Tag Archives: hegemony

Killing hegemony with a ballot box in both hands

And so, May 23rd 2014 may indeed turn out to have been a red-letter day in the politics of the 26-county spurious-republic of Ireland.

Local and EU elections have seen very significant shifts in voting patterns with serious repercussions for the three parties which have exchanged power over the past 92 years, and this result may indicate the imminent demise of hegemonic counter-revolutionary misrule that has lasted since 1922.

The quaintly-named Irish Labour Party – a misnomer, since that party substantially represents the interests of middle-class voters, has experienced a virtual wipe-out at the polls. Its first preference vote (19.5%) in the General Election of 2011 plummeted to just 5.3% in the EU elections, with a loss of its two European Parliament seats. In the local elections its share of first preferences was a slightly better 7.2%. The immediate outcome of this was the resignation of party leader Eamon Gilmore, Tánaiste (deputy prime-minister) and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

It is quite likely that in the shake-up to elect a new party leader, and its aftermath, that the old guard in Labour will be shown the door in a feverish effort to ‘renew’ Labour, although it is hard to imagine that anything will save the seats of many of the party’s TDs in the General Election, likely to be called well before its Spring 2016 deadline. While Labour might pull back a percentage point or two, it looks like a party that will need to spend some years finding itself – if it can. Its future may be out of its own hands by now.

Its senior partner in coalition, Fine Gael, now stands on the same EU election percentage as Fianna Fáil – 22.3%, down from 36.1% in 2011. Fianna Fáil, the other cheek of that ideological arse formed out of the Civil War, saw its share go up from its disastrous 2011 percentage of 17.5%, but it can draw cold comfort from that 4.7% rise, being now reduced to just one MEP.

On the EU figures, cumulative support for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour stands at 49.9%. In other words more than 50% of those who voted have turned their backs on the three misruling parties. That, to anyone accustomed to the monolithic control of those parties, constitutes profound change.

But more!

In the EU election, in which it stood just one candidate in each of the three EU constituencies, Sinn Féin saw its support go up from 9.9% in 2011 to almost double that in 2014 – 19.5%. Not only that, each of the Sinn Féin EU candidates either headed the poll or was elected in early counts.

In the local elections Sinn Féin trebled its tally of representatives on the County Councils to 157. This pool of public representatives will provide new candidates in many Dáil constituencies in the General Election. They will, in the meantime, learn their trade, create local networks through highly-organised offices and the strong team-work that Sinn Féin is renowned for. The likely outcome of that is a further rise in the percentage of the poll that Sinn Féin will receive next time out, and a greater number of TDs in the Dáil.

Alongside that, various independents and smaller socialist parties and anti-austerity campaigning offshoots, together with other independents including some conservatives, received massive support in terms of percentages of the EU vote – 30.6%! Working against the big party machines, the independents still managed to win three European Parliament seats. The Socialist Party lost a winnable seat due to the intervention of a Socialist Workers Party candidate in the Dublin constituency, which victory might have been at the expence of Fine Gael’s high profile candidate, Brian Hayes, who barely scraped in.

In the local elections the various independents and the socialist/anti-austerity candidates combined won 237 seats out of 949, another remarkable result.

These results do not guarantee that we will not end up with yet another combination of the three parties of permanent misrule after the next General Election, but they do open up the possibility that we may, for the first time since quasi-independence in 1922, see the possibility of real choice for voters between the right and the left. For that to advance there needs to be an attempt at establishing a rapprochement between Sinn Féin and socialist parties, groups and individuals.

It is possible that the Labour Party, forced by the shock of its decimation at the polls, might sufficiently re-evaluate its stance and policies to reflect, in part at least, the core values for which that party was created. If so, it might be that Labour would also be available to achieve the numbers to form an alternative government, although the current candidates for leadership – one an accountant and the other a senior barrister – do not inspire confidence in any attempt to return to those values, but would appear opportunistic and cynical given those candidates’ track records in the current government.

It might be in Sinn Féin’s interest instead to look to the smaller socialist parties which have done well in these elections and show signs of further growth if properly organised for the next campaign and if election pacts can be put in place to avoid losing winnable seats.

In a post-election article on the Socialist Workers Party website, J O’Toole wrote “Socialists want to relate to Sinn Fein supporters and work alongside them in the South to battle the water charges. We want to emphasise people power as the path to change and that struggle is the stage upon which different approaches to change will be tested.”

At a pre-election ‘Arms around Moore Street’ event, held to protect the historic GPO 1916 Battlefield Site, Socialist Party EU candidate Paul Murphy made a stirring contribution, reminding those present of James Connolly’s last days of freedom in those buildings, and of Connolly’s relevance to the peoples’ cause today.

These are promising signs which should be built on through dialogue between Sinn Féin and socialists. It would be interesting to know if, for example, there was to be contact between the three new Sinn Féin MEPs and Paul Murphy, outgoing MEP and likely to be a candidate in the upcoming General Election, on advice on relevant issues and potential alliances in the EU Parliament. Not only would that contact be valuable in itself, but it would also send a positive signal to socialists and their supporters, and to voters interested in new possibilities. No doubt the new MEPs will also receive advice from Nessa Childers, independent leftist MEP and granddaughter of Erskine Childers who played a decisive part in the lead-up to the 1916 Revolution and the proclaiming of the Irish Republic, and in the defence of that Republic in the Civil War.

It is certain that Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour will attempt to claw back support to prevent the Sinn Féin and socialist surge from gathering further momentum. But there are lessons in historical experience, one such being the Berlin Wall. In just one year, 1989, what seemed like an impregnable fortress, part of the Iron Curtain that separated the Soviet Union and its satellite states from the West, was virtually destroyed. Once the first crack appeared in it, its destruction seemed as if it might become inevitable but happened faster than most might have thought possible. That crack in the Berlin Wall first occurred in the imagination of a few determined dissidents, then spread until the imagining was unstoppable and became reality.

It is possible that a similar phenomenon is at play in this State, where hegemonic power has seemed impregnable during all of the years of this State’s existence. It may be that a sufficient number of voters have been so sickened by abuses of power, by institutional failure and corruption, by a system that ignores the fundamental needs of the many but panders to the excessive wants and desires of the few, and by the signs of a failed State, that they are prepared to take a chance on something different and not yet capable of being fully understood or predicted, overriding fears and prejudices in the process. It may be that this first crack in the fortress of hegemonic power cannot be covered over with political class PR Polyfilla, but that the crack will deepen until the wall falls and profound change comes about.

That might happen sooner than most people think possible. Too early to tell. But we live in interesting times!

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.

Occupy The Republic

The publicity surrounding the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ campaign, and its offshoots across the USA and similar movements in other countries across the world, suggests that politics is being parked to one side so as to attract a diverse range of individuals in support of the campaign’s central aim – of taking control back from the powerful and super-wealthy 1% and redistributing both the power and the wealth among the other 99% so as to create some form of genuine democracy and much fairer and more equitable societies.

These aims are entirely laudable and rational, and, despite the constant assertions from various right-wing ‘elites’ (their self-serving word) that only they have the expertise and knowledge to govern and to administer public policies and programmes, these aims are also entirely sustainable. After all, is it not the case that responsibility for all of the major military, economic and political disasters over the past century and beyond can be laid right at the door of the various ‘elites’ and their ‘expert’ advisers? Only a self-serving, powerful social deviant or a supportive fool would suggest that human beings who manage very complex personal and community lives do not have the capacity through acting in alliance with others for the common good to make decisions that are at least no worse than the calamitous decisions made by the existing ‘elites’, and likely far better.

Many older political activists and agitators will have been pessimistic over the past decade and more at the prospects for the development of new radical social movements willing to shake off the illusion of increased personal wealth and ready to tackle the problem of political and economic neo-liberal hegemony in North America and Europe. They need not have been pessimistic since if history teaches us anything it is that history is composed of cycles, of highs and lows, of periods of apparent peace and of periods of conflict, of oscillations between what we describe as the politics of the left and of the right.

So certain were neo-liberals and neo-conservatives of their ultimate triumph over the forces of the left following the fall of the Iron Curtain that one of them, Stanford University academic Francis Fukuyama, was prepared in 1992 to declare the following nonsense with a straight face, and was lionised in many quarters for it – “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” That sound that we can hear in the background is of furious back-pedalling, but too late – the hubris of the political right is the cause of their undoing as will become apparent as this latest cycle unfolds.

Many of those older political activists and agitators will shake their heads at the notion of a de-politicised or apolitical movement for fundamental reform (in other words a revolutionary movement). They need not worry. What is going on is a process of attracting support from populations that have been subjected to many decades of media-delivered propaganda, populations that are unsure of the consequences of challenging authority, of stepping ‘over the mark’. That is how hegemony works most effectively through what Elisabeth Noelle-Neuman described as a Spiral of Silence in which individuals, confronted with potentially contentious issues, scan the horizon to determine what they think is a social consensus out of which they are disinclined to break because of fear of social isolation or physical injury. The Spiral of Silence is broken, and with it hegemony, when voices begin to challenge authority and increase and magnify as more people find their courage. That process can be very rapid. The fall of the Iron Curtain is one case in support of this, Tunisia another.

Canadian blogger Shafeen Charania writes that “Things don’t suddenly hit the fan, there is a lead up that gets to the point when people, despite the risk, say “Enough.” It is at this point that revolutions are born, that causes are formed, that the Man is made to pucker. As the unjust disparity grows, the people’s desire to hold on to the status quo shrinks to the point where what was once unthinkable becomes thinkable. Unjust disparity is the gap between being controlled and being in control”.

If the ‘Occupy’ movement is successful in maintaining and then expanding its support then that may take care of the question ‘how are we going to get there?’. But that leaves unanswered the question ‘Where do we want to go?’. In effect it is the ‘the cart before the horse’ scenario. As things stand the movement has some nebulous idea of the need for a transformation in the way political and economic power is wielded and its effect on societies and individuals, but that revolutionary idea needs to have a focus, a destination, a ‘place’ where a majority of people are prepared and interested enough to go, and it must be a journey that has the possibility of a successful conclusion in as short a space of time as is possible to avoid the potential for a political vacuum that may be filled by malign forces. History can illuminate that journey.

At another time, in what seems like a strange land, the then ninety-niners lived in conditions not dissimilar to but very much more exaggerated than those that today’s ninety-niners rebel against. They were governed by a succession of tyrannical kings and governments that constantly shifted wealth from the poor to the rich, stole the ninety-niners’ lands and resources, used famine as a genocidal tool, and the noose, the sword and the gun as a means of suppressing dissent. The tyrants did all they could to destroy the indigenous laws, culture and language,  used the ninety-niners as slaves at home and abroad, ensured that living conditions were, for the vast majority, utterly sub-standard and that hope for a better future seemed an impossible illusion.

Eventually, just as today, a small number of ninety-niners determined that change must come, that they would attempt to transform the lives of all ninety-niners in their land by creating revolutionary change. A journey would be required, and all involved knew that it would be an extremely hazardous one, that some would make it to the destination but that others would fall in the making of the journey. But what would be the destination? It surely had to be one worth reaching, if the human cost was to be high. No point in making a journey that ended up, more or less, at the point of departure.

What those ninety-niners did was to draw up a set of requirements for a new society, which are, again, not dissimilar in many respects to the requirements that today’s ninety-niners are articulating – justice, equity, freedom, genuine democracy by ownership of government by citizens, and prosperity. Oh, and for good measure, those ninety-niners of old added a truly revolutionary notion, that the government would work, not just for the prosperity of its citizens, but for their happiness!

Now, not only did the ninety-niners of old know they had a journey to make, but that there was a destination worth arriving at. If today’s ninety-niners are to be successful then it is imperative that they set down the broad requirements of the renovated societies that they wish to achieve – only then will they have the potential to attract the mass support needed to overcome seemingly impossible odds. To do that they must lay out some sort of vision for their particular society in the country in which they are campaigning.

In their deliberations, today’s ninety-niners might examine the template for a better society drawn up by the ninety-niners of old. It may be that they might find ways of improving on it, but that is doubtful. Here is the essence of it – “The Irish Republic is a Sovereign Independent State and is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of all citizens. The Republic declares the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”.

No privileged ‘elite’ outside of the rule of law; no preferment for corporate interests over the citizens’ interests; religious and civil liberties enshrined; absolute parity of esteem for all citizens without qualification on grounds of gender, race, religious persuasion, intellectual or physical ability, social class or profession/trade, etc.; control of national wealth and resources by the people; ownership of government by the citizens and not vested interests; prosperity and…happiness.

Today’s ninety-niners might well consider these ideas – would they be satisfied with a society in which these were the rule of law and enshrined and underpinned in a costitution? If not, how are they to be improved on? It is reasonable to suggest that the vision of the ninety-niners of old represents an achievable destination, and that the journey need not take an inordinate amount of time to complete.

Occupying Dame Street is a worthwhile and admirable thing to do. It could be the first step towards a bigger objective with a slightly different slogan – ‘Occupy The Republic’.

Revolution and counter-revolution in Ireland

We are pretty poor in Ireland at properly describing the state we are in, both physically and psychologically.  We live in a political state that we describe as a ‘republic’ even though it patently fails to meet the test for a republic and is, instead, something else, but we won’t name it for what it really is. And we live in a state of being, a psychological condition strangely common across disparate groups that each claim to draw inspiration from widely differing sources, whether christian or non-christian religious faiths, various right-wing or left-wing political faiths, those of no religious or political affiliation and so on. Despite those different influences, so deeply important to many individuals, we act – or fail to act – as if we are all of the same mind.

First to the political state we are in, the so-called ‘republic’.  A reasonable person might imagine that our definition of ‘the republic’ should derive from the foundational document of the independent Irish State, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Paragraph four of the Proclamation lays out very clearly the relationship between the republic and its citizens and the rights and freedoms that the citizens would enjoy.

‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation, and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.’

The document is revolutionary in its proposal to bring about profound change to the existing order under British rule. It fueled the War of Independence, and its terms were ratified by the people through the elections of 1918, and in the Declaration of Independence issued by the first Dáil in 1919. It is the template for our Irish Republic. But something went wrong. Instead of being our guiding light, the Proclamation was hung, face to the wall, in the darkest corner the state could find.

The Civil War which followed ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922 which was forced through by the British under threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ has had a hugely distortive effect on Irish political life ever since. The victors in that Civil War, the pro-Treaty Free State government, was made up of businessmen, professionals and middle-class conservatives. The anti-Treaty side contained the bulk of those radicals and socialists who had survived the Revolution in 1916, and who had prosecuted the War of Independence against the British to establish the Irish Republic. Most of the women who had taken an active part in the 1916 revolution and the War of Independence were on the anti-Treaty side.

Seventy-seven captured anti-Treaty ‘Irregulars’ were executed by the Free State government in 1922-23, some on the flimsiest of charges, and some by summary execution without trial. Republican heroes including Erskine Childers, Liam Lynch, Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows (acknowledged as a socialist intellectual of the same calibre as James Connolly) were executed by Free State firing squads both as a reprisal for acts done by others over whom they had no control, being in prison, and as a way of permanently removing an oppositional cadre of high-quality and deeply committed leaders. The mindset of those government ministers who set this brutal and unlawful campaign of terror in place would later reveal itself as proto-fascist with the amalgamation of their party Cumann na nGaedhael with the fascist Army Comrades Association, better known as the Blueshirts, to form the Fine Gael party that leads the current government.

A principal icon of that party, William T Cosgrave, who was the first prime minister of the Free State, encapsulated that mindset in this quote from a letter he wrote to Austin Stack in 1921 – “People reared in workhouses, as you are aware, are no great acquisition to the community and they have no ideas whatsoever of civic responsibilities. As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers. Consequently, it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate.” That contempt for the poor and marginalised, victims of class politics and consequent economic and cultural deprivation, is still evident in Fine Gael attitudes to this day. It represents the polar opposite of the Republic laid out in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Many of those on the anti-Treaty side who survived the Civil War were driven into exile, or forced underground, such was the atmosphere generated by the Civil War. As Carol Coulter, writing in 1990, put it: ‘The many other elements which were undoubtedly present in Irish nationalism – not just at the level of ideology, but expressed in living people – ranging from socialism and feminism to religious scepticism and various forms of mysticism, were defeated and their adherents marginalised or forced to keep their dissident views to themselves.’

Eamon de Valera, who was the political leader of the anti-Treaty forces, and who created the Fianna Fail party in 1926 ostensibly as ‘The Republican Party’, would consistently show himself from then on, as he had in 1916, to be nothing more than a catholic nationalist and certainly not a republican. He had been the only 1916 commandant to escape execution, and the only one to have refused to have women as part of  the garrison he led (at Boland’s Mills). That decision he later regretted solely on the grounds that some of his men had to cook! In his political life over many years as Taoiseach and later president, de Valera demonstrated no desire whatever to elevate the Proclamation from obscurity by creating the very Irish Republic that he had sworn in 1916 to put into place.

Having ‘won’ the Civil War, the Free State government set about dismantling the revolution and creating what can only be described as the counter-revolution – the very danger that James Connolly had warned against on many occasions leading up to the 1916 revolution.

The perpetuation of the highly-centralised state administrative system closed off access to power from the broad mass of ordinary people. The professional classes, property owners, capitalist industrialists and bankers still had that access, and the influence that went with it. So too had the Roman Catholic Hierarchy.

As a result of partition, and the consequent separation from the largely-Protestant North East, the Catholic Church held a powerful position in the Free State and began to assert its moral authority more explicitly. Within eight years, what can be described as Catholic legislation had found its way onto the statute books, with discriminatory laws on illegitimacy, divorce, contraception and censorship.

The Film Censorship Act (1923) was passed very shortly after the transfer of power to the Free State government. At this stage the Irish economy was in tatters. The nation had just endured a deeply divisive civil war. Child mortality rates were frighteningly high by European standards. Large numbers of people existed in the most squalid conditions both in the cities and rural areas. And yet the censorship of film was deemed important enough to be placed high on the list of legislation.

‘The highly authoritarian, anti-intellectual strain of Irish Catholic morality was incorporated in the Censorship of Films Act (1923) and the Censorship of Publications Act (1929). These acts were rigorously enforced up to the 1960s by a Censorship Board which was vigilantly supervised by Catholic lay organisations such as the Knights of Columbanus’.   (Tom Inglis: ‘Moral Monopoly’)

The censorship of books and magazines was undertaken on the grounds of ‘public decency’ or ‘obscenity’, but played a major role in suppressing the availability of information to women on matters that apply particularly to them, such as contraception and abortion. Frank O’Connor summed up the situation in 1962 in a debate in Trinity College Dublin: ‘What really counts is the attitude of mind, the determination to get at sex by hook or by crook. Sex is bad, books encourage sex, babies deter it, so keep the books out and give them lots of babies, and we shall have the nearest thing the puritan can hope for to a world without beauty and romance’.

While radicals, dissidents, the poor and the consumers of literature and the arts lost heavily because of the dominant counter-revolutionary ideology of the Free State, there can be no doubt that it was women who bore the brunt of a patriarchal assault on their civil liberties and their sense of self-worth. As soon as the Treaty had been ratified the war on women began. The Catholic Church had created a process of social control and social engineering in the nineteenth century based around the mother as the link to the individual, and one of the principal ways in which the Church exercised control over the mother was by exercising control over their sex.

‘In Ireland, it was the knowledge and control that priests and nuns had over sex which helped maintain their power and control over women. Women especially were made to feel ashamed of their bodies. They were interrogated about their sexual feelings, desires and activities in the confessional. Outside the confessional there was a deafening silence. Sex became the most abhorrent sin.’ ( Tom Inglis ‘Moral Monopoly’)

But the State was now playing its part through the legislative process. Women were increasingly excluded from the public sphere, and were by law precluded from exercising artificial means of control over their own reproductive organs. Single women who made the ‘mistake’ of becoming pregnant were vilified or exiled. Many ended up in the now infamous Magdalene Laundries run by the religious orders, along with many other girls and young women who were considered by the clergy, police or their families to be ‘at risk’. Very many of these unfortunates spent their entire adult lives in these awful places.

In the same way that ‘at risk’ girls, or ‘fallen’ women, could  likely end up in the Magdalene Laundries or similar institutions, children who were ‘deviant’ through an involvement in petty crime, poor school attendance, or lack of parents – in other words, orphans – were certain to find themselves in the euphemistically titled ‘Industrial Schools’ run by the Christian Brothers, or an equivalent institution for girls. The State washed its hands of responsibility for these, the most vulnerable in society.

The consequences of that policy are now  coming to light in proven cases of physical, psychological and sexual abuse on a horrifying scale. These children were not cherished equally to the children of the middle class and the bourgeoisie, but those who abused them, and those who facilitated the abusers in the Catholic Church, the Irish civil service and police, the medical and legal professions and politicians have, by and large, remained untouched by the law.

The 1937 Constitution was another retrograde step foisted on women. Women were now mentioned only as ‘mothers’ and their assigned space was to be the home. The constitution envisaged that women would not, through economic necessity, neglect their primary duties to their husband and their children by working outside the home. Of course many families could not rely on the father’s capacity to provide a living wage, so that for many in Ireland this was just another pious platitude.

‘The position of women in the Irish constitution is value laden. I think it really comes from the central position that the Catholic Church occupies in the Irish Free State and the perception of women in catholic cultural and political life, and this very often happens in a country that has undergone a revolution followed by a civil war, that the strong currents regulating the life of the country go towards a desire for conservative behaviour and conservative images of women’. (Historian Margaret McCurtain).

Women had played a major part in the republican and trade union movements. They had been actively involved in the Land League, Gaelic League, Celtic Revival, the Howth Gun-Running, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War. They had been amongst the most committed to the cause of Irish freedom, and had been formally included in the Proclamation. But in the new Ireland, they were to be mothers, menial workers or minders.

In the significant areas of health and education the degree of control which the Church had achieved in the nineteenth century under British rule was  augmented under the Free State regime. Control of health through hospitals and clinics with a strictly catholic ethos, is another way, outside the confessional, of exercising control over the body.

When the then Minister for Health, Dr. Noel Browne, attempted to bring in the Mother and Child scheme in 1951, which was to do with nothing more than the provision of health care for pregnant women and post-natal care for mothers and children, the response from the Hierarchy took the form of a letter to the Taoiseach – ‘To claim such powers for the public authority, without qualification, is entirely and directly contrary to Catholic teaching on the rights of the family, the rights of the church in education, the rights of the medical profession and of voluntary institutions’

The Minister was forced to resign, and the Mother and Child scheme fell.

In the area of education, the State likewise abrogated its responsibilities to the Church. The Church was, just as it had been under British rule, delighted to – indeed insistent that it should – fill that vacuum. Under Catholic Church control, equality of educational opportunities was not to apply to all of the children of the Nation, just all of the children of the bourgeoisie.

‘It suited this class down to the ground to entrust the education of the youth, and the formulation of social policy, to the Catholic Church. The outlook which it put forward in the 1930s with its corporate view of society, sought to deny class divisions, to preach satisfaction with the economic status quo, and to keep women and youth subordinated to husbands and fathers.’ (Carol Coulter)

Irish education is based on the notion of conformity, and conformity is a vital element in a hegemonic system. According to UCD historian David Fitzpatrick, Catholic nationalism was promoted by the Christian Brothers through ‘the most systematic exploitation of history’ and that their Irish History Reader of 1905 claimed that ‘a nation’s school books wield a great power’, and further: ‘Teachers should reinforce the text-book’s message by dwelling “with pride, and in glowing words on Ireland’s glorious past, her great men and their great deeds”, until pupils were persuaded “that Ireland looks to them, when grown to a man’s estate, to act the part of true men in furthering the sacred cause of nationhood’.

Fitzpatrick further points out that while the writings of Protestants such as John Mitchel and Thomas Davis were popular at the time, the Christian Brothers publication ‘Our Boys” entreated that pupils who were establishing libraries in Christian Brothers’ schools should ‘..be sure, though, that everything you get is recommended by a good Catholic Irishman’.

One important agent of influence in the state was outside direct and overt control by the Catholic church. But since the church directly influenced almost all of those who owned or worked in the media it could rest assured that its views would fall on friendly ears and be delivered through TV, radio and the printed press to the mass of Irish people. Since the vast majority of Irish politicians and state employees such as civil servants and the army and police were loyal, and sometimes fanatical, members of that church, it was in the interest of the state and its employees that those Catholic Church views on almost all important social issues were reported, and reported favourably. After all, maintaining the status quo was in all of their interests – although not in the interest of the mass of people.

Writer and cultural philosopher Desmond Fennell summed it up well in 1993: ‘When an ideological sect has a monopoly of the national media, it tends inevitably, without need of conscious decision, to prevent or minimise public discussion of those ideas it does not want discussed.’ Thus, in the interest of maintaining the status quo, discussion of republican, socialist, feminist, secular and other dissenting views – in other words, progressive ideas – was to be curtailed, or better still prevented, lest those ideas lead to a change in the social order.

The media audience was thus culturally conditioned into belonging to a community, the values of which did not evolve organically over time and through informed and free consent, but were a consequence of inputs under the control of the political class, i.e. the bourgeoisie which combined willingly with the Catholic hierarchy, to create, to use Fennell’s term, an ideological sect.

It is only in the past 20 years or so that the ruling ideological sect has begun to be challenged, and mainly through the work of a small number of ethical journalists, the persistence of a few leftist political groups and individuals, and the work of a few members of the legal profession. Their targets have been, in the main, the political and civil institutions of the state, and the Catholic church.

As far back as 1994, Fintan O’Toole wrote that: ‘In Ireland, virtually every branch of the political system has had its inadequacies exposed. Neither the systems of thought nor the systems of government can simply be patched and mended. They need to be reimagined, redrawn and reconstructed.’

In recent years there has been a steady trickle of information emerging about the relationship between the political and the commercial worlds, triggering a series of interesting but essentially ineffective public inquiries. Ineffective, since prison does not seem to be an option for patently corrupt politicians or businessmen or professional facilitators of corrupt practices.

Neither do the jail gates swing open to receive ecclesiastical prisoners – the bishops and other high-ranking priests and members of the institutional Catholic church – those who destroyed or hid evidence of the most egregious abuse of children, who deliberately lied about crimes they knew to have been perpetrated. In this non-republic there is one set of laws, rigorously applied, for the poor and marginalised and vulnerable, and there is a very different set of rules for the professional class, the Catholic hierarchy and its collaborators, politicians, and the business community.

And so to the Irish State, and what it really is. It is patently obvious that it cannot be described, from its foundation to the present day, as a republic. A republic is the property of its citizens, according to Cicero, and post-Enlightenment republics generally aspire to that idea.

The Irish State has been owned from 1922 to the present day by Desmond Fennell’s ‘ideological sect’, or to put it another way, the priests and the political class of which they form part.

The best description of the Irish State is that it was first a counter-revolutionary theocratic state controlled in its essence by an ultra-conservative religious sect, and that it has, with the diminution in power of the Irish Catholic Church over the past 30 years, become a counter-revolutionary plutarchy – a combination of plutocracy (government by a wealthy class) and oligarchy (government by a dominant class or clique) – a plutarchy determined at all costs to stifle the beautiful vision of the Proclamation.

And what of the people of Ireland, or at least of the 26-county Irish State, and their seeming inability, in general, to act politically and socially in different ways depending on their particular ‘faiths’ whether religious or political, to rationally debate different ideas, to come to different conclusions, make different choices, act with some evidence of individual autonomy and reason?

How is it that a majority of people in this state consistently act against their own economic or social interests in electing a set of political parties to govern, knowing from experience that the inevitable outcome will be the pampering of the wealthy at the expense of the lower middle and working classes and the poor, and the formulation of social policy so as to achieve as little progressive movement as necessary, thus securing the existing social order?

How is  it that in the face of outrageous and generally un-prosecuted crimes committed against women and children, and the corruption of political institutions by politicians, professionals and business interests, the people give out and then, inevitably, give in?

How is it that the mass of ordinary people, workers and their families, with all of the evidence around them of a contempt for the contribution they make to the companies they work for, and to the State itself, give in to a campaign of vilification of the trade union movement – the very institution that gave them the 40 hour working week, annual leave, legal and regulatory protections, a seat at the negotiating table, a minimum wage, extra pay for unsocial hours and redundancy compensation?

The answer to these questions lies in understanding that classic ‘civil war to counter-revolution’ scenario described earlier by Margaret McCurtain, and adding to it the deliberate creation off a hegemonic state by creating a ‘spiral of silence’ in which all dissident views are regarded as deviant and dangerous and contrary to ‘public good’ and even the ‘natural order’.

The evidence is all there in full view. It is time for us to understand it and to react rationally in our own interest and in the interest of the common good. It is time for us to start naming things for what they really were and are.  It is time for us to stop using ambiguity in language as it applies to public life and to the nation, to stop talking from behind our hands, to stand up and speak out, to stop giving out and then giving in. It is time for us to tear back the Proclamation from the dead hands of that ugly ‘ideological sect’ and to put it into action for the benefit of all citizens – to re-create the Republic.

It is time for us to grow up.

Alternative to Irish media hegemony is vital

The Irish people, we are constantly reminded, are an innately conservative lot. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from that conservatism being present from birth, part of the DNA of the Irish, it is solely the consequence of cultural formation. At one time it could be argued that that conservatism was the result of  a peculiar form of Catholicism, Ultramontanism, inflicted on the unfortunate people in the early 19th century. There is truth in that, but it tells only part of the story. The decline in the power of the Catholic church in recent decades has not led to a significant shift from conservatism. The answer to this prolonged ideological stasis lies in the media landscape of Ireland.

Ireland is virtually unique among European countries, and many countries in the wider world, in having no significant left-wing press. The three national daily newspapers in the ‘Republic’ of Ireland are to all intents ideologically interchangeable. The ideas and values they present to the readers are essentially conservative on politics, liberal on social  matters, and neo-liberal on economics. The same is true about the Sunday newspapers, and about broadcast media whether privately owned commercial stations or the semi-state national broadcasting company, RTE.

In this media environment, any ideas, values or principles that come out of left-wing ideology are routinely rubbished and ridiculed, usually with an air of authority and often with a sneer. Socialised medicine was recently rubbished on RTE radio as ‘Utopia’ – used as a pejorative term of course – as if the health systems in much of Europe, far superior to ours, could be dismissed just like that, an unattainable daydream. A recent demand by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland that public funding of €100 million for private schools should be withdrawn and used instead for severely disadvantaged public schools met a similar barrage of criticism, much of it from privately educated broadcasters and journalists.

That the existing Irish media not only failed utterly to challenge the ‘Celtic Tiger’ neo-liberal ‘market driven’ economic policies but actually promoted the crazy construction ‘boom’ that those policies were designed to fuel, demonstrates not just the failure of the Irish media to perform its functions  of informing the public and of holding the powerful to account, but its complicity in the creation of a national economic catastrophe. Instead of raising all of the pertinent questions arising from insane economic policies, those voices – most often of the left – which were raised against disastrous public policies were either silenced or rubbished.

The right-wing media hegemony must be broken if there is to be any basis for Ireland being able to claim to be a truly democratic State. The absence of fair presentation of ideas and values that offer an alternative to the political hegemony of permanent right-wing government by one or other of the civil war parties, the ideological twins Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, denies both the notion of a ‘free’ press and the repetitive claim that the Irish electorate is well-informed and well-served by its national media.

The defence of the Irish media that is routinely trotted out is that the media give the readers what the readers want. In the first  place there is no alternative offered, secondly an audience is through repetition over time cultured into believing that what is presented is the ‘norm’ and is the ‘common-sense’ position, particularly when the same small panel of ‘experts’, drawn from the ranks of the political class and elevated to celebrity status by the same media, is used over and over again in print and on radio and TV shows.

The belief is fostered that there is no market for a daily newspaper with the capacity to challenge the Irish Independent, Irish Times and Irish Examiner. A newspaper needs readers, not just to recoup costs through the cover price but more importantly to attract advertisers. To do this it is necessary to have a readership that it is worth marketing products to, and so middle-class and wealthier readers are important, but so too are lower income readers who also consume products and services and need public service information ads.

The approximate circulation figures for the national dailies are: Irish Independent 140,000; Irish times 102,000; Irish Examiner 46,000. Could a new left-wing daily newspaper match those figures, even the lowest? And from which part of the population might it do so?

In the recent General Election the two conservative political parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, garnered just under 1.2 million votes. The combined vote for those other parties that are, or claim to be, of the left was approximately 760,000, not counting leftist independents. Another figure worth considering is the total trade union membership in this State of about 600,000. Out of either of those numbers it is difficult to see how a good quality alternative to the current trio of conservative newspapers would not be able to match at least the lowest circulation figure, that of the Irish Examiner.

But what of setup and running costs? A creative approach would be needed, but one ally that a new newspaper has is new communications and printing technology, combined with the capacity to print simultaneously in different regions or provinces to reduce distribution costs and speed delivery. By setting achievable circulation targets and initially using freelance journalists and interns alongside a core of seasoned professional staff under a good team of editors it is feasible to challenge the existing Irish national dailies for readers, and more importantly to set out to win readers away from the Irish versions of British newspapers. There is also, very likely, a large cohort of potential readers who opt for a quality British newspaper, or for none at all.

The plain fact is that until an alternative to the existing conservative national daily newspapers is put in place, then the media hegemony which sustains the political hegemony will continue its work of distortion and propagandising, maintaining a roadblock on the journey to the day when we can legitimately say that this State is a democratic one.

Election Mania: notes from the asylum 4

On his ‘Tonight’ programme on TV3, Vincent Browne has taken the parties of the Left to task for their failure to tap into the mood for change among the electorate and asked various representative of those parties – ‘Why?’.  None of them has given the glaringly obvious answer.

In a multi-party democracy those who control media coverage control the propaganda war. These ‘controllers’ include senior editors and producers, and senior journalists and ‘elite’ commentators. But more than that, control is influenced by the ethos of the media outlet, whether a TV or radio station, or a newspaper or magazine.

In the Republic of Ireland there is no organ of the mainstream national media – TV, radio or printed press – that meets the test for diversity or pluralism as those terms apply to balanced coverage of various political ideologies. Not only do we not have any significant organ of the media that could be described as left of centre, counterbalancing the conservative ethos of the Irish Times, Irish Independent and Irish Examiner, and RTE, TV3 and other national and local broadcasters, but within those organs there is evidence of a strong bias towards maintaining the ‘status quo’ and treating parties and individuals who are outside the mainstream dismissively, and even contemptuously.

Press ownership by wealthy individuals and companies, and by the State in the case of RTE, is one reason for this attitude on the part of the employees of media producers. They are, naturally, mindful of who they work for and to and of the need to hold onto their positions. But the real problem is an attitudinal one, a failure on the part of very many producers/editors and journalists to apply the central principles of fairness and accuracy to their coverage of politics and public policy options.

Understanding who producers/editors and journalists are with regard to social class, training, cultural influences and social peer and workplace pressure is a valid way of understanding why there is a uniformity across the media in the treatment of any political movement which diverges from the status quo. It is reasonable to say that the vast bulk of political coverage in the media is far more reflective of the views of those living in the leafy suburbs of South Dublin, than of the mass of people who live in housing estates, in rural towns and villages, or in remote communities.

Two examples will back that up – the narrow selection of ‘expert’ political commentators, and the skewed selection of discussion panels on popular current affairs programmes on radio and TV, invariably drawn from the ‘political class’ – politicians, professionals, business men and women, academics. The research is simple to do, and using a sociological approach the outcome inevitably demonstrates that the influential voices are almost invariably establishment voices with minor and usually inconsequential variations.

Since it is mainly through the media that we get information and ideas – but also ways of thinking and seeing the world we inhabit – it is vital for the citizens and for democracy itself  that a full range of information is accessible, that different political ideas are respectfully debated and analysed, and that the cosy bourgeois consensus in the media is ended.

In the absence of journalists moderating themselves by ensuring that the principles of fairness and accuracy are observed, and indeed pressurising their employers to allow themselves as professionals to do so, then it falls to society, if its members really do believe in deomocracy, to apply that pressure from outside.

Those Left-wing parties who failed to identify this to Vincent Browne and the TV audience as the major problem they face in seeking to end the hegemony of the Right in Irish politics, need to urgently begin to address the matter in a unified way in public, to apply the sort of pressure that they are capable of doing both inside parliament and on the streets, and even to consider the viability of alternatives to the corrupted media in Ireland. A failure by the Left to challenge media hegemony now means repetitious failure of the Left in the future. This organised challenge must be the first item on the Left’s agenda, post-election.

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