Archive | April 2013

Constitutional Convention Fallout

Constitutional change in Ireland is imminent (Image: http://www.constitution.ie)

On April 14th, 2013, the Irish Constitutional Convention concluded their deliberations on the issue of changing the Irish Constitution so as to recognise the rights of all citizens to have their relationships enshrined in marriage with all the rights and benefits that go with it. This, of course, is only the first step of the process and the constitutional change will now be put to the people in a referendum, so this is where the real fight starts. The convention is made up of 100 delegates, 66 randomly chosen citizens and 33 parliamentarians with an independent chairperson. Possible changes to the Irish constitution were discussed and recommendations were made to the Government (more information is available at www.constitution.ie).  As a firm believer in the democratic process, yesterday was a real shot in the arm, although where you have winners you have losers and yesterday we had some real sore losers. This post is not about gloating, rather it is to serve as a warning as to the tactics of the ‘No’ camp in the coming months.

It is pretty clear how the No campaign will frame their argument in the coming months and they were quick out of the blocks yesterday. The No campaign will try to present Catholics as a bullied and persecuted section of society who are having their religious freedoms stomped all over by insidious creeping secularism, while comparisons with Soviet Russia will be made with a straight face. Let’s have  a quick look at some of the objections that emerged in the aftermath of the constitutional convention.

One of the leading lights for the No campaign will be David Quinn. Mr Quinn is the founder and head of the Iona Institute, a conservative Catholic lobby group, and a regular columnist on religious affairs for the Irish Independent.

David Quinn@DavQuinn 20h

BTW, if the delegates were randomly chosen, how did a husband and wife end up on it? #ccven

Now if David Quinn had a problem with the make-up of delegates perhaps the beginning of the process would have been the time to raise his objection, not when his motion has been defeated. Perhaps he smells a conspiracy?

David Quinn@DavQuinn 14h

In social debates the dice are always loaded in favour of the ‘liberal’ point of view. They were even more heavily loaded at #ccven

So the convention favoured ‘liberal’ points of view; surely Quinn’s participation in the process can be construed as tacit approval of said process. Here we see the No campaign laying the ground-work for the portrayal of those who are against equality of marriage for all as being a persecuted body in Ireland, fighting against an unjust conspiracy which is systemically enshrined. One reason why the process may have appeared loaded in favour of the Yes campaign is because people of a ‘Liberal’ persuasion have been traditionally more open to progress and development of society. Those who are arguing from a Catholic (I am not suggesting that the No side is 100 per cent Catholic, merely that this is David Quinn and Iona Institute’s default position) position are arguing from a comprehensive doctrine, that is to say that they have a version of the truth and of how things should be done that is enshrined in doctrine and not open to debate.

David Quinn@DavQuinn 14h

One delegate at the #ccven spoke to me about the bullying attitude displayed towards her for not favouring marriage redefinition.

Now, I cannot speak as to this delegate’s experience but the time to bring this issue to light is during the process itself. These conventions serve to enrich our democratic process and nobody should feel bullied expressing a view in this forum. People are chosen randomly to best represent the country we live in at this moment. This is not an exercise in propaganda; rather it is an attempt to create a more inclusive and participatory democracy. Any attempt at bullying is the very antithesis of the convention’s intention:

‘The Convention operates in an inclusive and open manner with its documents and deliberations available on-line and formal plenary sessions streamed live on the web.’ (www.constitution.ie)

The previous sentence was taken directly from the convention’s website. Any accusations of bullying or intimidation should be easily cleared up by the very structures of the convention. Offence can be very easily taken with such an emotive issue but that is not necessarily to say offence was intended to be given. The failure to raise this issue during the process once again smacks of the No campaign setting up a narrative to paint themselves as victims in this process.

David Quinn@DavQuinn 20h

Press release from The Iona Institute: Refusal of Convention to protect religious freedom of deep concern http://bit.ly/130ko82  #ccven

Here we have it folks: the failure to protect religious freedoms. How anybody can claim religious freedom, in particular Catholic religious freedom, is not protected by the Irish state with a straight face is beyond me. The Irish constitution goes out of its way to protect religious freedom, especially those of the Catholic faith. I would be interested to know where David Quinn and Iona draw the line with religious freedoms. Would he be in favour of say, a Muslim who adheres to Sharia Law and wishes to perform female genital mutilation (FGM) on his daughter therefore exercising his religious freedom within the boundaries of this state? I would hate to put words in his mouth but I can imagine Mr Quinn would not be in favour of that. People should be and are free to practice their religion in Ireland so long as it does not impinge on the rights of Irish citizens regardless of their race, colour, sexual orientation or creed. FGM is horrific as it impinges on the physical integrity of our most helpless of citizens: children. Equality of marriage for homosexuals may be an affront to Catholic sensibilities but it does not stop Catholics from living a full life and despite some of the lies Iona are happy too spread it has no detrimental affect on children of these unions either.

This is sure to be an emotive campaign and what the Yes camp needs to concentrate on is the mobilisation of those sympathetic to their cause. If you are not registered to vote, get registered and encourage as many people as possible to do the same. This is merely the first blow in the fight for equality for marriage.


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Who is paying the penalty?

Ireland: where the public and officials only reap short term rewards and ignore long term consequences.

Ireland: where the public and officials only reap short term rewards and ignore long term consequences.

Humility is not a quality that Irish political culture seems to be over burdened with. It could well be argued that humility is one of the first qualities to be jettisoned in the pursuit of a successful political career. One would hope that those pursuing a career in politics do so with their heart full of an altruistic sense of public duty and a desire to fight for the greatest good for the greatest number of people; you would hope that people look beyond the local and the immediate to think nationally and in the long term. Many may well launch themselves steeled by this zeal only to have it stripped away by the reality of our political culture. The truth of the political arena in Ireland is that it has been overpopulated by an incestuous ruling-class and quasi-hereditary seats in the Dail. So as this bloated edifice became beyond parody in the final throes of the Celtic Tiger, we hoped, given Ireland’s fall from grace and the punishment doled out to Fianna Fáil at the ballot box, that the surviving politicians of Ireland would notice the sea change and act accordingly.

This of course has not happened, due mainly to the reason that Ireland had its sovereignty signed away by the last shower, who gave the new Government ready made excuses for their policies. The harshness of our government’s policies is not the focus of my ire on this occasion, rather it is the continued absence of any humility on behalf of our politicians and complacency among the Irish electorate in expecting more from their representatives. There are plenty of bogey men to point the finger at in Government, not least ‘Big’ Phil Hogan, a man blessed with an ego and sense of righteousness which would not seem out of place amongst the cartoonish villains of the WWE. Rather it is the political culture and the lack of its evolution which has brought me to the keyboard today.

On the front page of the Irish Examiner 8/04/2013, former Ceann Comhairle and current Fianna Fáil TD Seamus Kirk said it was as easy as picking up the phone to get rid of penalty points. There is a constitutional clause which exempts TD’s from road offences if they are on their way to take part in a Dáil vote. This was a clause left over from the Civil War and by right should be exorcised from the constitution. However, more telling about the political culture in Ireland is the revelation of the willingness of constituents to ask their TDs to get penalty points squashed for them, this kind of localism and clientalism is one of the objectionable practices we would have hoped would have been left behind after the last election. The Gardaí have since had an internal investigation, where it was found that, while penalty points have been squashed, nothing corrupt has occurred. This is a staggering example of a worrying culture within the Gardaí, our politicians and ourselves. An offence has been committed and there is nothing corrupt about asking the Gardaí to get rid of the punishment. What has set alarm bells ringing is how this seems to have infected some of the newest members of the Dáil.

The last election, lest we forget, is when the Irish people put down the ‘Bolly’, stepped away from artichoke canapé and voted to punish the political culture which we had allowed to flourish by allowing them to dope us up to the gills with cheap money. “Down with that sort of thing!” was what we bellowed from the ballot box. Fine Gael stomped away with a record number of seats but what was more interesting was the emergence of independents who represented, they claimed, the ordinary person on the street and promised to ask the difficult questions.

Archaic parliamentary processes make it difficult for a lone voice to have any affect and so this motley crew banded together despite having ideologies that ranged from Claire Daly on the left and Shane Ross on the right. Included in this group we have Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, a man who has undergone an interesting evolution; from outsider-agitator sending joints to TDs in an effort to legalise marijuana, to the Mayor of Roscommon and now an independent TD promising to protect turf-cutters in his locality. He is one individual who has recently found himself in trouble for having penalty points squashed. This is an issue that he campaigned against – Gardaí corruption – so I hope the irony hasn’t been lost on him (although judging by the beard he has been sporting, perhaps Ming and irony are not familiar bedfellows).

The issue of the penalty point squashing may appear to be a small fish compared to the problems facing Ireland on a day-to-day basis. The public service is on the verge of a mass walk out over pay and conditions so why do I concern myself with issues that pale in significance in comparison? The reason is that this is a systemic problem, one which permeates through every level of decision making. It is the culture which will force homeowners in unfinished estates across the country to pay the property tax despite the fact they are living in estates that are continuing to degenerate. It is a culture that has, two years on from the general election and five years on from the beginning of the economic collapse, endorsed a government which seems to be incapable of standing up to the banking system in Ireland. We are still no closer to sorting out a deal which takes the proposition of evictions off the table for families across the country. I’m not talking about debt forgiveness here but there are many other options such as equity for debt which are viable.

It seems that the cosy relationship between our political class and the banking sector continues despite the pain and suffering which it has caused in the last five years. Perhaps the margin of their election win has meant that Fine Gael have become complacent in their position as Ireland’s biggest party but it is the very lack of political cultural evolution which they should be wary of. They may well suffer a double whammy of being in charge when there is no money with difficult and unpopular policies to be made (see Cameron’s Conservatives in Britain who are on their way out after one term but are determined to dismantle as much of the state as possible before they leave) and the willingness of the Irish electorate to forgive and forget about Fianna Fail’s ineptitude when they last had their hands on the wheel. One should always be suspicious of mid-term popularity polls but there is the very real prospect of Fianna Fáil making a significant recovery before the next election.

So, are we, in fact, responsible for the lack of development in our political culture? Have politicians, bankers and developers driven us into this quagmire because we have allowed them to? A former History professor of mine, who is of some note, told us that we were ‘face down in the trough for too long’ and that we are all culpable for letting this culture to develop. We were bought off with tax cuts, cheap credit and second homes and we allowed this attitude of arrogance and ‘cuteness’ to fester.

There is an intriguing email exchange between two heavyweights in the theory of Power, Stephen Lukes and Clarrisa Hayward, debating the role of responsibility and agency in power. To try and sum it up would be a fool’s errand but here we go anyway. Lukes’ case is that full responsibility must lie with the actors, whereas Hayward puts forward the case that the social constructs of society influence greatly the actions of actors – essentially that society creates the parameters under which abuses of power are exercised.

What have we done to change this? We elect on local issues and we tolerate abuses of position and power and we solicit abuses to have our own penalty points squashed. Look across the water, to Britain where Chris Hune MP is facing prison time for asking his wife to take his penalty points. I’m not being unrealistic here, I’m not asking for whiter than white politicians who never put a foot out of step and I am aware by continuing to use words such as ‘evolution’ that time is required.

What we should, at a bare minimum, be asking for is transparency and accountability from our politicians, those at least would be steps in the right direction in arresting the decline in the relationships between the people and the officials we put into power. Then when faced with honest and open assessment of their work perhaps we can reassess our own actions and motivations at the ballot box beyond our own selfish desires.

Thatcher

The 8th of April will forever see the addition of the passing of Margaret Thatcher in newspapers around the world. Aged 87 and having suffered from a stroke there have been few public figures from the last 40 years whom have stirred up such strong feelings, to the extent that a classmate of mine from college who was perhaps 21 years old at the time sported a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘Still Hate Thatcher’ this a full 21 years after she had left power. Glen Greenwald has already written a piece in the Guardian about the culture that has arisen wherein the death of a public figure exempts them from criticism, pointing to the very clear difference between being part of commemorating a private citizen and criticizing a public figure. There is always a rather distasteful element of ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’ that surfaces in these occasions quickly followed by a slew of jokes. It’s unedifying to celebrate the death of a human being but let’s not white wash her role in history.

In this age of social media, I always fear I’ve shed some ‘cool points’ every time I write that phrase, it’s a tough call to complete this whitewash. My Twitter timeline exploded with quotes from the Iron Lady with regards to the friends she kept. It’s all out there she had strong relationships with numerous odious figures such as Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and The Shah of Iran. She went to war over a rocky island of sheep herders on the other side of the world, a stroke which saved her skin at home where her deregulation and privatisation policies saw Britain lurch further into the mire between 1979 and 1981. She supported Apartheid in South Africa, to keep Communism at bay apparently and accused Mandela and the ANC of being terrorists.

At home in Britain she is accused of being responsible for the north/south economic divide, she crushed the unions and broke up as many of the state owned businesses as possible. She dived into deregulation and privatisation breaking up the bloated system which had developed under the Labour government with absolute faith in the stability of Free Market laissez faire economics. She cemented the existence of the City of London as a state onto itself within Britain (a cause taken up with zeal by Tony Blair almost 20 years later). One of her biggest PR strokes was allowing people to buy their council houses. The fetishisation of homeownership that we are currently suffering the worse excesses of right now, can well be traced back to this moment. You can all be home owners and we’ll give you the loans to do it. Thatcher over saw a huge explosion of credit.

On this side of the Irish Sea to say there are mixed feelings would be an understatement. Irish people have a strange habit of respecting people that had no warm feelings for them. One person who sang her praises was Charlie ‘Champagne’ McCreevy. Yes that’s right, the man who was finance minister during the government which left Ireland in the worst economic crisis of its history. Listening to the news today I had to chuckle to myself as Gerry Adams took the moral higher against a woman he accused of ‘collusion’. To say she had a mixed record in the North would also be an understatement.  This is the same Margaret Thatcher that gave Dublin its first say (discounting then doomed Sunningdale agreement) in the running of Northern Ireland through the Anglo Irish Agreement.

There is a trite expression that ‘History is written by the winners’; this is, to a degree, true and depending on where you stand on the ideological spectrum will very much colour your views on Thatcher. Whatever you felt about her politics one must admire her ability to rise to the top and stay at the top of one of the most male dominated spheres of public life.

Margaret Thatcher: A feminist icon, just one you mightn’t brake for.