A Conspiracy of Common Interest

Two items that illustrate the primacy that the political class in Ireland enjoys over the mass of other citizens have appeared in the media within days of each other.

A report in the Irish Examiner on May 16th draws on the latest Socio-Economic Review by Social Justice Ireland to present some stark facts about wealth and poverty in the so-called ‘Republic’ of Ireland. According to Social Justice Ireland (SJI), in 2009 the top 10% of Irish households received a staggering 25.83% of the country’s total disposable income, while the bottom 10% were forced to make do with a meagre 2.39%.

Contained within that top 10% of households are, of course, those members of the political class who wield enormous power which allows them to make, or shape, or sell to the public, those government policies that maintain and even widen the economic gap between the few at the top and the many in between and particularly at the bottom. If we had access to the figures for the top 5%, and especially the top 1%, then the disparity would be even more obscene.

What of the other end of the spectrum? According to SJI’s Review, close to 630,000 Irish citizens are below the poverty line, including up to 220,000 children. 90,000 of these citizens are what is known as the ‘working poor’ – they give up their week to a job, the reward for which toil is a wage that is not sufficient to lift them even marginally out of poverty.

As for the definition of what constitutes the ‘poverty line’ – it is pitched as being below 60% of the median income. In plain terms this amounts, in 2011, to the sum of €222.18 a week, a sum that would not cover the cost of a dinner for two in a moderate restaurant, or a visit to a fashionable hairdressing salon for one well-heeled woman, or a round of golf for a well-heeled man. But €222.18 is the amount that the ‘other’ citizens, if they can be deemed to be citizens in the real sense of the word, must live on week after week after week, the entire sum of money available to cover the cost of staying alive for another seven days, hoping that no unexpected emergencies arise.

Living slightly above this ‘poverty line’ are those who must toil for just marginally more, with no expectation that they can do more than get by, with a bit of luck. No luxuries, no small nest-egg for the rainy day, no margin of error in the spend on shopping. Grind a week in, then another, then another, hoping for the best.

But this rotten government, the latest in a long line of rotten governments, has plans to make that daily and weekly grind even more hopeless. It, like its predecessors, does not ‘have to’ destroy any vestigial hope that the poor and the working poor might have of some small respite from grinding poverty, it has chosen to. Remember that figure – the top 10% of households receive 25.83% of national disposable income! Yet this government, a coalition that includes a political party that pretends to be a social democratic ‘labour’ party, has set its face in one direction only – away from the wealth of the few and towards the miserable income of the many. This is a preposterous and indefensible choice for any political party that would claim to be even half-civilised.

Not content with imposing wage and social welfare reductions on the poorest in society, this government has drawn more of them into the tax net, hit them with a new ‘universal social charge’ and raised the cost of public services. On top of that, this rotten government is doing the bidding of that top 10% by again targetting low-paid workers, intending to dismantle Joint Labour Committee rates of remuneration for overtime and weekend work among other things.

In this latest assault, the government is egged on by large sections of the media who provide air-space and page-space to employers’ representative bodies such as the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC), the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) and the Irish Hotels Federation, among others.

This brings us to that second item in the media. The Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, a member of the same Labour Party that has chosen to side with the rich against the poor, has stated that he is against capping the salaries of State broadcaster RTE’s top presenters on the grounds that these people are not staff, but contractors. This tidy little arrangement allows these presenters to negotiate terms and conditions which would seem like Lotto winnings to the poor and the working poor in society.

The last year in which the earnings of the most highly-paid RTE presenters was released was in 2008. Pat Kenny was paid a salary of €950,976, Gerry Ryan received €629,865 with Marian Finucane on €570,000, Ryan Tubridy on €533,333 and Joe Duffy on €408,000. It is likely that each of these presenters is able to call on other earnings to supplement the RTE payments. Those salaries put them into, or very near to, the top 10% of Irish households.

These presenters, between them, occupy some of the most important slots on national radio and television schedules. Between them they wield extraordinary power to dictate and shape the agenda. They are intermediaries between the major players in Ireland’s social, political and economic worlds, and the people. They choose what items are to be covered on their programmes and in what way. They choose, with their producers and editors, whose voices will be heard, what questions will be asked and in what way, and how interviews and discussions will be conducted and often influenced by the intervention of the presenter. They are, by those means, opinion formers. They set the agenda for the day and the tone in which each issue will be presented to the people. They choose to cover certain items and not to cover others. They invite who they want, or don’t invite others. They endorse or dismiss views and opinions.

In effect, what these presenters do, and many of their colleagues throughout the rest of the broadcasting and print media do too, is to shape the mindset of the most powerful block of voters, the middle class, to make them compliant enough so that the status quo is not threatened, to the advantage of all of the political class, and the wealthiest in society.

The Minister for Communications could exercise his powers to require RTE to change the way in which it employs its presenters, and do it in the interest of transparently ethical broadcasting to the benefit of the audience who live, they are told, in a democracy. He could force RTE to change from the practice of using ‘contractors’ and let these people either work as staff, with capped salaries, or let them take their chance in the commercial world over which the Minister does not have the same remit.

But the Minister, of course, belongs to the same political class as Pat Kenny and the rest of the ‘contractors’ do, along with the top 10% who take that staggering 25.83% of the country’s disposable income, and the comparatively wealthy 10% below that group – business men and women, lawyers, doctors, engineers, executives, senior media workers, higher academics, and so on.  The Minister has chosen to leave things as they are, just as he and his party have chosen to leave the wealthy as they are and target the most vulnerable instead.

Two news items that show up the travesty of describing this place as a republic. It is not a republic, unless it is a banana republic, not quite the same thing. It is a hegemonic state, a plutarchy, effectively a dictatorship under the control of the political class, engineered to their advantage by manipulating the flow of essential information and controlling the conduct of debate and discussion, all inhibiting reasoned and informed democratic decision-making by the citizens.   It exists and persists only through the process of  ‘manufacturing consent’.

This plutarchy, this dictatorship, represents a tacit conspiracy of common interest by the wealthiest and the most well-connected against the impoverished – the wretched of this land. What is needed to overthrow it is a conspiracy of common interest by all who believe in true democracy and the enlightened and progressive republic.

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About Tom Stokes

Tom Stokes is a writer and journalist, and has taught media and journalism at foundation and under-grad levels. He holds a BA in Communications and Cultural Studies and an MA in Journalism from Dublin City University. He is a grandson of John Stokes, a striking tram driver in the 1913 Lockout and a Volunteer in Boland’s Mill in the 1916 revolution. He is an organiser of the Citizens’ Initiative to establish a new national day in Ireland on April 24th, to be known as Republic Day, and is co-organiser with Marie Mulholland of the campaign to have Ireland's new children's hospital dedicated to the memory of Dr Kathleen Lynn, to be named The Kathleen Lynn National Children's Hospital. View all posts by Tom Stokes

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