jump to navigation

Is there a problem with Peter Hain? Some people seem to think so, but are they right? June 30, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Uncategorized.
add a comment

Almost Sober



A thought provoking paper in Irish Political Studies, Vol. 21, Number 2, June 2006. This is by Paul Dixon, Senior lecturer in Politics at Kingston University. Entitled “Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland: Valuing the Union?” it has an interesting overview of the Secretary of State’s views and career, and winds up by proposing that Hain is ‘the most partisan Secretary of State for Northern Ireland appointed since the post was established in 1972’.

To back up this somewhat contentious assertion he notes that Hain who was born in Naiorobi and brought up in South Africa before he left for England in 1966 was strongly anti-apartheid. As a student and after he became heavily involved in the campaign in the UK. He was also a founder of the Anti-Nazi League, and Dixon considers it possible that the South African security services may have framed him for a robbery in 1975. Hain, like much of the British liberal-left bought into a Bennite attitude to the North which framed it in purely colonial terms. Hain had an fascinating trajectory from President of the Young Liberals to Labour. During the 1970s and 1980s he was involved in the Troops Out Movement.

During the 1980s he was a public speaker calling for unilateral withdrawal by the UK. Although as time went on this was modified to a degree and it’s interesting to note as early as 1981 he was against immediate withdrawal due to the risk of civil war… Dixon makes great play of the fact that this put him at odds with the principle of consent enshrined in the GFA, and indeed it did. However, again he was similar to much of the Labour left in that belief – and I seem to recall that John Reid, a predecessor of his was a former member of the CPGB, which took a pretty hard line on Northern Ireland too.

He was vice-chair of ‘Time to Go’ in 1988…but this fizzled out in the face of Labour indifference. As we move into the 1990s Dixon considers that Hain was paralleling the Sinn Fein line in terms of thinking, so as SF began to modify it’s arguments so did Hain, conceding that an agreed North was necessary. Perhaps…Dixon uses an incident in 1996 where Hain’s greetings were sent to the SF Ard Fheis, mistakenly according to Hain, to indicate that Hain had very strong pro-SF sympathies at a time when the ceasefire broke down. Indeed he considers that Hain’s unwillingness to address this issue ten years later in a radio interview (the transcript actually indicates that Hain says such an accusation is ‘wrong’) is indicative of…well something or another. In 1996 Hain apparently had a ‘chance’ meeting with some SF politicians on their way to meet Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn and others in Labour who have taken a fairly strong pro-Republican/Nationalist line. Again Hain denies any intent to meet the SF reps, and the Labour party who investigated the incident accepted his explanation. Now, I feel that there’s a degree of reaching going on here, because surely had he wanted to meet them openly he easily could have. But anyway…

Dixon considers the time between 1995 and 2005 a time when Hain accepted party discipline and made no statements on Northern Ireland. Now, I might interpret that as a period where Hain might have developed his thinking, but no…again a different interpretation is put upon what he did say. So for example when Hain says the IRA was ‘responsible for horrendous acts of terrorism and assassination…’ but goes on to say ‘it is essential to tie those who want to give up violence into a position where it is virtually impossible for them to go back. They need to be locked into a political process which gives them the opportunity to achieve at least part of their objectives. At the same time governments need to be very clear in their own minds about their own basic principles and what their bottom line is…’ he’s not really applauded for his quite reasonable analysis.

Indeed Dixon goes on to say that in other statements a ‘Republican analysis was again apparent’ as when Hain said that it was ‘the Protestant majority in the North ruling oppressively in a devolved administration and denying the Catholic minority basic human rights which it felt could therefore only be achieved by reunification with the independent Irish state in the South, an object which some nationalists pursued by terrorism’. Now, perhaps I’m misinterpreting what Hain is saying here, but it seems to me no more than the analysis which both the Irish and British governments have bought into, and indeed one which the SDLP would entirely agree with. So the ‘Republican’ provenance is difficult to ascertain.

Then we move onto his work on trying to solve the Gibralter issue, with that arch-Republican Jack Straw, where the idea of joint authority was mooted and later criticised in a Foreign Affairs Committee. This floating of joint authority is seen as yet further evidence of his partisanship and unsuitability for the job.

Finally in his dealings as Secretary of State Dixon provides a litany of incidents where Unionists have been ‘angered by his pro-republican sympathies’ (generally rhetorical comments such as stating that Britains role in Ireland had been ‘nefarious’, unusual from a British Secretary of State, but from a government which had already apologised for the Famine hardly the most radical of statements), his statement that Adams had shown ‘a lot of political guts’, hardly revelatory, and an inconsistency in his attitude to ‘terrorism’ since Hain has distinguished between Al-Qaeda and PIRA (something incidentally that Tony Blair did as well) but also noted that ‘terrorism is terrorism whether it was…in Belfast…or Islamic fundamentalists in London’.

And yet, and yet…so what?

A couple of thoughts along the way. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the experience Hain had in South Africa was such that it might have given him a certain sympathy for Nationalists and Republicans. Indeed Dixon notes as much. This might well have given a certain impetus to his political development. But that has also seen a change, and development if you will from the certainties of the ‘Troops Out’ era to the more emollient post Good Friday Agreement period.

Dixons final three explanations for the appointment of Hain are that “Sinn Fein may have negotiated the appointment of Hain as part of the stand-down of the IRA”, or that it was a “deliberate tactical move by the British Prime Minister to put pressure on Unionists to negotiate seriously” or finally, and most unlikely to me, that “it was a blunder and the Prime Minister had not intended to appoint someone with such a partisan record”. This latter thesis he seeks to validate by noting that ‘[Blair] had made mistakes before…at the time of Hain’s appointment in May 2005, Blair forgot to appoint a Women’s Minister’. Well…perhaps. Or perhaps not. It’s difficult to envisage any set of circumstances where a Minister for that particular post would not have a full security vetting, would have a CV delivered to the PM detailing everything he had done in the past, and that Blair would be fully appraised of just who he was getting – quite apart from the fact that he and Hain had been colleagues and modernisers over a long period of time.

But let’s go a step further. Dixon seems to propose that Hain, in and of himself, is a liabilty at negotiating a settlement and that he “inhibits attempts to negotiate a stable, devolved settlement”, and yet supplies no proof of this contention. Quite the opposite. He actually notes that the DUP has made little of Hain’s past and SF has been openly contemptuous of him.

If I have a problem with the central thesis of the paper it is this, it partially reflects a viewpoint that is troubled not by the fact that Hain has (had) views, or that these have evidently developed, but that he has the wrong sort of views.

How else to explain the trawl through his history, or to disregard Hain’s later comments that ‘the world has changed’. How else to explain away that Dixon accepts the fact that previous Labour Ministers have titled towards a Nationalist view while Conservative Ministers have tilted towards an Unionist view – surely de facto partisanship. How else to also explain away the fact that Hain has in turn annoyed both the DUP and SF for various reasons.

Could it simply be, and I’m not ascribing this view to Dixon, but more to some who might believe he is at least partially correct, that this Minister represents (and this is important because it may well be a straw in the wind for the future relations between the two islands) a post- 1969, and post 1998 consensus, that could be influenced by Republicanism without necessarily being subsumed by it – one that sees the future in termed of joint sovereignty, an equality of approach to both communities, that tries to shift the question beyond the traditional winner-takes-all end games of both Unionism and Republicanism into an area which is about the sharing of political power and a recognition of diverse identities which all have to be recognised?

Or is it that one can, entirely justifiably in my opinion, be a Unionist and seek to uphold the Union, but that to be a Republican, or even to be influenced in part by a Republican analyses and also believe in a peaceful solution to the issues (which in fairness is what Hain did even at the height of his ‘Troops Out’ days), is somehow to be beyond the political pale?

When is censorship not censorship? June 28, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

Polly Toynbee, writing in yesterday’s Guardian notes that the UK-wide tour of the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera is coming to the end of its run, and that the co-author Stewart Lee doubts that it will ever be performed again.

Apparently, following the protests and pickets of fundamentalist Christian groups, a third of the theatres originally due to host the performance pulled out, making it nigh on impossible for the tour to even recoup its costs, let alone make a profit. This is a show, remember, that’s been one of the most successful musicals put on in the West End (and in the National Theatre) in recent years, so it does seem reasonable to make the link between the protests and the losses.

It’s also worth pointing out that many (although certainly not all) of those who were so quick to point to Muslim anger over the cartoons of Mohammed published in the Danish press as evidence of the fundamental incompatibility between Islam and life in a secular Western society haven’t been quite so vocal about this campaign. One might, therefore, be forgiven for thinking that their devotion to ‘Western civilisation’ is a little less sincere than their more unpleasant distaste for actual Muslims.

That aside, Toynbee argues that the Springer and cartoon protests, as well as other similar controversies (specifically the Sikh campaign against the play Behzti , and the withdrawal of the M.F. Husain exhibition represent a threat to freedom of expression in the United Kingdom, and she’s probably right.

She also argues that the homophobic ravings of someone like Iqbal Sacranie shouldn’t be restricted by law, and that “protection against being offended should never trump free speech”, and she’s probably right on that as well.

However, she does seem to be avoiding the far trickier implications of the Freedom of Speech vs. Don’t Offend argument, and of the view recently articulated by Christopher Hitchens at a Hay debate on Freedoms of Speech which argues that the real threat to freedom of expression in Western societies comes less from the state than from ‘society’ itself (that is, from various different groups who demand that they not be offended by anything).

Let’s, for the sake of argument, take two basic principles as read: (a) that no one should be prohibited by law from expressing any view, no matter how offensive any other person or group finds that view and regardless of how odious that view might be, and (b) that violence, or the threat of violence, against any person or group based solely on a view they hold or express cannot be condoned. Both fairly reasonable positions which, while not completely uncontentious, most liberals would share.

If everyone accepted and respected these, would this be enough to ensure the protection of freedom of expression and an atmosphere which encourages the dissemination of a wide variety of differing, even conflicting, opinions?

Well, no; not in the cases outlined above. There’s nothing there which, on principle, would restrict Christian groups from protesting outside theatres, or prevent them from pressurising cinemas not to show The Da Vinci Code. Similarly, it doesn’t provide a sure basis for opposing a Muslim boycott on Danish products as part of a campaign to get Jyllands-Posten to apologise for printing the cartoons and promising never to do it again.
It’s all very well (and proper) to argue that someone doesn’t have the right not to be offended, when you’re talking about legal rights. But the implication here is that the state should legislate in this area (the Incitement to Religious Hatred bill being a prime example, although personally I think it’s hard to oppose that while supporting the retention of Incitement to Racial Hatred legislation, which I personally don’t). The argument gets a lot trickier when you’re talking not about someone’s right to express themselves, but their right to have a platform from which to do it.

If the BBC had refused to screen Jerry Springer: The Opera because of the huge numbers of objections it received, would that have represented a defeat for artistic expression. I’d argue that it would. But does that mean that Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee had an automatic right to have it shown? Well, clearly not, as no one has such a right.

Similarly, if 100,000 people argue that a particular play shouldn’t be performed, and request that a particular theatre not show it (and say that they’ll boycott the theatre if it does go ahead), on what basis can you make the case that the production should go ahead, regardless of the wishes of the majority? In these kinds of cases, freedom of speech isn’t really enough. I can’t argue that a particular gallery is somehow obliged to exhibit the works of one artist, solely on the grounds that the artist has a right to have the work shown, if I can’t at the same time claim that the gallery must also show the semi-pornographic doodlings I produced on the fact of my copy-book in school (to do otherwise would restrict my freedom, would it not)?

It’s an important point, not just in terms of ‘art’ but also in terms of debate in general. If I discovered that RTÉ intended to show some strange, racist mini-series which glorified the Ku Klux Klan, or that it intended to give an hour-long weekly radio show to someone like Justin Barrett, am I entitled to object, or to organise a campaign to try and persuade them otherwise? If so, am I acting in a way inconsistent with support for freedom of expression? If I’m a member of a college debating society (I’m not, and never have been) and someone proposes that we invite David Irving to speak , can I be a liberal and argue that we shouldn’t give him a platform? Similarly, if my local bookshop decides it’s going to devote an entire shelf to selling copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and I inform them that until they remove that item I won’t be giving them my custom, does that make me the equivalent of someone who calls for the boycott of Danish cheese because of some cartoons? And even if it does, does that mean that my stance cannot be justified?

Frankly, I don’t have a clue one way or the other. At best I think it shows that sometimes, ‘Freedom of Speech’ doesn’t win every argument, and it may also be necessary to look at the nature of the speech. But that, inevitably, leads to its own difficulties.

If anyone has a better idea, answers on a postcard etc. Winners will receive the Collected Works of David Irving and a copy of The Satanic Verses signed by Christ himself (oh, and his wife).

So what’s the big deal guys? Chomsky, his friends and enemies… June 28, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

I’ve an uneasy relationship with Noam Chomsky – although, as with Madeleine Bunting, he doesn’t know me and couldn’t care less. I first read his works back in the late 1980s and was impressed, although not entirely convinced (being a good little pro-Soviet Marxist at the time) with his apparent thesis that the world’s ills devolved back to the US. I’d seen various Workers’ Party TDs et al with their CND pins, and their dislike of the US and it’s ‘militarism’, but oddly no clear problem with say Chinese or Soviet ‘militarism’. And that sort of thing tends to make a young lad cynical about the way the world really works. Hence my dislike for fetishistic and often one-sided displays of righteous moral indignation.

Another point that worried me, at the time, was the dichotomy between his apparently anarchistic ideology, yet oddly staunch (if indirect) support for statist regimes across the globe – however awful simply because…they’re not the US. Now, I don’t buy into anarcho-capitalism, but it strikes me that the US is much closer to a minimal state (and a better predictor of some of the negatives that might be implicit in a minarchy or most possible anarchies) than anywhere else on the globe, but I also wondered why he chooses to live in such an unhappy place.

However, he has on many occasions made interesting and pertinent observations about the relationship between power and the implementation of power. The US has been incredibly cynical in it’s machinations. It has allowed an uneasy, perhaps in some respects utterly corrupt relationship between corporate interests and national interests. The relationships it developed in Latin America with indigenous power-elites arguably stunted the development of democracy there by decades. The relationships developed in the Middle East, while from a strategic view necessary (and exactly the same as those developed by the USSR and other powers) were, as we’ve seen, counter-productive. And finally the lack of substance to the rhetoric of ‘democracy’ in these relationships has hobbled what should be the greatest asset it can deploy globally , that of an exemplar.

Yet, yet, yet. It’s all so one-sided. His world-view is entirely Manichean. The US is bad. All it’s works are bad. It’s much badder than anyone else. It’s a sort of reverse US supremacism. We’re the best! Cue wild cheers. At being bad! Cue more wild cheers…

His latest book ‘Failed States’ asserts that the US is now the ultimate er…’failed state’, hardly a new philosophical departure for him in the context of his previous work.

Two things also strike me. Chomsky is an academic. Which is good. But the basis for his academic credentials are not in the foreign policy studies or relations sphere which is something of a sideline, but in linguistics. That in and of itself is not a problem, but to my mind there has been an implicit projection of the latter part of his career being validated by the former. One doesn’t need to slip into faux-Chomskyian elision or conflation (such as the intriguing fact that the majority of those at the notorious SS Wannsee Conference in 1942, which was instrumental in the furtherance of the Final Solution, had MAs or PhDs) to believe that academic qualifications are not necessarily the only source of legitimation or indicator of intellectual brilliance. And intellectually brilliant he has been in the field of linguistics.

The other thing that strikes me is the absurdity of both his supporters and detractors. On the one hand we have letters as with today’s Irish Times where a fairly even handed review by Hugh Linehan of “Failed State” is eviscerated by a correspondent who explicitly proposes that the reason why Linehan (hardly the most conservative voice on the IT) “…finds some of Chomsky’s work so objectionable: it challenges these skewed narratives which journalists must internalise and defend in order to build careers in the mainstream media”. Well – yes and no. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with media studies, as Linehan clearly does, will not be entirely shielded from Marxist and other methodologies which elucidate the nature of state power, societal relationships and so on… Indeed the naivety of the charge indicates an interesting point made in another review of the book by Peter Beaumont in the Observer where he notes that “the Chomskian analysis has become the defining dissident voice of the blogosphere and a certain kind of far-left academia. So a sense of its integrity is crucial. It is obsessively well-read, but rather famished in original research, except when it is counting how often the liberal media say this or that in their search for hidden, and sometimes not-so-hidden, bias. Crucially, it is not interested in debate, because balance is a ruse of the liberal media elites used to con the dumb masses. Chomsky is essential to save you, dear reader, from the lies we peddle” (here).

And there you have it. As the letter writer to the Irish Times put it, Chomsky can’t be criticised because the act of criticism is in itself proof of the bias (or skewed narrative) of the person criticising. Now, the term Kafkaesque springs to mind…or as the Sex Pistols once so eloquently put it “No-one is innocent” and certainly no-one is above criticism.

Peter Beaumont is less favourable to Chomsky than Linehan, which is also interesting, since Beaumont is politically from almost precisely the same camp, being anti-Iraq War, and utterly cynical of US motivations.

On the other hand we have Oliver Kamm (and in passing it’s worth noting that this is a man who can use the phrase “Krauthammer’s superb op-ed” with no apparent irony) (here). Kamm is pursuing something of a one-man vendetta against Chomsky through his blog, picking over every word and sentence in order to point up inconsistencies and flaws. Recently he’s teamed up with Nick Cohen (someone who I’m becoming increasingly worried about) in order to complain about Chomsky on foot of the famous article in the Guardian which elicited quite a response – although I can’t seem to find it on their site and it appears to have been pulled.

One more voice to add to the mix is yet another letter writer in the Irish Times today, this time excoriating Chomsky, saying “Although there is insufficient space in a single letter to construct detailed arguments demonstrating the full extent of Chomsky’s impropriety, it has already been well documented for anyone caring to look, most recently in the previously mentioned Prospect article (“Against Chomsky”, November 2005). The fact alone that so many of Chomsky’s colleagues and peers object to his deeply flawed methodology deserves greater mention in Linehan’s review. The trait of deceit, in a would be scholarly work, is a disgrace”.

This is all very well, but I’d point to the fact that in serious foreign policy studies Chomsky isn’t taken seriously in the first place and his influence is minimal. Kamm and the writer to the Irish Times forget this. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, considering the degree of inertia in that field is a different matter, but it’s telling in relation to the fuss and palaver which his every pronouncement is greeted with by both his detractors and supporters. As for being a scholarly work… in truth they’re more polemical than scholarly. That’s not a criticism because there is always a necessity for oppositional voices to be…well…oppositional.

Perhaps Beaumont puts it best when he notes that what he “finds most noxious about Chomsky’s argument is his desire to create a moral – or rather immoral – equivalence between the US and the greatest criminals in history. Thus on page 129, comparing a somewhat belated US conversion to the case for democracy in Iraq after the failure to find WMD, Chomsky claims: ‘Professions of benign intent by leaders should be dismissed by any rational observer. They are near universal and predictable, and hence carry virtually no information. The worst monsters – Hitler, Stalin, Japanese fascists, Suharto, Saddam Hussein and many others – have produced moving flights of rhetoric about their nobility of purpose.’ Which leads to a question: is that really what you see, Mr Chomsky, from the window of your library at MIT? Is it the stench of the gulag wafting over the Charles River? Do you walk in fear of persecution and murder for expressing your dissident views? Or do you make a damn good living out of it? The faults of the Bush administration will not be changed by books such as Failed States. They will be swept away by ordinary, decent Americans in the world’s greatest – if flawed and selfish – democracy going to the polls”.

I think it’s actually quite unfair to Chomsky to see him as being insincere, or simply in this for a ‘damn good living’ and perhaps Beaumont only use the term as a rhetorical flourish. But, there is a real problem for both the pro and anti-Chomsky side (and perhaps Chomsky himself). History will catch up with their delusions of the respective brilliance or malevolence of Chomsky when, as will inevitably happen, there is a change of power within the US, when the lessons of Iraq (long-predicted by the foreign policy studies community) filter through to the political elites, and when a more balanced assessment of a state which acts for the sometimes for the best of intentions and sometimes in the most cynical ways possible but in truth acts hardly better than some, and hardly worse than others, is finally made.

And yes, I’m entirely aware that this post in it’s miniscule way adds to that fuss and palaver, but for the mildly interested outsider there comes a point when one looks in and sees that it’s not just the King who is partially disrobed but everyone in the Royal Court…allies and adversaries…

You say warshow, I say airshow…or…just how does this peace thing work anyway? June 26, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Greens, Iraq, Irish Politics.

The mayor and deputy mayor of Galway, a Green Party and a Labour Party member respectively, boycotted the Salthill Airshow which was held on Sunday (here). They attended an event organised by the Galway Alliance Against War in the Claddagh where the GAAW had asked people to bring along "kites and other peaceful airborne objects". Now in a truly farcical note the Gardai were deployed to destroy, with 'weapons resembling hairpins' 97 red balloons (presumably on foot of the GAAW requesting those supporting their protests to ring in to radio stations requesting Nena's "99 Red Balloons", a cruel and unusual punishment in itself for those of us who remember it first time round). Such policing of the protest was arguably overly zealous, particularly when one learns that balloons were used at a march in favour of cancer research in the same area.

Now I'm in two minds about this. The basis of the dispute is that the presence of military aircraft, particularly those used in the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, 'glorifies' war and 'ignores the 'role such machinery plays in the deaths of innocent civilians in these countries'. Worse again (from the perspective of the GAAW, the organisers of Salthill Airshow have invited four British servicemen who served in Iraq to take part in the show. According to the GAAW the Mayor and Deputy Mayor and: “Their refusal to officiate at the war show indicates that there is widespread unease at allowing warplanes and British servicemen involved in the illegal war in Iraq to fly over Galway Bay. We have consistently argued the airshow is glorifying war. By inviting four British servicemen who fought in the illegal Iraq war, the organisers have proved our point. It has been further underlined in the way these people have been presented as celebrities. These men are no heroes; they were part of a criminal invasion of another country, an invasion that cost the lives of over 200,000 people.”. Indeed, and greater minds than mine might just point to a certain incongruity in such a statement in the context of…what's the name of the place? Just up the road, sixty, no seventy miles…ah, can't remember the name at all, think it's got Ireland in it…

Putting those points aside for a moment, I wonder if in this instance those involved in the 'peaceful' event really thought through their protest. Kites have been weapons of war since the Chinese invented them. Balloons have been used as aerial reconnaissance platforms. To depict them as 'peaceful airborne objects' is perhaps overstating the case. I'll entirely accept that there were specifically military aircraft on display at the airshow but few are single usage military aircraft, having either a training role, or a support role (such as the Merlin helicopter used by the RAF which can transport both personnel, munitions and supplies) In fact looking through the list of aircraft in attendance only the Royal Airforce British Aerospace Hawk, used by the RAF as a trainer aircraft, part of the Red Arrows display qualified as serious offensive military hardware. And to be honest while excellent for display, they're hardly the last word in fast-jet technology being produced in the 1970s. But again it comes back to the kites. All these are dual usage. They can fulfill many roles including peace-keeping, offensive military operations, humanitarian operations and so on.

Now, there were two F-15 aircraft from the USAF, which made a surprise appearance. But, in the absence of specific international sanctions against the US, it's difficult to see what basis might be made for shunning them. In any event what is the core gripe? That these machines are weapons of death? Then logically one would presume that all military hardware would be subject to equal sanction – including that used by the Irish Defense Forces – and scale being irrelevant to the principle that would have to include all weapons from hand-guns up. That's not a dishonourable point of view, although perhaps somewhat utopian, and if that is the rationale behind those protesting then I would entirely respect it, although respectfully disagree with them.

Or is it the linkage with the Iraq war? Now, as I recall the Afghan invasion was fairly well supported, even by Green and social democratic parties. And the current occupation of Iraq, while entirely regrettable for the form it has taken, is sanctioned by the United Nations – and therefore whatever our opinions of the merits of the invasion, perhaps it's best to hope that it will play out reasonably well, and perhaps regrettably that means we have to hope the US military will soon be in a position to leave and hand-over to the internationally recognised Iraqi government (indeed I shared joemomma's sentiments regarding the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, that it was no time for glee in the midst of a pretty awful mess). But that, again, is a different issue from the aircraft involved. Once more I come back to dual use. Indeed, there are good arguments that this state should have fast-jets in order to police our airspace and our seas. These have nothing to do with military matters, and everything to do with interdicting drugs or smuggling.

Do such events glorify war? I'd argue they probably don't. Certainly the general tone of the air show was that of civil defence, interdiction and entertainment and aerial display. Look at the aircraft involved, transports, rescue vehicles and so on. No weapons were fired, there were no mock engagements (unlike, I might add, a supremely dodgy public display I was at in GAA grounds in Newbridge in the mid-1970s where various elements of the Defense Forces 'stormed' a fake house facade. Exciting stuff when you're eight or so…trust me). But sheer speed alone is not a glorification of war…

And that leads me to the point that there was "widespread unease". The figures attending the Salthill Airshow have been consistently high over the past number of years. According to ireland.com 100,000 people are thought to have turned up yesterday. People aren't forced to go and the protests were minimal. That's not to dispute that there is legitimate unease over the actions of the US. But the public are generally fairly nuanced about such matters and they can make distinctions for themselves between the political administration of a state such as the US, and those who are asked to carry out the orders of that administration such as the military – often as we have seen over the past four or five years, unwillingly and with considerable reluctance (and let's be honest, assume they refused, would it really be better for the world to have a military coup inside the US against a civilian elected government, however misguided, as long as that government had constitutional support for it's actions – actually that's an interesting question we might return to one day).

And that's why I'm in two minds about the protest. It smacks too much of gestural politics – whatever the sincere intentions of those involved, it goes against the grain of public opinion – which while being no bad thing necessarily appears overly contrarian in this instance, and finally it exaggerates and conflates too many conflicting issues which on any serious analysis don't really link sufficiently well to one another to provide a clear message to a public which has already made it's own mind up and voted with it's feet.

And, to my mind, if there's one thing worse than gestural politics, it's pointless gestural politics.

“Won’t somebody, please ….” June 25, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Uncategorized.

Johann Hari had an interesting piece in The Independent earlier this week, admittedly unlikely to win him many friends, entitled “Paedophiles need support, not persecution”.

Given the impossibility, both in the UK and here, of having a rational debate that even touches on the issue of child abuse you have to, at the very least, give him some credit for engaging with the subject (although one suspects that there might be an element of the deliberate contrarian in it).

The points he makes are pretty straightforward, almost banal. He argues that measures like the so-called “Megan’s Law” and more draconian restrictions on released sex-offenders do little to prevent child abuse; indeed, by making these individuals feel persecuted and by driving dangerous offenders underground, they actually serve to heighten the risk of their reoffending.  He also highlights the scandalously low level of therapy and rehabilitation services available to offenders, both in prison and after release.

Contrast this with the front of today’s News of the World (the link will likely only work for the rest of this week) which pictures two allegedly convicted child abusers (I only say ‘allegedly’ because I take nothing that paper says at face value), one awaiting sentence, the other recently released filming young girls feeding ducks in the park. The story purports to show why the UK needs ‘Sarah’s Law’ (a rehash of the Megan’s law), which would ensure that parents knew of any sex offenders residing in their area. Interestingly, though, the story ends with the line:

WE have altered the pictures of the girls in the park to conceal their identities. If you think they are YOUR children contact Surrey Police on 0845 125 2222.

Wouldn’t this imply that the NOTW photographers didn’t actually inform the parents of the children in the park that the two old guys with cameras were actually dangerous paedophiles, and were more interested in getting the big story than with child protection? At the very least, it calls their sincerity in the ‘Sarah’s Law’ campaign into some doubt.

The contrast between the two pieces couldn’t be more stark or, indeed, more depressing. It should be a fairly obvious truism that if you care about the victims of crime, your priority should be to support those policies which lead to the creation of less victims, not more.  However, if any politician actually made the same, fairly reasonable, arguments as Johann Hari’s, they’d be denounced as ‘soft on paedos’ and find themselves trapped in a burning windmill surrounded by enraged villagers wielding pitchforks, burning torches and copies of the News of the World (with some other prurient paedophile story on the front page).

This doesn’t just relate to child abuse, although that’s the issue which people tend to get most heated about. If applies to the wider debate around crime and crime prevention.  There seems to be a fear among ‘the left’ or ‘liberals’ or whatever you want to use to describe people who actually use their brains once in a while to argue against a ‘tough on crime’ policy or even to question whether it actually works. To do so, it seems, is to ignore the victims of crime and to position oneself as a ‘do-gooder’ or a ‘bleeding heart’.  There’s certainly far too great a willingness to concede that being ‘tough on crime’ and being ‘tough on criminals’ are necessarily one and the same. And they aren’t.

The point should be made, and made forcefully, that it’s those who seek, above all, to prevent crime in the first instance by looking at its causes and proposing solutions, and supporting the rehabilitation of criminals who have already entered the penal system who have the interests of victims at heart. The Daily Mail/Evening Herald/News of the World ranters, by contrast, seem rather indifferent to the actual situation of victims provided that they can put them on the front page and call for hashers punishments (regardless of how effective these punishments might be). And if someone is more likely to reoffend after being brutalized by a penal system that provides little or no opportunities for retraining, rehabilitation or integration back into society, well, that just goes to show how evil they were in the first place, doesn’t it?

The next time, though, that the News of the World runs another story about the great Paedo-geddon (hat-tip to Chris Morris) facing society, think back to the two articles from this week and consider which is more serious about preventing the creation of further victims in the future.

Irish Citizens Alliance – Green Party for slow learners? June 23, 2006

Posted by joemomma in Greens, Irish Politics.

This caught my eye on politics.ie – it seems that Vincent Salafia and TaraWatch plan to form a new "party of protest" to contest seats at the next general election. The proposed name of the party is the Irish Citizens Alliance (or "Irish Citizen's Alliance" although I assume that the Alliance is supposed to represent more than one Irish citizen). The necessity for such a party is established as follows:

The idea for the party stems from the experiences of many citizens and citizen’s groups in recent times, which have been unable to find satisfactory support in either the Government or the Opposition parties. There has been an increased perception that parties are reluctant to offend each other by taking stands on any controversial issues that might exclude them from coalition Government.

All perfectly commendable. If your issues are not being represented by the mainstream parties, then setting up your own party or campaigning group is a logical step, and indeed rather courageous. Veterans of "mass immigration" discussions on politics.ie may wish that some of the participants had the gumption to set up their own party, rather than endlessly whine that the existing parties don't represent their views (not to mention those of the silent majority).

But what are the controversial issues this new party wants to promote? What are the issues the other parties fear to speak of in case it might reduce their chances of getting their feet under the cabinet table? Decriminalisation of heroin? Mandatory medical testing of immigrants? Outlawing the Irish language? Paving over the Shannon?

In fact, the list of issues specified is rather more familiar. It's a bit long, so I will quote selectively:

  • Re-route the M3 away from Tara
  • An end to plans for the Corrib gas pipeline
  • Enforcement of international human rights laws at Irish airports
  • Massive investment in heath and education services
  • Reversal of decentralisation
  • Re-evaluation of privatization of national services, such as transport, health, education, and prison services.
  • Increased public housing and revitalization of first-time buyer scheme.
  • Ban GM agriculture and promotion of organic farming through grant system, with a view to creating an ‘organic island’.

As a discerning reader of Ireland's premier political web log, you will already have identified these as policies held by at least one opposition party, the Greens. The points above would no doubt be phrased a little differently in the Green Party's manifesto, and there are some I haven't quoted which might not be Green Party policy or key Green issues (e.g. "Introduction of statutory provisions to limit waste of public money and overspending on public projects " — sounds nice, but probably something you'd expect Fine Gael to run with in the first instance). However there doesn't appear to be anything you could identify as a fundamental ideological difference between the putative Citizens Alliance and the Green Party.

Given that the agenda they seek to push already forms part of the policy programme of an established political party, why do Salafia and his "citizens groups" not just throw their lot in with the Greens? It's not uncommon to come across individuals or groups who share the environmental agenda of the Greens, but can't bring themselves to join that party, usually because they find themselves to the right of the Greens on non-environmental issues. Colm Mac Eochaidh, for example, is a committed environmentalist and yet remains in Fine Gael, a party whose environmental policy is specifically designed to face in every possible direction at once. On RTÉ's Questions and Answers some years back he stated that this was because he didn't agree with the Green Party's economic policies. Kathy Sinnott recently set about creating an "Irish Environmental Forum" to unite groups campaigning on environmental issues. Sinnott is a bit of an enigma, but leaving aside questions of political ambition, I suspect that she does not share the Green Party's social liberalism.

However Salafia's group does not appear to be another bunch of "conservative Greens" — they call for "re-evaluation of privatization of national services, such as transport, health, education, and prison services" and "increased public housing," so you could probably say they are on the soft left. It seems that the issue that divides them from the established Green Party is the latter's apparent willingness to join a coalition government:

Well, naturally, the Green Party would approve of a lot of what we are talking about. But the Green party will have to go into coalition with Fine Gael and Labour – or someother concoction. What will happen to these issues then, is the question.

We will not go into coalition. We will put forward a clear, solid, concrete set of proposals as our platform. If we are elected, we will implement them.

So it's political naiveté then. The author (who I'll assume is Salafia) seems genuinely convinced that his policies are "clearly favored by the majority of people in Ireland", and that this majority, if given the choice, will sweep away the established system of political parties in favour of this new option. To date the Green Party has only managed to attract an 8% level of support for remarkably similar policies, and Salafia doesn't provide any material reason why his new party should fare any better.

There is the possibility that Salafia has it in for the Greens for some reason, or that his party is intended as a ginger group to force the Greens to come out more strongly on the issues in his programme. The Green Party's perceived move into the mainstream has certainly produced a number of disaffected Greens who were happier on the further margins. However I lean towards the interpretation that Salafia genuinely believes that his initiative is new and different enough to attract a level of support exponentially larger than has been given to the party promoting these issues in the past.

He's wrong, of course, but in a sense he is starting out on the same journey of discovery that the Greens have been undertaking over the past 25 years. No doubt the founders of the Greens at one point believed that the policies and ideas they were trying to promote were so "common-sense" (a phrase used by Salafia) that they merely had to be put before the electorate to gain the nation's sweeping endorsement. Other Greens would have been of the opinion that sullying themselves in the murky business of electoral politics at all represented a compromise, and that the movement should remain one purely dedicated to campaigning and protest.

The bulk of the Green movement moved beyond the latter viewpoint fairly early on, and it appears Salafia has also ditched this false notion of the purity of non-electoral politics. However he has yet to learn the hard lessons endured by idealistic Greens over the course of several false dawns and repeated crushing electoral defeats at the hands of parties we all assumed had sacrificed the trust of the Irish electorate. It takes a lot more to get elected than idealism, bright ideas and faith in the electorate's better nature. It is also a mistake to overestimate the public's appetite for change.

Am I just being a big old cynic? Yes, I am a big old cynic. However, I'm not trying to suggest that Salafia's idealism is misplaced. I don't believe that the 8% or so of the Irish electorate who have been convinced to support the Green Party's message represents a limit for the growth of this movement. The issues the party highlights move further into the mainstream every day, and the perceived objections which prevent certain environmentally-minded voters from supporting the party get fuzzier also. I don't expect the Greens will ever be the mass national movement Salafia hopes to build (two seats in every constituency!), but I do believe it will build a more substantial wedge to push the Green philosophy towards the top of the national agenda.

And in case any readers are still wondering (or, indeed, still reading), yes as well as being a cynic I am also a Green.

Fear (Part IV)… June 22, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Iraq.

According to various news reports today Al-Quaida had multiple plots during 2003 to hijack aircraft in Britain, the US, Italy and Australia. Targets included Canary Wharf and Heathrow (here). Savvy to the new security measures introduced on domestic flights A-Q decided that international flights presented less of a challenge, and had various gimmickry including stun guns and bombs that they hoped to use to storm cockpits.
According to the report, in words which will no doubt send an icy chill down the spine of aviation industry executives worldwide:

"The Department of Homeland Security continues to receive information on terrorist threats to the US aviation industry and to the western aviation industry worldwide.
"But there is no recent information to suggest near-term operational planning for an aviation attack within the United States."
So that's alright then. Or is it?
After all, the thrust of the report makes clear that the threat is likely to come "less effective security screening at some foreign airports".
In some respects it's hard to know what to make of all this. The information relates to events three years ago. There has been no significant Al-Qaida attack in Europe since the Madrid train bombings (depending no what one's view of the London underground bombings and their provenance), and none in the US since 9/11. The information was garnered from a computer hard drive, as I understand it, yet in some respects it appears like back of an envelope musings, although it will be interesting to see the detail, should it be forthcoming. And what's the purpose of the exercise? There can be few people who board an international flight these days who aren't aware of the necessity to be vigilant.

The big problem here is that Al-Qaida as an international terrorist organisation has gone remarkably, and thankfully, quiescent in the past two years. That's not to say it doesn't exist, but so far no sleeper cells have manifested themselves in violent acts.

And this is puzzling, if only because as an organisation it appears to thrive on symbolic and murderous acts. Which makes one wonder just how many A-Q terrorist cells exist out there? Perhaps many, but perhaps more likely few, and with relatively little capability to act in concert at the level we saw on September 11. Perhaps the Afghanistan war by denying A-Q a logistics base (excuse the pun) undermined many possible actions it sought to take. But it's possible that the Iraq war, in a fairly ghastly irony, turned the focus of those who might well be motivated to join or imitate A-Q away from Europe and the US and towards Baghdad and environs.

A further thought. So far, and I'm aware that tomorrow or the next day's headlines might bring news that would undercut the ideas I'm expressing here, the 'imitation effect' of A-Q within Europe and the US appears to be limited.
And this leads to another problem. I can entirely accept the concept of 'asymmetric warfare', but the asymmetry appears to be such that, although a real and pressing danger exists from Islamist terror and Al-Qaida in particular, it is on a level which is – at this point – relatively containable. Those carrying out actions on behalf of A-Q or those imitating it have none of the nous or expertise of the indigenous terrorist organisations previously seen in Europe. That could change, but probably not rapidly.
This has ramifications which those in power in the US and Europe might do well to reflect upon.
I've criticised Madeleine Bunting for an overly rosy view of religion (not that she's noticed), but in one respect she's absolutely correct. Crucial to societal security in the near to medium term is a serious political engagement with the broad moderate Muslim community in both Europe and the US – which arguably has remained steadfastly moderate in the past five years or so.

Superheated talk about hi-jackings arguably detracts from the much more insidious threat from home-made explosives and suchlike, potentially alienates the very community one wishes to reach out to, and serves to exaggerate fears of acts that while possible remain unlikely.

Summer 2006: Treason Season in N. Ireland? June 21, 2006

Posted by mbarihogun in Northern Ireland, Uncategorized.

First the former British spook "Martin Ingram" accuses Martin McGuinness of being a spy, then UVF leader Mark Haddock gets the 50 Cent treatment after his side job as an informer is revealed. Now the INLA claims to have outed a Special Branch agent in its midst, and, in a gesture of surprising generosity considering the group's colourful history, has offered a one-week amnesty to any other spies within the organization.

This latest bit of news isn't that interesting in itself, and hardly falls outside the day-to-day skullduggery that makes Northern Ireland such an, err, eventful place. However, there is a fascinating revelation to be found in the Daily Ireland article, as the INLA claims that this alleged informer is the man behind the recent sectarian attacks on Orange halls in county Derry. The "sources close to the INLA leadership" maintain that this man has been organizing these attacks at the behest of the PSNI Special Branch.

To me, this presents two real possibilities. The first is that the INLA has expelled this man for other reasons, and has tacked on accusations of touting to discredit him among other republicans. The second is that this individual really is a spy, and that the PSNI have either been allowing sectarian tensions to escalate by not arresting him, or even encouraging such communal conflict, as the INLA claims. 

If the latter case is true, this should give serious misgivings to anyone who still believes the British security forces in N. Ireland simply want to prevent Protestant-Catholic violence. I wouldn't draw any sweeping single motivation out of this one incident, but, if these allegations are true, it lends credence to the theory that certain elements of the British state are primarily concerned with justifying their own continued existence.

Faith(s) of our Fathers…So farewell, Madeleine Bunting June 21, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Sad news yesterday to read that Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting is leaving the paper for a new job. Not just any new job either, but the somewhat prestigious new job of Director of Demos, the leftish public policy think-tank.

I've followed her columns for some now and found her one of the most consistently entertaining columnists on the paper. The problem being that she's entertaining for many of the wrong reasons….

As she modestly notes in her final column, "As a columnist I have championed particular issues – and some, I'm glad to see, are now part of a new progressive consensus of both left and right, as David Cameron takes up a politics of wellbeing and quality of working life. Soon, I hope, he and Gordon Brown will even start to talk about the care ethic – the vital principle alongside the work ethic at the heart of any society" (here).

Her future ambitions are oddly not a million miles away from the purpose of this blog, as she says "I plan to devote more attention to in my new capacity: for example, the regeneration of an intellectual grounding for centre-left politics beyond the tired managerialism and bankrupted concept of choice". So good on her.

However, her big idea in the past couple of years has been that religion should be much more central to political and social life in Britain, that the values of religion should inform the 'national conversation'. But not just any religion, because she's not hugely exercised by the fuddy-duddy Church of England, or the dull as ditch water Roman Catholic church, nor indeed tedious Zoroastrianism, or tiresome Buddhism. For Bunting has discovered that, "For the first time in a generation, religion is part of the national conversation; people want to talk and read about it. This is in large part due to Islam, which is prompting in a western audience a combination of fear and bewildered fascination (how can women want to wear veils, and have arranged marriages; how can Muslims still believe in angels and a divinely inspired scripture?). But there is another, albeit less pronounced, driver to this debate, which is that the collapse of communism and decline of socialism has left a vacuum of purpose, value and meaning on both the left and the right".

Now, being a somewhat critical fan of Edward Said I'm fairly inured to the dangers of orientalism in both it's positive and negative formulations, but I'm not so certain about Bunting.

She writes that: "To be fair, if the secular left is to be coaxed into a more knowledgeable and intelligent conversation on religion, then those of faith have a comparably large mountain to climb. There are two non-negotiables for the faithful if they are to warrant attention. First, the secularism of political life in this country has sunk deep and precious roots for good reasons and that should not be reversed – no jockeying for institutional advantage, please. Second, no exclusive claims for any tradition. Instead, what's needed is an ever-ready openness to understand the metaphors of other faiths".

Unfortunately there is an inherent contradiction here. Firstly, because the secular should be enormously wary of allowing the confessional onto it's turf. Not for nothing have we seen a degree of confrontation between religion and state in both the US (between fundamentalist Christians seeking to have religious texts placed within state buildings) and in Europe (particularly in the dispute over the use of religious garb in state schools). Above and beyond the rights of those involved, and there is right on both sides, the division between church and state is fundamental to the nature and possibly the well-being of societal balance in both areas.

Secondly for Bunting to even couch the discourse as being framed within the 'metaphors of other faiths' is to entirely misunderstand the ground stands upon. For Islam, or Roman Catholicism or the Church of England, the elements that the religion is constructed from are not 'metaphors' but core beliefs. To my mind this approach is arguably more disrespectful than a pro-religious yet strongly pro-secular state viewpoint (similar to that which I hold) that at the very least understands and respects the sincerity with which beliefs are held without pretending that those beliefs are mere 'metaphors'.

And there's a ghost at the banquet. She entirely ignores the fact that religion has always been part of the national discourse in British politics on and off for decades. Indeed the Labour party itself was often considered to "owe more to Methodism than Marx". Blair has publicly noted his own fusion of Christian and socialist beliefs. The Conservative Party has had an uneasy relationship between mammon and God, occasionally pitching towards the more socially conservative. Indeed she's tilting towards the territory occupied by P. Hitchens and Melanie Phillips which sees the woes of contemporary society as being the result of the 'liberalism' of the 1960s. Indeed she actually namechecks that poor old decade in the article…

Yet the contradictions are not simply within her text, but also between this and other articles she has written. Back in April 2005 discussing pamphlets on morality and politics she noted: "The point is that morality and values are no soft option. You can't slap them on with some fine phrases in an effort to get the electorate to listen to you. Morality in a post-Christian and post-socialist age is a fiendishly difficult subject to talk about. The shared-purpose common values with which Alexander peppers his text are meaningless to most people.

Debates about the moral purpose of politics in this election are unlikely to offer Labour any lift. Rather, they expose the inevitable attrition rate of any government's moral credibility after two terms. The record can be described, at best, as patchy, while Blair's "right thing" was much worse, and has left a distinctly queasy feeling".

In the light of the 'fiendish difficulties' she notes above, it's hard to see how she proposes to synthesise radically different belief systems and then allow them some degree of influence within the public sphere. And she knows that, hence her point about 'fear and bewildered fascination' (Incidentally I think her point about a 'bewildered fascination' is over done. Western European societies are only four or five generations into universal suffrage, for most of us, conservative liberal or socialist, there is a fairly clear idea of what we want, and what we don't want). Yet, it's difficult to think of any other generation of self-styled 'progressives' not knowing exactly where they stood in relation to such issues, respectful of individuals and religions as they had a coherent body of thought to call upon as regards equality, fraternity and liberty within the public context.

Her parting shot is telling, "So to all those readers (and there are more than a few) who will be delighted to see the back of me and my habit of referencing the religious traditions that have inspired me, I say that your prejudice is rooted in a misreading of history and a western cultural hegemony that has formulated a self-serving fantasy of its own superiority. Our future as a species is too precarious to allow for such vanity. We need vastly more humility and more sustained curiosity about how previous ages and other cultures have understood the nature of the human person and our yearning for freedom".

While enjoying the somewhat eschatological gloom of the paragraph, I find it difficult to understand how a belief in a fair and appropriate distance between religion and state is the result of a misreading of history or a 'superior' western cultural hegamony. Or perhaps it is that having been brought up in a state where political/religious disputes have had a rather more pointed resonance in recent times than in (most of) the UK I'm a tad more wary and less willing to give the benefit of the doubt than Bunting to those organisations who have apparently better 'understood the nature of the human person and our yearning for freedom' than countless scores of individuals who have had to chip away at building a public space where all can speak freely from the American and French Revolutions onwards…

The Last High King and his Faithful Bard June 20, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Irish Politics.

Long time fans of the True Voice of the Irish Psyche, John Waters, will remember a brief period in the mid-1990s, before he took up arms against the oppressive feminist tyranny we clearly all tremble under, where he trotted out half-arsed, poorly-understood misrepresentations of post-colonial theory every week, as a way of understanding the legacy of the Famine.

Well, it looks like the unread copy of Black Skin, White Masks has been dusted down and wheeled out in ‘defence’ (if you call a bizarre, nonsensical rant a ‘defence’) of the legacy of Haughey in yesterday’s Irish Times (sub required).

At least the previous Haughey piece we looked at tried to make some sort of case, albeit a spurious one. Waters, however, sticks with his tried-and-trusted faux-mystical tripe which, like the worst kind of New Age hack, he seems to think is an adequate substitute for boring old facts and arguments supported by evidence.

He wheels out the same old clichés we’ve had barked at us ad nauseam over the past week. “Everyone hated Charlie Haughey except the people” (no, everyone hated Haughey including vast chunks of the people, even the always useful to the budding reactionary ‘plain people of Ireland’). He had an “empathy with the people” (no, he was a populist with a barely disguised contempt for lives of ‘ordinary’ people). He was the one who made us all rich (no, he was around at the time when the economic policies which contributed, in part, to the current boom were initiated – with the cooperation of a Fine Gael party in opposition which acted, with the Tallaght Partnership, in a way unimaginable to someone as self-serving and power-mad as Haughey).

However, at least those others who come out with these kind of apologetics tend to at least acknowledge some kind of wrong-doing on Haughey’s part, even if it’s just the inevitable consequence of a ‘tragic flaw’ in his character.

Not John Waters. On the contrary, for Waters (via his wikipedia-like understanding of Franz Fanon), Haughey’s greed, corruption and ostentatious lifestyle are what made him great. He didn’t live in a huge mansion in North Dublin, or acquire his own, private, island and squander his wealth on overpriced shirts and overpriced dinners for himself, you understand.

No, no: he was doing it for you:

He sought to subvert the delusions of post-colonial Ireland, to manipulate the iconography of wealth and power so as to deliver himself and us to our potential.

You see, by being a rather comical anachronism (assuming the mantle of Ascendancy lord at a time when the Ascendancy had all but disappeared, and those who remained in the Big Houses, were impotent reminders of a bygone age) he was somehow undermining that image. One wonders if Haughey himself was aware that he was the living embodiment of subversive irony, or if he was just fond of being very, very rich.

Waters continues:

He stole Ireland back from the elite who had stolen it for themselves – by aping their pretences and self-importance and exposing the inadequacy of their charades; by creating a new drama of elitism: spectacular, attainable and democratic. (…)He showed us a way we might live, by living it himself.

Even more bizarrely, he claims:

He refused to settle for less than his own due, so refusing on behalf of the dispossessed; the men of no property; the women of less property; and the citizens who wouldn't have minded their telephones being tapped if, back in the grey and wireless reality of early-1980s Ireland, they'd had telephones worth tapping. To the people of flawed pedigree, Charles Haughey said: anything is possible, poverty is not natural, and you do not have to accept your place.

Aren’t you grateful? Apparently, he was leading by example, like the Marxist who travels first-class to remind people that, come the revolution, we all will. He was, in Waters words, “the Fat Chieftain who promised to make his people as plump as himself”.

Except, of course, that he wasn’t. This kind of argument only makes sense if Haughey was, in any sense, a self-made man rather than the grasping, insatiable crook he was in reality. He was able to live the lifestyle he did only because he was bankrolled by his rich friends, and because he was a tax-evader, a point which Waters conveniently elides with an oblique reference to Haughey’s ‘methodology’ in acquiring all this wealth. If Haughey was genuinely trying to show people how they too could aspire to a lifestyle like his, he could at least have been a little more forthcoming in revealing the source of his wealth when asked.

Not only, however, does Waters refuse to admit that Haughey ever did anything wrong, he seems to argue that Haughey, by virtue of his greatness, exists outside this kind of petty ‘morality’.

Being perhaps unable to achieve release from the cocoon of post-colonial illogic, you will "point out" that he was himself the prime beneficiary of his own dramatisation. This was unavoidable and therefore morally unexceptionable. There was no other way of demonstrating the possibilities.

The ‘dramatisation’ Waters refers to being, of course, the acquisition of massive wealth. He goes on:

His fingerprints are all over the transformation of Ireland, but the explanation is too complex and amazing for easy acceptance. Before he came, we were poor: now we grow rich. Before he came, there were hovels, now a housing boom. Before he came, there were dirt tracks, now motorways and flyovers. Before he came, we were afraid to speak in whispers; now we proclaim our worth to the world.


To deal with such a legacy by counting "good" and "bad" and weighing the difference is simple-minded and pointless. At its best, politics steers closer to magic than logic. To calculate the impact of Charles Haughey, we must add positives to negatives, hate to love, to know the sum of what he inspired and what he overcame to make the impossible banal.

This is nonsense, of course, but it’s dangerous nonsense as well. It exemplifies the kind of mysticisation and aestheticisation of politics beloved of fascism, where the lives and destinies of individuals are subsumed into the destiny of the Nation or the People (as a collective) conveniently embodied in this single great man (and, let’s face it, it’s always a man); the great man who doesn't have to live under the same laws nor is subject to the same moral standards as the rest of us.

It feeds on the myth of the establishment, where the Taoiseach, Tanaiste, the government, the owners of the media and millionaire businessmen like Michael O’Leary are all plucky underdogs and where Fintan O’Toole and Ivana Bacik really run the country.

It’s an unhealthy and profoundly anti-democratic worldview which serves to keep people docile, complacent and unquestioning and where an essentially conservative agenda can be presented as a radical.

Pretty typical John Waters, all in all.

%d bloggers like this: