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Socially conservative and economically ‘not particularly right-wing’… May 13, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics.
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Breda O’Brien wrote in the Irish Times this weekend that:

There is now a significant minority of voters who feel politically homeless, not just the voters who felt completely let down by Fine Gael legislating for abortion but those who despair because there seems no real alternative to crony politics.

In a way this works into the rhetoric about a new ‘right’ party that we hear so much of. Indeed the most recent edition of the Phoenix noted that Lucinda Creighton and Michael McDowell have had something of a rapprochement since earlier in the year when in advance of the Reform Alliance big day out she was perhaps less comradely than might have been expected. Entirely coincidentally – no doubt – in the wake of that event which was, by any reasonable criteria nowhere near as significant as its boosters suggested beforehand, and did little or nothing to ease the RA towards actual party status, she appears to have reconsidered her stance to McDowell.

Which is nice.
But O’Brien’s thoughts come from a slightly different perspective:

Also, many Irish voters are socially conservative, but are not particularly right-wing economically. Where is the party that represents them?

The devil, if I may use the term, is in the detail. What exactly does ‘not particularly right-wing economically’ mean? Are they Fianna Fбil inclined (or once were?). Does FG not provide a right of centre home for them? It’s a big church after all.

What are their views on state intervention? State education? State health services? The mix between private and public and so on? All these have to be defined much much more clearly, otherwise, we’re really talking about people who have no very fixed idea at all about economic management. Nor, and this is crucial, are economic matters separate to social conservatism. Anything but. We know that those who are socially conservative often have very specific ideas in relation to tax, and so on as to how matters should be arranged – antagonism to individualisation, putting families first and so on and what about the definition of ‘family’?

Or is it just a sentimental thing of a vague support of social welfare programmes, more or less? Without more detail it is near enough impossible to have a serious conversation about this matter.

O’Brien points to the rise of parties further to the left or right in other states and perhaps implicitly seems to suggest that something along those lines could occur. Perhaps so, but perhaps not.

And she does make one point which I actually agree with which is that in some instances there is a distortion of rhetoric. She notes that Ronan Mullen is categorised as some as ‘extreme right’ which is absurd. He strikes me as being most easily defined as a Christian Democrat on many issues – albeit more socially conservative than many of his European peers. But this distortion of rhetoric occurs in many many different contexts. It is not fair that O’Brien should carry the can for Alive! magazine, but that publication is no slouch in making unusual categorisations from the other direction.

It is also true that sometimes the term ‘right-wing’ has been applied in this society in relation to social issues while ignoring economic issues. In part, I suspect, that is because it provides an easy short-hand, particularly in a context where there is a much broader and deeper right of centre consensus on the economic than on the social – or to put it another way, if it was all but impossible to shift the economy leftward it made sense to define social issues as being on a left/right spectrum and this had a self-reinforcing aspect to it. In some ways the current incarnation of the Labour Party typifies this dynamic in that it seeks to present its radicalism more on the social side of things than in relation to the economic. But that said there are left/right divisions on social issues. The overwhelming majority of leftists tend to be socially liberal on a range of issues, from divorce, same-sex marriage through to abortion (that’s not an absolute, there are those as we know who take economically left positions while being socially conservative on some issues and vice versa – after all it was David Cameron and the Tories who introduced marriage equality legislation in the UK). And I’m reminded of a point Wendy of Feminist Ire once made that – talking about such divisions in most parts of the world leftists are almost entirely pro-choice but in Ireland that breaks down.

As to the substance of her piece, I’m deeply dubious about the idea of a socially conservative, economically not particularly right wing party gaining any great traction. We’ve heard many times that there’s a silent majority out there on social conservatism and yet, since the 1980s this has to all intents and purposes on a political level remained silent. I’d also wonder if many of the struggles that fired up the socially conservative have faded – obviously abortion being an exception, and perhaps same sex marriage being another, though we shall see. But it is near enough impossible to see a roll back on divorce, or broad lgbt rights, or gender equality (however partial) let alone contraception. Which does suggests that the motive forces may be a lot thinner for a political movement.

And surely what is left, again something approaching a vague sentiment, is easily enough accommodated in Fine Gael, or perhaps Fianna Fбil on another day. And while it doesn’t have the dramatic impact of a shiny new socially conservative, economically not particularly right-wing, party the basic truth is that even after years of crisis that part of the economic spectrum hasn’t seen a force emerge. And if that’s the case. And returning to Creighton, the faces at the RA conference said it all. There’s just not the raw material there to build a party with a similar base which is economically some way further to the right, so why should there be for a party a little less to the right?

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1. Richard - May 13, 2014

There’s an interesting survey here that allows you to identify yourself with the policy platform of a particular party, based on your own perception of yourself as left- or right- inclined, on a range of issues.

The really interesting thing about it is the way it defines left in opposition to right – the further left you go, the greater the level of involvement you supposedly want the State to have in control of economic life. Now this is is a very particular definition of left, which takes no account of the fact that one of the historical aims articulated by socialist movements has been the withering away of the state, not its insinuation into everything.

I think that tells you something about prevailing trends in political science, and it is something worth considering in the particular case of Ireland: the Catholic Church hierarchy has always frequently opposed the involvement of ‘the State’ in areas such as health, education, social services. So you had McQuaid for instance opposing the Mother and Child Scheme because he saw it as a forerunner to what the Church saw as communist totalitarianism. And the alternative proposed by the Church has always been the Rerum Novarum sort of institutions with a heavy emphasis on volunteering and charity, without ever calling into question capitalism as such, or the regime of property, and, in fact, happy to call upon the State to use whatever law and order mechanisms it saw fit so as to maintain order – including the prohibition of abortion.

So you have this rather neat effect where, in Ireland, people generally understand movement to the left not as greater democratic control over social and economic life, but more State, and according to this conception of the left, more State is an end in itself. You can see this in the way ‘hard left’ is a comfortable turn of phrase for political correspondents when describing the political scene. And I think there is still an effective consensus in Irish society that capitalism + some measure of social provision is better than anything that makes inroads against capitalism as such: one can be in favour of a greater degree of social provision whilst still being a steadfast supporter of the way things are. That is, in Ireland, there is room enough for you on the left wing of capitalism, but as long as you don’t show signs of straying outside that boundary.

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WorldbyStorm - May 13, 2014

That’s an interesting point, that left can encompass many state and non-state aspects and the former doesn’t per se have to be the focus. I also think your point re democratic control is very important.

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hardcorefornerds - May 13, 2014

“one of the historical aims articulated by socialist movements has been the withering away of the state, not its insinuation into everything.” An aspirational aim at best, and all the intermediate stages that have actually existed surely reinforced state power (for good and ill), including social democracy. I’m reading David Graeber’s ‘The Democracy Project’ at the moment, though, and it’s interesting his argument that anarchism is essentially at the heart of real democracy. So it seems to be to that tradition of the left you’d have to turn to refute the state-centric thesis in favour of greater autonomous participation and control. But at least until recently it has been the minor current, which is among the historical reasons why that political science ‘test’ developed the way it has.

Perhaps a better way of putting might be less support for a stronger state and more opposition/scepticism to business and property rights (though clearly the idea is that a social state restricts those things, just as the state itself originally enforces them). The far right side is full-throated support for thise things, anyway, the assumption currently being that there’s a neutral ground where they are adequately balanced against state intervention. But under neoliberalism the state is meant to actively interfere in support of the market, to ‘activate’ it.

I’d agree with your other points, btw,

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Richard - May 13, 2014

Yeah, I mean, I wasn’t articulating my own view on how things ought to be, just my general sense of what has historically characterised ‘the left’, even if this only in aspirational terms.

There are obviously competing tendencies, even within the broad-to-the-point-of-near-meaningless category of ‘the left’. So for instance you have James Connolly talking about the ‘A system of society that combines ‘the highest form of industrial efficiency’ with ‘the greatest amount of individual freedom from state despotism.’ Contrast this, for example, with Pat Rabbitte famously talking about ‘winning State power for the Irish Working Class': L’État, c’est nous…

Owen Jones had quite a good piece on the notion that right equates to less State in the Guardian yesterday.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/11/state-right-government-individualism-left

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workers republic - May 13, 2014

Well Makno wrote a booklet The Struggle Against The State and the revolutionary sailors of Kronstad, who attacked the Winter Palace fought for a Anarcho-communist society, the slogan:- “All power to the soviets (workers councils)” was a revolutionary one.
The Workers Opposition within the Bolshevik Party , opposed to the rule of a bureaucratic elite were to the left of the party leaders, indeed Lenin called them and Anarchists “Ultra-leftist”. That is a term often used by the CPI and BIO and the late Desmond Greaves to criticize the Peoples Democracy and (for BIO and Greaves) the Burntollet March,indeed Betty Sinclair of CPNI was also against it and through Coalisland to Dungannon March and the radicalizing of NICRA.
Lenin’s lecture on the State could be described as Philosophical Anarchism, his approach is tentative rather than dogmatic ( in my opinion) and he refers comrades to F.Engles writings on the subject.
As for Pat Rabbite talking about “taking State power” well, he did say :-“One tends to say things like that—————–“

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2. Richard - May 13, 2014

Sorry, forgot to stick in the link: http://www.euvox.eu/

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3. EamonnCork - May 13, 2014

The showing of Dana in the last Presidential Election and the poor showing by Mullen in the polls so far gives the lie to this idea of a socially conservative sleeping giant. I recall an otherwise intelligent contributor coming on here and suggesting we read ‘Alive’ as a clue to what ‘ordinary Irish people,’ are thinking. In reality those people are seen as extremists and have roughly the same influence as the SWP.
As for McQuaid and the Mother and Child Scheme, the fact that he was a doctor’s son certainly had something to do with the ferocity of his opposition. In Britain it was the GPs who proved the most tenacious opponents of Bevan’s new NHS until, as he said himself, he, “stuffed their mouths with gold.”
The fear of Communism may have had something to do with the church’s opposition to Noel Browne but their solicitude for the bourgeoisie from whose ranks some of them sprang and who they largely regarded as partners in maintaining the status quo had a lot to do with it too.
Interesting points by Richard.

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ejh - May 13, 2014

In Britain it was the GPs who proved the most tenacious opponents of Bevan’s new NHS until, as he said himself, he, “stuffed their mouths with gold.”

Consultants, I always thought.

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EamonnCork - May 13, 2014

GPs were probably the biggest opponents of the NHS and Bevan had to make small compromises to get them on board. But the ‘mouths with gold’ quote refers to consultants, you’re right. Doctors in general and the British Medical Association came out against the idea of an NHS initially.

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Richard - May 13, 2014

Oh sure, the fear of Communism articulated by clerics can be less a relgious-ideological commitment and more a concern with being fed and watered and attended to in the style to which they have become accustomed. Even in the present, I think it’s hardly a bizarre coincidence that one of the patrons of the Iona Institute is the founder of the Blackrock, Hermitage and Galway clinics.

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EamonnCork - May 13, 2014

Good point R. Even back in heyday of our religious right, the clichéd idea of them as ‘backwoodsmen’ in the media tended to ignore the fact that many of the prime movers were wealthy members of the establishment and that the spokespersons tended to be middle class Dubliners.

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EamonnCork - May 13, 2014

Though before I get all John Watersy about ‘Dublin Four’ here, the strongholds of social conservatism tended to be in Connacht/Ulster. It says a lot about how things have changed that Roscommon which posted the biggest pro-amendment vote in 1983 today elects Ming who backed Clare Daly’s abortion bill and who has a fighting chance of winning a European seat. Back then he wouldn’t have had a hope.

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4. CL - May 13, 2014

“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”-Adam Smith

“The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

So there is a right-wing strand which is in favour of state intervention.

The various ‘social movement’-LGBT, feminist, civil rights, etc-are easily accommodated by capitalism, so these are not necessarily ‘left’ or ‘right’.
But because capitalism is based on the commodification of labour power it is inevitably antagonistic to working class interests.

And capitalism is also incompatible with a sustainable ecology.

But whatever you say don’t mention ‘class’.

In any case we’re all marxists now.

http://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/the-us-right-s-new-reason-for-opposing-action-on-climate-change-it-s-marxist-1.1792311

(Note: Paul Krugman should be read with caution. He recently joined the faculty at the City University of New York (CUNY), a large public institution so he’s probably a communist)

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hardcorefornerds - May 13, 2014

“The various ‘social movement’-LGBT, feminist, civil rights, etc-are easily accommodated by capitalism, so these are not necessarily ‘left’ or ‘right’.
But because capitalism is based on the commodification of labour power it is inevitably antagonistic to working class interests.”
However, not all labour power is commodified equally under (patriarchal) capitalism, with the result that women are expected to shoulder more of the domestic burden due to social and cultural norms. This is a good post about how that applies in recent events: http://feministire.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/the-moral-outrage-of-the-damned-public-reaction-to-the-plight-of-sabrina-mcmahon/

(Obviously that doesn’t mean that the solution is necessarily more commodification; only that capitalism is not (yet) based entirely on it)

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CL - May 13, 2014

True

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5. hardcorefornerds - May 13, 2014

“Or is it just a sentimental thing of a vague support of social welfare programmes, more or less? Without more detail it is near enough impossible to have a serious conversation about this matter.” This is very true. And as you say, there has to be scepticism about the number of people holding both meaningful ‘economic left’ positions and socially conservative ones. Certainly they’ve existed historically (the Irish Labour Party) but the question is how sweeping the trends -perhaps both away from social democracy, and towards social liberalism – have been since. But the issue does crop up – see the recent controversy over the purported AAA pro-life candidate and will seemingly inevitably form a part of a broad anti-austerity (note, not ‘left’) movement. Are such people marginal enough to be simply ignored, and/or what is the specific justification for excluding them?

You make a good argument re tax individualisation how socially conservative ideas can be inimical to standard left ones, but that seems like a particular case and it’s surely not in every one that the economic dimension precludes the socially conservative stance – rather, they remain two somewhat different sets of ideas connected by broader philosophical underpinnings.

The abortion issue is particularly fraught in Ireland, perhaps simply because of the strength of embedded social norms. On the other hand, I’ve had it put to me that the pro-life position is equivalent to racism or homophobia, which I’m dubious about (at least as a current political position).

Ultimately one might argue that social conservatism fails to provide for a radical transformation of society necessary to effectively challenge inequality, but the same criticism is made of liberals by the left. Yet if economic liberals can be socially progressive, is the reverse not possible as well? The problem is thus perhaps the constriction by liberalism, ironically, of the space to radically debate social and economic issues.

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EamonnCork - May 13, 2014

There is a problem with subjugating absolutely everything to economic positions, which is not what you’re doing here but which does happen sometimes. People say on this site sometimes ‘but this has nothing to do with socialism’ about quite a lot of fraught issues in Irish society. You couldn’t think of a better way of marginalising the left than for left-wing parties to stand aside holding their noses in a neutral pose. Because you can’t really be neutral on social issues anyway, to ignore them altogether is merely to take sides with the status quo.
And the whole, ‘why should we do anything for them, they’re not even socialists/working class,’ approach is a problem. As is the ‘they may be against gay rights but the kind of sort of like some left-wing stuff.’
An example is the Civil Rights movement in the US. Segregation was enforced in the South by Democratic politicians who often hewed to a kind of economic populism which was kind of Left wing. So do you take their side when the undisputedly right-wing Dwight Eisenhower despatches federal troops to prevent them continuing school segregation? Or, worse again, do you say, ‘this emphasis on the race will only split the working class. We’re standing aside until a revolution enables black and white workers to fight hand in hand against the bosses,’ (even though that will never happen).
I’m probably stretching things a bit there. But, and perhaps my own namby-pamby Liberalism is showing itself here, but I don’t really see the use of a Left-wing approach which welcomes people who are dubious about womens rights (abortion is a womens rights issue after all) and dismisses this as unimportant.

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hardcorefornerds - May 13, 2014

That’s probably a good approach to take. Otherwise, it alienates more people in the long run than it accommodates in the short.

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CL - May 13, 2014

“Labor unions were critical allies of the African-American freedom struggle, especially the large industrial unions coming from big cities in the North that had large African-American populations and growing black workforces. They believed that black workers and their fate was intertwined with that of white workers; ”

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=216191855

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eamonncork - May 13, 2014

There’s a very good article in the NYRB which is not current, a review of a book called ‘Sharing The Prize: the economics of the civli rights revolution,’ by Gavin Wright.
Interesting to see that the establishment prognosis in the forties was that our old friend ‘market forces’ would lead to the withering away of segregation.
When MF didn’t do the job it became clear that state intervention was needed. Nothing wrong with Big Government there.
The reviewer makes a link between the civil rights struggle and what’s currently going on in the US, noting that the Tea Party has a strong Southern base. I think myself you can explain the TP almost wholly in terms of a racial backlash against a black president. Anyway, it’s worth reading.

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CL - May 13, 2014

EC, an important book thanks for the reference.

‘Wright explains that the driving force behind the movement was southern poverty; it was not just about denial of services and accommodations but wages and jobs. The author documents that federal intervention (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the recently rescinded Voting Rights Act of 1965) was followed both by enforced desegregation and a dramatic rise in the wages of southern black workers’- from Book News.

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6. eamonncork - May 13, 2014

Though it’s a complicated one.
Between 1964 and 1985 there were 296 decisions by federal courts against unions for racial discrimination, the Teamsters and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers being particular offenders.
And in 1962 Jacob Clayman of the AFl-CIO’s industrial department complained to Walter Reuther that the union had no civil rights policy or any way of dealing with segregration among workers at a local level. Even after civil rights you had construction unions using the excuse of “seniority rights,” to prevent Affirmative Action. They presumably would have argued that the welfare of their workers trumped racial considerations. This gave rise to the phenomenon of Nixon Democrats.
Another example of how this ‘economic issues trump everything’ argument can give rise to an extremely dodgy conclusion occurred in Ireland in the mid seventies. Then Minister for Labour Michael O’Leary accepted the claims of employers that implementing EEC equal pay legislation would lead to job losses and attempted to prevent its implementation on the grounds that the rights of workers to have a job were more important than the rights of women to receive equal pay. Neanderthal stuff,, and he didn’t get away with it, but a logical extension of the idea that economics trumps every other consideration. Well known liberal Garret Fitz by the way complained that married women were doing other people out of jobs and should consider staying at home.
I think myself that some of the ‘that’s nothing to do with socialism,’ arguments are born out of a mistaken nostalgia for the days of a working class which doesn’t exist anymore, a homogenous mass of straight white men who don’t have any time for this wimpy equality nonsense. That train is long gone.
Something salutary for me as a young man was reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, a great novel and as powerful a literary argument for socialism and against exploitation as has ever been made. Yet in the closing pages he writes about black workers in racist and vicious terms indistinguishable from something the KKK would have come up with.
In any event the left hasn’t been defeated by becoming distracted by gay marriage and womens rights.

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eamonncork - May 13, 2014

ejh made the best point on this I think when he noted that the left can’t go around telling people they shouldn’t be interested in, for example, gay rights because they should be interested in the water charge instead. As he pointed out, people get involved in the campaigns which interest them personally.
I suppose the left can do that but in practice the left parties here don’t.

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Richard - May 13, 2014

A propos…

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eamonncork - May 13, 2014

Beaut. It’s Dave Allen, isn’t it?

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Gewerkschaftler - May 14, 2014

That’s funny – the name Dave Allen crept into my decrepit cerebellum the other day – I used to watch him as a kid.

He could be quite out there. I still remember the joke:

“I’ve lived my life by the clock – the alarm clock would wake me up, I’d clock in at work, clock out again every day. And what did they give me when I retired? A fucking clock.”

Or thereabouts.

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CL - May 13, 2014

Victory in LGBT, Feminist, and Civil Rights struggles are essential for human liberation. But the point is that all these struggles can be accomodated by capitalism, whereas capital and labour will always be in opposition to one another.
Yes the relationship between the Civil Rights movement and the Labour movement is complicated. Many unions were racist, but this should not blind us to the important interactions of the two movements.

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eamonncork - May 13, 2014

Agreed. And in fairness the trade unions have done more to help in these struggles than the employers organisations ever had. The left have also done far more than the right ever would and I think people on the left should regard this as a point of justifiable pride rather than some distraction which derailed the class struggle. Not your view CL, but one which gets an airing from time to time.

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eamonncork - May 13, 2014

That whole, ‘Your average horny handed macho working man doesn’t think much of all this sticking up for blacks and gays and women’ trope is a favourite one for right wingers who seem to treasure the idea that racism, sexism and homophobia are indicators of some kind of authenticity. Which is why people on the left should be careful of appearing to chime in with this particular cliche.

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CL - May 13, 2014

100 yrs ago the I.W.W organized blacks and whites together. And there were blacks in leadership positions. Likewise with the Knights of Labor in the 1880s.

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7. Wendy Lyon - May 13, 2014

. And I’m reminded of a point Wendy of Feminist Ire once made that – talking about such divisions in most parts of the world leftists are almost entirely pro-choice but in Ireland that breaks down.

For the sake of clarification it was not most parts of the world, just most parts of the “western” world. As I said when we had that discussion, I don’t know enough about how this breaks down in the less developed nations.

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WorldbyStorm - May 13, 2014

Apologies, my mind racing ahead of my typing in that instance, you did indeed say the western world. The import of the statement (accounting for it accurately- which I didn’t!) has always stuck in my mind because it is so true.

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8. doctorfive - May 14, 2014

I would be very sceptical of Breda’s leftism tbh. It is something she alluded to down the years but you only need scratch the surface of her economic positions to find something not altogether liberatory behind them. Anti-capitalism has never been synonymous with socialism. EamonnCorks points about wealthy establishment types are important here are good indicator of real attitudes to distribution. Likewise the private hospitals. I agree entirely about being Breda’s world being easily accommodated within Fianna Fáil.

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9. Alan Rouge - May 14, 2014

“Politically homeless” is a phrase that could do with being popularised as in, people who are homeless as a result of political decisions .

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