Tuesday 27 September 2011

Ireland: Presidential Election 2011 - a state of the nation address

The controversy that has arisen from the nomination of Martin McGuinness, as the Sinn Féin candidate in the forthcoming presidential election, contains historical parallels that a student of Irish history will instantly recognise - almost like deja-vu in fact.

The opening shots (if that is not too loaded a phrase) were fired by Fine Gael's Alan Shatter, who is also the current Minister for Justice, quickly followed by his party's own candidate for the presidency, Gay Mitchell. Shatter questioned the Sinn Féin's candidate 'suitability' commenting:
That party's failure and his failure in particular to embrace the queen's visit which took place four months ago ... indicates that he isn't an appropriate person to be our president. - see RTÉ News [our italics]

Shatter's affectionate use of the definite article (she's just not any old queen!) in deference to the head of state of a foreign country is of course highly suggestive of his background and political leanings. It's probably a moot point to ask whether such a display is suitable for a government official making a public statement.

'Failure to embrace' the official visit of Queen Elizabeth II of England (first of Scotland) was not the exclusive domain of Martin McGuinness, or even Sinn Féin, in any case. It is fair to say that the overwhelming public reaction was one of indifference, mingled with dismay at the heavy-handed security presence foisted upon the country during her stay. Presumably too, it would have been Alan Shatter himself, in his capacity as Minister for Justice who would have been instrumental in sanctioning and authorising this.

More ominous soundings were issued by his party colleague and presidential candidate, Gay Mitchell however. He told RTÉ News:
I have spent my life defending this State, and I am not about to surrender it to people who will change it from the inside.

What does all this mean? What issues does it raise? In particular, the question arises: How far does he propose to go in his bid to prevent people from 'changing the state from the inside'? Does this not also illustrate the fact that if people are thwarted from changing things by the legitimate route (i.e. from the inside) they will seek (perhaps with justification) to use 'illegitimate' means?

While it is funny to observe the hysterical reactions that archaic mindsets can produce, there is a definite historical origin that is worth considering. Fine Gael are the political descendants of those who supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922, defending it in the civil war which that treaty precipitated. Of all the political forces in Ireland, past and present, they have always taken to heart their self-appointed role as 'defenders of the realm' - more often than not with little or no notion of political irony, let alone a sense of humour to guide them.

It was their political grouping (then going under the name of Cumann na nGaedheal) which ran the Irish state for the first ten years or so after gaining independence. By 1926 however sections of the anti-treaty forces re-grouped under a new political formation that adopted the name Fianna Fáil. Almost immediately they began to mount a serious electoral challenge to the existing government. According the the Fianna Fáil website, the party's constitution and aims laid down at the first Ard Fheis pledged:
  1. To secure the unity and independence of Ireland as a Republic.
  2. To restore the Irish language as the spoken language of the people, and to develop a distinctive national life in accordance with Irish traditions and ideals.
  3. To make the resources and wealth of Ireland subservient to the needs and welfare of all the people of Ireland.
  4. To make Ireland, as far as possible, economically self-contained and self-sufficing.
  5. To establish as many families as practicable on the land.
  6. By suitable distribution of power to promote the ruralisation of industries essential to the lives of the people as opposed to their concentration in cities.
  7. To carry out the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.

While the new party grew fast, this growth was somewhat hampered by its abstentionist policy in relation to Dáil Éireann. Fianna Fáil's opposition to Dáil Éireann stemmed mainly from Article 17 of the 1922 Constitution which read:
I (name) do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established, and that I will be faithful to H.M. King George V, his heirs and successors by law in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of nations. - see Wikipedia

This oath was a requirement for duly elected TDs to be able to take their seats. In 1927, following the assassination of Kevin O'Higgins, the Cumann na nGaedheal government, under W.T. Cosgrave, introduced a series of repressive measures which were widely unpopular. They also introduced a law requiring all Dáil candidates to promise that they would take the oath in order to contest Dáil elections. It can be seen therefore that Alan Shatter is not the first Irish political leader, who has attempted to make subservience to a foreign monarch a 'suitability criterion' for those seeking public office, even within the framework of a supposedly independent and republian-oriented Irish state.

Faced with the options, Fianna Fáil took a pragmatic decision to take the oath (they said that they were doing no more than 'signing a piece of paper'). In any case, the actions of the Cumann na nGaedhael government may well be regarded as a blessing in disguise for Fianna Fáil. By 1932 they were the largest part in Dáil Éireann and in a position to form a government. On 9 March 1932 the first change of government in the Irish Free State took place. Wikipedia provides all the important information as to what happened before, during and after this important transition.

In the election that propelled Fianna Fáil to power, the outgoing administration used what could be described as generally negative tactics; even attempting to foment a red scare which probably backfired. Also during the campaign The Irish Press newspaper was prosecuted; its editor convicted before a military tribunal "for publishing articles alleging Gardaí had mistreated the opponents (i.e. Anti-Treaty republicans) of the Irish Free State government." (see Wikipedia)

All this gave rise to a feeling that the outgoing government would attempt to thwart the democratic wishes of the Irish people. This was the 1930s after all, a time when coup d'état were enjoying a certain currency as the preferred means for thwarting the popular will. It is widely believed that many of the deputies who arrived at Dáil Éireann on 9 March, 1932 to take their seats, entered the chambers carrying guns concealed about their clothing.
However, the feared coup d'état did not take place. W.T. Cosgrave was determined to adhere to the principles of democracy that he had practised while in government. Likewise, the army, Garda Síochána and the civil service all accepted the change of government, despite the fact that they would now be taking orders from men who had been their enemies less than ten years previously. After a brief and uneventful meeting in the Dáil chamber, Éamon de Valera was appointed President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State by the Governor-General, James McNeill, who had come to Leinster House to make the appointment rather than require de Valera travel to the Viceregal Lodge, formerly a symbol of British rule. - see Wikipedia

Whether or not this outcome was solely due to wise and far-sighted leadership of W.T. Cosgrave, or whether a secret deal was struck, history does not seem to record. But given the comparatively seamless transition, it seems entirely likely that something of the sort did take place. It would be strange if it didn't.

For Cumann na nGaedhael (soon to become Fine Gael) this would be the beginning of sixteen years in opposition. It is possible however, that from their perspective this too amounted to a blessing in disguise. A bit like Margaret Thatcher's famous remark that her greatest legacy was New Labour, for Fine Gael also, their adversaries enjoyed the popular appeal and grassroots support that they lacked. The irony of this situation became all the more apparent when Fianna Fáil, by taking advantage of the abdication crisis, began a process that appeared to be implementing what Michael Collins had proposed in using the treaty as a stepping stone to freedom.

In the period of almost 80 years that ensued, Fine Gael returned to government on only six occasions (a total of about 20 years) and on no occasion did they manage to achieve re-election having served a period in government. They became accustomed to the role of official opposition and occasional seat-warmers, forming stop-gap administrations whenever Fianna Fáil were suffering from periodic bouts of internal division and/or public unpopularity.

The party's relationship with Fianna Fáil was best articulated by Alan Dukes in a speech in 1987, which came to be known as The Tallaght Strategy. As leader of Fine Gael he publicly undertook not to 'oppose for the sake of opposing', but to support Fianna Fáil administrations when they were taking actions his party deemed to be in the national interest:
When the Government is moving in the right direction, I will not oppose the central thrust of its policy. If it is going in the right direction, I do not believe that it should be deviated from its course, or tripped up on macro-economic issues. - see Wikipedia

Whether formally declared or not, this strategy was adhered to by Fine Gael in opposition right up to the present, including almost 14 years of Fianna Fáil government (1997-2011) that for a time coincided with a period of rapid economic growth, only to be followed very quickly by a disastrous economic downturn.

In 2008 the global financial crisis struck leaving the Irish state reeling. The unthinkable had happened. In the 2011 General Election the blame game resulted in Fianna Fáil being decimated at the polls. Fine Gael were returned to power but on this occasion it was far from being a blessing in disguise. No more than Lee Harvey Oswald, it wasn't like Fianna Fáil had acted alone.

Upon taking up office Fine Gael and their Labour coalition partners pretty much took up exactly where Fianna Fáil had left off; bowing to the dictates of the ECB-IMF bailouts and proceeding with unpopular bailouts of failed banking institutions. Of course all of this is at odds with an uncharacteristically colourful statement, made while in opposition by leading Fine Gael spokesperson and current government minister, Leo Varadkar, when he accused senior bankers of causing more damage to the state than the IRA, calling for their criminal prosecution. (see Irish Independent, 5/12/10 - Brace Yourself for Adams in the Aras)

It could be just anger at their own capitulation that is prompting the latest virulent outbursts from Fine Gael, which on a superficial level appear to be directed at Sinn Féin, but could have wider targets in sight. But further appraisal would suggest that there is more to it than that. Fine Gael today are in the position where the chalice they passed to Fianna Fáil in 1932 has been returned to them. It is now a poisoned one but they seem to feel that they have no option but to drink from it. They also expect the rest of the country to follow suit. Hence the none-too-subtle inference in Gay Mitchell's statement that loyalty and fealty to the state is an absolute requirement and not conditional upon the state upholding and vigorously defending the interests of the people.

Back in May the economist Morgan Kelly, gave his prediction, in a widely debated article, as to the likely outcome of the course that the present government is following:
Just as the Lenihan bailout destroyed Fianna Fáil, so the Noonan bankruptcy will destroy Fine Gael and Labour, leaving them as reviled and mistrusted as their predecessors. And that will leave Ireland in the interesting situation where the economic crisis has chewed up and spat out all of the State’s constitutional parties. The last election was reassuringly dull and predictable but the next, after the trauma and chaos of the bankruptcy, will be anything but. - see The Irish Times, 7/5/2011

Fine Gael might not even have the luxury of forming a stop-gap administration, until such time as Fianna Fáil is back on its feet and ready to resume the helm. One of the things that this presidential election campaign is strongly hinting at, is that Fianna Fáil's decline may be terminable. For what must be the first time ever, that party failed to field a candidate or even to nominate an independent. In fact mere debate on the issue unearthed deep divisions within the parliamentary party, regardless that their numbers these days are small enough to convene a gathering in a telephone booth.

Another notable outcome of the 2011 election was the electoral breakthrough experienced by Sinn Féin, certain left-wing parties and groupings, together with non-party independents. It is clear as day that a major political realignment is on the cards - one based on the notion of competing aspirations rather than the stage-managed punch and judy affairs served up by Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael over the years. While the political forces are currently fragmented, it is likely that they the pace of events will galvanise them into action. It is also quite likely that a central if not core objective of this new political force will be the repudiation of the ECB/IMF dictate. There will be no cloak with which to mask such a deep and fundamental division.

So Fine Gael are in a situation roughly similar to that which they found themselves in 1932: facing the possibility of being politically eclipsed; the probability that they are going to have to hand over the reigns of power; not at all certain that on this occasion they will be able to find a 'suitable' successor.

In desperation they are trying to rally forces by calling for a joyful rendition of God Save the Queen. But just as in the past, if that is really what they want on this occasion they are going to have to find some way to impose their will upon the country at large. In the world of today it is the institutions of finance capital that are King - faceless entities that have the power to make or break nations. There is nothing that even her majesty, the queen of England could do to stand in the way of such forces, even if she were minded too.

So whither Ireland and whither Fine Gael? That party has witnessed transitions before but how will they react to it on this occasion? Will they listen to and accept the democratic verdict of the Irish people or will they attempt to do what W.T. Cosgrave declined to do in 1932?

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2011

Reference Material:

Belfast Telegraph, 23/9/11 - Gay Byrne attacks McGuinness in TV rant
The Irish Times, 23/9/11 - Only Norris can stop McGuinness becoming president
The Irish Times, 24/9/11 - Fine Gael attack McGuinness
RTÉ News - Áras race heats up as FG criticises McGuinness
Irish Independent, 5/12/10 - Brace Yourself for Adams in the Aras
Fianna Fáil website - Eamon de Valera. See also article on History of Fianna Fáil
Wikipedia - Irish General Election 1932. See also Oath of Allegiance, The Irish Press and Tallaght Strategy

Tuesday 10 May 2011

The Visit of a British Queen to Ireland

The forthcoming visit of Queen Elizabeth II of England (first of Scotland) to Éire-Ireland has raised some eyebrows, stirred a certain amount of controversy, but has mostly elicited a air of studied indifference combined with an appropriate measure of bemusement. That this should be the case is hardly surprising. In fact it is only to be expected given the historical background to the visit.

No sooner was the visit announced (at the invitation of Ireland's President Mary II) when the public relations coup some hoped they had achieved was deflated; US president Barack Obama also announced his intention visit to Ireland around the same time. It can only be speculated as to the intentions of the twin dignitaries and the countries they represent; whether the matter might be a case of collusion, contention or purely co-incidental.

Shortly after the announcement a controversy indeed arose, reflecting the wider issues of still unresolved differences between the Irish and British realms. A Dublin publican was ordered to take down a banner he erected outside his premises informing Queen Elizabeth that:
She and all her family are barred from this pub. As long as the British occupy one inch of this island they will never be welcome in Ireland.

According to further reports by the Irish Independent and other sources, the said publican was later arrested in a raid by An Gardaí Síochána on his premises. The publican who initiated the action, Mr John Stokes is vehement that:
I don't support any human life being taken - in Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever. I remember watching the Vietnam War on the television as a child and being really upset.

He is also reported as saying that:
This is nothing against English people. We’ve a lot of English people in the pub, we show English football, and we’re quite happy to do that…I do feel it’s not the right time for the queen to visit this country and I feel I have a democratic right to express that view. She still occupies part of our country and as long as she does I will always object to her presence in this country.

On the other side of the coin some ludicrously fawning banners of Queen Elizabeth and President Obama were ordered to be removed from a hotel located in Dublin's city centre. It is understood that the fifty foot high banners were removed following similar objections to those raised against Mr Stokes. It is known that the venue responsible for erecting these banners belong to property developer Harry Crosbie, whose investments are among those included in the NAMA winelake. It seems reasonable to assume that the Irish taxpayers, who are funding this bailout, are unlikely to ever be honoured in such a fashion.

Outside of the royalist-republican battleground, Socialist Pary TD, Joe Higgins managed to raise some hackles when he suggested to the Dáil that Queen Elizabeth "might make a contribution towards her own bed and breakfast" during her state visit, his reasoning being that:
the Royal Family of Britain is one of the wealthiest families in the world and this country is almost sleeping rough, so to speak, figuratively - Press Association
He went on to suggest that the visit by US president was a bid to win support from Irish Americans when he goes for re-election next year.
Isn't it a bit rich really that the Irish taxpayer, as well as bailing out European speculators, must now make a contribution to the re-election campaign of the United States' president? - ibid

But leaving aside the comedic aspects what are the wider ramification of Queen Elizabeth's (and to a certain extent President Obama's) visit? There is no doubt that the British monarch commands a certain amount of respect among the wider public - in Britain and in Ireland. She is after all a person despite what her lackeys might contend. What kind of person commands such varied measures of respect, revulsion and studied indifference? In the words of Oscar Wilde the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.
To answer this question we have to go back into the history of the British monarchy itself. Thankfully though, we do not have to go back too far. Actually it all goes back to 1936. That was the year of the abdication of Edward VIII. It also represents the year when the British monarchy ceased to have any significant role in affairs of state where independent Ireland was concerned.
Edward VIII's abdication was a matter forced upon him, not as some choose to believe, so that he could 'be with the woman he loved', but because of his sympathy and support for Nazi Germany. The issue of the Edward's proposed marriage however became the public battleground. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin reportedly told his cabinet that he had been asked by a Labour MP: 'Are we going to have a fascist monarchy?' [see Wikipedia].
Edward's attempts to achieve reconciliation with his government were rebuffed. In any case, it wasn't simply a matter for the British government or the British people alone. According to Wikipedia:
the Statute of Westminster 1931, which provided in part that "any alteration in the law touching the Succession to the Throne or the Royal Style and Titles shall hereafter require the assent as well of the Parliaments of all the Dominions as of the Parliament of the United Kingdom." The Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada and South Africa made clear their opposition to the King marrying a divorcee; the Irish prime minister expressed indifference and detachment, while the Prime Minister of New Zealand, having never even heard of Mrs. Simpson before, vacillated in disbelief. Faced with this opposition, Edward at first responded that there were "not many people in Australia" and their opinion did not matter.

A policy of conscious indifference therefore became the prevailing official Irish attitude towards the British monarchy from that point on. Ireland of course used the abdication crisis to repeal certain aspects of the Ango-Irish Treaty of 1922. Ireland became a republic in all but name; and a new constitution was enacted the following year which removed "all mention of the King and of the Representative of the Crown, whether under that title or under the title of Governor General." - see Cathal Brennan The Abdication of Edward VIII and Irish Independence.

After his abdication Edward and his wife (now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor) visited Nazi Germany where they were hosted by high ranking members of the regime, including Adolph Hitler. He became something of a thorn in the side of the British establishment (including his own family), even before war broke out with Germany in 1939.

While the pro-Nazi sentiment within the British political system was for the most part contained during WWII, it has recently been revealed that the outcome of that war and the defeat of Nazi Germany did not altogether eliminate it. From the Irish Independent, 22/11/2009:
BRITAIN'S Duke of Windsor plotted to return from exile in France and regain power as the health of King George VI deteriorated, according to letters discovered in America. ... He may even have hoped to one day reclaim the throne, according to the letters. ... The plotting reached its height in 1949. Some courtiers feared that George VI would become too ill to rule and that the young Princess Elizabeth - then just 23 - would effectively rule under the influence of Earl Mountbatten and Prince Philip of Greece, whom the future queen had married in 1947.

The 'young Princess Elizabeth' is of course today's Queen Elizabeth and from this it can be seen that her accession to the English throne was at least important in terms of closing the door on a certain unsavoury aspect of recent history.

The British monarchy was in fact one of the many battlegrounds of WWII. Insofar as these matters are ever black-and-white, the good guys won this particular battle - sort of. The monarchy was captured by the anti-fascist side and kept on a tight leash. Those who occupied the throne were allowed to remain there so long as they towed the anti-fascist line. After the war - in the absence of a party committed to modernising or restructuring the British state along democratic republican lines - the existence of an anti-fascist monarchy was the next best (or least worst) thing.

Of course it would be easy for us, as Irish people, to chide our British cousins for their naivety and sentimentality. But it deserves to be recognised that, in the context of the time, Irish people too were only beginning to grapple with political theory. Again, from Wikipedia:
Thomas Jones, Prime Minister Lloyd George's deputy cabinet secretary recalls an exchange on 14 July 1921 between the President of Dáil Éireann, de Valera and Prime Minister Lloyd George concerning the name of the Irish Republic in Irish:

"...Mr. de Valera...handed Mr. Lloyd George a document in Irish, and then a translation in English. The Irish document was headed 'Saorstat Eireann' and Mr. Lloyd George began by asking modestly for a literal translation, saying that 'Saorstat' did not strike his ear as Irish. Mr. De Valera replied 'Free State'. 'Yes, retorted Mr. Lloyd George, 'but what is the Irish word for Republic'. While Mr. De Valera and his colleague were pondering in English on what reply they should make Mr. Lloyd George conversed aloud in Welsh with one of his Secretaries (T.J.) to the discomfiture of the two Irishmen and as Mr. De Valera could get no further than Saorstat and Free State Mr. Lloyd George remarked 'Must we not admit that the Celts were never Republicans and have no native word for such an idea"

It appears that no one on the Irish side was familiar with the views of one Friedrich Engels (himself an avid observer of Irish affairs), who as far back as 1875 gave his opiniion on the subject of a 'free state':
Grammatically speaking, a free state is one in which the state is free vis-à-vis its citizens, a state, that is, with a despotic government. - Letter to August Bebel In Zwickau, March 18-28, 1875

Of course republicanism in its Irish context has never been resolved into a question of what form the head of state, or even the state itself should take. It is rather a question of the principles underlying a system of governance.

Wolfe Tone's goal was to 'break the connection with England' by uniting all Irish people - Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. Later Irish republicans (who included socialists in their ranks) developed these ideas further in the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. This 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.
  • includes a guarantee of full adult suffrage (a feat few other countries had achieved at the time).
  • resolves to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

But what is the relevance of all this for the present time, when Ireland, Britain and the world are experiencing far-reaching and fundamental changes? A couple of points stand out.

Clearly the aspirations of today's generations of Irish people are different to those that were around in 1916. For some, the forced acceptance by the Irish government of the ECB/IMF dictated bailout has brought closure to this period of nation-building. At the same time there are those who will argue, that the Irish Independence project rolled out in 1916 was flawed only in terms of its execution, not in terms of its overall design. Then as know, the challenge for Irish people is to wrest ourselves free from foreign domination. The economist Morgan Kelly has recently outlined what he believes Ireland's prospects are under the terms of this bailout, and has come to the conclusion that Ireland's future depends on breaking free from bailout.

The current situation is a lot like it was in 1916 where Britain is concerned too. Then, as now that state is locked in a battle for geo-political domination of the world. The fact that it is but a shadow of its previous self doesn't appear to deter those who are involving their country in invasions, occupations and barbaric attacks on the peoples of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. The last two administrations in Britain (which have involved all the major political parties - Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat) have proved culpable in this regard.

A call has been made from certain quarters for an anti-war government in Britain. This is commendable but it also has to be said those who would participate in this form of international gangsterism are unlikely to depart the stage of history peaceably. Far from diminishing, all the signs are that these attacks are going to continue, grow more savage and indiscriminate, as 'enemies' are singled out to be ticked off against a real or imaginary list.

Those who would hope for some kind of transformation in the political life of the British state, will no doubt be disappointed by the recent referendum result rejecting the proposed new voting system. Equally though, it could be argued, that the case for political change goes much deeper than mere cosmetic changes - replacing the monarchy with a republic being one such example.

At the end of the day, a country that wages war of aggression is still in contempt of international law whether that country is governed by a system of hereditary privilege or a system of elected dictators. British republicans (if such a party exists) would to well to learn from the Irish experience: It's not the form that matters but the principles underlying the system of governance and how a country conducts itself internationally which counts.

No doubt change will come. It can only be hoped that when it does come it is not already too late.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2011

Sunday 27 March 2011

The Political Fallout Arising from the Moriarty Tribunal

Arising out of the publication of the findings of The Moriarty Tribunal, there has been renewed calls for a ban on corporate donations. It's a subject that has been discussed previously on this blog - (The Funding of Political Parties). In my view the central issue remain the same - precisely what is such a ban supposed to achieve? As things stand, it all has the appearance of a solution in search of a problem. But perhaps it's not even as innocent as all that.

First of all there is the response of An Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, Enda Kenny. When asked if Michael Lowry (one of the key figures of the Moriarty Report) should resign, in view of what The Irish Times and other commentators consider to be "damning findings against him", Enda Kenny's answer was that "in an ideal world Mr Lowry would resign but this is not an ideal world." (Irish Times - 24/3/11).

It is also reported in the Irish Independent that he later clarified his position: 
I made the point that in an ideal world a deputy in this situation should resign. So I intend to speak in the debate myself when it comes up," he said. 
Mr Kenny was asked to clarify if he believed that Mr Lowry should resign but he declined to go further, saying only that his Government had referred the report to the the Revenue, the gardai and the DPP. 
He added: "Obviously, I made the point that Deputy Lowry, who is centrally involved in this Moriarty Report, where there are serious allegations, should go into the House and answer those charges," he said. - Irish Independent 26/3/11

Exactly what all this has to do with idealism only Enda Kenny can explain. In this day and age, it is generally expected of political leaders that they should be, first and foremost, masters of reality. They should be fearless in challenging perceptions, not least because the ideal state of affairs simply does not and cannot exist. Instead of taking the moral high ground - as he would have done in his previous role as the official chief critic of Fianna Fáil-led administrations - Enda Kenny has turned philosophical. In the process he has flunked his first major test (and not even a particularly arduous test) of leadership.

It is fortunate however that in Ireland, when politicians let it fall, there is always the good old Irish Times to pick up the baton. In an article by Noel Whelan, entitled Government must prioritise ban on corporate donationsa speech by former Fine Gael leader (and current Minister for Finance) Michael Noonan, from as far back as 2001 is quoted at length:
"ALL OVER the world, it is recognised that financial support from business to politicians is perceived by the public to have one purpose [namely] the securing of commercial advantage. Claims that such donations are made from disinterested motives are simply not believed. As the lurid tribunal scandals play out before our eyes, one thing is clear. We cannot restore politics until the perceived link between political contributions and public policy is broken." - Michael Noonan, February 9th, 2001. First press conference on succeeding to the leadership of Fine Gael. Quoted in The Irish Times, 26/3/11
Naturally The Irish Times is devastated by the stance adopted by the newly-elected government, in relation to the Moriarty Report and Michael Lowry in particular. They go on to cite several u-turns on the issue by Fine Gael since Michael Noonan's solemn declaration of 2001:
Sadly, it did not last long and Fine Gael quietly resumed accepting corporate donations. Fine Gael also returned to the defence of the party’s right to accept support from big businesses and, like Fianna Fáil, was dismissive of assertions that such support was tainted by the suggestion of influence or access. 
At last year’s MacGill Summer School, Fine Gael’s environment spokesman Phil Hogan said Fine Gael was opposed to the then government’s proposals to ban corporate donations, saying that his party made no apology and offered no favours in return for accepting them. In advance of last month’s election, however, Fine Gael again changed its policy on corporate donations – promising along with all other parties to introduce a ban.The Irish Times, 26/3/11

Returning to Michael Noonan's speech however, I can kind of see why Fine Gael may have dropped that particular 'lofty goal' - and before entering government too, not after. They are the kind of words that fall flat almost as soon as they leave the mouth of whoever uttered them. Maybe he just forgot to add the parenthesis in the ideal world to the comments he made at the time.

He did speak of breaking the 'perceived link' between political contribution (financial presumably) and public policy. But what about the real link, regardless of how it is perceived? We know that Fine Gael doesn't like the real world very much, but it's the only one we have and it's the only one we are in any position to influence. Also, it's not just public policy that has been influenced and corrupted by cronyism and graft. It would appear that it has spread to the day-to-day functioning of government.

The Irish Times tells us that "Moriarty’s findings are reminder that links between business and politics must be broken." Unfortunately that's only ever likely to happen in the 'ideal world' of a Fine Gael leader. More unfortunately that world appears to be almost as muddied and confused as the one that The Irish Times lives in.

Politics and business are inseparable allies. Furthermore, the two are also inseparable from the fabric of the wider society in which they are rooted. Just because some people have made 'politics' their 'business' doesn't alter that fact either. Irish school-goers of a certain age will possibly remember the cartoon depiction in the history text books, of an elderly gentleman going over his last will and testament with his solicitor: "I leave the family farm to my eldest son and to my second son I bequeath my Dáil seat."

Political economy was a term popular in the 19th century to describe a certain preoccupation and field of study. Wikipedia describes it as the study of "production, buying, and selling, and their relations with law, custom, and government, as well as with the distribution of national income and wealth, including through the budget process." It is also said to have originated in moral philosophy; implying that the problems that were taxing the great minds of the time, could no longer be addressed by reference to morality alone.

One of those who employed the methods of political economy was Karl Marx. In his study of Capital he describes the relations that people enter into with each other, and with society in the course of procuring a livelihood:
This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all. - Capital, vol I - The Buying and Selling of Labour Power.

Of course all this pre-supposes a 'pre-established harmony' and Marx goes on to explain, in considerable detail, why a society based on the capitalist mode of production invariably generates disharmony. Banning corporate donation to political parties will not eliminate this disharmony. It might even perpetuate it. Harmony and disharmony walk hand-in-hand and are themselves subject to the vagaries of change.

As a matter of fact, both businesses and political parties are corporate entities in the sense that both have separate legal identities (with all the privileges and obligations that that entails) to distinguish them from the individual members who make up the collective. The days are long gone when such entities could function as private and personal fiefdoms of a single, powerful individual - be it a benevolent patriarch or a ruthless godfather of crime.

Finally, to repeat a point I have made previously; allegations of corruption that have been investigated in recent years (and at considerable expense), by tribunals such as that headed by Moriarty did not involve corporate donations to political parties. The issue of contention was alleged under-the-counter payments to private individuals, using their position, office or influence to procure monetary reward. It is actually quite incorrect to refer to such payments as 'corporate' or to imply that they constitute 'donations'.

So while the current state of affairs is hardly ideal, one might suggest that it could be rectified by any combination of measures; among which could involve political parties enforcing discipline within their ranks.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2011

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Election 2011: Has the Indo Flipped? Again?

In the run-up to the 2007 General Election a private meeting took place between Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen (the then sitting Taoiseach and his successor) on behalf of Fianna Fáil on the one hand, and Tony O'Reilly, owner of Independent Newspapers on the other. The meeting took place at O'Reilly's home in Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin.

According to Matt Cooper in his book Who Really Runs Ireland? Brian Cowen was questioned about the meeting afterwards at an election campaign press conference:
[He] refused to say what had been discussed. 'Any meetings that are private are private. It wasn't about anything other than Fianna Fáil putting its position formally to a proprietor of newspapers to see what way we can get our message across.' This raised the question as to why, given his insistence that he did not interfere with the editorial policies of the newspapers, O'Reilly failed to direct the politicians to his editors when they sought a meeting for such purposes. - see Matt Cooper cited above. 
Given the present political situation, to where do Tony O'Reilly and/or Independent Newspapers turn, now that their proteges seem to be facing political meltdown? To Fine Gael it would appear if the headlines are anything to go by.

A kind of Darwinian 'reversion to type' seems to have taken place at Independent Newspapers, who first deserted to the Fianna Fáil camp during the Bertie years; an event marked by a now famous (or infamous depending on your allegiance) editorial that was accorded top billing on the front page of the Irish Independent on the day before polling day for the 1997 General Election.

An indication of where the Indo's current allegiance lie, might be discerned from the way that every opinion poll is hailed as 'further proof' of the 'unstoppable momentum' behind Enda Kenny's bid to be next Taoiseach.

Another opinion piece published last week by Fionnan Sheahan (One week, 10 myths: the dross peddled by parties), gives a broader insight into how this election is being viewed by Independent Newspapers (and possibly those vested interests who support them; although apparently they don't interfere with editorial policies).

Proceeding on a 'takes a thief to catch a thief' kind of logic it seems fair to assume that the Indo, given its record, is a newspaper that should be able to recognise dross when it sees it. It is worth examining Fionnan Sheahan's claims and the logic that informs them.The preamble reads like something that could have issued from the Fine Gael press office:
Unlike previous general election campaigns, the parties are being put under greater scrutiny on their policy announcements. Fine Gael has adopted a refreshing attitude to the development of substantial policies and is actively encouraging intense examination of its documents and figures. The example of transparency set by the likes Richard Bruton, Simon Coveney and its backroom economic policy adviser Andrew McDowell has spread through most of the party. - Irish Independent 8/2/11

No other party comes in for praise of that magnitude (or indeed praise at all) but it is also fair to point out that Fine Gael, like the other parties, does come in for criticism too. However Sheahan's main gripe is that "costings have been mysteriously absent in some cases from the text of policy documents" and goes on to cite some examples.

The problem I have with this approach is that the issue of costing is being held up as the only consideration, without debate as to the relative merit of the various proposals. Is the proposal desirable? Is it new, imaginative, innovative, etc? Will it benefit the country in the short, medium and long-term? The normal course of events, in a participatory democracy, is for a proposal to be considered from these respective standpoints. Costing will also inform the debate, just as the debate itself may throw light on how the project is to be funded.

Really what this election is about is whether the demands of the Irish people or the demands of money-lenders will be given priority and emphasis. Which side is Independent Newspapers on in this debate? It seems rather abrupt to take the view that a proposal cannot be be seriously contemplated on the grounds of 'cost issues' alone. In any case, it is both unfair and unrealistic to insist that a broad and very diverse range issues, be fully and finally thrashed out in the course of a three-week election campaign. Consultation between people and public representatives is an ongoing matter, not confined to elections. 

In a similar vein Sheahan lampoons Fianna Fáil political reform programme: 
In the surreal world of 'new' Fianna Fail, the party seems to believe everybody has already forgotten it was in power the best part of the last 14 years. Micheal Martin's sudden commitment to political reform is less than convincing when the party didn't act before -- and won't be in a position to act again for about a decade. - Irish Independent 8/2/11

Again a strange, indeed somewhat arrogant and insulting logic is permeating here. We are being asked to accept the premise that because a party of individual didn't act or speak up before, they are prohibited from doing so now. Hmm! 

In fairness to Fianna Fáil no-one else acted before either, least of all Independent Newspapers who would have had a chance to raise it with the two most senior figures in that party, when they arrived for that famous 'private meeting' in a certain gentleman's house in Fitzwilliam Square back in 2007. Actually, going by Matt Cooper's account, the only significant issue that Independent Newspapers raised on that occasion was reform of Stamp Duty on sale of residential property. The fact that they were successful in their representations, probably only served to artificially inflate the Irish property boom beyond it's natural expiry date. This in the process could be said to have contributed to Ireland's present economic woes.

Most likely, the reason why Fianna Fáil didn't raise the issue of political reform during their fourteen years in government was because the existing system suited them fine - which goes just as much for the other parties in opposition who didn't raise a squeak. I would suggest that the cross-party consensus stretched to that issue too. 

Incidentally, I'm not entirely swept away by any of the proposals for political reform that have emanated from any of the political parties. While every proposal has its respective merits and de-merits, one gets the feeling that what is involved - when you consider the packages in their entirety - are proposals to make the political process more exclusive, not less and less accountable, not more. 

Sheahan also takes a swipe at People Before Profits for their proposal to bring in a 70pc income tax rate for people on income over €100,000. 
Introducing utterly punitive tax rates would act as a disincentive to work 
 - Irish Independent 8/2/11
Maybe, but incentivising work involves more than just increasing the hypothetical take-home pay for people who are hypothetically working. In fact the problem right now is much more fundamental than creating incentives - it's about creating jobs. It is fair to say that the vast majority of the country's c.500,000 unemployed would gladly take a job paying a €100,000 even if they had to pay 70% on anything they earn in excess. I know I would.
[In case anyone missed that I would now like to put it firmly on the record: Attention employers, I'll work for €100K!]
But Fionnan Sheahan doesn't see things that way. His is a kind of modern day Jeffersonian idealism. He believes that people on high earnings are naturally the most talented in society, endowed with the greatest gifts of knowledge, insight, benevolence, etc. By this logic our present crop of politicians, bankers, civil servants, etc must be the best in the world and woe betide us all if we ever lose them! Taxing them would simply drive them away - to our shame apparently, even as many of them are taking their golden parachutes and jumping (well you can't stay here forever)! Yeah right, Think again.

Incidentally I don't necessarily endorse People Before Profit's policy platform. But they've made a proposal which in the current circumstances strikes a chord with a lot of people and therefore is merits consideration. 

On the same basis I don't necessarily endorse either Sinn Féin's bailout ditching which Sheahan says is "spurious". He doesn't really explain why it's spurious except to say "if you reject the bailout and run down the rest of your reserves, you'll run out of money to pay nurses, teachers and gardaí."

Imagine a country without nurses, teachers and gardaí. We would just have to make sure that nobody gets sick; we all read lots of books to keep our minds sharp and also be on the look-out for anyone who might be contemplating committing a crime, so that we can stop it before it happens. But what if in addition to all that, we also lost the services of our politicians, judges and senior civil servants? Why that would be unfathomable. Why the country wouldn't be able to function. Just as well we have media barons and their compliant journalists to keep everything in check!

But aren't we running down our reserves anyway? Or to put the question more correctly, is not the EU running down its reserves to bailout not just Ireland, but Greece, Spain, Portugal and anyone else who gets into difficulties? There are reliable reports that the EU's stabilisation fund will have to be augmented. 

My own guess is that Ireland will ditch the bailout, not because of any astounding election success that Sinn Féin and similar parties might experience at the next election. The bailout was designed primarily to calm international markets - it hasn't done that. If my understanding is correct, Ireland hasn't actually drawn down the money yet. For all we know Brussels may already be telling us to ditch it, but to hold off on the announcement, to avoid panic and also to save the money for the bigger fish they have to fry. 

As Fionnan Sheahan himself say in relation to FG/Labours pledge to renegotiate the bailout:
Any changes will be made solely on an EU-wide basis, with the agreement of all countries. Having an old or new Irish government won't be the deal breaker.
 - Irish Independent 8/2/11
I'd like to sign off by recommending this video I came across on YouTube the other day. The ideas contained therein have informed much of my thinking on some of the matters discussed here; though I should add responsibility for any errors, of judgement or fact, rest solely with me.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2011


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