Some Questions

“We are increasing surveillance, the population may now close its eyes”

Some questions –

A garda used a mobile phone to record CCTV footage of Dara Quigley being arrested under the Mental Health Act. Reports indicate that he shared this on a WhatsApp group with other gardai. This footage was in turn shared on Facebook, and other sites, before it was removed from Facebook following intervention from a senior garda.

Did the garda with the phone record the footage as it was shown live on CCTV?

Or did he check video archives to find it?

Suppose it was the latter. How did he know to go looking for it? What information was he given, and what information did he seek out, so as to find the footage? For example, did he have any contact with the gardaí shown dealing brutally with Dara in the video? Was he one of them?

The GSOC investigation into the events surrounding the leak of Clare Daly’s arrest on drink-driving charges in 2013 found that 145 people ‘potentially had knowledge of the incident on 29 January via Pulse or via the email containing information’.

In Dara’s case, did word spread through some Garda network that there was footage worth seeing? Did the guard look up details of Dara’s arrest on Pulse to see what time it happened? When he went to record the footage, did he know the name of the person whom he was recording?

Is the garda reported to be suspended on full pay the one who in fact recorded the footage? He may not be. Remember, there are members of An Garda Síochána who tie rats to the doors of other members.

The ‘rotten apple’ hypothesis can be persuasive, even when we know it to be wrong. We may be inclined to look for singular culprits, when the genesis of a vile act spreads far wider than that. For starters: if it was the garda now suspended on full pay, did he act alone in making the recording? If not, was there some concerted decision that he would be the one to go retrieve it?
Suppose it was the former. A lone officer. Watching the live feed. He doesn’t know who it is, but thinks: I have to record this. The lads will want to see it. It will please them, they will admire me for it.

Little does he know that the rest of his colleagues will be appalled. They are committed to dignity and respect for everyone. They will see their colleague’s actions as a gross violation of the rights of the person in the video. They will recognise how these actions are motivated by a misogyny that pervades their institution and wider society. They will be shaken by the abuse of power. Committed as they are to respecting the rights of people with mental illness, they will notify senior authorities about this horrific breach.

That is how it might unfold, in a dream world.

In a world closer to reality, his colleagues will not be appalled. What is the WhatsApp group for anyway if not for communication among like-minded people? They will say nothing, even though it is their job to prevent violations of fundamental rights. Some may have qualms, but they will remain silent, as they always do. Others may post cry-laugh emojis. An espirit de corps will gel around the feeling of power they have, the way they can do this to whomever they like. An Garda Síochána, where we do what we want.

Do you reckon any of the individuals in the WhatsApp group will be taking part in the Garda Four Peaks Challenge, for a mental health charity? Do you reckon any of those who put their hiking boots on will, in a moment of reflection, speak among themselves about the general role of An Garda Síochána in heightening mental harm? All the laws they uphold that keep people deprived of proper care and support, all the laws they uphold that produce unbearable stresses, all the violence they unleash against people with mental illnesses: do you think they will think about that?

Do you think they think at all?

One of the most pernicious myths about CCTV and other systems of surveillance and recording is that they are there to protect us. They are there for our own good. If not for them, our world would become nasty, brutish and short. We are led to imagine that their functioning is neutral, and that there are accountability mechanisms that prevent them from abuse. But what if they are not a means against abuse, but instead, a means to its extension into every facet of life? And the people who operate them -with their sordid, resentful desires obscured from our view- are the nastiest, most brutish of them all?

Do you think any of the investigations currently underway will get to the heart of these problems?

And if not: what will it take to expose them for what they are?

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A Goodbye to Dara

“To have courage, you have to be discouraged. To get up, you have to know how to fall down. To win, you have to know how to lose. And you have to know that this is what life amounts to, and you fall down and you get up many times. And there are some who fall down and they don’t get up ever again, who in general are the most sensitive, the ones who are easiest to hurt, the people whom it hurts the most to live. The most sensitive people are the most vulnerable. On the other hand, those fuckers who dedicate themselves to tormenting humanity, they have the longest of lives, they never die. Because they are missing a gland, which as it happens is quite rare. It is called conscience, which is what torments you at night.”

-Eduardo Galeano

Dara Quigley’s funeral service was held today in Dardistown Crematorium, just across the road from the airport. It was a ceremony filled with warmth and light and some laughter. Her coffin was brought in to the strains of Bad Girls by MIA, and it moved out the room to the sound of Cosmic Dancer by T. Rex.

Dara’s parents spoke of their beloved daughter’s sensitivity and boundless curiosity about the world. Her brother and sister spoke of their big sister’s caring presence and her indomitable irreverent humour. Her partner told of how Dara’s favourite flower was the sunflower, not only for its colour, but for how it turned towards the sunlight. The civil celebrant read her words, shared now many times, envisioning how ‘we are all starlings, producing intricate, amazing patterns all arising from one fundamental rule: no one bird is allowed to get lost’. Harry Browne spoke beautifully about the bravery and explosive rhythms of her writing. Even if she might not have been a Bruce Springsteen fan, Harry noted, she was no doubt a kindred spirit to those standing -in Bruce’s song We Are Alive– “shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart”.

“Is it wrong to understand / the fear that dwells inside of man?”, sang Marc Bolan as Dara’s coffin moved out through the curtains. Dara was a regular reader of this website, and we were in touch regularly over the past few years. We would chat about writing, and politics, and everyday life. There were times I spoke with Dara when for all her irreverent exuberance and her insistence that everything was grand, it was clear she was afraid of something. I don’t believe we always need look inside to understand such fears. There are so many real things that can produce fear in us, things that promise a pain of isolation, abandonment, illness. It is not enough that each person should learn to confront such fears themselves. To feel that you have to do that alone is a way of compounding those fears. I believe Dara knew all this, and that is why she wrote what she did, with such courage, despite what she told me was her “crippling self-doubt”. “Got ta present the flaws up front otherwise people go looking for em”, she told me before she published her last post back in September. I’ll always be grateful to her for that, even if I can hear her making a big ‘pffft‘ noise as I write this.

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Football, Fish and Flags

Pescado frito

This weekend just past I took my 9-year-old son to a football match in England. It was a Manchester United match, but even so, it was still a recognisably English setting, I think. He is interested in food these days, and spends a lot of time in the kitchen helping prepare meals. He tells me that if he doesn’t make it as a professional footballer he will become a food critic. He was delighted to have a full English breakfast at the ungodly hour of 7 in the morning. He stacked his plate with egg, bacon, sausages, black pudding, and a grilled tomato. What, he asked, is the difference was between a full English breakfast and a full Irish breakfast? I said it mostly depended on where you were sitting. At midday, we were out at Old Trafford, milling about.  He wanted to get something to eat before we went into the stadium. We went to a chip shop. He ordered a chicken fillet burger, I ordered fish and chips, something I might eat once every five years. He finished the burger before I got half way through the fish. I saw him eyeing up the fish, and gave him a piece. It was a bit too greasy for my liking but he was willing to polish the whole thing off, the hungry hoor.

I told the food critic that the fried fish you get in fish and chip shops originated from Jews who made their way, from central and southern Spain, via Portugal, and on to England, after their decreed expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. He liked that: not the expulsion, but the way the fish was cooked in the same way as in his Spanish grandmother’s house, and, as he recalled with some relish, in the restaurant in Cádiz where he devoured my fried fish a couple of years back.

The match was a nil-nil draw.

On the way over to England, I wondered about the passport situation. I was travelling on an Irish passport, and he on a Spanish passport. What would it be like next time? Would the border authorities let me pass, but keep him out? Would I get arrested on child trafficking charges or something? None of these scenarios would ever come to pass, mind you, since if a stricter border regime along these lines arose, we would just not bother going.

The following day, an article by Kelvin MacKenzie was printed in the Sunday edition of The Sun. MacKenzie, for those who do not know, was responsible for printing front page lies about Liverpool supporters crushed to death -through unlawful killing– at Hillsborough. The Sun still sees fit to publish the opinions of a man who accused Liverpool fans of ‘urinating on the brave cops’. MacKenzie’s article concerned the current diplomatic controversy over Gibraltar arising from Brexit negotiations. In it, he claimed that Spain had become a wartime enemy, and that Theresa May ought to threaten, among other things, the expulsion of the ‘125,000 Spaniards…working in the UK. Say adios, Manuel.

It’s hardly a surprise to me that pond scum like MacKenzie should come out with the likes of this. What makes it new for me, though, on a personal level, is in seeing such racism directed at my children. In this case, the object is ‘Spaniards’, but this assertion of ultimate sovereign power could just as well be directed at any grouping identified by Brexit Britain as essentially dangerous.

I have seen people on social media, responding to the piece, calling for MacKenzie to be ignored, and boycotted, and so on. Whilst I agree entirely that The Sun should be boycotted, it is an error to treat MacKenzie in isolation, as some kind of outlier. The violence of his proposals -and the suggestion that such violence is to be enjoyed, that it is only a bit of fun– is entirely in keeping with the way in which the Brexit referendum was conducted, and how debate over its implementation is taking place. According to this view of the world, there is a sovereign British ‘people’, whose will was expressed in a referendum and whose decisions are unimpeachably final. It is tacitly assumed -not only by the Tory right and its media- that this sovereignty entails a power of life and death over any grouping it proclaims as dangerous.

20 years ago, The Sun’s circulation was nearly five million. Now it’s a third of that. There is no doubting its noxious effect on public discourse in Britain, but its power and influence are nowhere near as significant these days. Today’s Gibraltar cover, and the maniacal racism of Kelvin MacKenzie’s column, are imbued with a longing to recover what it sees as the glory days when it could whoop it up for British military power as with the sinking of the Belgrano, or at least to retain the older readers who revel in the paper’s chauvinist ignorance. But if the influence of The Sun itself might have dwindled, there is a far greater array of voices, able to make themselves public, delighting in the kind of unbridled racism and militarism in which The Sun was once the market leader.

Former Tory leader and Home Secretary Michael Howard’s intervention on Gibraltar -summoning the spirit of Margaret Thatcher and highlighting the remarkable ‘coincidence’ regarding Spanish-speaking countries- was calculated to rouse a bout of jingoist chest-beating from The Sun and the rest as a means of distracting from the threadbare and risible situation Britain has created for itself. In the absence of concerted anti-racist action, it would be inevitable that this whole process will intensify the scapegoating of migrant populations, both through legal measures designed to placate ‘the people’, and through extra-legal violence conducted against everyday people who commit the offences of speaking a language other than English, or of simply not being white.

Against all this, a host of liberal voices in Britain sound their one-note trumpet for ‘legitimate concerns’ about ‘immigration, jobs and welfare’. The order of priority here comes from Stuart Maconie in the current New Statesman, but it applies to a large swathe of liberal opinion, wont to calls for progressive patriotism and the like. They are quite content to throw this rough racist beast more red meat, and congratulate themselves on their bravery in so doing. The New Statesman cover presenting an imperialist butcher like Kitchener as a figurehead for democratic renewal reveals the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of those who look upon themselves as voices of moderation and progress. One might be inclined to laugh at this pathetic rooting around in the bric-a-brac of imperial nostalgia if the likely consequences of this were not so dire.

From where I stand, there is no view that can be improved by sticking a union jack on it. One effect of Michael Howard’s séance for Thatcher, for instance, is to present the history of Britain as one of great patriotic adventures led by great political leaders. The flying of the union jack serves to consign to oblivion the social and political struggles conducted by working class and immigrant populations, and how they shaped the everyday life of the country. One irony in the treatment of Gibraltar this past couple of days, its festooning with union jacks and the chest-puffing assertions of unshakably British character, is how the history of the rock is far more multi-layered and interesting. When the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713, the British were supposed to keep Jews and Muslims out, in line with the demands of the Spanish. As Henry Kamen writes in The Disinherited, the British ignored the Spanish and allowed immigrants of all religions in. Yet the same forces proclaiming the importance of Gibraltar to British national pride are precisely those most concerned with keeping Britain free from the supposed threat of encroaching Islam. Strangely, I could not find anything detailing whether more liberal voices among the British had called for the ‘legitimate concerns’ of the Spanish on immigration to be entertained.

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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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