Category Archives: Politics

The Fringe of the City Beast

I’ve completely let updating this blog slip, haven’t I? I’m not going to pretend it’s not my fault either. I had a big piece planned on revolutions—how they happen and why we might be staring down the barrel of a few of them—but the subject slipped away as I got distracted, and it’s still lurking in my drafts folder, far from finished. It’ll have to lurk there for a while yet, as I’ve not the time to devote to making it worth showing to the masses.*

In the meantime, here’s something more ephemeral but personal for your delectation. After an extended period of joblessness and temporary work, I am once more gainfully employed. (I ensured this would come to pass by such actions as renewing my library card, which I’ll now never use, and taking up time-consuming hobbies like, oh, keeping this blog filled with content.) This job is a bit of a departure for me in one specific way though: after many years of working within walking distance of home and the city centre, I am now out in the wilds. Not quite outside the city of Dublin, but not quite inside it either.

This has wreaked merry hell on my previously relaxed commuting habits. (As opposed to my even more relaxed non-commuting habits of the past few months.) A four-hour walk to work is clearly untenable, a one-hour-plus cycle might work if it didn’t route me through the horror that is Dublin city centre traffic, and a two hour bus trip was only acceptable for the first few weeks. Which means that after years and years of avoiding it, I now have a car.

But it’s not the new experience of driving to and from work, or the multitudinous indignities of trying to get a used car insured, that I’m writing about. No, this post is about the things I’m seeing on that commute, out where the city meets the countryside.

Dublin’s geography is pretty traditional, by and large. The city centre, which clusters around the River Liffey, is surrounded by neighbourhoods that were once towns and villages in their own right, before ravenous Dublin swallowed them up. The further out you go, the larger the spaces between those neighbourhood centres, and into those space have grown suburban sprawls and small industrial estates, served by buses and the occasional tram (if you’re lucky). Beyond those lies the ring of the M50, alternately artery and car park, depending on traffic conditions.

And beyond the M50? Well, that’s where I am now.

This is very much the edge of the city, the place where its tendrils have stretched out but not yet taken over. The new and the old rub shoulders, and green spaces have been marked off for future use but not yet inhabited. I’ve spotted hawks and pheasants around the fields near work, fitting into ever smaller spaces as their living space becomes someone else’s. Country houses with ample space can now see massive warehouses and data centres from their back doors, and ruined and abandoned buildings stand ready for reuse or demolition, as fate or fashion require.

Cities grow not just not just in extent but in time. The collision between a city and the spaces it expands into is a collision between two different eras. All around my new workplace, roads are being ripped up and resurfaced, provided with ample pavements and cycle lanes, as current trends require. Of course, the trend now may not have been the trend during an earlier era, and so those cycleways tend to disappear as the reach the inner, older city. In time, those more interior, older areas may catch up with the fresher outer, but here and now, this is where things are newest.

The idea of cities as living things, growing organisms, whether benevolent or parasitic, is not a new one. There’s a lot of evidence for it, if you look. Imagine hanging a camera high in the sky above Dublin and taking a time-lapse video spanning months and years. Humans would disappear from the city organism, which would itself be seen to expand in pulses. Like a tree, the heart of the city would change little, and instead all the activity would be seen on the edges, as economic factors drive the need to swallow up more space.

Is this a good thing? Cities are necessary to the way the world works now. Population has grown and civilisation has grown complex to the point where a return to rural life is only an option for a few. Even so, the way that cities swallow up the green spaces and quiet villages around them is naturally unsettling. Speed and a lack of planning leaves a sense that the process is out of balance. Dublin’s a particular case in point. A combination of planning restrictions and the presence of major multinational companies have made life in the city unbearably expensive for many, and that expense and those multinationals have pushed that sprawl out further and further.

A pile of tree roots and pieces sits behind a prefab stone and metal fence.
Uprooted hedgerows replaced by prefab fences. Not a better outcome.

I’ve been lucky up to now in not having to confront the results of this. The first few weeks saw me spending four hours a day commuting by bus, into town and out to my new employer, then back in the evening. Getting a car was close to a necessity, as it is for many others, but in doing that I’ve just added to the congestion that strangles routes into, out of, and around the city at different times of the day. In the meantime, the city continues to grow, and I’ll be far from the last to hop on this treadmill.

The living fringe of city isn’t a place I’ve ever worked or lived before, so it’s interesting to see how it works. Whether you count it as growing into or devouring the space around it, it’s a process that’s going to continue. We need to get better at managing it, and at using the space the city already occupies. Both so we can move around them and so we can live in them. The city beast is one we have to live with—it’s up to us whether or not it runs wild.


*By which I mean however many of you actually read these occasional sound bites from my brain.

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Brexit and Northern Ireland

You probably don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to either. But this is something of a climactic week for the act of supreme national self-harm/heroic crusade to restore national pride that’s been gripping the islands off the western coast of Europe. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is about to deliver her Brexit plan to the House of Commons, where it looks set to be defeated. And what then? No one knows. Everyone seems to know what they want to happen, but no one knows what actually will happen.

So what is Brexit? Well, “Brexit means Brexit,” as May herself famously said, which strikes close to the heart of the recursive absence at the heart of the whole project. For all the talk of restoring national sovereignty that Brexit supporters have spouted, none of the fine details have ever meant so much as the act of Brexit itself: removing the U.K. from the grip of the European project. To which end, they have clung to the slender referendum victory achieved in 2016 with the grim determination of a dying man.

Brexit, like Athena, was born out of the splitting headache that’s afflicted the Conservative (and Unionist) Party in the U.K. for decades. At least as far back as the regime of Margaret Thatcher, a rump of Eurosceptic MPs have made Conservative leaders’ lives hell by putting their anti-Europe views ahead of any other needs. David Cameron, in the manner of Prometheus, decided to resolve the problem by taking an axe to it: having promised a referendum on the subject, he duly delivered in the hope that it would resolve the matter. Unfortunately, what he delivered was not a goddess of wisdom but rather a goddess of discord, who has since spread the Conservative split to the nation at large and the continent of Europe. Cameron promptly departed for parts unknown, and we’ve been living in the world he created ever since.

If the Brexit victory had been a decisive one, delivered on a clear platform, this might not have turned out as bad as it did. Unfortunately, “Brexit means Brexit” was as clear as it ever got. Worse, infighting among the Brexiteers themselves delivered Theresa May as the successor to Cameron—having campaigned against Brexit, she now promised to deliver it, meaning that no one trusted her. Two years of inelegant negotiations have followed, with Europe patiently coaxing along a nation and a party at war with itself. All the details that were glossed over during the referendum campaign have come back to haunt the Conservatives—the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as perhaps the main one—with the result that May’s proposed Brexit solution is a fudge that makes no one happy and seems doomed to defeat.

Which is where I come in. I’ve been crossing that border on a regular basis for 24 years. In the early days, back in the waning years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, most of the border crossing points were closed, and the ones that were in use featured passport and security checks, with watchtowers on overwatch from nearby hills. While the end of the Troubles didn’t bring as much of a peace dividend as Northern Ireland might have hoped (a subject for another day), the border has all but disappeared. Those border crossings are wide open, with the only sign of the change being a switch in the road markings and the units used for speed limits (miles in Northern Ireland, kilometres in the Republic). Brexit’s threat to return this situation to the bad old days is part of the reason why May’s solution is such a fudge.

Part of the argument for Brexit in the first place was for the U.K. to recover control of its borders. Not that it didn’t have that control a few years ago, but in an age where immigrants get blamed for everything, it was a powerful emotional call. It’s certainly one that Brexiteers have harkened back to as their struggle to achieve their goal proceeded by stumbles and flops. Unfortunately, the Northern Ireland border is one stumbling block that refuses to go away, and boy does it make them mad.

There were those who saw this coming, and warned about it back during the Brexit referendum campaign, but their warnings weren’t plastered across the side of buses, so they went unnoticed. Accordingly, when the EU negotiations had to deal with the details glossed over during the campaign, there was a lot of disbelief, frustration, and plain anger. The whole thing is a knot of conflicting desires and promises, and unpicking it is far from easy. But let’s take a dive:

  1. The Northern Ireland border right now is open, as are all borders in the EU. Brexit would see it closed, but that would conflict with…
  2. The Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the Troubles. Closing the border would breach the agreement, something that…
  3. The Irish Government really don’t want. In this desire they have the backing of the EU, frustrating the hell out of the Brexiteers. One suggested solution is to put the customs barrier in the Irish sea, between Britain and Ireland, but that would cause an explosion among…
  4. The DUP, who are currently taking a break from not running a government in Northern Ireland to spend time holding the whip hand over Theresa May’s minority Conservative government. The idea of closer ties to Ireland than the U.K. is pretty much anathema to everything the DUP stand for, so they’re now even willing to turn to…
  5. The Labour Party, led by old-school socialist Jeremy Corbyn. Strange times make for strange bedfellows, and there’s none stranger than the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian DUP and the red-or-dead Corbyn, whose suspicion of the EU project is long-held and has kept Labour from serving as a capable opposition during the entire Brexit imbroglio. Worse for the DUP, Corbyn has long been sympathetic to…
  6. Sinn Fein (Northern branch), who are taking a break from not running a government in Northern Ireland (with the DUP!) to continue not taking their seats in the U.K. parliament. Like the majority of people in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein are anti-Brexit, but they find themselves impotent on three fronts to do anything about it. They haven’t even been particularly vocal in support of a…
  7. People’s Vote. Essentially a re-run of the Brexit Referendum, this time with more clarity and detail, it’s the favoured option of most Remainers, though the success of any effort to remain in the EU is far from assured. And given the lack of time remaining, the absence of a plan for a new referendum and the poor odds of getting a negotiated Brexit deal through, we might end up with a…
  8. No-Deal Brexit. It’s the outcome that none but the hardest of Brexiteers are hoping for, but it still lurks on the fringes, waiting for its moment. The U.K. (including Northern Ireland) simply drops out of the EU next March, with no new trading agreements in place. Food and medicine shortages and travel barriers all await, and no one knows just how bad it might get.

The frustration among Brexiteers with what their slapdash approach to negotiating with the EU has delivered boiled over this week. Priti Patel, an emblematic figures for a government that’s big on rhetoric and small on detail, complained that Ireland too was likely to suffer from food shortages in the event of a No-Deal Brexit and that the Conservative negotiators should have used this as a lever to get a better deal from the EU. Not only was this wrong-headed on a factual basis—Ireland is more food-secure than the U.K. is—but the spectacle of a U.K. parliamentarian suggesting food shortages as a way of dealing politically with Ireland was historically inept to a staggering degree.

Yet this is where we are right now. Staring down the barrel of a process that began two years ago and has no more certain an outcome now than it did then. Those driving it in the U.K. are more wedded to the ideal than they are to any of the details. Those dealing with it from the outside are restricted to managing the fallout (the Irish government have spent a lot of money preparing for the worst case outcome), and there have been continual reminders that the EU would be happy if the U.K. just gave up on the idea and gave the EU another go.

I’d be happy to see that myself. Not only would it make crossing the border to Northern Ireland in future a less fraught affair and keep those of my family who live there more secure, but I like the fact that the U.K. are in the EU. As grumpy and unwilling a member as they’ve been, they’ve also served in some ways as a counterbalance to the centralising influence of France and Germany. The EU is not perfect, but its contribution to peace and prosperity across the continent has been a strong one. I’d rather see the U.K. inside, pushing for the changes it wants to see, than on the outside, lacking the power to push for changes and having to deal with it in a purely self-interested fashion. If there’s one big benefit that EU membership has brought, it’s confirming that nations, no less than people, are part of a society. Brexit would be a big step back from that understanding.

Passionate Intensity

I’m not a poetic soul, but a few poems have stuck in my head over the years. One of the first was William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” For a kid who was brought up Catholic and always preferred readings from the condensed strangeness that is the Book of Revelations, Yeats’ poem seemed like a distillation and perfection of that theme. Even so, it featured one couplet that my understanding stumbled over.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

As a kid, that never made much sense. How could you be the best if you lacked all conviction? How could passionate intensity be a bad thing? The context of the rest of the poem didn’t help much, revolving as it did around a world falling apart and seeming to approach some kind of apocalypse. Maybe I just needed to mature a bit and learn more about the world, but the meaning of that couplet seems all too clear in these days, when the world is indeed falling apart and the future is looking darker than it has in a long time.

We’re surrounded by people who are full of passionate intensity these days. You see them at podiums, hear them declaiming the facts that they know, endure their scorn whenever you try to engage or argue with them. It’s the age of Trump, but he’s just the most visible modern version of a long-standing situation. Those of us from Northern Ireland will be just as familiar with Ian Paisley, whose granite-cold certainty admitted of no doubt and swept along many others in its wake.

Yeats’ poem is endlessly quoted because it’s endlessly applicable. Within the poem itself, it looked back to the devastation of the First World War, observed the bitterness of the Irish War of Independence, and looked forward to the horrors of the Irish Civil War and the Second World War to come. It seems prophetic because of what came after it was written, but it also simply records what always happens, and the couplet above is central to that.

The passionate certainty of those like Trump and Paisley comes from the fact that they rest their beliefs on certainties of their own. In Trump’s case, his certainty is that he is never wrong and never fails. Paisley’s was his own fundamentalist reading of the bible. If you’re certain, no time needs to be wasted in reflecting on the rightness of your actions: you have a launching point and a direction to travel in. Moreover, others will see your certainty and envy it, seeing in you someone to emulate and to follow. In your certainty, their own doubts will dissolve, or at least be forgotten about. They can forsake their own intellectual work in favour of having answers provided from someone who presents themselves as having them all.

What of Yeats’ “the best,” who lack all conviction, then? If the worst are those who never doubt themselves, the best are those who have spent large portions of their lives examining their own actions, developing a habit of doubt that haunts and slows them. They rarely share the dynamism of the worst, and without gifts of rhetoric or charisma, they struggle to convey just why it’s a good thing to question and to understand. In the world we now live in, “experts” are dismissed when their carefully constructed logic crashes up against dearly-held certainties.

Of course, this is a simplification. The world is complex, and not all of those who interrogate their beliefs are paralysed by doubt.

We’ve been lucky until quite recently, living in the shadow of the twentieth century’s horrors. We’ve had living reminders of the damage that Yeats’ “worst” can do, of what handing over our doubts and fears to those who seem utterly certain of their rightness will lead to. Having a strong public education system helps with that too—the world is massively complex, not least in how the people within it interact, but giving people the tools to decipher it for themselves lets them make an informed decision as to whether they will go along with others’ certainties.

Amazingly, I managed to get all the way through that without mentioning Brexit. Draw your own conclusions from that—or maybe I’ll return to that particular collision of dreadful certainty and earnest doubt at a later date.

Election Relief

Last night, I was worried. Yesterday we had another public vote here in Ireland, and with reports of low turnout, the result seemed to be more in doubt than it had been just a few days before. Things haven’t gone as badly as I feared, but there’s still worth to seeing how it came to this.

There’ve been quite a few public votes in recent years, between referenda and actual elections, and they’ve attracted attention beyond our own borders, for good reason. This time, we had both an election and a referendum—the former to choose a president for the next seven years and the latter to decide whether to remove a requirement to legislate for blasphemy from the Irish Constitution. At the moment, final results are being tabulated, but it seems that worries I had late last night about the outcome won’t bear fruit.

The less interesting vote was the referendum on removing the reference to blasphemy from the constitution. The reference was widely seen as an anachronism, but unlike earlier referenda on gay marriage and abortion, this one didn’t inspire much in the way of vitriol on either side, apart from some of the usual figures opposing the change. Right now it looks like the 37th Amendment to the constitution will be passed with support from all age groups. Instead, all the controversy in the final days of campaigning revolved around the presidential election.

At stake in the presidential election was whether or not current President Michael D. Higgins would be returned for a second seven-year term. Higgins had campaigned in his first election on serving only a single term, but he’s proven a popular and even well-loved incumbent, and despite his age he’s in tune with the progressive mood that’s seen Ireland tackle some of the darker elements of its past and return those referendum victories in recent years. As such, it was possible that he would stand unopposed, as has happened with the Irish presidency several times in the past.

That this didn’t happen was mostly down to Sinn Fein. By promising to put their own candidate in the race (something no other political party did), they ensured that there would be a race. In this, they were continuing Sinn Fein’s efforts to whitewash the party’s public image, to the point where it might be seen as a valid party of government in the future. That this gambit seems to have been less successful than they hoped was partly down to their own candidate, Liadh Ní Riada, who struck a condescendingly aristocratic figure in the debates, and partly down to the candidates who followed in their wake.

With the major parties unwilling to challenge a popular incumbent, there were no popular or experienced candidates in the field. Instead, Higgins’s challengers came from the political fringes or from reality TV, specifically the show Dragons’ Den. Rounding out the field in addition to Higgins and Ní Riada were Senator Joan Freeman and businessmen Gavin Duffy, Sean Gallagher, and Peter Casey. For most of the campaign, the challengers lagged far behind Higgins in the poll. Then the election took its reality-show businessmen trend a bit further down the Trump line.

Peter Casey, largely undistinguishable from his Dragons’ Den cohorts, decided to bolster his campaign with some anti-Traveller bigotry. The Travelling community in Ireland, both north and south, has long been an easy target for this kind of political grandstanding, and Casey threw in some welfare-dependency jibes for good measure. There’s always an audience for such rhetoric among those willing to blame the less fortunate for their troubles, and Casey enjoyed a predictable boost in his polling numbers amid the controversy, as he at first seemed to consider withdrawing, then doubled down on his rhetoric.

While I’ve been writing this, the final results have come through. Higgins has indeed won a second term with 55.8 percent of first preference votes, with Casey taking 23 percent and no other candidate reaching 7 percent. Plenty of people (again, the usual candidates) have been rushing to put Casey in a Trump-like position, arguing that he only said truths that the “establishment” would prefer to suppress and that the media conspired against him. Which is a little rich given that Casey’s surge relied purely on his willingness to play the media game, ginning up controversy to get support from the permanently dyspeptic.

That 23 percent figure, you see, is something that’s been visible in politics and culture for a long time. I first noticed it during the presidency of George W. Bush. No matter how incompetent or hateful a regime, if they pay at least lip service to the grievances and bigotries of their supporters they’ll rarely dip below 20 percent approval ratings. Stirring up hate and resentment works as a strategy.

Which is why I was worried last night when I heard that turnout for the election was low. After all, getting voters inspired to vote is how Ireland has seen referendum-driven change in the past few years. With Higgins seen as a certainty and few people inspired by the blasphemy referendum, only Casey voters were genuinely driven—even if only by their own personal hatreds and the promise of a candidate who seemed to reflect them.

That inspiration served to take Casey only to 23 percent, but he may well spend the next few years trying to spin it into a political role. Certainly others will be pushing him to do so now. For the rest of us, who heard his rhetoric and looked to recent events in the UK and the US with a shiver, it serves as a warning. There’s been a lot of positivity in recent years, as the Irish, especially the young, have been reminded that elections actually do matter. However, taking success for granted is only a positive form of apathy to replace the more cynical apathy that existed beforehand.

Ireland isn’t immune from the ravages of Trumpian or Brexit-like campaigns. We have advantages of size and culture (the lack of any pretensions of power) that make such campaigns harder to get started, but as Casey’s antics show, there’s always an audience for them. The only answer is engagement, staying active, and speaking out. Let’s hope this proves to be a blip rather than the beginning of a trend.

Prague: City of a Thousand Photo Opportunities

 

Just a couple of in-spiring towers.
Charles Bridge, somewhere near sunset.
 
My preferred method of exploring a city is to start walking and only change direction whenever I see something more interesting down another street. Were I to try that in Prague, I would end up walking in spirals, or in an endlessly zig zag pattern. In Prague, there’s always something more interesting around the corner. This is a city that’s as close as any I’ve seen to the clichéd fantasy medieval metropolis.

There are the endlessly winding cobbled streets, with tiled rooftops packed so tightly overhead that guilds of thieves could conduct entire wars up there with no one below being any the wiser, save for the occasional corpse-cobble impact incident. There’s a town hall with an overly ornate astronomical clock, complete with clockwork mannequins. (The story goes that the designer was blinded once he finished so he wouldn’t go on to make a better one.)

 

The mannequin show is fun, but surprisingly minimalist.
Other clocks are available, and probably easier to read.
 
There are legends and stories galore surrounding the city, from poor old Jan Hus, who put too much trust in princes, to the golem that once stalked the Jewish quarter. Best of all, there’s the Defenestration of Prague, which manages to use one of my favourite words in its title. (Seriously – how much more fun is it to say “defenestration” than “thrown out of a window”?)

There’s a centuries-old bridge lined with statues of saints and divinities, across a river that’s home to an entire flotilla of swans. There’s not one but two hilltop citadels overlooking the city. Prasky Hrad, with its Gormenghast-like scale and complexity, and the over-the-top gothicness of St. Vitus’s Cathedral, gets all the press, but I’m partial to the more ancient Vyšehrad, which is mostly a shell these days, but is lovely to wander through and offers great views of the Vlatva River and Prague itself.

 

And this is the commanding view the rulers thought they could do better than.
The Vlatva, looking south from Vyšehrad.
 
There’s even a hill hard by the city that’s swathed in an encroaching forest and hides not only a monastery with an ancient library but also a wizard’s tower that peeks through the treetops and has a labyrinth at its base.

All right, so the tower is a copy of the Eiffel Tower and the labyrinth is a maze of mirrors, but wizards are noted for their lack of originality. I doubt the average medieval inhabitant of Prague would have quibbled over the details before reaching for the nearest pitchfork and joining the local mob.

It’s a city for losing yourself in, then, as I’ve done for the past few days, the high point of which was when I found a store selling replica Viking arms and armour. For a good five minutes, I considered attiring myself in a manner befitting a Norse adventurer and taking ship down the Danube to the Black Sea and seeking service as a Varangian Guard in Miklagard/Constantinople.

Sadly, dreams of adventure and fantastic vistas founder when they hit the hard rocks of reality. Even as I’m enjoying my travels throughout Europe, a group of far more desperate travellers are trying to head in the opposite direction. The “tide” of refugees entering Europe is much in the news at the moment, often to heartbreaking effect, and while I’m currently on my way to Vienna, my plan is to be in Budapest, the current flashpoint of the crisis, in three days.

That may change, but even if it doesn’t, it forces me to think about why I’m travelling – this experience of cities and nations I’ve never been to before. How much worth does my indulgence hold against the desperate need of others, exemplified in the huddled form of a small boy washed up on a lonely beach? Are they comparable? Or even relatable? And what can I do?

I only have the beginnings of answers for any of those questions. I doubt that one traveller can make much of a difference, or learn everything he’d need to in the space of the two weeks I have remaining. The one thing I do know is that if I close my eyes, I’ll learn nothing. So I’ll keep travelling and see what answers I can find.

The Weight of History

 

in the distance you can see the chimneys that are all that remains of barrack upon barrack.
The beautiful weather added a surreal edge to the experience.
 
Auschwitz exerts a gravity of its own. You can travel to Kraków without visiting it, but you’ll remain aware of it, the many signs advertising tours tugging at you, reminding you of the black hole of history, lurking just beyond the horizon.

A friend of mine told me, when I mentioned that I intended to visit the concentration camp, that they couldn’t bear to do so. I can understand that. I’m not the most sensitive person, but even I can’t help but feel unease at the incomprehensible nature of what happened there. Still, I wanted to go, to be part of the effort to remember and not forget, and so I did.

(Apologies is some of the below is upsetting.)

That the visit was on the warmest, sunniest day I’d experienced in years was somewhat incongruous. In fact, the whole start of the tour, around the original Auschwitz I camp, felt a little off at first. To sanitised, too carefully restored and preserved, too occupied by tour groups. I was beginning to wonder if I was missing something. Then we reached the room full of human hair.

In one of the restored barracks buildings, fully half of a long room was taken up by a mass of human hair, taken from the scalps of the dead, with traces of Zyklon B still detectable when the Soviets liberated the camp. In further rooms were the dead’s belongings: eyeglasses, coats, suitcases with names written on them, shoes, children’s shoes. As much as anything else, the weight of these objects lay in the fact that they were the only remaining scraps of evidence that the Nazis hadn’t gotten around to destroying or using

We had been meant to see these first – a long queue meant that our guide took us around those more sanitised buildings first. Like some of the concentration camp victims, I was lulled into a false sense of security, feeling that seventy years since the camp was liberated had deprived it of its power to shock. Preserved behind glass though it may be, it still reaches out.

A mile or two down the road from Auschwitz I is Auchwitz-Birkenau. Dreadful as it was, Auschwitz I was in effect a trial run – Auschwitz-Birkenau is an order of magnitude larger and was the place that the Nazis applied industrialised methods and an inhuman level of detachment to their “final solution.” Here, though they tried to burn and demolish the traces of what they’d done, can still be seen the ruins of the crematoria and the shells of the barracks that housed the dying and the doomed.

Auschwitz I retains the indelible image of all that the Nazis took from their victims. Auschwitz-Birkenau demonstrates the scale to which they brought that collective sin. Moreover, it’s the decaying nature of Auschwitz-Birkenau that lends a final reminder of reality: this is not a preserved exhibit in a museum. This is a place where more than a million people were murdered. It needs to be remembered and I’m glad I visited, though that visit will stay with me.

If there was one thing that I missed, it was some sense of why this happened. Auschwitz preserved the “how,” but it makes less effort at showing how a nation can slide so irrevocably into horror. How centuries of looking down on Jews and other “others” curdled into contempt and hatred. How political leaders could take that hatred and bind it to a “solution” that led step by step to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

At a time when Europe and the U.S. are convulsed with fear of immigrants, and when our politicians are advocating ever more draconian measures to deal with this problem, we need to remember where that path leads. We already have them in camps, after all. We are hearing calls for them to work for their keep, to earn the right to live among their betters. It’s a reasonable proposal, isn’t it? It always is, at the start.

A Referendum on Ireland

I hope you remembered to register to vote.
Kind of giving away the side of the fence I’m, but please read on…

“Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

Next Friday, the people of Ireland go to the polls in a referendum to add the above sentence to the constitutional definition of marriage.* Ireland seems to hold a referendum every few years, far more often than its neighbour, the U.K., mostly because a referendum is the only way in which amendments can be made to the nation’s constitution.

In this way, referenda have come to serve as an important marker of Ireland’s sense of itself and how that sense of itself has changed over the less-than-a-century in which the country has existed. That the marriage referendum is not only being put to the people but appears to have broad popular support is a marker in and of itself—it was only in 1993 that homosexual relationships were decriminalised, and only in 1996 that the constitution was altered to remove a prohibition on divorce.

The most recent polls suggest that voters in favour of expanding marriage rights are in the majority by two-to-one over voters opposing the change, with as many as a quarter of voters undecided. This might suggest a foregone conclusion, but as the recent U.K. elections showed, it’s unwise to trust polls too much. Voters have a tendency to be cautious of change, especially when that change brings uncertainty.

This referendum campaign has also been notable for its vitriol on both sides.** Posters have been defaced and torn down, and social media has become a battlezone between camps who have set out their positions and are prepared to think the absolute worst of anyone who disagrees with them. There are more sensible, rational voices to be heard on both sides, but they’ve been getting drowned out in the noise. The traditional media doesn’t help much either—entertainment sells, and a calm discussion of the points is never going to attract as many viewers as a shouting match.

For myself, I intend to vote yes in the referendum. Why? I’m not gay, but I believe that I deserve the same rights as everyone else. I shouldn’t be privileged with rights because of who I am any more than I should be denied them by the same.

By far the strongest voices on the No side come from a conservative Catholic background. To anyone familiar with Irish history, this won’t come as much of a surprise. What’s more notable is that the church itself has taken a back seat to these campaigning groups—the scandals of recent years have damaged the church’s moral standing, perhaps irreparably. Those who believe strongly that Catholic morality, as practiced in Ireland since its founding, ought to be the guiding light for the nation, have had to get out ahead of a church that advises a No vote but isn’t willing to shout about it.

Yet behind all of the shouting, there’s an interesting split developing in the church itself, between dogma and conscience. Whereas the hierarchy of the church in Ireland have hewn to the party line that marriage is a sacred institution***, many voices closer to the people that make up the church have dissented. The most famous is Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, founder of the Focus Ireland charity, who has described entitling gay people to marry as a “civil right and a human right.”

Next Friday’s vote, whether yes or no, would change Ireland overnight. That change has been happening for decades, and will continue to happen for decades yet. Hopefully, it will never stop changing. Change can be frightening, especially for those who have known only one truth all their lives and have been told that everything different is false, dangerous or the just the first step towards chaos and damnation. Yet human beings have been dealing with change, for better or worse, for as long as we’ve existed. We’re good at it. And I believe that a yes vote would show that in Ireland we’re getting better.

 

*There’s also a vote on whether to lower the age requirement for the Presidency of Ireland to 21, but that has been seriously overshadowed by the debate over the marriage referendum.

**Although perhaps not that notable. As Joseph Cummins points out in Anything For a Vote, the idea that the past was an era of genteel political debate is a fallacy. If anything, campaigners in centuries past were even more likely to be vitriolic to the point of slander and abuse.

***The history of marriage and the church and the co-opting of the former by the latter is too long to go into, but suffice it to say that marriage has been around for a lot longer than the church, and in far more forms than the church recognises.