but in orientation.

Yes, they say, we know we shovelled tens of billions of euro in public money the way of private speculators, but the markets wanted your sacrifice, and now, thanks to our skilled negotiation, they have rewarded us with some sunshine from above. Now we can reward you for your forbearance, and pay ourselves €150K a year, at least until a succulent number in the private sector comes calling.

The Department of Finance pumps out propaganda claiming that progressivity in taxation is the same thing as public policy aimed at securing social equality. The Minister for Health opens private Accident and Emergency wards, touts for private health insurance scams…and on Twitter he compares himself to Aneurin Bevan.

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The Labour Party leader says James Connolly would be proud of her party’s achievements, while calling water charges protesters ‘fascists’ and aiming torpedoes at the principle of paid labour through schemes such as JobBridge. Forget Syriza, we are the genuine article, the Labour Party says, and sets up its new docklands headquarters ensconced among corporate law firms and banks.

Behind this Krakatoa of lies and bullshit, there is a harsh and bald reality: these people are neither progressive nor democratic. Of course, they would rather kneecap themselves than admit this. Despite enormous public pressure, first on the household charge and now, even more furiously, on water charges, they have fought tooth and nail against those who called into question their claim to democratic legitimacy, they have avoided any kind of rational argument since they would be conclusively defeated, and they have even resorted to dawn raid spectaculars against protesters.

If this were Putin’s Russia Ireland’s press would call the spectaculars a ‘crackdown on dissidents’. But here, the press backs the crackdown and cannot countenance the idea that it might be a form of political repression. Did someone say ready-made instruments for totalitarian aggression?

As I said, no-one remembers the National Progressive Democrats. What did ‘National Progressive Democrat’ mean, anyway? They spoke a different language then. The past is, of course, a foreign country.

Did rights mean something different then too? It is one thing to claim the right to something. It is quite another to muster the might to win it. Who could be against a right to health, or a right to education, or a right to debt justice, or a right to housing, or a right to decent work?

You could approach Leo Varadkar or Joan Burton or any member of the current cabinet, and they would tell you, yes, I support the right to all these things. If they were feeling candid, they might add …provided you’re able to pay for it.

You want the right to health? Pay your private insurance.
You want the right to education? You already have it, as long as you pay tuition fees, voluntary contributions, school books…and for teachers in elite schools.
You want the right to decent work? Pay for your right to education, and work for free for a few years!
You want to be free from the demands of capitalism? Simply fulfil these capitalist demands!

The rights enumerated in the Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government document -to water, to decent work, to housing, to health, to debt justice, to education, and to democratic reform, unveiled at the conference organised by the Right2Water unions the other day, are essentially a set of social democratic demands that will need a lot of fleshing out through discussion and consultation. You can’t talk convincingly about equal rights for all, for example, whilst ignoring the glaring fact that the Irish State denies women basic bodily autonomy.

But crucially, no-one in power these days –especially those who are neither elected nor accountable- is in any mood to cede to such demands, as we have seen in the case of Greece. The public is presented with a choice at election time: either do what big business and the markets want, or go to hell. In such a situation, fairly basic social democratic demands, properly articulated, with a public prepared to fight for them, can carry revolutionary potential because by and large they fly in the face of the logic of profit and the priorities of finance capitalism.

Given these facts, any electoral initiative that cannot confront today’s ready-made instruments for totalitarian aggression, any electoral initiative not prepared to single out the operators of those instruments –whether politicians, bankers or oligarchs- as anti-democratic criminals, is not worth the effort.

If we take our cue from the 1867 proclamation cited at the beginning of the Right2Water document, neoliberal capitalism does not ‘maintain equality’: it destroys it, systematically. Under neoliberal capitalism, you are not expected to associate so as to ‘protect one another and share public burdens’, as this proclamation puts it, but so as to exploit one another (and oneself), and heap the burdens onto those weak enough to deserve them. Any electoral initiative incapable of speaking to these facts, incapable of promoting a sense of solidarity and popular unity in the face of such a system, really isn’t worth the effort.

There really is no middle ground any more. Either you are on the side of capitalism and are content with consigning democracy to a minority pursuit from a far-off country, or you are on the side of real and substantive democracy, and, by extension, international socialism. Which side are you on?

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