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Big Spoilt Brats with Guns: The Baader Meinhof Complex November 30, 2008

Posted by Garibaldy in Film, History, Terrorism.
72 comments

baadermeinhoffilm

Everyone should go and see The Baader Meinhof Complex. It’s an exhilarating film, based on Stefan Aust’s book of the same name, and the two and a half hour running time whizzes by. It hardly needs saying, but the film is the story of the emergence and activities of the Red Army Faction, or Baader Meinhof gang, as it is more commonly known. The film covers the period that led to its creation until the events of autumn 1977 (the German Autumn) that saw desperate terrorist attempts by the RAF to have their leaders freed, and the controversial deaths of those remaining leaders of the first generation of the RAF, including Andreas Baader, in Stammheim prison. I am unable to judge the historical accuracy of the various scenes portrayed, but the atmosphere of the film is certainly very convincing. I won’t try to go into all the issues it raises here, but concentrate on those that struck me most.

The film begins with Ulrike Meinhof and her husband and two daughters at the beach, giving a glimpse into the secure family life of this influential left-wing columnist, who had joined the banned Communist Party in 1959. It is during a visit by the Shah of Iran and his wife’s visit to west Germany, and Meinhof pens an open letter to the Queen discussing the poverty and oppression suffered by the people of Iran. While clearly of the further left, she has not yet come close to adopting the ideas she later became synonymous with. One of the successes of the film is to track her gradual radicalisation, although the lack of dates given in the film can make it hard to be sure what is happening when.

The first key scene is a protest against the Shah and his wife in west Berlin in 1967. Iranian students – all male, suited, and heavily built – supporting the visit launch an attack on the disparate band of lefties, young and old, protesting against the march. In order to do so, they walk through the police lines, meeting no opposition, before the police mount their own attack on the shocked demonstrators, beating all round them. For an Irish audience familiar with the stories of the civil rights movement at home, this seems familiar territory (and in fact the sometimes criticised Simon Prince may also be inclined to blame the German leftist protestors for provoking the violence, as in Derry, as the film shows some flour bombs being thrown by them before the attack). However, unlike the attacks on the NI civil rights marches in 1968, the German police shot one of the protestors dead. This event convinced many – particularly students – that the west German authorities remained riddled with fascist attitudes and fascist sympathisers, and radicalised many, adding to the momentum that would culminate in 1968. There was a great deal of truth in this, and the film conveys it very effectively.

The radicalisation not just of Meinhof but of Baader and the effective co-founder and joint leader of the RAF Gudrun Ensslin, a preacher’s daughter, continues apace amidst the Vietnam War and the attempted murder of the radical leader Rudi Dutschke. The film shows the attack on the Springer publishing group that followed. Around the same time, Baader and Ensslin begin their violent activities with an arson attack on a department store. The recklessness with which Baader treats the process of making the firebombs is representative of his portrayal in the film – impatient, impetuous, obsessed with things being done his way, casual in his attitude to planning and violence, and hostile to criticism. This is demonstrated again and again, whether it is when he encourages his lawyer to steal a woman’s purse, during training in Lebanon or at his trial. The leniency with which the arsonists are treated when captured and released several months later pending an appeal somewhat undercuts their idea that west Germany was a fascist state, and this is true later in the film, when Meinhof, Ensslin and others are able to exploit similar leniency to arrange his escape. This is the fateful moment in Meinhof’s life, when she breaks with the original plan, and decides to go underground with the others.

This portrayal of the radicalisation of those involved is one of the main strengths of the film, relating this aspect sympathetically and convincingly, but not shying away from the mixed motivations and character flaws of those involved (such as the young people clearly looking for a way to avoid their personal problems through violent activism). So while this part of the film may seem to be sympathetic to the people who would go on to found the RAF, the rest of the film is much more critical.

The Germans in the training camp in the Middle East show no respect for their hosts, whether it is their cultural traditions regarding the separation of men and women and nudity, or for their professional expertise. The willingness of the leaders to use violence and deception to rid themselves of unwanted elements speaks badly of them, and their internationalism seems skin deep when confronted with the reality of the Palestinians and their struggle. This may be revolution, but it will be on their terms whatever the consequences.

The most effective part of the second half of the film is its portrayal of the naivety and futility of the whole RAF project. This is perhaps best summed up by the image of one of the terrorists firing a pistol at an armoured personnel carrier the police have when coming to arrest him. The increasingly extreme tactics adopted by the police hunting for the gang as they travel across the country carrying out robberies, bombings and shootings form a central part. The police chief in charge of hunting them understands better than his masters that the RAF represents a political as well as a policing problem. One in four Germans under 30 – 7 million people – declared themselves sympathetic to them in the early years. Faced with such odds, the police adopt increasingly sophisticated tactics, becoming more and more the authoritarian and surveillance state of the RAF’s propaganda. Yet the RAF is itself becoming increasingly isolated. Bombs kill and injure innocent workers, while the world has moved on since 1968. More and more, they are likely to be turned in by ordinary citizens. One is caught when she leaves a gun in a jacket while going into a changing room, the victim of her own amateurish stupidity and a hostile sales assistant who call the police. Nevertheless, new generations continue to be recruited and to remain active, although it is now much harder for the police – and the audience – to understand the attractions.

As the film moves on into the 1970s, the story does increasingly resemble 6 against 60 millions. The targets increasingly become industrialists and businessmen as the terrorists desperately try to free their leaders from gaol. In prison, the RAF is waging a campaign over its conditions. In the opposite situation to Ireland, they demand the same conditions as criminal prisoners. A hunger strike is inaugurated, culminating in the death of one of the prisoners, who is denied treatment by the authorities at the end. The four leading prisoners – including Baader, Meinhof and Ensslin – receive good conditions, including the freedom to associate and cooperate in planning their defence, but they become irrevocably split, and the psychological disintegration of Meinhof as she becomes isolated from and hostile to the other prisoners is vividly portrayed. It is clear that the filmmakers regard her death as a suicide, although the other prisoners claimed in court it was murder, and there would be a similar controversy over their own deaths in the future. The desire for revenge forms a major motivation of the subsequent generations of the RAF, who even Baader regards as too extreme. They take the struggle to free their leaders far beyond Germany. The more vicious later generations in fact seem more motivated by nihilism, vengeance and terrorism than anything else, though they are never developed as characters in the same way.

This is not a film that glamourises terrorism or the RAF. On the contrary, the main message I saw in it was the utter futility of their terrorist campaign, even by their own lights. Rather than lionise the participants, it shows them for what they were – deeply flawed people, motivated by an imprecise ideology and above all a commitment to action. It is never really made clear what exactly the ideology of the RAF actually was, perhaps because they themselves never really knew, beyond a commitment to revolution that would be inspired by anti-imperialist struggles in the developing world and urban terrorism in the west. In the film’s portrayal of their ideology and actions, we can detect the influence of the Frankfurt School critique of commercialism, we see Ensslin reading Trotsky in the bath and the usual Che posters, the RAF assert the link between sexual and political revolution, and we hear the words of the communiques issued after attacks, and the lionising of the urban guerilla; but it is clear that it was the excitement of the guns, the bank robberies, and the bombings that formed the main plank of their ideology. The lack of a clear ideology or strategy is above all what isolated them from the people, even those initially sympathetic, and ensured they would slowly shrink and die off, and the RAF eventually disbanded in 1998.

Theirs was a legacy of needless death, with nothing positive. One aspect that was missing that I thought would be made more of was the issue of support from the DDR, which was at best implied. It was a major mistake of that regime ever to give any credence whatsoever to people who were ultimately vain, shallow, adventurist dilettantes playing at being revolutionaries, without the commitment, discipline or willpower necessary for sustained and successful political struggle, and who represented the very opposite of the Marxist-Leninist tradition of political struggle. Watching the film, I could not but dwell on the necessity for organised and disciplined political action by a political party of and for the working class, while thinking of Lenin’s denunciation of left-wing communism, the infantile disorder.

This weekend I’ll mostly be listening to The Fireman… November 29, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
2 comments

The Fireman, you say? Who he? Well, he is they, Youth, formerly and more recently of Killing Joke (who I’ve dealt with here before) and one Paul McCartney. Yeah, that Paul McCartney, the one in that band from Liverpool. Their sound?

The first two albums were ambient with a hint of dance. Which was odd being the product of McCartney.

The more recent one, Electric Arguments? Song structures, vocals and a sort of reworking of McCartney’s sound through the prism of updated production. Dance percussions – which can of course cover a multitude of sins – and so on. It’s not pushing the envelope in a broad context, but… in the context of a McCartney who has rested on his laurels for far too long… it’s great stuff.

It’s a Liverpool thing. Other standouts are Highway which perhaps best merges the old melodic approach of McCartney (and Jesus knows if anyone can write a melody it should be him) with a markedly contemporary aesthetic… and sounds oddly Fleetwood Mac like.

Nor has the more ambient element been forgotten, this is after all Youth at the controls. The last three tracks scoot through dancey excusions mixed with some McCartneyesque piano flourishes. Granted it’s not Aphex Twin, but it’s something. In fact it reminds me of Robert Plant’s 2005 solo album which saw some tracks merge Zeppelin like chord structures with mid-1990s dance of the Underworld sort… granted the YouTube video doesn’t quite capture that, but hey, I’m throwing it in anyhow…

I kind of like Sing the Changes too.

It’s easy to imagine it as something Wings would have issued during their brief, what I term ‘good’, period of some months in 1970 dot.

And there’s something – well, poignant – about that voice now undeniably older, arguably less assured but still resonant. Although, who knows? Perhaps a lifetime of hearing it in the background here there and everywhere has socialised me into liking it. Good thing the same can’t be said about Bono’s lungs.

If I have a criticism it is that some of the tracks – and Lifelong Passion is a good example of this – are a bit polite.

But, that said the intent is good, and it is a world away from his more usual stuff on his last album (although that had a fine elegiac track in the form of That was me). The oddity of this is that he has merely had to step outside his essentially MOR and dull comfort zone to produce a good MOR album that appeals to that – admittedly – small part of my taste that applauds good MOR (and there is some, again consider Fleetwood Mac over the years…). Strange that.

As I said, I’m not a huge fan of the single Lifelong Passion. A bit too world music for me, but some of the other tracks are pretty good, particularly “Dance ’til We’re High” which sounds like something Ian McCullough of Echo and the Bunnymen would sing at Christmas (bells included).

The Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the EU reports… you can guess the conclusion. November 28, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in European Union, Irish Politics.
1 comment so far

Just flicking through the Report by the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on the Ireland’s Future in the EU it is much as one might expect.

A few small thoughts. Firstly there are no dissenting opinions presented despite at least two of the members, Pearse Doherty of SF and Rónán Mullen (Independent Senator), campaigning against the Lisbon Treaty. Perhaps that will come later. That said Chairman Paschal Donohoe of FG, is clear in the Introduction that:

It is not within the Sub-Committee’s Orders of Reference to recommend a solution to the current situation which has developed since the Lisbon Treaty referendum result. The different roles of the Oireachtas and the Government are clear with regard to this.

Which is probably wise of him. I can’t claim to have read all 81 pages, but the Executive Summary is reasonably short and some of the more intriguing sections are worth a look. I’m all but certain that some will take issue with the assertions under “After Lisbon: The Challenges” that:

Ireland’s standing and influence in the European Union have diminished following the people’s decision not to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. In immediate terms, this inhibits Ireland’s ability to promote and defend its national interests at a European level. This is likely to affect Ireland’s ability to influence key upcoming policy discussions within the Union. These include, but are not limited to, the development of the EU’s climate change package; the negotiations on the future shape of the EU budget beyond 2013 including provision of adequate resources for the Common Agricultural Policy; and responses to the global financial crisis.

While also noting that:

It is legally possible for the Union to stand still and operate into the future on the basis of current treaties and institutional arrangements. However, given the overwhelming desire among Member States for reform of the Union’s structures in a manner such as that envisaged in the Lisbon Treaty, this is considered unlikely. It is more likely that a mechanism will be developed by other Member States which allows them to proceed with a process of further integration which excludes Ireland. This would lead to a two-tier Europe with Ireland on the political and economic periphery. Such a scenario would have a devastating effect on Ireland’s political influence, economic prospects and international standing.

And that:

Ireland’s decision not to ratify the Lisbon Treaty has made the country’s long-term position at the core of the European Union considerably less certain. Representatives of business interests have expressed the view that any dilution of Ireland’s relationship with the EU could seriously damage its competitiveness in attracting foreign direct investment. There is an assumption among the business community that problems surrounding the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by Ireland will ultimately be overcome. This explains the lack of an immediate impact arising from the referendum result in relation to the attraction and maintaining of foreign investment.

Some pointed criticisms are made of the EU…

The EU has failed to grasp that information about the Union is not understood where the ordinary citizen does not understand the context behind the information. Simply explaining how things happen is inadequate if there is no explanation of why things happen also. The right of European citizens to access information about the Union is correctly emphasised. There is no lack of information about the Union available to citizens. In some ways the problem is that there is so much information, but no context to the information. People need to be able to understand the meaning of the information, and its relevance, and that is often difficult at present because so much of the information is written from an insider’s perspective, presuming a background public knowledge that does not exist. Information on its own, if not in a form people can understand, will not facilitate public understanding and engagement with Europe.

Nor did the Sub-Committee ignore some of the outcomes of the Referendum…

The State’s role in ensuring the provision of public services and the means by which these services are delivered should continue to be a matter for each individual Member State. It is important that the protections that currently exist at EU level, and which are enhanced under the Lisbon Treaty, should be adhered to and respected.

And also…

The right of each Member State to decide its own policies in areas of social and ethical sensitivity should continue to be respected. To this end, a policy of subsidiarity should be carefully observed when developing and interpreting EU law. It would be important for EU institutions to work strictly within the competences which have been conferred on them under the EU Treaties.

Although there is a clear neutrality on just how these are to be effected in the political arena.

On the other hand it is heartening that the Sub-Committee hasn’t gone for any of the quick-fix solutions touted in the media, such as:

The Sub-Committee believes that ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by parliament alone is not a desirable option. Such a ratification procedure could be interpreted as an effort to circumvent the democratic will of the people. It is also not clear whether such an option is constitutionally possible. It could present significant, possibly insurmountable, legal difficulties.

But internal tensions may have resulted in the following being proposed…

The Sub-Committee has concerns about any options that may involve Ireland opting out of EU policy areas. In this respect, it would point to the Danish experience and the growing feeling there that its opt outs in the areas of Justice and Home affairs, the European Security and Defence Policy and the Euro has had a detrimental effect on Denmark’s national interests. Opt outs are not cost free. They can potentially mean Ireland losing its right to shape and influence key policy areas. The implications of choosing such a course of action should be thoroughly examined.

Frankly that’s the only serious route forward in order to encompass the demand by the larger No campaign bodies that the Treaty be ‘renegotiated’ – a term that became increasingly difficult to define after the vote, note Declan Ganley’s problems with it last week – and yet also allow for something short of dispensing with the Treaty itself in total.

Yet the report also notes that:

The Sub-Committee believes that a solution must be found that keeps Ireland at the heart of Europe while respecting the democratic will of the Irish people by arranging for these concerns to be accommodated by the other Member States.

Hmmmm…. (I really must stop using that…any suggestions as to a replacement) what solution precisely? None is forthcoming. But if not opt-outs, then what? Because I’ll hazard a guess that no opt-outs then no Lisbon redux.

There is a good discussion on what would happen in the event of the Republic withdrawing from the EU in the aftermath of a No vote.

This option raises the prospect of Ireland leaving the Union and becoming a member of the European Economic Area along with Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.

The political unreality of this is underlined by the following;

It would mean an end to Ireland’s participation in the Common Agricultural Policy and to any right to receive Regional, Social and Structural funds. Continuing participation in the euro would remain to be resolved. Full access to the internal EU market would be maintained but the right to participate in decision-making on directives and regulations would be ended. Ireland would become the taker rather then the maker of internal market and related legislation. Given that changes in EU law could have a negative impact on the economic welfare or social values of European Economic Area states, the significance of this lack of voice should not be under-estimated. In addition, even with no voice at the table, Ireland would still be expected to contribute funding to the EU’s cohesion policies. This could cost the exchequer up to €200 million per annum.

Hardly an optimal position. And the trade bloc component which some hardy souls have argued might be a home for us, the European Free Trade Association, is unlikely to welcome us in with open arms (and EFTA may lose a member if Iceland swings towards EU membership as seems likely in the aftermath of their financial and economic collapse). The public outcry from various groups would more than likely kill that proposal stone dead.

The idea of non-ratification by Ireland is put forward. The ensuing options include either the status quo, renegotiation of the Treaty by member state or, as seems most likely, a renewed effort by other states to move forward without the RoI. This, it is noted includes:

…a number of possible legal mechanisms for doing so, such as denouncing the current Treaties and setting up a new EU without Ireland, but they are quite convoluted. More importantly, a decision of the other Member States to proceed without Ireland would also break with a core principle of the EU – solidarity – which could have unforeseen consequences for the Union.

Or foreseen, very very foreseen indeed. There would be little fear of breach of trust issues being generated between the 26 who decide to move on (they don’t say it, but the idea that somehow this would tear the EU apart seems highly unlikely, not least because all other national governments wish to proceed), but the relationship with Ireland would be, to put it mildly, dismal. And the most likely outcome would be:

…the development of a restructured EU in which some states build institutions for deepened integration while other remain in a ‘second tier’. This possibility has become known as a ‘two-tier’ or ‘two-speed’ Europe. Assuming that Ireland decides not to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, it is inevitable that Ireland would find itself in the ‘second tier’ or the ‘slow lane’.

There are democratic aspect to this which are troubling. The current structures in which the Lisbon referendum took place explicitly sought uniformity of opinion. Perhaps that is too great a task. Perhaps a modified approach is necessary which would essentially lead to that two-tier structure – an EU which accepts that some states will not join the ‘fast-lane’ as quickly as others, or may never do so. Or perhaps it is possible but only at the expense of a dislocation between political representatives and those represented. One can argue that that happens all the time on many different issues, but not in such a pointed way, yet that is – at the least – unsatisfactory. In the particular the question in a sense becomes can a reworked offering be presented to the Irish people (and beyond that would such a reworked proposal be sufficiently different to permit it to be put)?

The report argues that beyond protocols and declarations used as addenda to Treaties…

Decisions were first used after the Danish rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. They were agreed by the Heads of State and Government of the EU and the Danish Government and were regarded by many as having the same status as an international agreement or ‘mini-treaty’. They did not require the Member States to re-ratify the Maastricht Treaty but secured opt outs for Denmark in the areas of the Euro, Justice and Home Affairs and European Security and Defence Policy. They were later formalised by a protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997. In the present context, protocols and legally binding decisions are likely to be alternatives to each other, rather than both being agreed.

We’ve heard the Green Party argue this in the very recent past.

So, after such heady explications of possible futures for this state, what else is in there?

Well, there are the statements of the obvious, such as the traditional calls for a more engaged populace as regards European issues.

It is vital that more be done to encourage citizens to observe and engage with the decision-making processes of the European Union. Further emphasis should be placed on the use by citizens of the European Parliament’s petitions committee. Also, further efforts should be made to ensure that the Council of Ministers meets in public when legislating. It is notable that the need for public access to the Council has been recognised at a European level, and provisions to facilitate this access were included in the Lisbon Treaty.

And…

European treaties should be accompanied by clear explanatory documents, approved by the Member States, setting out in clear and comprehensible terms the intentions of the governments framing the treaty and the effect of each of the treaty provisions. In particular, such a document should be prepared in circumstances where citizens of a Member State are asked to vote on ratification of a treaty in a referendum. This document should be widely distributed during referendum campaigns. The Sub-Committee considers this to be of vital importance.

I remain to be convinced that such an engaged populace will emerge any time soon. Which means that suggestions such as the following are far from a bad idea…

The Houses of the Oireachtas should play a leading role in Ireland’s engagement with the European Union. Strengthening the role of the Oireachtas in EU affairs, and increasing the prominence given to EU matters in the work of the Oireachtas, would enhance the position of European issues within the political system. This would in turn influence the attention paid to such issues by the media and the public. Specific measures to enhance the role of the Oireachtas in this area are considered in chapter four.

This makes sense. The Oireachtas is the representative body of the people in this state and therefore has to take a lead role in such matters, although we still run into the dislocation issue. Still, the ideas proposed are broadly speaking good.

A formal scrutiny reserve mechanism, in line with the model used in the UK Parliament, should be introduced. This will provide more influence for the Oireachtas in the negotiating positions adopted by Irish Ministers on draft EU legislation at Council meetings. The legal, resourcing, and logistical implications need to be examined further.

And this…

Regulatory Impact Assessments have to be prepared for significant EU Directives, regulations and secondary legislation as provided for in the Government’s guidelines. The Sub-Committee is concerned by the low rate of compliance by Departments with the existing guidelines. The Government should ensure that compliance with the Guidelines is addressed. From now on, RIAs should be forwarded to Oireachtas Committees for consideration when significant EU laws are being considered.

Or this…

If Statutory Instruments are being used to give effect to an EU law, the text of the instrument, or at least the heads of the instrument, should be circulated to all Oireachtas members. This would mirror the current practice of distributing all texts of draft primary legislation. This will bring more transparency to the process of giving effect to EU law and enable the members to highlight any potential problems at an early stage.

Indeed the issue of scrutiny is dealt with in some detail. And it is an area of specific concern. The national parliament must remain supreme in the relationships, but if that parliament simply waves through EU originated proposals with little more than a cursory regard there is a legitimate cause for concern. Sure, the more exaggerated claims as to the quantity of EU originated legislation do little to convince, but on specific pieces of that legislation there are obvious implications.

From the pro-EU position I take such oversight is absolutely essential to validate membership and it is telling that it has not been implemented previously. Nor am I averse to the following:

The current requirement in the triple lock for approval by a simple majority in Dáil Éireann should be strengthened. Dáil Éireann should be required to have a “super majority”, where a two thirds majority is needed for any proposal to send Irish troops overseas on peacekeeping missions. This would provide a stronger parliamentary mandate for such decisions and enhance the role of the Oireachtas in a key area of interest to the Irish people.

Will that make a huge difference in the context of a Dáil where all told two thirds already belong to centre right parties? Perhaps not, but it is nonetheless a welcome move in the right direction.

And the political line now being adopted. Read this mornings IT and you will see that:

Senior political sources said the Cabinet subcommittee on Europe [which is different from the Oireachtas Sub-Committee] had reached agreement on the broad thrust of how the Government should deal with the No vote.

This would involve seeking “binding declarations” or possibly joint decisions from other member states on sources of controversy during the last referendum campaign. These included the right to retain a commissioner, defence and neutrality, social/ethical matters such as abortion, and the right to retain our low corporate tax rate.

Erm… sounds a lot like opt-outs. But let’s be serious, they wouldn’t be saying this unless it was already in the can. One presumes.

What will be interesting to see is how these recommendations are treated by those on the Sub-Committee representating political groupings opposed to Lisbon. Do they support them in part or full, and what implications would that have for any future referendum on the issue of Europe? Or to put it another way, if instituted would they be sufficient to assuage concerns over a modified Lisbon Treaty referendum?

And beyond that, what of the response from groups such as Cóir and Libertas who would appear to be beyond these ideas – not least because they, as yet, have no elected representatives. And there we see the inverse of the representational dislocation. Opportunities present themselves between now and whenever for that to amended… by the Irish people. Interesting to see the choices made.

Harney’s hair… Molloy’s non-appearance November 27, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
14 comments

The Harney issue continues to fascinate. Did Mary Harney avail of $410 worth of treatments at a hair and nail salon close to Cape Canaveral on a trip with the worthies in Fás? A trip that saw her…

…[travel] to Orlando, Florida, at the expense of Fás in July 2004 in a party that included the former director general of Fás, Rody Molloy, and his wife, and the then secretary general of Ms Harney’s department, Paul Haran, and his wife.

Not according to her spokesman:

He said Ms Harney had three days of official engagements in Florida and as was her normal practice in her capacity as Minister “she availed of standard wash and blow dries in preparation for her official engagements”.

“The Minister is certain that this does not account for a total of $410. It is simply not the case that the Minister incurred a $410 bill for herself and any such insinuation is totally wrong.

Memory is a funny thing. Her old pal Bertie Ahern can attest to that. The Irish Times would have us believe that:

…persons staying at the Radisson Resort hotel at Cape Canaveral could avail of hair treatment services at the hotel and the bill was accrued in this way. Sources close to Ms Harney last night accepted that services she had received might have contributed to the $410 bill.

It’s admittedly small stuff, but standards depend on principles. And those who have been most vociferous in their condemnation of others should know better…Then look at the linkages. I’d forgotten that, as the IT notes with fastidious care:

…on the trip were Ms Harney’s husband, the then chairman of Fás, Brian Geoghegan, Ms Harney’s press secretary and her private secretary.

Ooops. L’etat, c’est eux… or somesuch. And the private sector too.

Still whether this makes her position as Minister of Health more precarious than it already is something of a moot point. She’s already on the way out. This may just speed up the process, although appallingly I note in the current Phoenix Annual that Noel Grealish is rumoured to have a deal with FF that he would get a Cabinet position in the next reshuffle. That seems entirely at odds with his latest statements that he will not be joining FF but remaining as an Independent in splendid isolation. On the other hand, should the call to sit at the Cabinet table come, who could blame him for making the transition to FF? Well, many actually.

And the man of the moment? Cometh the hour, exit the man. Rody Molloy, former director general of Fás until this week, did not grace the Public Accounts Committee with his presence. That he was paid from the public purse, and one of those who received a cool €643,000 in expenses over four years for promotion of the agency in the US appears to have troubled him not in the slightest.

Can’t blame Bernard Allen, chairman of the PAC, being a little disappointed…

“I find it incredible that people think they can just ride away into the sunset and leave the investigation into the expenditure of taxpayers money handicapped,” he said.

But we’ve seen this pattern before with Tribunals, etc. What now of Brian Cowen’s encomium yesterday on Molloy when he suggested that:

Mr Molloy did the honourable thing by resigning and that he had been a good public servant.

Here’s the thing though. If it were thought that this might provide what some term an ‘educative moment’ in Irish politics about the public/semi-state sector, and one that would validate the noises being made by the centre-right in this state, well it’s certainly shedding some light on some interesting aspects of our political life. But only in so far as it demonstrates how such bodies are often run as financial support structures for a small group within them and how those who preach a rugged individualism and an economic independence from the state all too often appear to live by entirely different rules.

Now that’s what I call an education.

Does this even make sense? Ireland shuns the EU financial recovery plan… and continues to obssess about public service reform. November 27, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
4 comments

Reading the news last evening that

Ireland is unlikely to join a €200 billion economic recovery plan unveiled by the European Commission, the Department of Finance indicated this afternoon.

One might wonder what exactly the state is playing at. On the one hand we’re told by the great and the good that:

the State has “no room for manoeuvre in terms of a further fiscal stimulus”.

This is because next year’s general Government deficit is budgeted to be 6 per cent. Under existing spending plans the State’s capital investment will increase to 5 per cent of GNP, which the Department says is almost twice the EU average.

Yet curiously the Commission also notes that:

The commission says the national budget stimulus packages should be timely, temporary, targeted and co-ordinated to ensure maximum impact.

They should also comply with the stability and growth pact, although there will be significant flexibility allowed for states to breach the 3 per cent budget deficit limit.

“The budgetary stimulus should be foreseen for a maximum period of two years (2009-2010) following which member states’ budgets should commit to reverse the budgetary deterioration and return to the aims set out in the medium-term objectives,” says the proposal, which argues that a longer timeframe for tax cuts would only persuade consumers to save rather than spend, reducing the overall impact of the fiscal package.

So, let’s get this straight. We can’t do this because we’re trying to fulfill EU financial criteria, yet the EU is simultaneously loosening those criteria in order to deal with the financial crisis.

Nor are we somehow unique in our situation.

The EU move is a bid to bridge gaps between those EU states already embarking on national growth plans – such as Britain, Germany and France – and others, including some east European countries, who protest they cannot afford such fiscal largesse.

Although, naturally, the Government is at pains to argue that the increase in our capital investment ” will increase to 5 per cent of GNP, which the Department says is almost twice the EU average and …coupled with “relatively low tax rates for the employed” are broadly consistent with the commission recovery plan, the Department suggested.”.

Doesn’t look like that to me. For a start consumer spending isn’t getting much of a boost here. But the Department is exercised by the following analysis…

The priority for countries like Ireland, with relatively high general government deficits, is to get the public finances back in order, it indicated.

A spokesman said not all member states have a similar capacity to provide their economies with a further financial boost by relaxing their finances.

He said the Government would be given time to reduce its deficit below 3 per cent and said this must be achieved or face having the State’s commitment to maintaining credible public finances called into question.

Look, I’m all for credible public finances. But these are incredible times. This does not appear to have struck the Department, or the Government. And in a context where the United States has essentially part-nationalised their financial sector, their mortgage sector and with more to come, one has to ask what precisely is the definition of ‘credible public finances’. The deficit hawks on this island are some sight to behold. Or is that chickens coming home to roost?

But look, we’re still cleaving to our own brilliant path in other economic and social policy areas… Brian Lenihan is of the opinion that:

“total state investment” would be a “last resort” and said that in any move the public interest would have to be safeguarded.

When the Irish Bank Officials Association argues to the contrary and notes that his favoured plan of private equity investment “would be a “disaster” for Irish banks and the economy” one knows that we’re in strange times.

Got to laugh too when Lenihan has to retort that ‘
“I do not agree with the characterisation of investors as predators or parasites’. Well Brian, investor led capitalism has worked such a treat over the past year or so, I’m sure you right.

Meanwhile the rush towards public sector ‘reform’ continues apace. ‘Twas only this morning that the Irish Times in its editorial argued that:

Crude across-the-board cuts would damage worker morale and undermine public confidence. The reform process must be both necessary and transparent and, to the greatest extent possible, conducted in co-operation with civil and public servants. That said, any resistance to necessary change by vested interests should be rejected. The Government will have to show vision, courage and leadership in this exercise.

Not to mention destroying already frayed services in various areas. The IT, though, has kind words for the patient, just before the scalpel is wielded…

At this time, when many private sector workers are facing into unemployment or a wage freeze, public servants should be willing to accept more efficient and flexible work practices in return for their privileged and protected positions and extremely generous pension entitlements. By and large, the public service does a good job. It is not the bloated, inefficient monster that is sometimes portrayed by its critics. But, like all long-established organisations, it can benefit from change and restructuring. In particular, it should concern itself with providing flexible, integrated services that meet the needs of citizens.

Oddly no mention of some serious alternatives, such as universal ‘generous’ pension provision (and not a word about the reality that even public pensions are paid into by public workers), or the entirely dismal record of the private sector in providing pensions to their workforces.

But it’s not just the IT that dispenses it’s kindness. For who’s this but the now ubiquitous Brian Lenihan striding towards the public sector with honeyed words that do little to divert attention from the axe he happens to be carrying…

“I deplore the kind of demonisation of the Public Service that has featured in public debate over recent months,” he said.

Chop!

“We need to move away from this shallow criticism and knee-jerk reactions, which are not helpful to our economy and are damaging social cohesion.”

Chop! Chop!

And Brian Cowen is more than happy to chip in…

“The objective of the Government is to secure greater efficiency in delivering public services in an affordable way – while at the same time improving the work environment for public service workers,” he said.

With friends like that…

Anyhow, what are the instruments with which to generate a leaner meaner public sector?

The establishment of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes was announced this evening by the Government as part of its Transforming Public Services Programme.

The Special Group will examine each Government Department and recommend programmes for reductions in expenditure. It will identify posts and activities that are not essential in all parts of the Public Service and will recommend reallocation of staffing or expenditure resources between public service organisations. It will also recommend further rationalisation of State Agencies beyond those set out in the Budget, which targeted 41 state bodies for amalgamation or closure.

That should make for fun. One wonders how long it has to report.

And then there is the idea that “the performance of all staff in all sectors of the Public Service is to be assessed, including teachers, nurses and gardai”.

How does that work? Look across the Irish Sea to see a polity tied up, particularly during the Thatcher ear, with claims that ‘performance’ in these areas can be easily assessed. Working in education myself I’m far far less sure of the certainty of such claims. Sure, there’s no question that some who teach shouldn’t, but beyond weeding out that sort of problem where does one go next? And for nursing and gardai? A world of pain awaits.

No, wait. It’s already here. The response has been… shall we say… negative.

Hence the headline “Public sector reform plan gets negative response”

Opposition parties, trade unions and business bodies were largely negative in their reaction to the Government’s proposals to reform the public sector, announced today.

With Fine Gael the problem is, despite the rhetoric of their entertaining advertising campaign, that these measures do not go far enough… Richard Bruton said it was “a pale reflection of the changes that really should be undertaken”.

Which are?

…[there are] no commitment that in future, agencies would only get money if they entered into agreements to deliver specific results, in order to meet Government priorities.

There were also no new mechanisms to reward success in the delivery of these targets and to penalise failure, or were there new ideas about performance contracts for senior managers…

And one can only concur with Joan Burton’s very reasonable point that…

“On public service numbers, for instance, it says that ‘there is an immediate necessity to ensure that numbers employed in the public service are no greater than necessary to deliver public services’.

“This is hardly a great revelation and one would have assumed that this would have been the approach of any government at any time.”

The Unions aren’t too happy either, not least because as they note:

“The OECD’s study did not call for staff reductions. That’s because Ireland spends proportionately less on its public services, and employs proportionately fewer staff, than similar countries.

“This doesn’t make it any easier to balance the books now that we’ve entered a recession and the public finances are in crisis. But it does prove that there is very little ‘fat’ to cut. No doubt there is some scope for savings and redeployment to meet changing priorities, but large scale redundancies will hurt services and the people and communities that need them.”

And here’s the thing. It’s convenient (although correct) for the Fás debacle to come to light now, although the issue is broadly speaking restricted to the higher echelons within that organisation (incidentally, the news that Mary Harney had travel expenses paid for by Fás is but a straw in the wind as to the sort of interconnections between government and subsidiary agencies, one that yet again makes one wonder was any of this thought through as regards potential collateral damage?). But the reality is that there isn’t much meat on the bones of our public services. Hence the continuing complaints about services throughout the ‘boom’ years.

And the talk about removing ‘jobs for life’ from the public sector is headline grabbing, but again, has it been thought through either? Cowen claims that:

State employees have “well-paid employment, with good pensions and a greater degree of security of employment than exists in the private sector presently and for the foreseeable future”, he added.

But in the very process of the ‘reforms’ it would appear that all those elements (which incidentally weren’t quite as amazing say in 2001 or so when many – but far from all – private sector wages shot way ahead of the public sector, hence the labour aristo’s revolt in the ASTI) that supposedly make the public service a cushy and safe number will be removed. Except to judge from his words above, they won’t. All very confusing.

And this is the most interesting paradox that both Government and Fine Gael face. They can huff, and they can puff, but the gains they might hope to make from such measures affecting the public sector are fairly limited in the broader scheme, if not indeed limited simply by the position of that sector as a component of the society and economy. Consider too the US experience where the Democrats ran, in part, on the idea of valuing public service, through…er…wages and conditions… in order to increase optimal outcomes.

It really is difficult to view these developments and not come away with a sense that there is no real strategy mapped forward, that much of what we’re seeing is being made up on the hoof, and as a consequence this may all go even more horribly wrong than we might otherwise expect.

Finally, to end on a slightly less gloomy note can I point to one good idea hidden away amongst the rest which is the idea of:

…a National Operations Unit (NOU) within the Office of Public Works to allow all central Government Departments and offices, agencies and non-commercial bodies to acquire a range of goods and services more efficiently and at better value for money.

Having some experience of seeing how distorted contracts by the state sector with commercial bodies can be in terms of overly high specifications filled with needlessly expensive equipment I have to say that can only be for the best. That said I’m a little concerned by the following…

The NOU will offer professional procurement advice to the Public service and will develop web-based e-tenders and e-auctions for some goods and services. Staff at the unit will be redeployed from existing resources.

I really dislike the modishness of ‘web-based e-tenders and e-auctions’. They may play a part, but what is really needed are staff with the requisite knowledge of equipment who can judge when they are being sold a wildly overpriced pup. That said I’m dubious that the savings will be anything like that envisaged by the proponents of these schemes.

But that such a Unit does not exist today, or has not in the past, tells us all we need to know about just how seriously such expenditur has been taken by our political classes and their entirely too indulgent approach to the interface between commerce and state.

TOWARDS A NEW ECONOMIC NARRATIVE – Michael Taft at the Irish Left Review… November 26, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.
8 comments

Writing at the Irish Left Review today Michael Taft argues for A New Economic Narrative. Here is the introductory part of the document which you can read in full here….

Crisis? It’s baby-crunching time. We no longer have the luxury of attacking others’ prescriptions – those issued by the Government, employers’ spokespersons and stockbroker economists. The proverbial punter at the bar is impatient: ‘So what’s your big idea?’ It’s a fair question.

Let’s be under no illusion. The right is driving this debate. And the main ‘opposition’ in all this has been Fine Gael who wants more of the same. A debate? You need two sides to have a debate. All we have is the sound of one hand slapping us about.

So far, the Left, with some exceptions, has staked out a small ground. It opposes cutbacks, proposes infrastructural projects and more training places, and suggests alternative revenue streams such as cutting tax reliefs. Some good ideas but, to date, they do not cohere into a programme of expansion and renewal. They do not, as yet, constitute a new narrative.

And neither will this. It is, instead, an invitation to progressives to draft up their own programmes and proposals, to put forward their own contributions; to do better than what’s contained here. But the foundational principles must be to:

• Expand fiscally – junk the cutback vs. tax increase trap. We need money, lots of it, to put back into the economy.
• Expand demand – more spending, not less, is what the economy needs to maintain and expand business activity
• Expand indigenous enterprise: Lay the structural foundations for a new enterprise base – public and private; this will take time, so we have to start soon, tomorrow, this evening

That’s the ticket – expand, expand, expand. For illustrative purposes I have come up with a 10-point programme but no single programme can address all issues. For instance, I have not addressed recapitalising our banking system, educational investment, reducing poverty and labour market issues. In a fully-blown progressive project, these will take centre-stage.

But paramount in all this: the Left must become audacious. It must put forward its vision with courage and confidence. For the Left is right and the Right is wrong. We must defend our programme against all nay-sayers, pessimists, neo-liberals and shills for vested interests: on the doorstep, at community meetings, on RTE panels, in the Dail. No fear, no capitulation.

In short, we have to go on the offensive, all economic guns blazing. So let’s start…

The Irish Times editorial considers the UK fiscal stimulus package, or at least half of it. November 26, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
29 comments

Can I dovetail this with Michael Taft’s thoughts which you’ll find above… it’s odd reading the Irish Times editorial yesterday. It’s not so much what is said as what is not said. Consider that, under the heading ‘Borrow and spend’ the IT argues that…

BRITAIN’S CHANCELLOR of the exchequer Alistair Darling hopes the country can spend its way out of recession. In his pre-budget report yesterday, he announced a temporary indirect tax cut by lowering the standard VAT rate to 15 per cent from 17.5 per cent from next month.

Ahah. That must be the spend bit… sort of. It continues:

His aim in this mini-budget is to stimulate demand by encouraging consumers to shop and thereby reverse the economy’s slide into a deepening recession. This fiscal stimulus – via lower taxes – represents a calculated gamble. Given the weak state of the British economy, however, the risk is worth taking.

Yeah, except of course if we read the Guardian we see that

The chancellor unveiled a clampdown on public spending growth, increases in the top rate of income tax to 45p for those earning more than £150,000, and a 0.5% rise in national insurance contributions costing everybody earning more than £20,000 a year around £3 a week from April 2011 onwards.

Okay, so not quite ‘via lower taxes’… And lest one get overly enthusiastic consider harpymarx’s words on same. But back in the Irish Times what of the borrow bit?

The tax cuts to boost consumption will be financed by increased public borrowing. Mr Darling expects that when economic growth resumes in a couple of years, large budget deficits will be quickly reduced and budget balance restored. In an economy that is undergoing something of a deflationary spiral, with prices falling, consumers have changed their spending habits. Shoppers are slower to spend today as they anticipate lower prices tomorrow. But a 2.5 percentage point reduction in the VAT rate may not change their psychology. So far the pre-Christmas sales on Britain’s high streets, with price discounts of 20 to 25 per cent on offer, have failed to persuade shoppers to open wallets.

How much public borrowing though?

Alistair Darling yesterday gambled the government’s political future on a “spend now, pay later” £21bn package of tax cuts and spending increases designed to lift the economy out of recession by next summer.

Insisting that he was not prepared to ignore the suffering of families in “exceptional circumstances”, the chancellor said in his pre-budget report that he would borrow £78bn this year and £118bn next to fund a 13-month VAT holiday, cuts in income tax, more generous payments to pensioners and parents, and a £3bn boost to infrastructure.

Now a rough reckoning makes £118bn to be over 7.6% of GDP. Risky stuff, no doubt, but a risk that Darling considers well worth taking. Not least because as Will Hutton noted yesterday ,on hearing the news “…the FTSE jumped nearly 10%. Incredible times”.

So, as the Tories noted yesterday, the ‘borrowing’ element is pretty significant and considerably more so than the Times dry ‘increased public borrowing’. This is a level of borrowing unheard of under New Labour. And is entirely anathema to the Conservatives.

But what of our state? The IT notes that this isn’t unqualified good news for the RoI.

…In Border areas the continued weakness of sterling has made British goods much more competitive. To visitors from the Republic, a 15 per cent VAT rate makes cross border shopping increasingly attractive with the prices of some goods (groceries, alcohol and clothes) up to 30 per cent cheaper. A much lower UK VAT rate opens a huge indirect tax differential between Britain and Ireland. It has happened just as the Government is raising VAT by half a percentage point (to 21.5 per cent). And with sterling likely to weaken further as a result of yesterday’s fiscal package, that disadvantage seems set to increase.

And also that…

The mini-budget response by the British government, as indeed by many other governments, highlights the very different policy response adopted by the Irish government in tackling the challenge of economic recession.

Such as?

Where other countries have favoured tax cuts as a means of stimulating demand, the Government has raised taxes in a bid to control a soaring budget deficit – but without much obvious sign of success.

I really don’t want to be unkind, but I don’t read that at all in the data available from Darling’s pre-budget report. The emphasis is balanced between tax and borrow, not shifted over to tax alone. Moreover it completely ignores the increases in tax in the UK, not least those in national insurance.

It’s weird, all the time it as if the editorial writer, in tandem with their political and economic commentariat, are unable to visually process the word ‘borrow’, or see the word ‘tax’ without it having ‘cut’ appended to it.

But the IT becomes more egregiously odd as it continues…

No economy has experienced such a rapid reversal of fortune as the Irish economy over the last year as the property bubble burst and property related tax revenue collapsed dramatically. That has left the Government struggling to contain a sharp deterioration in the public finances. Next year, a planned general government deficit of 6.5 per cent of GDP, which is twice the borrowing limit set for euro zone economies, seems likely to be exceeded. Ireland finds itself paying more to international lenders to finance a soaring budget deficit and this risk premium partly reflects the rapid deterioration in the public finances. The Government has left itself with less scope to provide a fiscal stimulus of the kind provided by its British counterpart.

But this analysis, that we have ‘less scope’ only holds true if we believe that ‘tax cuts’ are the only way forward, that 6.5 per cent of GDP as a deficit is somehow anomalous in the current economic circumstances – at least in European and global terms. And it simply isn’t. Furthermore, while it is true that the borrowing limit for euro zone economies has been breached this isn’t unique to this state, nor – once more looking at our partners in Europe – is this per se a bad thing. Incidentally the ominous warnings about the EU on this issue can be contextualised by the following:

The Maastricht Treaty has set out the reference value for government deficit at 3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). Taking into account the Commission’s opinion the Council decides, by a qualified majority, whether an excessive deficit exists establishing a deadline for effective action to be taken. If no effective action is taken, the Council may give notice to the Member State in question to take measures to reduce the deficit. Then, if no effective action has been taken in compliance with a notice, the Council may decide to impose sanctions which take the form of a non-interest-bearing deposit with the Community.

Nor will we be alone…CNN reports the EU Commission

…say[ing] France and Ireland will break EU budget rules in 2009 by running a yearly government deficit of more than 3 percent of GDP. The ceiling is intended to keep their shared currency stable. Britain, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Hungary will also likely exceed the limit.

And what of the past?

In 2005, the governments with the highest public deficit figures were those of Hungary (6.1% of GDP – 5.4% in 2004), Portugal (6.0% – 3.2% in 2004), Greece (4.5% – 6.9% in 2004), Italy (4.1% – 3.4% in 2004), Britain (3.6% – 3.3% in 2004), Germany (3.3% – 3.7% in 2004) and Malta (3.3% – 5.1% in 2004). Meanwhile, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Spain and Sweden registered a government surplus in 2005.

And two years ago in 2006… ‘Currently 12 EU states face disciplinary action for breaching this limit.’

Now there’s a fair bit of chat about how Lisbon has changed the EU perception of Ireland, but that – I think – works both ways. When the IT, and other commentators within it and elsewhere are having cold shivers over our breaching the limits perhaps it’s time (and I say this as one broadly pro-EU and a pro-Lisbon voter) the EU sat back and afforded us the same courtesy, not to say facilities, as was extended to that list of reprobates above. And that our economic bien-pensants who cheerleaded our economy to just this pass started to reexamine their own thoughts on these matters.

It’s not that 6.5 isn’t high, but that it isn’t entirely disastrous. That in a global financial crisis this is sustainable, and may require something a little bit more determined than the same old song about ‘tax cuts’…

But then the Irish Times view of the world, as expressed day in day out is one where tax cuts are the only way to economic purity and borrowing and deficits are inconceivable. In a world which has begun to set its face to that sort of certainty there is something archaic about the view. Unfortunately, though, we must continue to live within a political establishment utterly unable to see beyond that philosophical and political limitation.

That poll in the Sunday Business Post… and the new Green Fine Gael ‘plan’ for economic recovery… November 25, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
13 comments

Let’s start with Fine Gael. Got to say I had to smile when I read about “Varadkar’s plan to beat the recession” in the Irish Times yesterday. Would it be akin to the NEP? Or perhaps the New Deal or…. Well no, not quite.

His soundbite was fascinating…

“We cannot tax our way out of recession. Because of the deficit we cannot spend our way out of recession. And we certainly cannot borrow our way out of recession,” he told delegates.

We can argue about the deficit. Other states with vastly more eye watering deficits are prepared to spend. But…let’s take his argument at face value… what is left?

“But we can trade our way out of recession. To do this we need to make Ireland a good place in which to invest and do business once again.”

Hmmm… the phrase ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ comes to mind. The details?

1. Provide tax breaks to businesses to take on new employees; 2. Recapitalise the banks on condition that they provide credit to viable businesses and home-buyers; 3. Re-examine the national pay deal to make Ireland competitive again; 4. Redirect the €1 billion budget of Fás, the state training and employment agency, to offer high-quality training to the tens of thousands who have lost their jobs; 5. Refuse any new increase in gas and electricity prices; 6. Oppose any increases in Government charges and local authority rates and levies; 7. Cut red tape and the cost of regulations for businesses; 8. Use the National Pension Reserve Fund to invest in infrastructure like roads, railways, broadband and alternative energy.

Well, maybe. Consider that tax-breaks don’t just appear unbidden in the air. One person’s tax break is another person’s cut in services. Ditto with the recapitalisation of the banks. And the idea that re-examining the national pay deal will in and of itself ‘make Ireland competitive again’ is near derisory. Then let’s consider Fás whose function has, at least in part, been to keep people off social welfare. Redirecting their focus to the newly unemployed is no harm, but what of those already in system? Where do the funds come from to support them? And what of opposing increases in charges. No harm per se, I prefer centralised taxation and expenditure, but where do the monies come to fund this stuff? Cutting red tape and regulation is pretty much boilerplate, but what on earth does it mean? Ireland isn’t, as it happens, anywhere near the most highly regulated economy in Europe, and yet somehow we’re doing markedly worse than our comrades across the continent, which suggests that over-regulation is far from being a pivotal aspect of the problem. And the obvious counter-argument is that the example of the substantially less regulated US economy hardly gives comfort.

As ever we’re seeing a fudge. Fine Gael can’t really speak to their essential instincts about public sector ‘reform’ so they are forced to avoid the issue for fear of scaring off their new found polling support – and somewhat more distantly their prospective Labour party coalition partner.

I’m also intrigued by the modish reference to funding ‘alternative’ technologies. I wonder if polling reveals that the public by and large likes that element of the current government’s programme – and by extension the Green Party policies in this area. Hard to see it mentioned otherwise.

And this is underlined by Phil Hogan, as unlikely an environmental warrior as one will find – well, after Dick Roche that is – arguing that “Instead of the environment as an elite concern of the urban middle class, we will turn it into a national obsession.” Very good. Who is he talking about? And what an interesting line of attack. Yes. Damn those pesky elite urban middle classes and their ‘environmental concern’… far better that it should become the focus of … er… the Fine Gael voting urban middle class and call it an obsession instead. Or perhaps not. Obsession. Concern. Concern. Obsession. It’s an odd word to choose.

It’s not that his attacks on the Green Party are not entirely without foundation as when he notes that:

“The Greens are for medical card withdrawal. They support withholding vaccines from 12-year-olds that would save their lives. They go along with pulling teachers out of schools.”

But these ring a little hollow when we also hear their Health spokesman Dr. James Reilly arguing that in the HSE…

“Fine Gael will seek to retrain those who are no longer required in management or administration roles in frontline services. Voluntary redundancy will be on offer but involuntary redundancies will be and must be an option”

And while that’s not entirely contradictory – it is possible that the sort of ‘reform’ FG envisages does necessitate redundancy – it does display an uneasiness of tone that typifies their gathering. Are they left? Are they right? Are they Green or are they not?

It’s almost as if they seek to occupy the political space on the right the government hasn’t – yet – but also to throw out a few left of centre bones.

That said Enda Kenny’s speech at the weekend was rather clever (if one ignores the one word sentences… Such. As. ‘People watching us against a background of misery and fear. Yes. Misery. And fear.’) . Again, instead of directly saying that public sector ‘reform’ was necessary he hedged it by talking in the following language…

Unemployment will continue upwards. Our borrowings will continue upwards. The quality of our front line public services will continue downwards. It’s time for someone to stand out front and tell the painful truth.

The country cannot afford the national pay deal. It is as simple as that. This deal must be suspended for 12 months and reviewed after that. It was negotiated in a different context with different expectations.

I am calling on Government and public service unions to implement a complete pay freeze for 12 months.

He may well be not far wrong in that prognosis, but note that he doesn’t talk about the public sector, but instead about public ‘services’.

And then he says:

If we want to be masters of our own destiny, we have to control our spending and ensure that we regain our competitiveness. Let’s be clear on this: if we manage our finances prudently there should be no need for damaging tax increases that undermine our future growth.

That has to be a mite contradictory, not least because we face the worst economic context in a generation. One can fault the current government on many issues, but they are hardly alone or unique in facing dismal – and potentially catastrophic – economic events.

Then there are some stray Obamaisms creeping in. What to make of the following?

When this Government is replaced by Fine Gael, we will deliver the universal healthcare plan being finalised by the Policy Commission chaired by Alan Dukes. We will create the change, the old, the young and the sick need so badly; a change to a health system where the patient is at the centre and the money follows that patient. A health system where service is delivered because you need it, not because you can pay for it. Fine Gael will drive that change in approach and ensure that fairness is at the core of Irish society.

Universal healthcare you say… and then…

We will banish the notion that Education is a cost. It is not. It is a need. It is an investment in our nation’s future and an investment in our children’s future. As Churchill [natch] said “the empires of the future will be the empires of the mind”. Fine Gael will invest now to build those empires.

Now leaving aside the chutzpah evidenced by quoting Churchill there is the small matter that whether we see Education as a societal cost, the reality on the ground is that education is no small cost. No word though on how that will be ameliorated.

And then, more on Green issues.

Tax relief on bicycles and banning light bulbs won’t build the Green Economy. Our approach must be based on innovation and creativity. It will draw investment from around the world. Give farming a new lease of life.
Renew and refresh our tourism offering. It will radically change and strengthen our industrial base.

That requires investment in wave, wind, biofuels, pumped storage and gas. An investment that will pay dividends and create jobs. An investment that requires radical change. That radical change that will see government acting to prevent problems. A government with the courage to act. And act Fast. And act fast we would have done to prevent the meltdown of the banking system.

Indeed the more I think about it the more I suspect Fine Gael are worried that the Green Party might play the role that the Progressive Democrats did in the past, of leeching a Fine Gael inclined vote towards de facto supporting Fianna Fáil. That this did the PDs no particular good over the years, as seen in their declining percentages at the polls is not entirely relevant. It only took a small number of PDs to be elected to guarantee Fianna Fáil returning each time. I wonder if in that context reaffirming the bona fides of the philosophical basis of the GP, while decrying their implementation, is such a great idea. That’s a very fine line to walk and for a party as unsurefooted politically as FG one that is quite a risk.

Incidentally one can also note the new much stronger pro-EU tone of Fine Gael comments. No chance that in a rerun of Lisbon we’ll witness the flakiness that they demonstrated last time out, or as Kenny put it ‘To get there, Ireland must be restored as a central and influential member of the European Union. I am committed to playing my part in ensuring that the current uncertainties about Ireland’s relationship with Europe is ended.’

And, naturally, the reality is that they remain far from power, faced with a government that is still solid. Kenny may say that ‘Soon – maybe sooner than people think – the people of Ireland will give us the opportunity to change this country for the better.’ but it remains unlikely.

And so to the poll.

The Sunday Business Post/Red C
figures are interesting because they parallel some of the trends evident in the last Irish Times polling data.

Fine Gael are up now to 35%, an increase of 2%, Fianna Fáil have moved up 4% to 30% while Labour, Sinn Féin and the Green Party have all registered small declines in their vote (-1, -2 and -1 respectively). The Independents figure remains static at 8%.

The most obvious aspect of this is how fluid the Fianna Fáil vote is, which may well be a comfort to them. To regain 4% is no small feat in the aftermath of the Budget. Not so great for them is the seeming attachment of some former FF voters to the Independents. But, they might well count on some of that 8% coming back to them. Fascinating too to see that Sinn Féin was a port of call of a few percentage points of the FF vote given the chance. Is that good or bad for either party? It may be proof that there is now an FF vote there for the taking, if not in first preferences, then in second and thirds for Sinn Féin. For Labour this has to be disappointing, even given the margin of error of the poll. Gilmore had a great couple of weeks but that initial impetus may well be fading, and the serendipity for Fine Gael of a party conference at this time may well cause further problems. Mind you, soon enough Labour’s day in the sun will come. But, the next Red C poll is, I understand, not going to be released until January (that may be incorrect, so please feel free to disabuse me of the notion). That’s a long time away.

For the Green Party we’re probably seeing them hitting bedrock, but it’s far from the worst rating they could have and might even cause them some relief. 5% is a reasonably strong position from which to continue forward. That may well steady some nerves.

As a bloc the left is at or about 27% of the vote. Far from awful, close enough to Fianna Fáil, but Fine Gael retains a – for now – commanding advantage.

There’s an interesting spin on this in the SBP by Pat Leahy. He argues that:

The political situation is now more favourable for Fine Gael than it has been in a generation. An opportunity exists for Kenny to consolidate that support, which would make a victory in any medium-term election certain.

Paradoxically, the opportunity also presents a threat for the Fine Gael leader: he has failed to impress the public and many in his own party, particularly on economic issues.

If his poll ratings slip in the first half of next year, his own party may begin to think it is wasting an historic opportunity.

I like Leahy’s analysis in general but I think here is is underestimating the empirical situation, or rather he may be right that this dynamic will play out inside Fine Gael, but that party would be wrong to think this is an ‘historic opportunity’. There is no easily discernible process by which Fine Gael can capitalise on the current situation to their immediate benefit. The opportunity presented was a grievous misstep by the Coalition, not a fundamental (or at least not yet) shift in the nature of Irish politics. There is near nothing Fine Gael or Kenny can do to much improve the Fine Gael situation, relatively little he or they can do to maintain their poll rating and an awful lot that the passage of time itself will do that will allow the memories of this budget to fade.

As ever they are pinned down by circumstance. They and he, have done remarkably well – although let’s not overstate it, two weeks ago it was Gilmore who looked the more commanding figure – no other leader could do much more, if anything. It will be no small achievement to retain Fine Gael support above 30% over the next year, let alone the next three years.

Beyond that, the big question exercising Brian Cowen, in particular, is whether this fracturing of the Fianna Fáil vote is now embedded, despite the small gains by them, or whether those voters can be pried back. And the larger picture of local and European elections – and Lisbon redux – offers only a world of pain over the political year. He might well have cause to reflect on just how the Green Party may well be his ticket to electoral victory. Keeping them sweet may occupy rather more of his time from here on out.

Taxing times… November 24, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Irish Politics.
7 comments

Here’s something else worth considering.

As announced in the Guardian today, Alistair Darling is increasing income tax for those above £150,000 to 45p in the pound. The reason? “…to help pay for Labour’s £15bn anti-recession emergency package.”

The UK faces a not entirely dissimilar economic and financial situation to this state. And there they also…

Face … the challenge of reducing state borrowing from an expected £120bn next year, the chancellor will use today’s pre-budget report to break New Labour’s 15-year taboo on raising income tax on the wealthy. Darling will also unveil a one-year cut in standard-rate VAT from 17.5% to 15%, in the hope consumers bring forward spending and shorten the recession.

Of course that taboo is not one restricted to the UK either. This state has seen a remarkable inability of our political class to shift away from the low tax base that has typified the past fifteen or so years. One could ascribe this to a sort of fetishistic attachment to processes that seem to have worked over that time period, certainly it’s hard to see any particular rigour in the explications provided for same… well, at least, not much more than ‘…it worked, I tell you, it worked’.

Perhaps. Or being generous we could say it worked until it didn’t.

Whatever, when it didn’t work well enough to dissuade Brian Lenihan from saying that…

…he is not ruling out income tax increases in the future. He said current borrowing was “unsustainable in the medium term” and a radical re-evaluation of day-to-day expenditure would be ongoing.

Is that sound one hears that of pennies dropping all over the shop… Maybe.

Now it is fair enough to say that, as noted by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the UK measure isn’t going to bring in an enormous amount of money. The number of high earners affected is projected to be about 400,000, still it all adds up. And the current 40p in the pound rate affects a larger cohort of about 4 million.

But that is hardly the point, and it’s distressing – albeit unsurprising – that Vincent Cable of the Liberal Democrats has weighed in to call this a ‘negligible’ measure.

Because the real import of this is to see an extension of the progressive tax principle to those who make such sums that 40% is of minimal impact upon their finances. 45% is hardly more so, logically for taxation to make the same impact on higher earners as it does on lower earners it would have to be much much greater again, to a degree that would be unsustainable in our current political structures, but it demonstrates that – at last – their incomes are no longer sacrosanct. And again it brings us back to concepts such as social solidarity and citizenship, the sense that all should be involved in broader societal processes.

Like John McDonnell I would see a 50% rate as being of greater utility, but for a government that pledged prior to assuming office in 1997 that tax increases were off the agenda this is a smallish step in the right direction.

The Irish Left Archive: Workers Weekly,Workers Association, British and Irish Communist Organisation, July 1974 November 24, 2008

Posted by irishonlineleftarchive in British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO), Irish Left Online Document Archive.
122 comments

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As mentioned a couple of weeks back on this thread, here is Workers Weekly, a publication of the Workers Association, also of the British and Irish Communist Organisation. This dates from July 1974.

I have a few more of these which I will post up in future months, but I think this gives an useful insight into the political position of BICO during the early 1970s. Worth noting their stance as regards the UDA and the SDLP in the aftermath of Sunningdale. Worth noting also the following sentence… ‘Granted that Catholics are not likely to be voting for out and out unionists in the near future, the Loyalists have at least attempt [sic] to get through to the SDLP, if only make it clear to all concerned (including the Catholics) that it is only their inability to get rid of their aspirations that is standing in the way of a peaceful settlement’.

They appear entirely antagonistic to a Council of Ireland and dismissive of internment and its pernicious impact on Nationalists in the North. Or how about the following? “The Civil Rights agitation itself was an attempt to divert attention away from the need for the Catholic community to drop its anti-partitionism and integrate fully into society in Northern Ireland. Instead of facing up to the fact that their isolation from society was due to their leaders continually campaigning for destruction of the state, they insisted on blaming the ‘other side’ and attributing their (largely self-imposed) isolation solely to ‘Unionist bigotry’.”

Or what of this attitude to Irish culture? ‘ As socialists, we have always imagined that everyone would be better off under socialism, which would be even more efficiently organized on an even larger scale than capitalism. If however socialism means confinement in a tight little turf-powered economy with everybody speaking a language that is of merely antiquarian interest to the rest of Europe, then we’ll be quite happy to settle for capitalism (and for that matter, ‘imperialism’), until something better comes along.’

I leave it for your consideration.

For a further interesting – if subjective – analysis of BICO this is worth a visit.

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