Monthly Archives: March 2017

Men of Peace

Checkpoint on Bloody Sunday, 30 Jan 1972, Derry, Northern Ireland. Photo by William L. Rukeyser. Source: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/rukeyser/

A few weeks after I got my driving licence, and a few weeks before the IRA ceasefire of 1994, I was driving along a country road in mid-Armagh, with no particular place to go. I came to a British Army checkpoint. Such checkpoints were routine; in fact, during my driving test, the Army stopped and searched the boot of the car on the way back to the test centre (the test centre was right beside an army base). Here, again, they asked to search the boot. No problem. The soldier -carrying a rifle, of course- called in the registration number on his radio. He then asked me to pull over. So I did. Then he asked me to get out of the car.

He walked back a few yards up the road to the rest of the patrol, who were waving other cars on. I stood waiting. To begin with, it was no big deal to me. Five minutes passed. Then ten. It felt like longer. At first I put the delay down to my new driver’s licence and cross-checks or something. It was not as if I had ever been involved in anything. Then I started to wonder if they were taking the piss. Then, wondering whether they were waiting to see if I would react in some way. I remembered what had happened to Karen Reilly, shot dead at a checkpoint in West Belfast, and what had happened, maybe back in the 80s, when my father had his boot searched by the soldiers one night. “How do you explain this, sir?”, asked the soldier, returning from the boot to the driver’s window, holding a rifle he had supposedly found in the boot. “How many people have you tried that on tonight?”, my father asked, not before it crossing his mind that maybe he had been driving a car with a gun in the boot. The soldier laughed, and let him pass.

All this went on in my head, but I was trying to make sure I was showing no outward signs of unease, anything that might mean having to stand there even longer. I figured that if I asked what was keeping them, it would only make them more inclined to make me stay put for longer. And they were the ones holding the guns.

After about 25 minutes, I was told I could go. There was no “thank you”, no “sorry for the delay”, nothing.

On a scale of individual acts of military repression conducted by British armed forces in Northern Ireland, this delay must rank down somewhere between the infinitesimally trivial and the non-existent. But it lies nonetheless on a continuum: I had no intention of doing harm to anyone, but I was made to do what I was told for no apparent reason other than the presence of a group of armed men with guns. In my head there was resentment beginning to simmer, a feeling, in addition, of weakness at having to submit.

It isn’t hard for me -now- to understand how others, on witnessing or experiencing things that were immeasurably worse, or on joining all the little things and all the big things together and seeing them as part of an overall picture of repression and domination, might have opted to join the IRA.

At that point, the airwaves in Northern Ireland had been saturated for as long as I can remember with ways of speaking about the conflict that divided the place into a peaceful majority and a violent minority. A majority, you were told, wanted peace, but the violent extremists ‘on both sides’ were engaged in a ‘tit-for-tat’ ‘cycle of violence’. In the midst of this was the British Army and RUC, who were apparently defending society againg ‘the terrorists’. ‘BLAME THE TERRORISTS’ is what a sign read at a checkpoint in the middle of Cookstown. Absent from this, of course, was the violent role of the British State, whether in the form of internment, torture, operating death squads, or just a generalised presence of armed groups of men patrolling the streets with guns.

This morning, the airwaves and newspapers have been full of analysis of Martin McGuinness, following the announcement of his death. Many commentators are, in a a regurgitation of cliché, classifying him as someone who began as a ‘man of war’ who then became a ‘man of peace’.

And now I’m wondering: what makes you a person ‘of peace’? From what I can recall, being in favour of ‘peace’, back in the 80s and 90s, simply meant that you abided by the rule of law. You would frequently hear statements from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or Conservative Party and Unionist MPs to the effect that the majority of Catholics were ‘law-abiding’. All this meant is that as far as they were concerned, they did not mount any challenge to the rule of law, and the rule of law, day-to-day, meant things like that whenever a soldier with a rifle told you to get out of the car, you got out of the car, and you kept quiet. To be ‘peaceful’ in this regard does not mean that you have rejected violence: on the contrary, it just means you have accepted its imposition as a self-evident necessity.
I wonder about other things too. I have yet to hear any analysis, nearly 23 years on from the IRA ceasefire, about how the Britain has moved from being a ‘State of violence’ to a ‘State of peace’. For many opinion-formers, the guiding assumption, still, is that it has only ever been the latter, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Is the re-imposition of a hard border in Ireland, brought about as part of a drive to ‘take back control’ in Britain, likely to test that assumption? Somehow I doubt it.

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Varadkar, Minister for Fraud

 

Yesterday, Minister for Social Protection and would-be Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that it would be not possible to confiscate Church property.

“Governments can only operate within the law. In our Constitution there are enshrined property rights and it is not in the power of the Government to confiscate anyone’s property,” he said.

Last week, Varadkar made Sunday paper headlines. He claimed that in order to retain “public support for Europe”, child benefit, paid to the children of people living and working in Ireland, ought to match the benefit rate of the country where the child resides.

That is, if you have left your family in Poland or Romania, and are working in Ireland, where your labour produces income for the exchequer and wealth for your employer, your children are not entitled to the same payments as the children of your Irish co-workers, who most likely live with their parents, unlike yours, and to whose education you contribute through the tax system here.

Money, of course, is a form of property. By taking away money from families with members who live and work in Ireland, not only are you helping to create categories of super-exploited workers, but you are also confiscating their property. The words ‘fiscal‘ and ‘confiscate‘ have the same root.

It is worth noting here that Varadkar did not justify the move on the basis of the total outlay involved (which is minuscule, compared, for example, to the earnings of a billionaire living in Malta to avoid paying tax in Ireland) but rather in terms of a claim that “people get annoyed” by such things. But it is others who are the populists.

Given the sinews strained by his government in making sure that Apple would not have to pay the €13bn that it is bound by law to pay to the Irish government, Varadkar’s manoeuvrings in this regard (which, by the way, are a means of further eroding universality in social welfare and other public services) invite us to paraphrase Adorno: he shouts Stop thief! and points at the Poles and Romanians.

Meanwhile, the Minister for ‘the Diaspora’ – which does not, of course, include Irish-born children who were deported along with their parents – has announced a referendum on the subject of allowing Irish people outside the State to vote in Presidential elections. The fact that the government promoting this feels it can treat the lives of people who live here -who have no such vote- with such routine contempt goes to show that not only has it no interest in expanding effective democratic political rights for people who actually live here, but has every intention of using racial-biological stratification as a means of confiscating even more from those who most need it.

As far as property is concerned. Let us recall that any strength of feeling for it that Varadkar maintains would defeat any referendum that would rearrange things, was fostered by the Catholic Church.

In Sins of The Father, Conor McCabe cited the Bishop of Cork, Cornelius Lucey, in 1957:

‘The man of property is ever against revolutionary change […]

‘Consequently a factor of the first importance in combating emigration and preventing social unrest, unemployment marches, and so on, is the widest possible diffusion of ownership.’

So, if Varadkar is correct -as no doubt the zealous defenders of the regime of property, the Catholic Church included, hope him to be- the Catholic Church helped make it illegal for the Catholic Church to be made make amends for its crimes.

What has characterised the Church hierarchy in Ireland has been its reverence for the rich and powerful and its condescension and callousness towards the poor and weak. Superficial differences aside, Varadkar -held aloft by some as some sort of straight-talking fresh face of political renewal- is, like the rest of his party, scarcely different when it comes to substance. Not least in his view that women’s bodies are ultimately State property.

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“We did this”

“We all partied”: Fianna Fáil Finance Minister Brian Lenihan’s infamous phrase, in the early years of the financial crisis, encapsulated the drive, on the part of Ireland’s political and media establishment, to broaden collective responsibility for social and economic calamity as far as possible. The objective in mind was the socialisation of private banking debt, racked up by property speculators, and the corresponding cuts to public spending and services.

In recent days, following the confirmation that eight hundred dead babies were interred in a septic tank at a former ‘Mother-and-Baby’ home in Tuam, there has been a similar dynamic in operation.

In the characteristically overwrought tones that Ireland’s current Taoiseach reserves for moments of national outrage, Enda Kenny told the national parliament that “as a society”, “we” “hid away the dead bodies of tiny human beings”, that “buried our compassion, our mercy and our humanity itself”, and that “we” had “a morbid relationship with…respectability”.

Referring to the unmarried mothers who wound up at the doors of the Mother-and-Baby home, Kenny said that “we” “took their babies and gifted them, sold them, trafficked them, starved them, neglected them or denied them”. There has been a lot of media comment to the same effect. Radio discussions dwelt on how no-one in wider society spoke out, and approvingly referred to Edmund Burke’s maxim that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

In the cases of both Lenihan and Kenny, none of it is true. Their claims can be easily demonstrated as false, through simple logic, and through citing simple easily accessible economic and historical facts. In fact, only a small minority of people racked up gargantuan debts through investment in hotel construction. In fact, a majority of Ireland’s present population was not even alive when the punitive regime inflicted on unmarried mothers and their children was at its height.

So it’s worth asking whether such claims are intended to be believed to be true. I don’t believe they are. In both cases mentioned above, the claims are a way of shifting blame, and of keeping a certain sense of order intact. Moreover, when this kind of gesture is made, I believe the speaker is happy enough for people to counter, with logic, with facts, with protestations, that it isn’t true.

This way of invoking a guilty “we” -coming from the people it comes from- operates to a way of forestall the emergence of any other “we”, of any other collective subject of a different character. In moments of political crisis, there can be no question, from these quarters of there being an “us” and a “them” in which the speaker winds up on the side of “them”. Neither Lenihan nor Kenny could afford to appear as the frontman for elite groupings who might be held as particularly culpable. There can only be an all-encompassing “we” who are collectively guilty. Hence no-one is really guilty.

If anyone does dissent, they set themselves apart from the collective, but this is fine: from the perspective of the person invoking the “we”, people denying that they had anything to do with it does little to undermine them. This is because this proposed collective guilt is fake anyway. It is a way of creating space to proceed unimpeded with their political projects. In the case of Lenihan, this entailed ploughing ahead with austerity. In the case of Kenny, this entails continuing along the path laid by Lenihan’s government, and continuing to promote the privatisation of healthcare and other public services whilst leaving existing power structures untouched and unquestioned. This supposed collective guilt is not a real demand that others should act on some set of social and ethical obligations.

“Not I,” said the cow.

This declaration of collective responsibility, or guilt, is intended to reproduce individualised responses, not actions taken in common. The responses can be it in terms of “everyone was at it” (in which case, if everyone is equally responsible, then nothing can be done) or “it wasn’t me” (I had nothing to do with this then, consequently I have nothing to do with this now either).

If it is accepted that “everyone was at it”, then one also assents to the proposal that everyone must shoulder their share of the punishment -even though the punishment, in practice, is delivered only to those least culpable and least capable of bearing it. If the response is “it wasn’t me”, one can absolve oneself of any ethical obligation to challenge the verdict, put the head down, and get on with things as usual.

Crucially, the effect of this “we did this” is to blur the line between responsibility on the one hand, and culpability or guilt on the other. If everyone is deemed guilty, it turns out that no-one need be prosecuted or pursued. In the case of the Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home, which was run by the Bon Secours religious order, such an outcome is quite convenient: the religious order now manages ‘the largest private healthcare provider in Ireland’, according to its own website.

If the verdict is “we did this”, then no inquiry need be made into how certain people did certain things, and who assisted them in doing so. If pressure to do something should become too much of an annoyance, then the inquiry should be conducted in the vaguest of terms -for instance, an inquiry ‘the role of the State’, without ‘the State’ ever being open to question in terms of its function, or the presence of class rule. So it is best to get an expert banker, or an expert judge, to preside over proceedings. In the case of the Magdalene Laundries, the main investigation was led by a man whose credentials, apart from the fact that he was the spouse of the previous head of state, and had apparently liaised behind the scenes with loyalist paramilitaries on golf outings in the interests of ‘peace’, were tenuous enough.

When it all boils down to the conclusion that “we did this”, what gets blotted out is any sense of real collective responsibility stemming from an ethical obligation to mutual care, aid, and responsibility. Indeed, if “we” are irredeemably given to such laxity and cruelty, how could any such thing be possible?

In his appearance before the national parliament, it was no slip of the tongue when Enda Kenny defended Bon Secours hospitals from People Before Profit TD Brid Smith’s observation that a ‘hospital empire’ had been built from the oppression and incarceration of women and children, and that the present Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, had, at the very moment when the matter of the Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home was the centre of public debate, made an official appearance in Limerick at the inauguration of a new Bon Secours hospital.

For all the calls for ‘mercy’ and ‘compassion’, the ruling party has a long-running commitment to continued privatisation of the health system. Only last year, Kenny himself ‘turned the sod’ (as per the Bon Secours website) at a cardiology unit in Bon Secours private hospital in Galway.

The entire premise of private healthcare is that there are some whose lives deserve to be saved -the rich- and there are others that do not, others who deserve to be deprived (the root of ‘private’ and ‘deprive’ is the same) of such health care. It is on such foundations that the sentimental claptrap of compassion, of ‘mercy’ and ‘charity’ thrives. In this regard we might consider the ‘Sisters of Mercy’, the owners of the Mater Hospital, a major hospital in Ireland with a ‘Mater Private’ facility, who owned and ran Magdalene Laundries and who refused to contribute to a compensation fund for the survivors. Then there are the ‘Religious Sisters of Charity’, the owners of St Vincent’s Hospital, who also ran Magdalene Laundries, and who also refused to make such a contribution. In such a scenario, it becomes all the more difficult to ask why “we’” do not have our own hospitals to begin with, since this ‘we’ – a democratic, egalitarian, socialist ‘we’- has to be killed before it is born.

‘Kenny speaks for the nation on the ‘horrors’ of Tuam’ was the approving headline of an editorial in the Irish Independent, one of Ireland’s main broadsheets, following Kenny’s speech in parliament. The paper is largely owned by billionaire Denis O’Brien, also a major investor in private health care. On the board of O’Brien’s Beacon Hospital sits the former Taoiseach, Minister for Finance, and Minister for Health, Brian Cowen. Cowen was Taoiseach during the first years of the financial crisis. For some, at least, the party continues.

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Noonan In The Cesspit

Today, Michael Noonan (more about him here) attended the opening of a private hospital facility in Limerick. Noonan is a former Minister for Health, and is the current Minister for Finance. The official Twitter account of the Department of Finance posted a photo of the Minister at the opening. Among other things, this shows how it is official government policy to promote the continued privatisation of health care.

Noonan is hardly the first minister from the Fine Gael government to endorse the opening of private health care facilities. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and Leo Varadkar when he was Minister for Health have both done so, and for all I know, the current Minister, Simon Harris, may well have done the same.

You are unlikely to hear any Fine Gael minister saying that they actually support the continued privatisation of health care. They are more likely to say that the ‘two-tier healthcare system’ is ‘unfair, because it allows some people to buy faster access to treatment’ and ‘inequitable because it denies people treatment when they need it‘.

Leo Varadkar even went as far as to liken the introduction of free GP care for children under 6 as a comparable moment to the foundation of the National Health Service in the UK. Varadkar, the Nye Bevan of Castleknock.

They will say anything to get elected.

Why, exactly, is the Minister for Finance attending the opening of a healthcare facility in Limerick? What does the Minister for Finance have to do with building private hospitals? Was it through his deft administration of tax breaks for private hospital firms that the hospital got built? Possibly, but it seems more likely that it was because the hospital is opening in Limerick, and Michael Noonan is also a TD for Limerick City.

So by turning up -as Minister for Finance- to open a private hospital in Limerick, Michael Noonan is showing the local constituency that it pays to have a Minister from your constituency in cabinet, pulling irons out of the fire on your behalf.

This is so common in Ireland these days that people hardly notice. A sign at the end of our road during a previous election campaign had James Reilly, another Fine Gael Minister for Health, telling constituents that North County Dublin needed a minister from the area in cabinet. Alan Kelly, the former Labour Minister, had a billboard in Tipperary that read ‘Minister Alan Kelly… Keep Tipperary At The Top Table‘.

The thing about all this, as I’ve written before, is that Ministers are supposed to be public servants. And being a public servant means you are not supposed to favour any particular constituency or individual over another. To do that would be…well, corruption.

But the prevailing attitude, when it comes to political power and the possibility of delivering favours, appears to be: if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

So far, so humdrum: political hypocrisy and venality, in the service of private power. People shrug their shoulders and say things like ‘sure they’re all at it’.

Maybe it will all be forgotten by the time the next shocking exposé on some HSE facility comes along, followed by some angry words from the current incumbent at the Department of Health, followed by some heartfelt apology from some HSE mandarin, followed by lengthy technical and logistical discussions about how it is that elderly patients are left dying on corridors, followed by ads for Beacon Hospitals or the Blackrock Clinic aimed at those gripped by fear.

(Fun fact: I noticed recently that the Beacon Renal unit in Drogheda is directly opposite a KFC.)

On this occasion, however, there is something extra going on.

The Bon Secours private hospital that Michael Noonan as Minister for Finance is opening bears the same name as the religious order that operated the Tuam Mother-and-Baby home, where eight hundred dead children, victims of Ireland’s carceral state, were dumped in a sewage tank and forgotten about. That is because the hospitals were founded by the order, and a Bon Secours nun is on their board of directors. The ‘new name for private healthcare’ turns out to be synonymous with unspeakable cruelty.

Likewise, The Sisters of Mercy own the Mater hospital and the Sisters of Charity own St. Vincent’s Hospital. Those orders also operated industrial schools and ran Magdalene Laundries.

As I wrote before, in Ireland, the idea that religious orders should own hospitals paid for by the public, but with an important private and exclusive component, is regarded as something normal. The idea that religious orders should own schools paid for by the public, but with an important private and exclusive component, is regarded as something normal too. But it is a normality that was achieved in part by dumping the corpses of poor children into cesspits.

The officially acknowledged involvement of the religious orders in deeply abusive and repressive institutions has had no effect on their ownership of hospitals funded by the public. Many of the same voices who diagnose the problems of the past in such terms as ‘the State outsourcing its responsibilities to the Church’ will, curiously, fall silent when it comes to the matter of how these organisations remain at the heart of Ireland’s health care system, and how they make sure, through the privatisation of health care, that the suffering of the poor will continue to pay for the health of the rich. Private health care advertising helps pay the bills, after all.

Perhaps Noonan appearing to open a Bon Secours private hospital will get some negative media attention. If so, a lot of it will likely focus on the ‘bad optics’, or the poor judgment involved in turning up. I doubt any of it will trace any continuity between the carceral state of the past and the two-tier health system of the present.

Perhaps the Communications Clinic had other matters to deal with today. But maybe with the right PR strategy, the day Michael Noonan drove his ministerial car over the bones of dead neglected children to get his photo taken will just be remembered as one more day on the road to national maturity, that final rendez-vous when all have been made to understand that ‘public’ means inferior and degenerate, and that ‘private’ means virtuous and divine, and Noonan is fondly remembered as a canny éminence grise, sadly departed. Unless, that is, enough people shout stop.

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