Monthly Archives: May 2016

You And Your Green Vote Will Be Back

Brian Feeney had a piece in the Irish News the other day where he analysed the results of the recent Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. He focused on the success of People Before Profit in winning two seats. Headlined ‘People Before Profit claims of substantial unionist support are a fantasy‘, Feeney in his article sought to counter the claims from People Before Profit, which had campaigned on the basis that it was ‘neither Orange nor Green’, that it had attracted ‘a substantial chunk’ of unionist support. In reality, according to Feeney, based on an analysis of the party’s transfers, ‘it is clear beyond a shadow of doubt that the PBP MLAs’ votes were green’.

Feeney’s article is something of a minefield in terms of its logic. It is difficult to find the right terms to use when describing politics in Northern Ireland, and the terms you pick usually say something about your own political viewpoint. One could argue that People Before Profit received no unionist support whatsoever: the party doesn’t support Ulster unionism, therefore any vote cast for it can’t be a vote cast by someone who supports unionism. To argue this would be to define a unionist in terms of someone who votes for the maintenance of the Union. There would be good grounds for such an argument: the formal political status of Northern Ireland depends, in the final instance, of the existence of a majority of unionist voters. A person who prefers to vote for a non-unionist party therefore cannot be classified as a unionist voter.

The logic Feeney uses is different, however. For him, being a unionist, and being a nationalist, is a broader matter than who you vote for in any particular election. And so, the PBP MLA votes ‘were green’ because People Before Profit, as he rightly points out, appeals to the tradition of what he describes as ‘red nationalism’: ‘a 32 county party that stands in the tradition of James Connolly who predicted that partition would produce a carnival of reaction’. Since this particular tradition is strongest in areas where nationalist votes have been strongest, and since People Before Profit transfers went mostly to nationalist parties, particularly Sinn Féin, these voters fall under the category of ‘Green’, whatever the declarations People Before Profit might have made about being neither Orange nor Green.

Moreover, by Feeney’s lights, the real intent of the vote was a protest against Sinn Féin, rather than a turn to anything new. The idea of the protest vote is nothing new in Irish politics. In the south, votes for both Sinn Féin and People Before Profit and other options are frequently referred to as ‘protest votes’.

The idea of the protest vote hinges on the notion that there is a real and established political entity that commands enduring support in perpetuity, even though loyalties toward it may waver over time. But this is an illusion, albeit a powerful one. Some loyalties do last a long time, and then they end.

Part of the trouble is that Northern Ireland’s political institutions are based on the idea of a perpetual division between Orange and Green. And that’s how a lot of people see Northern Ireland politics too, and that is the division its media represents, and any way of looking at the world differently is seen as trivial or unserious or a brief diversion.

This has the effect of obscuring certain things that might otherwise appear important. Foremost among these is conflicting class interests. In The Blue Tango, Eoin McNamee’s novel set in the 1950s, Protestant businessmen use Catholic lawyers because they don’t want their own side to know about their dealings. In today’s Northern Ireland, a similar arrangement operates on a far grander scale: the division between Orange and Green -or Unionist and Nationalist, or Catholic and Protestant- maintains a political consensus that hides class conflict from view.

In Feeney’s terms you can vote ‘Green’ and be in favour of cutting corporation tax because you think big business deserves bigger subsidies, but you can also vote ‘Green’ and be set against cutting corporation tax because you oppose corporate profiteering. It doesn’t matter: they are both ‘Green’ votes.

Similarly, you can celebrate the rise of a Catholic middle class, support your local Catholic school’s policy of selecting on the basis of ability, and look down your nose at working class Protestants and how stupid you think they are, or you can deplore the effects of a segregated education system and academic selection, but the most important thing about your vote, from this view of the world, is that it is ‘Green’.

Moreover, you can be in favour of Northern Ireland’s prohibitions on abortion, and vote for a party who wants to maintain them, or you can favour free, safe and legal abortion, but the most important thing about your vote is that it is ‘Green’.

Would it come as a surprise if more people, from whatever their background, and in light of their own experience, started to see this view of the world, this way of classifying things, as ultimately suffocating? Wouldn’t you start to get sick of people telling you what you really are?

In Hamilton The Musical, King George III sings to his American subjects seeking to break from the Crown: “You’ll be back/You will see/You’ll remember you belong to me“. It didn’t quite work out that way. One doesn’t need to be a Marxist to figure out that changes in material conditions and changes in political consciousness reshape political loyalties. But it probably helps.


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Game Of Thrones In Irish Healthcare

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the new government ministerial line-up is Simon Harris getting appointed to the Health ministry, and Varadkar getting moved into the Department of Social Protection.

In certain respects, as far as the health system is concerned, this is not much of a change for most people: akin to replacing Joffrey Lannister with Ramsay Bolton. For Varadkar it is obviously a demotion. But why did it happen? Perhaps some at the top of Fine Gael resent Varadkar’s relative popularity and self-promotion, and this was a means of softening his cough.

A more weighty factor, I imagine, is the anticipation that Varadkar would prove more of an obstacle to pressing ahead with further privatisation of the health service, which has been signalled in the programme for government.

It is not that Varadkar himself is ideologically opposed to such privatisation, but he does have medical training and perhaps has some understanding of the practical and technical problems involved in running a health service, and such an understanding is in itself an obstacle (some people have mentioned to me that his grasp of these matters is nonetheless far from impressive). If you understand what people are telling you, you are more likely to take them seriously. As a health minister, his public interventions on issues with the health service were bathed in an insouciance that masked an overall impotence.

Harris, on the other hand, has no such training, and has shown himself to be the most willing of servants to both the speculation community and Fine Gael’s top table. He is likely a safer pair of hands when it comes to glossing over what are failures from a public standpoint but successes from a private one: you need someone who is able to ignore actual medical concerns and focus on failures (which, when not engineered, have been invented through arbitrary financial targets that bear no relation to medical needs) in such a way that private entities taking over the running of things appears like a resolution.

Meanwhile, the promotion of Harris and Pascal Donohoe -ever ready to stick up for Fine Gael in the face of opprobrium on the likes of the Vincent Browne show- is a sign to the Fine Gael backbenches that obedience and pulling on the blue jersey will bring rewards.

There is another dimension, however: let us recall that former Fine Gael Health Minister James Reilly failed to secure re-election in Dublin Fingal, whereas his party colleague, Alan Farrell, actually improved on his vote while winning re-election. Reilly topped the poll with 10,178 first preferences in 2011, and shed over half of these votes in 2016. Meanwhile Farrell increased from 5,300 to 7,500. Part of this has to do, one imagines, with the fact that Reilly’s base of support was further north, among communities hit worse by the Fine Gael-Labour government, whereas Farrell’s support comes from the more affluent Malahide area. But the crucial distinction between Reilly and Farrell, in policy terms, was that Reilly had called for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. It is hard to tell how much of this came from genuine conviction and how much came from a need to appeal to people who would be voting for Clare Daly. But Farrell, on the other hand, like Fianna Fáil TD Darragh O’Brien, who topped the poll in Dublin Fingal, had adopted a strong position in favour of forcing women to give birth.

As noted the other day, Simon Harris had previously made his ‘pro-life’ position clear, before subsequently declaring that he would favour changing abortion legislation to allow for cases of fatal foetal abnormality. In the eyes of the Fine Gael leadership, which of the two figures would be more likely to placate Fine Gael’s ‘pro-life’ constituency? Varadkar, popular among liberals for his prominence in the marriage equality referendum, or Harris, who sounds like he might lead the pilgrimage flight to Lourdes in another decade of the rosary, or a sing-song of Rock n’ Roll Kids? Let us not forget, moreover, that some of the major backers of the ‘pro-life’ campaign in Ireland have major stakes in the private health business.

Meanwhile controversy has been brewed in the early days of the new government on account of Sabina Higgins’s public declarations that forcing women to go full term in the event of fatal foetal abnormality was an ‘outrage against women’, with ‘pro-life’ campaigners objecting in characteristically mendacious terms, on the basis that the spouse of the president should not intervene in public affairs. No such objection arose from these quarters when Martin McAleese went golfing with the UDA, or when he was appointed a senator by Enda Kenny, or when he was then appointed to lead the inquiry into the role of the State in the Magdalen Laundries. Of course the fact he was not a woman, and not some sort of red either, had nothing to do with it, I am sure.

This all may appear grim, but I don’t think such moves come from a position of strength, but rather from a sense of urgency that time is running out, in the face of public resistance, for a regime that has long sustained itself through denying both a universal right to healthcare and the right of women to bodily autonomy.

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