Monthly Archives: March 2016

Memory, Anger, Betrayal: A Museum Visit


We had spent a good hour waiting in the queue to get in. In front of us were three teenagers. A girl and two boys. I got the feeling by the way they spoke and the things they said that maybe they were friends from some school or group for people with special educational needs. The girl and one of the boys were a couple, and from time to time they would smooch. If the other boy felt uncomfortable, he was good at hiding it. If the couple felt he was disrupting their day out, they were good at hiding that too. `

Behind us was a couple in their sixties, with their grandson. They were white, he was mixed race, around 9 years of age. The grandson was wearing a green fedora -maybe belonging to his granddad- that would blow off in the wind onto the decorative gravel. He would stomp off after it, relishing the crunching sound from the gravel under his feet. It was hard to place their accent. They were Irish but I thought that maybe they had been living in England and come over. The grandfather said to me that the Irish were great at queueing, a thought that had never occurred to me. No idea if it’s true, or how you might prove it, but my experience boarding trains in Dublin tells me otherwise.

It wasn’t the typical crowd you get at a museum in Ireland. For one, it was a crowd. Second, it was by and large made up of what people used to call, and sometimes still do, the plain people of Ireland. You never hear much talk about them on the airwaves, and you don’t see them much on TV either. When it comes to public gatherings, you’re more likely to see them at GAA matches than at museums, though not all of them will have the money to make the trip up to Croke Park if their county is playing. Many of them are poor and you can see it on their faces, in their dress, and in the way they carry themselves, as if they don’t want to fill out the space that surrounds them. They are warm and open and funny and caring and everything that those in this country who are not usually pretend to be.

When we eventually got to the door of the Rising exhibition, we were ushered in one small group of 10 or so at a time. The first thing you see are screens showing images of Ireland at the time of the Rising, captioned with facts about war, poverty, population and emigration. To your left there is a copy of the Proclamation on prominent display, and a voice reading it out, playing on a loop with a timer telling you when the next reading starts. With so many people around and wanting to get in you realise it is going to be hard to take in as much as you might like.

Personally, I don’t have much of a connection to the Rising or the Proclamation. As far as I know I had no relatives involved, since they were all living 80 or so miles up the road, and I don’t know anything about what those relatives 0thought about the events of the time. Whilst people in the south were taught about the great men of 1916 at school, I learned nothing about it in the primary school I attended, and later only in GCSE History, a subject that was optional. There were of course community organisations and groups and families that did treat all of this as part of their history, but it didn’t have much bearing on me. That the local GAA club was called the Pearse Ógs carried no deeper association for me. 1916 may or may not have weighed heavily on the brains of the people who were waging an armed campaign against the British State, but it wasn’t saying much to me. If anything, it was part of a backdrop I didn’t want much to do with.

When I was in primary school, still in the small children’s yard at playtime, there was a chubby awkward kid. His mother worked in the school canteen. One day we learned in the yard that his father had been shot dead by the IRA that Sunday. If I told you more about the circumstances, you might be able to find some explanation for it. You might be able to say that given the prevailing conditions, given the context, given the person in question, given the way others were being treated at that moment in time, it was inevitable that such acts would take place. And you might be right, and I might be able to agree. The next step in testing how firm your stance is might be to try the argument out on a five or six year old boy whose father has just been shot dead. If I mention this -I have plenty of other examples- it’s because it speaks to the fact that I grew up with a heightened wariness of the gap there might be between rhetoric and reality, a suspicion of things that come across as grand or heroic because of what they might obscure, and things like 1916 seemed to me like part of all that. However, wariness isn’t the same thing as wisdom. Wariness can be fed and exploited by others. Later on, as I read a bit more about it, I began to develop a fuller, more rounded sense of what that period was all about, but all the while keeping a certain distance: empathy – yes, sympathy – yes, admiration – yes, but it was not me looking upon ‘our’ history, as so many talk about it.

Something unexpected happened when we moved from the screens showing the historical images and approached the copy of the Proclamation and the recording of it being read out. It wasn’t so much a lump in the throat as the feeling you get after you’ve been hit full smack in the face with a football. I don’t know if it was intended as such but I listened to the audio as though it were a re-enactment of Pearse reading out the words in front of the GPO. There is a slick, officially-produced video in circulation at the moment featuring Irish people across the world reading out lines from the Proclamation. There are people standing in Hollywood, on Wall Street, and in front of the Eiffel Tower and the British Houses of Parliament. There are plenty of American accents, and accents from other places too. But there are none from Glasgow or Liverpool or Birmingham or anywhere else in Britain where so many Irish people have emigrated over the years. They read the words aloud with assuredness and poise. It is as though the Proclamation marked the beginning of a success story for globalisation. In the audio tape at the exhibition in Collins Barracks, however, the actor reads with an impatient urgency and it feels like a text written by people -ordinary people with shortcomings, not demigods- under conditions they have not chosen, people who have searched for the right words but they don’t know how it is really going to turn out, but you know how their story is going to end. The things they are calling for are -from the standpoint of today- reasonable and right, moderate if anything, and by taking a stand for them, by proposing to take what others will not give, they are going to be shot dead for it. What I feel hearing this is not some Kerrygold-greased feeling of exalted pride, or being in the midst of some grand historical sweep. It is anger.

Is one hundred years a long time? For me, at that moment, it feels like the executions happened a week ago. We proceed through the exhibition. The place is packed and the crowds are poring over every detail. The exhibits are accompanied by lots of text and the sheer number of people about makes it hard to take it all in. I’m familiar with the sequence of events and the groups involved but many other people seem more familiar, and for those who are not it’s a good introduction. I press the answers to a few questions into a screen and it tells me, BuzzFeed-style, that the figure I most closely identify with is Francis Sheehy Skeffington. I don’t know about that. What I do know is that in recent days I am sickened more and more by the thought of guns. When I see images featuring guns I find them repulsive, however just the cause that the images might celebrate. I have no doubt that there are times when firearms are necessary for the defence of just causes. But to have to resort to them is an awful and terrible thing, not a glorious one. James Connolly, one of those executed, wrote that ‘there is no such thing as humane or civilised war! War may be forced upon a subject race or subject class to put an end to subjection of race, of class, or sex. When so waged it must be waged thoroughly and relentlessly, but with no delusions as to its elevating nature, or civilizing methods.’ This is why I will not watch the military parade the following day.

We get to the part of the exhibition focusing on the men who were executed. There are artefacts laid out belonging to them: equipment, personal effects. You can pick up an audio device and listen to testimonies gathered from the dead. As I write this a headline pops up on a newsfeed: ‘1916 Rising leaders were ‘egotists’, Arlene Foster says’. Unionism has long looked upon ignorance as a virtue. You can hear from what is said that those who were executed were deeply worried about what would happen to those they were leaving behind, and for not having done enough for those who depended on them, but yet confident that they were doing this for everyone. There is nothing to suggest they wanted to die. This area of the exhibition is quite cramped, the spaces devoted to each of those executed are quite close together. You get the feeling that there is little difference between the dead men and those now going over the things they left behind. It is a public exhibition, but it feels intrusive, almost. It reminds me of a couple of things. These days when we turn on a computer screen we read text generated through light and electricity in the here and now. But the text itself, the thoughts and effort that went into creating them, could have happened ten or fifteen years ago. Sometimes this dissolves our sense of past and present: I have long exchanges in e-mails and social media accounts between me and people who are now dead. And yet when you read the messages it is sometimes as if they are communicating to you there and then. It isn’t like when you hold a time-worn letter in your hand. That is what it feels like. What it also reminds me of is an event I attended two years ago, in the upstairs of a GAA club. It was James Connolly’s shirt, on display beneath the glass, that stirred this memory.

Upstairs in the GAA club was a display laid out to remember a close school friend of mine who had been murdered, along with another classmate, while they were playing an arcade game in a taxi depot. A loyalist paramilitary had walked into the taxi depot unmasked, and shot them both in the head. My friend’s school artwork was on display, photos of his hurling team, medals he had won, his schoolbag, and his grey school uniform shirt. The shirt was from the last day of school, unwashed. Boys and girls in the class had scrawled their signatures over it in biro, marking what felt to them like the end of an era. I think I did, too. But I found I couldn’t make out any of the signatures. At school I knew most people’s handwriting, but clearly it was not something I had committed to memory. You never imagine you might have to.

I have read a great deal in recent days about the political lineage of the 1916 rebels, and what it is their actions are supposed to have produced. Some of the claims are reasonable, others are ridiculous but are still treated as serious. Into the latter category I would place the claim that the Rising was ‘undemocratic’. Religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities for all citizens, the pursuit of the happiness of the whole nation and all of its parts, self-government: these are all basic and quite modest democratic ideals, however much they are covertly despised nowadays by people who proclaim themselves as democrats. The people who made a stand for these ideals in the midst of a cataclysmic war for Empire were executed. In a truly democratic society, one that believed in reasoned debate rather than simply paid lip service to it, the question of democracy would need to be weighed against what the attitude of the ruling powers was toward it. The executions were intended to send out a strong signal that democracy, in fact, would not be tolerated.

Into the same category I would place the claim -which is entertained with some relish in Ireland’s newspapers- that the rebels were the precursors of Al-Qaida or Islamic State. No: if there are any reasonable parallels to be drawn in this regard, it is such things as ISIL laying siege to Kobanî and the Helga firing on Liberty Hall. And while so much has been said about the supposedly harmful legacy of the 1916 rebels, has anyone said anything at all about the legacy of Maxwell’s executions? Has anyone said anything about any precedent that this might have established? Has anyone thought to imagine that we might trace a line from Maxwell through to the likes of the LVF in the 1990s? We are talking about hundreds of lives here, ignored by all these evaluations that feign even-handedness and celebrate the grand events of state where none of this is ever mentioned. It is conventional wisdom in Ireland that the British forces made a miscalculation in executing the rebels, because of the public reaction that created the groundswell for independence. Yet when this is spoken of as mere error or miscalculation, the question that they had any right to do any such thing is set to one side, accepted as a given. Has anyone considered, in these weeks supposedly dedicated to remembering, that the British forces might have subsequently learned from their errors, and that the strategy and tactics of a dirty war -supplying arms to paramilitary death squads as a means of terrorising the population- would prove more effective in achieving political aims in future? If they have, I have seen no evidence for it, in any of the coverage devoted to commemorating 1916.

Part of me wishes I could stop being angry about all this. Part of me wishes that the filament of anger inside me that I have had for decades. that began to overheat as I went through the exhibition, would fizzle out, once and for all. ‘Anger is an energy’, sang one child of working class Irish immigrants to England. But if anger as an energy can be a spur to action and enlarged sense of empathy, it can also degrade and erode. ‘They put a hot wire to my head/Cos of the things I did and said/And made these feelings go away/Model citizen in every way’. I’d be lying if I said it did not seem easier at times to let these feelings go, and become a model citizen ready to forgive and forget in accordance with whatever is being proposed. But overall I’ll take anger over betrayal any day.


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The Begrudgers

I wasn’t expecting much from Ireland’s 1916 centenary commemorations, and I’ve paid little attention to what has been written and broadcast about it. This is in part because I haven’t had the time, and in part because I just prefer to look at these things in my own time. It is also because my head has been poisoned for decades now by the kind of rubbish that by all accounts is being pumped out with renewed vigour by Ireland’s media, with the usual suspects given pride of place.

The Rising is not beyond criticism. It would be absurd for any democrat to suggest that it is. But it’s one thing to call into question this or that aspect of it, or assess its legacy dispassionately, and quite another to disregard any kind of serious historical thinking as a means of suppressing real thought and debate. In this regard it’s no coincidence that plenty of the prominent voices most critical of the Rising, its aftermath and present day ramifications, are not only supporters of Ulster unionism and contemporary British and American imperialism, but also Islamophobic bigots and longstanding supporters of the murderous racist and colonialist state of Israel. Such people are more than happy to give full-throated support to acts of violence in the here and now that far surpass anything that the 1916 rebels engaged in. What’s more, their concern for the victims of such violence here in Ireland does not extend to anyone brutalised or murdered by the British State in the 100 years since the Rising, nor for what it might mean to live as a citizen of a State that perpetrates such atrocities.

Nor is it any surprise that their explications of the event resort to crude ahistorical caricature about ‘tribes’, ‘the Irish DNA’, ‘blood sacrifice’, ‘terrorism’ and so on, or that they leave unquestioned the right of Britain to rule Ireland through force of arms and to crush rebellion with all the brutality it saw fit to administer. On top of this they have the gall -and the platform- to lecture others about democratic mandates.

At the bottom of it all is the idea that the savage and backward brutes need to have obedience beaten into them if it cannot be bred, and that the last thing one could wish to happen would be for the Rising commemorations to become an opportunity to rile up the rubes. And so they are presented as contrarian voices, the vital counterpoint for a pluralistic debate, in largely the same way as the fanatical Iona Institute weirdoes are the go-to people for a debate on any issue where religious sensibilities might have to be discussed.

Their intended function is not so much to see Ireland rejoin the British Commonwealth amid mass displays of chest-beating atonement (though no doubt such thoughts bring them a shiver of excitement) but rather to keep public debate within the narrowest of parameters.

Questions about whether the Rising was justified overall are intended as a cue for tedious counterfactual exercises and fruitless deliberations over just war criteria.

Questions about whether Padraig Pearse, say, was a fanatic, or a repressed paedophile even, are intended to psychopathologise any kind of radical political action or thought. They are intended draw attention away from consideration of the real material conditions and political considerations that produced the Rising, lest they might be used to draw the wrong kind of parallels in the present.

(Of course, parallels with jihadist suicide bombers will be entertained with great interest.)

On a more upbeat note, it is a happy coincidence that Ireland has no government at the minute. This means that Ireland’s political establishment is entering the main days of the Rising commemorations without any notable figures parading the power vested in them by Ireland’s wondrous political system.

It bears emphasising that this moment of ungovernability would not have come about were it not for the huge and unprecedented social mobilisation in response to the imposition of water charges and all it represented.

For all it might be denied and glossed over by the print and broadcast media, for all its participants might have been denigrated, demonised and patronised, when not simply ignored, it is as a consequence of this movement that Ireland’s political elites appear so diminished, so venal, so artless.

The fact that this is such a gloomy moment for Ireland’s political establishment, means we should also see it, if not as a golden moment, then a golden opportunity at least, for politics in Ireland. Fuck the begrudgers. Up the republic.


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The Hidden Prometheus on Proclamation Day

'Here you go, son, all yours' 'Thanks, Dad'

‘Here you go, son, all yours’
‘Thanks, Dad’

Yesterday morning I went to a flag-raising ceremony as part of the primary school’s ‘Proclamation Day’. The children -many of whom arrived decked out in green wigs, shamrock head boppers and so on- gathered down outside the church. There were percussion instruments laid out for them, and they proceeded in a colourful noisy line the short distance to the school, banging tambourines, shaking maracas, laughing and joking among themselves.

When they got to the school yard they played around for a bit and then gathered around the flagpole where the Irish tricolour -delivered by the army some days previous- was raised aloft, to applause for the children who had raised it, and then to a rendition of the national anthem, accompanied by one teacher on keyboard and another on guitar. I suppose it was as informal a national flag-raising ceremony in a school might get.

I don’t care much for flags -the red one an exception- and I don’t like Amhrán na bhFiann much: for me it has always been something played at discos and public events to remind that the fun is under strict ration and at the discretion of others. It doesn’t make me want to retch the way God Save The Queen does: imagine singing to God so that someone else will rule over you.

Later in the day the children read their ‘Proclamation for a new generation’. I didn’t get a copy but I expect it is decent enough – certainly better than a great many adult attempts to synthesise what a good society ought to be like. From other examples I have seen online, it looks like children have more or less the right idea and the right priorities.

It’s strange, though, to witness a commemoration of an act of rebellion in a context -the school- where rebellion can be an undesirable disturbance, a disruption of the exercise of proper authority and order. Schools have uniforms for a reason, and it isn’t a coincidence that their practices of rules and regimentation resemble the barracks and the prison, and this uniformity can end up appearing ‘natural’.  Recall the ‘Mary said yes to God’ religion textbooks released last year: school is mostly about saying yes to rules, yes to what important people say, yes to higher powers, whether these go by the name of God or the State or (a contemporary favourite) the Rule of Law, and yes to parliamentary democracy where you get to vote once every for years and get back in your box the next day.

No-one is ever taught in school that they should be a law-breaking citizen, and you can see from Proclamation Day photos how the presence of police and armed forces looms large, with military flyovers, even. But school isn’t just about teaching. It’s also a place where children learn. Sometimes they do it with a teacher’s assistance, sometimes they do it in spite of the teachers and their parents. There would not have been much human progress if people did nothing but obey. In fact it is disobedience, not obedience, that is at the heart of human progress. Sometimes this carries great cost: the mythical creator of humanity, Prometheus, disobeyed the Gods to gift humanity with fire, and was chained to a rock for eternity for doing so.

Children are notorious for taking things seriously, and the persistent danger of the Rising here in Ireland is that people might end up taking its ideals seriously. The fear is that they might transform what the Rising has been -for State ideology, a useful founding myth for encouraging exploitation and domination in the name of high ideals- into something vital and relevant to people’s lives. In so doing, they might expose a radical betrayal on the part of its would-be custodians.

Of course, not every charge of betrayal remains faithful to what is being defended, and things can slide quite easily into a necrophilia upon which the ruling order merely nourishes itself.

We are never all that sure how or if these ideals, and what sustains them and gave rise to them, have been kept alive. Surveying what has happened in recent decades, there might be plenty of grounds for declaring them dead. There are plenty of people inclined to do so, and for different motives.

But if they were really dead, I doubt we would have pictures of venerated political nobility, who had nothing to do with the 1916 Rising itself, hanging from a huge banner outside the site of Grattan’s parliament. Things like this suggest that the powers that be still worry a great deal about what children might think.


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On The Difference Between Left And Right

Yes, I know. Terrible title. I’m not that enthusiastic about where this post is going to go either. I’ve witnessed so many discussions of this topic that drift off into pointlessness. So please bear with me.

Yesterday I saw this graph and accompanying tweet.

The background is the recent election results in Ireland. Some people have voiced the opinion that the big drop in support for the big parties that have governed in the Irish State for decades may give way to a genuine left-right split in Irish politics.

The difference between the two not-so-big-now parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, dates back to the Civil War, and, as many representatives of parties in recent days have themselves noted, there is very little difference between the two on ideological grounds when it comes to economic and social policies. This is true: both of them are populist parties who claim to be acting in the interests of the whole country whilst pursuing policies on behalf of the capitalist class, and are mostly men in suits and ties. Both of them have their fair market share of altar-rail eaters, landlords and racists, and both of them hate the poor and suck up to the rich, but Fianna Fáil are generally better at concealing this. Both of them are mainstream. Both of them are centrist.


Now that the Civil War differences may be conclusively set to one side so that the two parties might properly collaborate in governing the country, there is something of an expectation that their merger will open up a real and meaningful divide in the parliament on matters of public policy. This is most commonly expressed in terms of left and right.

Some people do not think dividing things in terms of left and right is a good thing. They think politics is a matter of uniting, not dividing. Some of these people are in fact fascists, but not all of them. WB Yeats, who had a bit of a sneaking regard for the fash himself, provides a vivid expression of this anxiety in his poem The Second Coming. If the centre cannot hold, that is, if there is a centrifugal force that impels political actors to extreme positions, then things will fall apart. Next thing you know, people will be eating swans, maybe worse. So it is a good thing, from this general perspective, that Irish people remain in the centre.

In geometric terms, however, the centre is only relative to other points. You have to define the space around the centre. A lot of the time, in standard political parlance, this is defined by Stalin at one extreme and Hitler at the other, and, as the saying goes, les extrêmes se touchent.

At both ends, men with moustaches and armies, living parallel lives but somehow diametrically opposed. So the goal of politics, from this point of view, is to keep things in and around the sweet spot in the middle between Hitler and Stalin.

If you think this is a caricature, let me remind you that a recent article by Irish Times political correspondent Stephen Collins, an evaluation of the Irish political landscape, was illustrated by a cartoon depicting Hitler and Stalin. Mind you, you do get the occasional brain surgeon arguing that Hitler was in fact a socialist because he said he was. The consideration he may not have been telling the whole truth here does not usually count for much. Nor, for that matter, the fact that Hitler believed in a master race called upon by History to wage grand racial war, and that this isn’t really compatible with socialism.

I digress.

What does it mean when someone says they are left-wing or centrist or right-wing? It’s actually quite hard to tell, unless you get them to elaborate on how they feel about a whole range of matters. It won’t do to say that someone is left-wing because they say they are.

Most parents, I suppose, will tell you they have a child of above average intelligence. Regardless of how you define intelligence, you can’t conclude from this that most children are above average intelligence, no matter some parents might complain that there are a few kids in the class dragging everyone else down.

You have to have some sort of agreed objective measure for these things, and the trouble with this, when it comes to defining left, right and centre, is that it largely relies on subjective definition. You can choose what you think is the appropriate measure, but to do that requires subjective input, and that means figuring out what you think is important to include, and what you think should be ignored.

To complicate things further, the common understanding of left and right changes over time, and it looms in people’s minds to varying degrees, depending on time and place. If you read the works of James Connolly, for example, there’s very little mention of the left at all. (I say ‘very little mention’, but I couldn’t actually find any, so I’m being conservative here). Let me put it in clearly Marxian terms: ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force’.

So common ideas about left and right are -if you think Marx is correct here, and I certainly do- inevitably shaped by the ruling class, to the extent that it ‘controls the means of mental production’. If you ever listen to a debate or read an article about ‘the left’ in an Irish media outlet, you will see that no time is devoted to what ‘left’ actually means, and those who are identified as on the left are continually interrupted, whereas the right is scarcely even mentioned.

How we perceive left and right, the sense of what we think possible within those boundaries, the whole range of images and associations that goes with these words, the way in which we locate ourselves along such a spectrum: all these things are bound up with the way in which politics is represented.

In so far as we ourselves ‘lack the means of mental production’ -in so far as we’re unable to think beyond the narrow political gauge we are supposed to travel, in so far as we lack alternative sources of communication and access to communities of political interest that think differently, our ideas about left and right are not going to get us very far: we will mostly oscillate between Hitler and Stalin, and, like the indecisive donkey standing equidistant between two stacks of hay, we will likely fall somewhere in the middle.

Left and right, in political terms, are not eternal categories that stand outside history. In fact, in political terms anyway, they have been around for less than 250 years, and originate in the Estates-General in France. Socialist ideas, communist ideas and ideas about democracy have been around for a lot longer. In recent years in Europe there have been many instances of parties laying claim to a left-wing nomenclature and tradition while pursuing policy after policy that concentrated ever greater power and influence in the hands of the rich and helped undo a century of progress won through popular struggle. In most cases, claiming there is a ‘real’ or ‘true’ left in this context waiting around the corner to put things right, so to speak, does not have much purchase. In a way, it fixes the site of decisive political action in a parliamentary assembly. So I am not that enthusiastic about ‘the left’ as a name for a collective political force, whilst recognising both the need to insist on the distinction between left and right whenever it is denied, and the importance people attach to it as the name of a particular group of people and a collective memory.

I certainly don’t think people should stop using it, but I don’t think the fundamental opposition, the most important political one, is between left and right but between capitalism and democracy. If I had some greater control over both history and the means of mental production, I would get people to talk less about ‘the left’ and more about ‘the democracy’ instead: James Connolly’s name for ‘the sum of all the forces and factors of social and political discontent’. Sadly, I don’t.

The recent election results have likely been far more traumatic for the political establishment as a whole than it is willing to let on. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil are likely to fall prey to a composition fallacy: that by combining they somehow become stronger than the sum of their parts. In all likelihood they will be weaker, because the traditional back-and-forth that has characterised the political spectacle for generations has come to an end.

Even if they come to some sort of arrangement whereby one operates as part of a minority government but with the support of the other, they will appear less as two contending political forces and more as two components of a regime that operates on behalf of big business first and foremost. The back-and-forth between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, I think, has less hold on people’s political imaginations now than any time in living memory.

Both parties still appear moored to a conservative consensus -the preservation of draconian abortion laws to a greater or lesser extent, the protection of the rights of banks, tax avoiders and property speculators- that sits at odds with the daily reality growing numbers of people have to endure. There’s only so much chest-beating about ‘the national interest’ that such people can take before they recognise it as a malignant fraud.

So another scene is in order. In the elections, this was the choice between stability and chaos. On the one hand, the parties of good sense, prudence and progress. On the other, the violent terrorists, criminals, scruffs and rabble-rousers. Whilst fans of the West Wing might prefer that there were some sort of dividing line between right and left, but with a heavy weighting towards the centre, it may well be that stability versus chaos will go on for a bit yet. But it is conceivable that Irish politics starts to appear as a contest between right and left, but within a very narrow horizon of possibility. If it does, it’s up to the left -whoever feels part of that- along with a great many others, to lay bare that the fundamental conflict is between capitalism and democracy. Otherwise we are left with theatre.


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Au Pairs and The Hidden Hand



Business correspondent with the Irish Times, John McManus, has an article in today’s paper where he challenges the wisdom of yesterday’s ruling by the Workplace Relations Commission that a person working as an au pair should be considered an employee. In so doing, he offers the example of his own experience with an au pair staying in his house. He describes two tasks the au pair was expected to perform. One was children’s laundry. The other one was to ‘iron a table cloth for a dinner party’. In the latter, he says she performed the task ‘that would have passed muster with the manager of Patrick Guilbaud’s’. It seems ludicrous, he says, that such a relationship should be defined in terms of employer and employee, even though, as he says, he was paying her to carry out these tasks.

In yesterday’s Irish Times, there was an article in the Personal Finance section by Fiona Reddan, titled ‘Can I afford to give up work to stay at home with the children?’. The tacit proposition of such a headline is that staying at home with the children does not constitute work. The body of the article carried on in a similar vein: ‘is it worth your financial while to keep working?’; ‘many people ..take..a step away from the workforce when they have children’; ‘some 42 per cent of women aged between 34-64 don’t work’ (a figure that presumably includes mothers who look after their own children -and probably those who look after other people’s children too); ‘if you’re thinking of taking some time out from the workforce to raise your family..’.

Reddan’s article reflects the conventional attitude in Irish society -and many other societies- towards domestic labour and childcare. If it happens in your own home, it is not considered work. This is despite the fact that the country would come to a standstill in a very short space of time if people ceased to care for their children, cook meals, do the washing, and so on.

The economist Arthur Cecil Pigou noted how this phenomenon is treated when it comes to economic statistics. He called it the unmarried maid paradox. The work of a woman who works as a maid in a man’s house and gets paid for it is included in GDP. If she were to marry the man and do the work unpaid, it would not be included. As I’ve previously written, whenever a state commits to reduce its budget deficit, by cutting public expenditure, it does so without having to worry about the effect of its policies on unpaid labourers in the home -mostly women- because those people’s work, from the official point of view, does not exist. So all public debate that centres on GDP growth as the main indicator of progress -this was the focal point of the electoral campaign of the outgoing government parties- always already places the priorities of big business above those of people who do work unpaid in the home.

Perhaps the work of au pairs does not seem like work because they are performing it in the family home, since work in the family home is not, by convention anyway, considered real work. Not like the work of a waiter ironing tablecloths in Patrick Guilbaud’s. Not like the work of a person in a launderette. After all, those people get paid for their work. Well, by and large.

McManus suspects that the MRCI supported the case as a means of ‘exposing the extent of exploitation of illegal immigrants as childcare workers’. But the person who brought the case was from Spain, and clearly felt -over and above any kind of family-like bond she had formed with the children she was caring for- that her work had not been recognised as such. Perhaps McManus -along with many whose view of the world is shaped by the worldview of business elites, the teachings of the Catholic Church, economic orthodoxy, or just established patriarchal practice- might put the former au pair’s motivation down to ‘Spanish mores’, in the way he thinks his own au pair’s upset at her treatment had to do with the fact she was Italian. Others, not least those who have to shoulder the burden of domestic labour without any form of recognition, people who are ‘exhausted, depressed and weak’ -to use the words of the person who brought the case, and who felt ‘enormous love’ for the children she had to care for- might be more inclined to see it as a bit of common decency and dignity in standing up for the rights of others.

I have seen some people argue that the McManus article is more nuanced than the headline suggests. True enough: he does not say that it is ludicrous to equate employees and au pairs, but that it seems ludicrous. And he recognises that the ruling may have positive consequences, if a more decent public solution to childcare is achieved. He suggests that it might lead to ‘a social service taken for granted in most other European countries – particularly the Nordic social democracies we are so keen to emulate’. The thing is, though: if these things are taken for granted, it was not always the case. Let us recall that the crèche system in France, as Kristin Ross’s fine book reminds us, can be traced back direct to the Paris Commune and the Women’s Union that was formed during it. And Nordic social democracy came about as a consequence of long militant worker struggles: not, as the dominant narrative in Ireland would have you believe, through simply voting for such an option come election time. These things come through agitation and resistance and an unwillingness to simply endure the current state of things in the hope that some paternalistic figure will make the move for us. In this regard, the courage of the person who took the case deserves to be recognised. So too, as it happens, the resistance of any au pair, who, unable to endure the exploitative mental prison of a patronising petit-bourgeois family any further, decides to wreak some havoc with the furniture and take the shine off the evening’s insufferable dinner party. That may not have happened in McManus’s case, of course, but one can certainly hope that it did.

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That dignified obedience, laid low by Tweet Rabies


Maybe there are different production values involved, or maybe it is just the time of day for the listener, but the evening radio news on RTÉ always sounds, to these ears at least, as carrying a little bit more gravitas, a little bit more auctoritas, than bulletins during the rest of the day.

Last Wednesday night, one of the headlines on the news bulletin at 9pm was that former Progressive Democrats leader Michael McDowell was putting his name forward for Seanad election. Further down the billing came a story that there had been an outbreak of swine flu in Navan hospital, and that the hospital had asked people to stay away from its A&E and contact their GP.

The report on McDowell came from the RTÉ political correspondent, David Davin-Power. He intimated that it was he who had learned that McDowell intended to stand, and he presented a brief potted biography of McDowell, outlining his role in government, as Attorney General, as Tánaiste, as leader of the Progressive Democrats, the loss of his seat in 2007, and his current status as a Senior Counsel and regular media commentator on political affairs.

This was self-evidently important news. Michael McDowell is important, the Seanad is important, and therefore the public needs to be told.

Hospital crises like the one in Navan, it appeared, are not so important because there are no major political players involved. Yes, tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Navan in recent years to protest overcrowding and to maintain the A&E ward in the hospital, but they could all make a human pyramid and they still wouldn’t reach the hem of McDowell’s silk gown in the eyes of RTÉ and its seasoned observers.

One of the achievements McDowell’s erstwhile political party, the Progressive Democrats, had boasted about in its final manifesto in 2007, was the establishment of the Health Services Executive.

‘As a society, we benefit from a depoliticised system area and the application instead of health and professional considerations’.

The party also promised that it would ‘bring public and private to work together for all patients’ and that it would ‘not freeze out the private sector’.

Who knows how the report on Navan hospital might have sounded, had the preceding item in the news bulletin contained the line ‘the Progressive Democrats, whose policy platform sought, among other things, to treat the private health sector warmly’.

Some -me, for one- might say that a system that brings ‘public and private to work together’ is very much a politicised system. It is just that the political interests of the private sector in this arrangement are portrayed as uncontroversial, and the political interests of the public at large -in having a decent health system- come second to keeping the place warm for profitable companies.

This is a long-standing thing in Ireland. Universal health care was seen by the Catholic Church hierarchy as a step towards communism. There was no need for the State to get involved: far better for Our Lady to keep a watchful eye. Before the HSE, the CEO of Ireland’s health system was the Queen of Heaven. Hands blessed by the Pope would both deliver babies and deliver us from communism. Nowadays the Health Minister opens an A&E department in something called ‘The Mater Private’, or ‘Mater Misericordiae Private’ to give it its full name, and hardly anyone bats an eyelid.

As a rule, the jockeying for political positions takes up far more coverage than the lonely long distance events such as getting a hospital bed, or an ambulance on time, or a decent level of care in the home. Political theatre, not operating theatres. The grand deeds of the great and good. Showtime.

When scandals relating to healthcare do come to the fore -as they inevitably do, from time to time- they appear as technical matters. Managerial matters. The Minister is appalled and wants a report, but it would be wrong to intervene. The two-tier system, when it is mentioned, appears as an inexplicable accident, a quirk of history, rather than an outcome consciously pursued over generations by people who firmly believe that healthcare is a commodity to be distributed firstly on the basis of ability to pay, and beyond that, on the basis of charity. To claim otherwise is to be frowned upon in polite company.

People lying on hospital trolleys are a vivid, quantifiable sign that something is wrong with Ireland’s health services. But there are a great many more people humiliated and made to suffer for the political choices made regarding healthcare, and for the legal framework that underpins those choices. How do you expect women in maternity wards to be guaranteed dignified treatment when the law says they do not know their own mind and that the State owns their bodies?

Evaluating the Labour Party debacle in the elections just past, a former Labour Senator wrote that the party would do well to emulate the advice of Edmund Burke. He said that Burke’s approach to representation should be ‘the hallmark, and the mindset, of the next generation of Labour politicians’. In fact, no figure typifies the attitude to wielding State power in Ireland better than Burke. He wrote:

‘Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. . . . Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of Individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the Individuals, the Inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves’

Back in those days, it was only relatively wealthy men that Burke had as his constituents. But even they had to have their inclinations thwarted by a higher power, wielded by people who, drawing on time-honoured tradition, simply knew better. Does this not describe the attitude of Ireland’s political and media establishment today? You can see this attitude prevailing in the breathless regard for elite eminence and in the condescending remarks about ‘millenarians’, ‘Poujadists’, ‘fascists’, and so on to describe people who happen to think that doing such things as relieving tax obligations on the wealthy while heaping them on the poor is not the mark of a decent government.

And whereas the indignities of homelessness, hunger and sub-standard or non-existent healthcare inflicted on thousands are treated as necessary evils inflicted on people who probably deserve it anyway, a series of scathing insults hurled at the people doing the inflicting are treated with such horror and theatrical gasping that it is as though Marie Antoinette were being dragged through the streets of Paris once again.

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