Monthly Archives: September 2013

Referendum should tick No! and No!

Opinion polls suggest that both the abolition of the Seanad and the creation of the Court of Appeal will be approved by the citizens in the double-referendum on October 4th next. While there is a widely held view that the Seanad is undemocratic in its election-process and its party-political appointments and that as a second parliamentary chamber it is ineffectual, and that long delays in appeals to the Supreme Court and the inefficient use of that court for many appeals needs to be corrected, there are valid arguments against approving either proposal.

The faults attributed to the Seanad are valid, but they can be corrected. One of the most oft-quoted objections refers to the undemocratic selection of senators. There is no reason, other than fear on the part of the permanent parties of government, Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil, of a loss of control, why all members of the Seanad could not be elected by the citizens as befits a democracy, and not just by elite groups or at the whim of the Taoiseach, as at present.

The manner of electing the senators to a reformed Seanad is up for debate, whether using current or special Seanad constituencies or a list system or a combination of both. By opening up the selection to the electorate at large we would have a second house that could be truly representative of the people. The argument that it is necessary to stack the Seanad with ‘experts’ is a specious one, since ‘experts’ have led us to disaster, including the loss of sovereignty, massive debts, widespread scandals across a range of institutions, and so on. In any case, expert opinion is widely available, for free or for a fee.

It is possible to give the Seanad powers that would stop short of the power to bring down the government, if that is a concern. Its function could be as a debating chamber with a different structure and dynamic to the Dáil, and its powers could include generating and introducing legislation, and offering amendments to government proposals for further consideration by the Dáil, and could also include the power to hold Seanad hearings with the authority to summon relevant government ministers, civil servants, and other powerful people outside parliament or public service, for questioning on legislation, or matters of grave public concern, or on contentious issues, while also providing a means by which citizens could address parliament on issues of concern or on the effects of policy proposals on them or their communities. It could also have the power to delay legislation for a reasonable period to prevent it being ramrodded through by using the party whip system, as at present.

All political power at present rests with the government, and in effect that means with the executive branch – the cabinet. In fact that is further refined in the case of the present government in which Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan act as a super-cabinet – they might be called the Four Horsemen of the Austerity Apocalypse. Government backbenchers are lobby fodder. Given the massive majority the government enjoys over the opposition, there is no possibility of the government being challenged in any effective way, including the possibility of bringing down the government, which should always exist as an option in a democracy.

Far from abolishing the Seanad, there is a pressing need to recreate it as a truly democratic second chamber which applies checks and balances to the Dáil and provides a forum for other voices to come through. And that is in reality the most immediate reform of the political system that is required. Far from being a representative democracy, the Dáil as constituted fails to include in its makeup representatives that spring directly from, for instance, the large working class constituency, whose interests are mediated through political parties dominated by lawyers, teachers and other professionals belonging to the middle-class and the bourgeoisie. Other groups are un/under/mis-represented at present. Where are the 51% of the population – women – in parliament, or the factory workers or carers or unemployed or under-employed, or the families of those forced out of the country to find work? Either non-existent, or very few and far between.

The second proposal for October 4th is the creation of a Court of Appeal between the High Court and the Supreme Court. The principal argument in favour of the creation of this new court is to speed up the hearing of appeals, currently creating a four-year back log for the Supreme Court.

Creating this new court allows very necessary overhauling of the way both the court and legal systems work, or in fact, often don’t work, to be kicked to touch. The same inefficiencies, the same ridiculous costs and the same lack of access to the higher courts for the great majority of citizens will still exist.

That lack of access to the courts cuts at one of the pillars of democracy, creating a dreadfully unequal situation for many, either through the delaying of justice or the denial of justice.

The problem is not the absence of another layer of courts but the practices that prevail now and will prevail with the new court, if passed. Any citizen who takes the time to visit the Four Courts, or as they are known by many, the Four Goldmines, and who goes into the various courts, Circuit, High and Supreme, will observe bewigged and gowned barristers playing out games more suitable to secondary school debating. Far from being wise and learned, judges very often indulge the game-playing and posturing by opposing teams of scandalously well-paid barristers. It is far from edifying to observe the ludicrously expensive pantomimes in progress.

It is also evident at times that there is a bias or a favouritism towards a particular barrister or team on the part of a judge, hardly surprising given the manner of selecting judges, with many having had previous lives when barristers or less often solicitors as activists for one of the three parties of permanent government, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, and no doubt enjoying relationships with other barristers from their past whether they are based on legal collaboration, or party affiliation, or old school connection, or…whatever.

The fact is that the legal profession, at the top, is drawn from far too small a pool of relatively wealthy people, often from well-known legal families and from graduates of a small number of private schools specialising in preparing students for the  ‘elite’ professions, especially medicine and law. All of the dangers of incestuous professional relationships exist because of the structures around entry into, and advancement in, the legal profession. There should be no place for this in a system of laws and courts in a genuine democracy, let alone a democratic republic.

These and other problems, including the scandal of massive fees charged by elite barristers and solicitors, will not be removed by the creation of another layer to the courts, but will only exacerbate them. Capping legal fees, measures to prevent ‘elite’ lawyers from monopolising too many cases, changing the way judges consider evidence to the inclusion of a book of evidence from each side with only relevant arguments taking up court time, and the appointment of a Courts Ombudsman acting on behalf of citizens where there are complaints of unfairness in the way cases are heard or adjudicated by judges, would be far more productive in making the courts more efficient and fair, and more democratic, as they should be.

These two proposals, one to abolish the Seanad, the other to create an extra tier to the courts system, are trick-of-the-loop proposals from political parties with no evident interest, either now or in the past, in genuine reform of either politics or the law. Both proposals should be thrown back in their faces, and instead citizens should insist on proper reforms that will lead to changes designed to improve the workings of both parliament and the courts to the benefit of the citizens.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the constitution itself, a bad constitution in very many respects, outdated, still sectarian, still misogynistic, still favouring property over the rights of citizens, still providing a hiding place for politicians wishing to preserve a corrupt status quo, still pretending to citizens that since they have a constitution they are sovereign. They are not.

The pretence of ‘reforming the constitution’ is carried on under the noses of an unobservant and disengaged citizenry, another trick-of-the-loop manoeuvre by a hegemonic political class. Real reform of the constitution would start with a blank sheet and the aim of creating a state and a society in which the citizen was paramount and sovereign, with no citizen above or below any other.

We are capable of doing just such a task. After all, the citizens of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela have achieved that, in a short period of time, and we are no less capable than the Venezuelan people. While our 1937 Constitution is meaningless to most Irish citizens, theirs is central to their lives, owned and read by most Venezuelan citizens, and employed by them – across the social classes – to vindicate their civil, legal and human rights.

Aquiescence in our own fooling by three-card-trick chancers digs us into a deeper hole. We should use that powerful word ‘no’ twice on October 4th – No! and No!

And then insist on real change, and no less.

Whatever you say, say nothing – Lockout 2013

There are dates in every nation’s calendar that demand remembrance. When those dates fall on the centenary of a significant event then that demand for remembrance is greatly magnified. A remembrance ceremony marking the centenary of a significant event then becomes an event in itself and enters the collective memory. There is one opportunity on the centenary of a significant event to get it right, or to get it wrong, to honour the participants in that original event, or to dishonour their deeds and by implication the participants themselves, either by distorting the narrative, the manner of its representation, or by grievous omission.

It is the last of these, omission, that was particularly startling in what was billed as the National Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout on the 31st of August 2013, the centenary of Bloody Sunday on which date the Dublin Metropolitan Police attacked and battered protesting strikers in the main street of Dublin, injuring between 400 and 600 and killing two men, James Nolan and John Byrne.

The National Commemoration was attended by the President, Michael D. Higgins. The President arrived, listened to and watched various performances, laid a wreath at the Larkin statue, led a minute’s silence in memory of those who died and those who suffered during the Lockout, took refreshments in the GPO with other dignitaries, returned to his seat to enjoy other performances, and then departed. Nothing strange about what the President did, but it is what he didn’t do that is strange. The President didn’t speak to the people on the subject of the Lockout during the course of the National Commemoration.

President Higgins has not shown himself in the past to be afraid to address issues that may be contentious. He is a skilled and adept public speaker, well aware of the limitations that his office places on him in terms of straying into the party political arena or on matters of government policy. He has spoken on the Lockout previously. There is no doubt that he has a deep interest in the historical event itself and its use in evaluating the present and projecting into the future. Sharing his analysis and his ideas with the public is, perhaps, what he does best. He is not known to be reticent about using the public platform to stimulate discussion – the opposite is, thankfully, the case, and the public seem to approve of that aspect of his presidency.

And so, the question is why? Why did the President, whose words are listened to and valued by and who enjoys the trust and respect of a significant majority of the people, do the unexpected and remain silent on the subject of the 1913 Lockout on such an auspicious occasion as the National Commemoration of the centenary of that event when the reasonable expectation was, as usual, that he would speak to those present and, via the media, to the nation?

Perhaps there is a simple answer. The President may have been unable to deliver a speech through being indisposed in some relevant way. He may, as one observer suggested, have not wished to take from the community element of performances, but that seems unlikely since there were also professional actors and musical performers taking part at other times in the programme. Perhaps there are other simple answers to the question, but they don’t come to mind easily.

Also present at the commemorations were Fine Gael Minister Jimmy Deenihan, Labour Party leader and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and his party colleagues Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn, the latter under increasing fire for his extraordinary and arbitrary decision to remove history as a compulsory subject in secondary schools, without any public discussion. Could a less simple answer be related to their presence? Could it be that their involvement in the neo-liberal austerity agenda which must have formed part of any serious speech on the subject of the 1913 Lockout and the conditions today of workers, the unemployed, the emigrated, the sick, the homeless and the dispossessed, the under-educated and under-resourced children, and the poor in general, might have consequently led to public embarrassment, and perhaps spontaneous protest against their unrelenting support for failed, deeply damaging government policies?

It is unusual to find four government ministers at an event such as this and to note the absence of even one attempt to take the microphone and to speak on the historical event and the main personalities involved, even if that, as sometimes happens, is no more than empty rhetoric and oily words. Extraordinary, really.

There too were the principal organisers of the event, leading members of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and affiliated trade unions. A proper analysis of the Lockout and its relevance to today’s issues, the importance and role of trade unions, and their performance over the intervening century particularly since the inception of Social Partnership in 1987 – the sort of issues that the President could normally be expected to touch on – might have proven uncomfortable too.

Any honest critique of the effects of the social partnership model could hardly avoid addressing in some way issues such as the fall-off in density of union membership in the workforce from 54% in 1987 – the start of social partnership – to 20% in 2007 – the end of the ‘boom’, and the fall-off in membership among young workers, part-timers and the lower skills with a higher concentration today of members in the professional and technical grades – mirroring the change in demographics among Labour Party voters. Trade unions, like the Labour Party, have lost much of their traditional base, to the detriment of vulnerable workers in the case of the unions, and the disenfranchisement of the working class in the case of Labour.

There are those who would also criticise the social partnership model for the political dangers that it can impose. One notorious and similar previous model is that contrived by Benito Mussolini around 1930, which brought trade unions and corporate interests together to work with government – as one of the pillars of Italian Fascism.

It may seem extreme to mention fascism in the context of the Irish trade unions, and that linkage is not the intention, rather the dangers of social partnership in which the driving force may be a government of questionable ethics. While Bertie Ahern enjoyed much popularity particularly during the property bubble, the spectacle of him being applauded to the stage at the ICTU Biennial Conference in Bundoran in 2007 (when there were many indicators that the economy was tanking), where he delivered his infamous remark that he did not know how people who moaned about the economy did not ‘commit suicide’. He was then applauded back down from the stage and out of the conference centre. Some could think that that was a ‘Berlusconi moment’. It was certainly unfortunate.

James Connolly would have ‘got’ that moment, just as he would have ‘got’ social partnership. What did he write in the Irish Worker, two months into the Lockout? “It is war, war to the end, against all the unholy crew who, with the cant of democracy on their lying lips, are forever crucifying the Christ of labour between the two thieves of Land and Capital”.

It is no longer ‘war, war’ between the two rightfully antagonistic forces of labour and capital, but ‘jaw,jaw’, or at least since the disintegration of social partnership, no sign of a return to ‘war, war’ – the strategy that many living in straitened conditions might prefer the trade unions to opt for, and who have often vocally expressed their wish for that change. Where, for instance, is the ‘war, war’ on Zero Hours Contracts, criticised by Minister of State Alex White of the Labour Party thus – “We have a new “precariat” in some sectors of the labour force, with people working on zero-hours contracts, short-term contracts, or for free on unpaid internships. These trends can undermine rights earned by past workers, and the relevant statutory protections may require strengthening, or at least review. Zero-hours contracts shape a life of uncertainty for people where their ability to budget for the future or manage a stable family life is particularly difficult.”?

Again, we might have expected that a dynamic trade union leadership might have nominated their best and most inspiring speaker to seize on the opportunities that the centenary of the Lockout offered to advance the cause of labour. But no, an opportunity rejected, it seems. Why?

‘Tis passing strange’ too, as the man himself might put it, how James Connolly got ne’er a proper mention at the National Commemoration other than in the rendition of the Ballad of James Larkin sung by Jimmy Kelly. Hardly likely that the President would have made that omission, had he spoken, which omission is of itself an insult to Connolly whose role in the Lockout was immense. It is, of course, correct to highlight James Larkin’s enormous role in the Lockout, but extremely churlish to downplay Connolly’s powers and sacrifices in that endeavour. It was not a one-man show. That churlishness brings to mind the Irish Labour Party’s inability or unwillingness to properly celebrate the role that Connolly played in founding that party on its centenary in 2012, or to champion his eloquent and visionary social philosophy which is the envy of others around the world other than in brief references that had a distinctly weasely feel to them.

Like that other National Commemoration forced on a recalcitrant State, the annual 1916 commemoration, this one too seemed smothered by the dead hand of State, or of other agencies or a combination of both, and  starved of the oxygen of honest appraisal and discussion. Perhaps that was the plan, perhaps not.

One lesson learned by those who understand the importance of these centenaries to the nation and to the future is that the state has shown itself to be unable or unwilling to trust the public to own its own great history. By its inept and insulting control of the National Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout, including the barricading of the citizens, the employment of a private security company of bad repute – G4S – to interfere with public access at the event, the searching even of women’s handbags and men’s eye-glass cases, the state has shown itself to be unfit for the job of commemorating the 1916 revolution. In 1966, a far larger event than this one was, not a barricade was to be seen, the police presence was discreet, citizens were free to approach the President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera, if they wished, or any other attendee among the ‘elite’. What has changed, other than obsessive control-freakery?

And so the Fine Gael minister and three Labour ministers remained stoically silent on the day. The trade union leadership offered a bland statement via Sallyann Kinihan. So be it. Perhaps it was the safer option.

But can we have an answer, simple or complex, to this question? Why did the President not speak at the National Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout?

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