Tag Archives: politics

The New Boss…

I was torn as to what to write for this week’s post. More cancer-inspired philosophical ramblings? A review of some of the movies I’ve watched over the holiday period as a bit of a break from all of that?

Then some idiot went and called an election as I was driving up north to visit my family. So I’ll talk about that instead.


The current Irish government is led by Fine Gael and supported by their long-time rivals/alter egos, Fianna Fáil. Not that they’re in coalition. That would imply that Fianna Fáil are the lesser partner in such a coalition, and that would never do. No, Fianna Fáil is just graciously lending Fine Gael their votes in order to keep the country ticking over, until the appropriate time comes for them to stick the knife in and take over.

That time may well be now, by general agreement, as the latest polls as of Sunday January 19, 2020, suggest that we will indeed see the traditional Irish flip from FG to FF at the top of governmental stationery. The Irish electorate being nothing if not conservative in their choice of Taoisigh.

This fits pretty nicely with the ambitions of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, both of which are deeply conservative parties. Which I mean in the traditional sense of conservative, not the balls-to-the-wall insane sense currently in power in the English-speaking nations that lie to the east and west of Ireland.* No, FG and FF are conservative in the sense that they both hew to the foundational conservative tautology: The people in charge are the people who ought to be in charge because they’re the people in charge.

After all, FF and FG have been swapping leadership of the country back and forth among themselves since the foundation of the state, which means that the path Ireland has followed has weaved through the narrow gap between FG’s market-focused conservatism and FF’s broader sense of “anything for a quick vote.” This game of catch they’ve played with the leadership of the country has kept Ireland fairly stable over the decades, but it’s been creaking for the last few years as the pressure for change has increased.

Ireland’s single transferable vote system means that smaller parties get their day in the sun too, which means that neither FF nor FG have been able to form a government on their own in a long time. When they’ve been able to, both parties have formed majority governments with minor coalition partners. Discounting Sinn Fein, whom neither FG nor FF currently countenance going into government with (we’ll see how long that lasts when the results come in), the main runners among the smaller parties are Labour, the Greens, Solidarity-PBP, and the Social Democrats. (There’s also Aontú, the Judaean People’s Front of Sinn Fein, but that’s as much as I care to say about them.)

Notably, all of these smaller parties are of the left, or at least to the left of the two main centre-right parties. Sinn Fein also claim to be of the left, but that’s a claim that’s rarely tested or borne out in their actions. Admittedly, as someone born in the 1970s in Northern Ireland, I’m deeply suspicious of Sinn Fein, but they seem far closer to Fianna Fáil than they do any other Irish party, not least in their willingness to do anything for a vote. Well, almost anything.

The lack of a strong left-wing party has left Ireland to follow a conservative, centre-right path through the decades. This has resulted in internal stability but vulnerability to outside shocks. The financial crisis of 2008, for example, which devastated Fianna Fáil and threw them out of government for the longest period in their history. Or the current climate crisis, which neither of the main two parties seem to have any notion of how to deal with.

Where change has come in Ireland, it has come from public sentiment, activists, and responses to crises repressed for years and finally coming to a head. In recent years, the child sex abuse crisis cracked the hold the Catholic Church held on Ireland since its founding, and in its wake other scandals came to light and public campaigns changed the face of the nation that Ireland believes itself to be: referendums on abortion and same-sex marriage passed with large majorities and amid scenes of unabashed positivity.

This willingness to change is coming from below, not above, in Ireland, and it’s far more in tune with a world where twentieth-century dogmas are crumbling in the face of massive financial inequality and a world gasping under the weight of exploitation. Conservative as they are, the two leading parties are ill-equipped to deal with such a world.

FG have retreated back into soundbites and condescension as they attempt to explain why, in the past nine years, they’ve failed to materially move Ireland on from where they found it. FF, meanwhile, show little sign of having changed from the party they were when they drove the country into bankruptcy in 2008. It’s enough for them to merely be FF. After all, their turn will come around again.

The sad thing is, they may be right. That poll mentioned above indicates that the main reaction to FG’s unpopularity and inertia may be for voters to simply to turn back to the other devil they know. The game of catch may just continue for another round, and the people in charge may just continue to be in charge because they’re the people in charge.

Except … for how long?

As events in recent years have shown, continuance isn’t the same thing as success. Suppress awkward truths or difficult challenges in favour of ensuring that the current regime gets a smoother ride just buries landmines for the future. The climate and the increasing problem of people who struggle to just live day to day aren’t going to go away. The question is, if FF/FG have power, do they have any answers?

* The U.K.’s Conservative Party and the U.S.’s Republican Party have both veered in the direction of authoritarian nationalism over conservatism in recent years. The former in pursuit of an impossible freedom from Europe and the latter driven by a deep-rooted paranoia about a future that doesn’t look the same as the past. Cheered on by a media driven more by the need for attention and profits than the desire to inform, it makes for uncomfortable viewing. We’re not there in Ireland yet, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the early warning signs aren’t present.


Cancer Update: Not much to report this week. I’m a little less than a week into the course of alectinib pills, and so far the side effects have been minimal to non-existent. So much so that I’m almost positive about going back to work tomorrow. (Capitalism waits for no man, and those pills need paying for.) Even my cough seems much diminished the last few days, though it’s probably too early to credit the pills for that. And most importantly, the constipation is holding off. Though courtesy of a present from a friend (see the image above) I should at least be able to spot it if and when it does arrive.

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.

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.

Closing Down Dissent. Or Satire. Or Anything, Really…

I'm not really trying here, am I?
Shakespeare says NO! (via Wikipedia)

Ah, the joys of following the Northern Ireland news. Every so often, you get served up the kind of insanity that only the combination of parochial religious zealotry and a genuine 17th-century mindset can provide.

This week, it seems that the DUP councillors in Newtownabbey, evidently nostalgic for the days of the Life of Brian controversy, elected to force a shutdown of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), just a week before performance time. Because, hey, there’s nothing more important going on in Northern Ireland than a slapstick play that might put a few religious noses out of joint.

Let’s just clarify here: this is the Reduced Shakespeare Company that has been in existence for three decades and has been a fixture on the London theatre scene for much of that time. This is a show that has been around for nearly 20 years, winning awards, being performed around the world in numerous languages. And this is the DUP councillors standing up en masse and doing their best to bully the local arts board into shutting it down without a vote.

It would be funny if it weren’t so predictable. The combination of political power with the certainty of religious faith brings tends to results in the shutdown of dissenting points of view. Underdog sects and religions can favour freedom of conscience, but history shows that when the boot’s on the other foot, attitudes change. After all, when you’re in possession of the ultimate truth, isn’t it a public good if that’s the only truth that’s going to get promoted?

The trend towards secular government is one that took a long time to hit Ireland, and arguably it still hasn’t hit the North. Everywhere else, there has been pushback, in the form of Texas creationists altering school textbooks, Islamist efforts to marginalise secular Turkish youth, or a UKIP councillor linking gay marriage to recent floods. In Northern Ireland, the linkage between religion and the sectarian divide and the fact that parties from either extreme hold the whip hand means that it’s not so much pushback as an effort to hold onto power (something the Unionists have been doing for decades).

There’s no indication that anyone involved in cancelling the play had actually seen it, or had any interest in seeing it. Whether their chief interest was in “defending Christian values”, grandstanding for a few more votes or simply throwing their weight around, they both overstepped the mark in terms of their electoral mandate and completely undershot in terms of doing something of benefit for the people of Newtownabbey.

A Barricade of Bunting

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Hidden in the dazzle, the early evening protestors and their bunting.

In the end, it was a simple matter of stepping over a thin line of bunting stretched across the road. And then, later, walking through a line of mostly youngish men, hooded and masked. No one commented, or even looked my way. Even so, I felt my stomach knotting.

Why? There was no violence there, early on a wet night in Belfast, or later. (Though things did get hairy elsewhere and the next day.) The flag protests that have rolled across Northern Ireland for the past few weeks have been amply covered in the media, but this was my first direct contact with them. In place of brick and bottle throwing defiance, there was a slightly sullen matter-of-factness about the whole affair. Civil disobedience already turned into habit.

I’m not going to go into the justifications for the protests, which have already been covered elsewhere, except to note that few commentators on either side of the divide have dared to come out in support of violence as a response to putting a flag in a drawer as opposed to on a pole for most of the year. Unfortunately, both sides of the community in Northern Ireland are in the habit of launching the sort of street protest that inevitably leads to stone-throwing and worse. For the young and the hopeless, it’s better than dealing with the everyday grind.

So if I wasn’t facing violence, what was it that caused my stomach to curl in on itself? Some of it, perhaps, was a reminder of what I’d left behind. I’ve been in Dublin for a long time, and even when I lived in Northern Ireland it was in a relatively peaceful corner, where the Troubles mostly came in the form of daily news reports. In the North, old grievances run deep, and fears run along with them. Fear of the Other and what they might do if unchecked.

So the protests were a response to the apparent nationalist victory at getting the Union Jack taken off Belfast City Hall most days of the year. An effort by the loyalist community to throw their weight around, to prove to the police, nationalists and anyone watching that they could do so if they wanted. Swaggering is one word. Intimidation is another.

And it was that intimidation that my stomach was responding to. I’m not a violent person, and my first response to conflict is usually to avoid it. But when gangs decide to block passage along the Ormeau Road, as others did elsewhere that night, avoidance is no longer an option. Meekness works instead, avoiding eye contact and just passing by, hoping that the self-appointed big dogs have bigger fish to fry.

And where was I going that night? To Ravenhill, where an Ulster rugby team that has garnered the support of both sides of the community slogged their way to another victory in the rain. Among the flags there were plenty of Northern Ireland and Ulster banners, the best of which featured the Red Hand grasping a pint of Guinness. But no Union Jacks and no tricolours. We should all be so lucky.

Returning for the Endgame

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Any resemblance to Michael D. Higgins in terms of baldness or stature are entirely coincidental but hopefully amusing.

Around the time I was setting off on my round-the-world jaunt, the race for the Irish presidency had yet to kick into high gear. David Norris’s candidacy had sparked some life into the proceedings, but all the drama was revolving around his campaign and his past statements. Well, while I was gone, the drama levels hit the roof and the media wailed about negative campaigning while happily enabling it.

Until Mary Robinson took the ball and ran with it, the presidency was mostly viewed as a meaningless sinecure, but it has since become a more visible post, in which the occupant is expected to represent Ireland both at home and abroad. As the first count draws to a close, the winner seems likely to be the veteran Labour politician Michael D. Higgins, who remained more or less aloof from a vicious fray.

With the caveat that I’ve been aware of the race in the last few months only in a distant, Internet-enabled way, here’s how it seemed to turn out for the various candidates, ranked by their current standing in the polls.

Mary Davis: When she entered the race, there were more than a few references to a third Mary in a row holding the presidency. While she came across as fairly competent and seemed to suit the independent, anti-party mood, Mary Davis never really stood out, and to finish last behind Dana will hurt a lot.

Dana Rosemary Scallon: She’s done this before, back in 1997, but she still seemed to be running the same 14-year-old campaign this time around. And Ireland is not the same place it was 14 years ago. Weird outbursts about media harassment and veiled claims of vehicular sabotage probably didn’t convince anyone who wasn’t already on her side.

David Norris: The early front-runner in the race, it was his entry that sparked the whole thing into life, generating excitement among many and anger among more than a few. The Daily Mail in particular laid into Norris with great glee, digging up some questionable comments and actions, but as with another candidate, Norris sabotaged himself with his inability to cope with the pressure in a “presidential” manner. It will be a great day when Ireland elects a president regardless of their sexual orientation, but Norris won’t be that president, at least this time around.

Gay Mitchell: The government’s candidate never seemed too enthused with the notion of being president, and the apathy of the rest of the country matched that. It was Fianna Fáil that was kicked out of office earlier in the year, but Fine Gael is the other half of the duopoly that’s run Ireland for most of its independent history, and such is the distrust of politics as usual that being the government candidate was as much a hindrance as a help.

Martin McGuinness: If Norris’s entry kicked the race into life, the entry of Martin McGuinness took it to another level. The most visible and divisive political figure among the candidates, he also generated plenty of excitement and plenty of anger. The question is whether he actually expected to win and take up a post that offers mostly symbolic power instead of his current position as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. As it is, he’s done Sinn Fein’s cause no harm, performed well enough to avoid negative comments, and played a key role in deciding the outcome of the race to boot. Speaking of which…

Seán Gallagher: The man who almost won it, until Sinn Fein took him off at the knees. A businessman and a television celebrity, he played the independent card hard and won a lot of support on that basis until it came to light that he was a lot deeper in the old Fianna Fáil culture than he claimed to be. He might even have survived that had he been able to deal with the pressure better than he did. As it was, he dodged, dissembled and complained, handing victory to the one competitor who maintained a statesmanlike demeanour throughout the whole thing.

Michael D. Higgins: Old age and guile will defeat youth and energy. Michael D. Higgins may lack stature and look older than his 70 years, but he has experience to burn and a long and varied career in politics and public service on which to base his claim for the presidency. The rise of Seán Gallagher as the alternative candidate almost overthrew him, but with the help of Sinn Fein and ultimately of Gallagher himself, he sailed over the finishing line well in front.

Focus and Inspiration

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Iron and Weeds

I’m counting down the hours to my return at the moment.* One last long transit will take me back to Ireland, via Heathrow. Hopefully the place will have dried out a bit by the time I get there. Should I be worried about my ground floor apartment?

I’ve been in New York for the last few days, stomping out familiar territory as I prepare to return. Although I’ve been here several times in the past, this time around I’ve tried to concentrate on doing things that I’ve never done before. Some are a little obvious, such as going to the top of the Empire State Building. Some are reminders of home, such as cosy pints in the Gingerman Pub. And some are things that I wasn’t even aware of last time I was here, such as walking the High Line.

An elevated railway converted to a linear wildflower garden that offers a unique vantage point over southwestern Manhattan, the High Line is an example of a community project that took a crumbling eyesore and turned it into something that’s not only an asset to the local communities but also a tourist attraction, luring in people who might not otherwise be inclined to visit these parts of New York. I first read about it in a National Geographic article, and that was enough to make me determined to see it and to walk it as I passed through the city.

The High Line is an example of community activism that has had a positive outcome far beyond what the threatened demolition of the line would have provided. Up in the air for the moment is the outcome of a rather more well known outburst of activism: the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’ve been coming across the offshoots of this movement as I’ve passed through the U.S., and I’ve been hearing about its spread across the wider world, but even here in New York it’s hard to say exactly what it’s achieved, or will achieve, beyond attracting attention to itself and drawing the occasional incident of police brutality.

There are a lot of theories in the media about the Occupy Wall Street movement at the moment. Many of them tend to focus on the fact that beyond protesting about the state of things, there’s little sense among the activists of a clear view of what needs to be done. It’s a fair criticism, but also inevitable: this isn’t a protest about something as simple as ending a war or preventing job losses. Ultimately, it’s about changing the way a small but very influential sector of our society works, and societal engineering is a difficult thing to plan, let alone to carry out.

I’ll be interested to see what comes of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Any number of commentators will tell you that something needs to be done if our notions of liberty and justice in society are going to be preserved in the face of an unbalanced distribution of wealth and influence, especially when those with all the money and the weight to throw around are fighting to retain what they have and perhaps gather more as the system creaks beneath them.

Occupy Wall Street may not have the answers. They’re unlikely to ever have as much focus as those who created the High Line. But they are at least asking questions and drawing attention to the need for someone in a position of power to take a longer-term view of where we’re heading. If nothing else, what they’ve done so far has reminded those with a knowledge of history that inequality tends to lead inexorably to unrest and revolution if not dealt with in a serious manner.

*Well, I was when I started this. I’m safely home now, and this is being posted late due to the habit of JFK and Heathrow airports of not avoiding gouging their customers for Internet access if they can possibly avoid it.