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Len Deighton, class and the right… September 30, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Books, Class, Culture, The Left.


One of the most interesting analyses of class in contemporary society I have ever read is available at Dublin Opinion at the moment. Conor has been working through aspects of class definitions, structures and the representation of the working class in Ireland and really getting to grips with something that while elusive retains enormous potency (or ‘agency’ as the current idiom would have it).

And it brought to mind the point that class looms large as an element of many different aspects of representation. For an example of same can I direct people to the thrillers of Len Deighton? What is curious here is that these thrillers, in particular the ‘Harry Palmer’ series did not come from a left-wing base, but instead a more generalised meritocratic approach and one I’d argue that was uniquely British and fed into a later version of right populism.

Across a series of books, from The Ipcress File, through Horse Under Water, on to Funeral in Berlin, Billion Dollar Brain, Spy Story and Yesterday’s Spy, the initially nameless agent for an obscure branch of British intelligence is pitted not merely against ideological opponents in the shape of East German and Russian agents and military, but also the bureaucracy of civil service institutions which are led by the upper and upper middle classes (who either turn out to be fallible, inefficient or actual traitors). Palmer (as he is later called although it is not clear if the narrator in Yesterday’s Spy is the same agent) is underpaid, from a working class or lower middle class background, lives a very ordinary lifestyle and has a chequered past including military service.

It is this sense of having a strong class differentiation that permeates the novels giving them a curious, and sometimes humorous edge, as Palmer attempts to negotiate through a labyrinthine complex of rival intelligence units headed by elites. Indeed there is often a tellingly bitter tone to the pieces and a sense that the rationale for this new colder war are never quite as clear cut as is often presented. Having said that the books are unequivocal in their anti-Communism.

The Ipcress File, published in 1962, starts the series (I always remember my father seeing the film version – which arguably helped launch Michael Caine on the road to stardom – a feature of which is a rather high-tech, for the 1960s, torture and brainwashing device and muttering about it being exactly how British intelligence operated in the North). It’s interesting when one considers the date. The society was changing, with the Lady Chatterly’s Lover trial a mere two years previously. But Deighton wasn’t addressing youth culture as such. You’ll search for quite a while before finding any references to popular music or suchlike. His concerns were those of men (and the books are pretty male oriented) who had served in the War or had just missed it, a tranche in their late 20s and 30s from largely working class or lower middle class backgrounds in rather mundane jobs. Too old for youth culture but shaking off the social mores of previous decades.

The daily travails of the then nameless protagonist as he is shuttled from one obscure intelligence unit to another are detailed exquisitely. The peculiar hierarchy of the British (indeed any) civil service is laid bare.

Ross, the man I had come to see, looked up from the writing that had held his undivided attention since three seconds after I had entered the room. Ross said, ‘Well now,’ and coughed nervously. Ross and I had come to an arrangement of some years’ standing – we decided to hate each other. Being English, this vitriolic relationship manifested itself in oriental politeness.

Class issues abound.

Dalby was an elegant languid public school Englishman of a type that can usually reconcile his duty with comfort and luxury.

Dalby tightened a shoe-lace. ‘Think you can handle a tricky little special assignment?’

‘If it doesn’t demand a classical education I might be able to grope around it’.

In Yesterday’s Spy, published in 1975, the plot becomes even more explicitly political and mirrors the concerns of the time. A resurgent Egypt and Syria, supported by the USSR. The protagonist is a former member of a WW2 resistance network in France. One of his old contacts was a Jewish Communist named Frankel. In a flashback Frankel is met my the narrator for the first time in the early days of the war.

“But Hitler and Stalin have signed the peace pact. In Lyon the Communists are even publishing a news-sheet”.

Frankel looked up at me, trying to see if I was being provocative. He said, ‘Some of them are even wearing the hammer and sickle again. Some are drinking with the German soldiers and calling them fellow workers, like the Party tells them to do. Some have resigned from the Party in disgust. Some have already faced firing squads. Some are reserving their opinion, waiting to see if the war is really finished. But which are which? Which are which?’.

Steve Champion (!), who is for much of the book portrayed as the villain of the piece comments:

‘Oooh, they’ve changed you, Charlie! Those little men who’ve promised you help with your mortgage, and full pension rights at sixty. Who would have thought they could have done that to the kid who fought the war with a copy of Wage Labour and Capital in his back pocket?…’

The idealism of youth is gone. Replaced, as Champion says, with a pragmatic approach to life. And this is true not just of the narrator Charlie, but also other characters.

Later Frankel in a discussion with Charlie says:

‘The risks I ran, the times I was beaten with police truncheons, the bullets in my leg, the pneumonia I caught duringthe Spanish Winter fighting… all this I don’t regret…. When they told me about the Stalin-Hitler pact I went around explaining it to the men of lesser faith. The war you know about. Czechoslovakia – well, I’d never liked the Czechs, and when the Russian tanks invaded Hungary…well they were asking for it, those Hungarians…. But I am a Jew…they are putting my people into concentration camps, starving them, withdrawing the right to work from anyone who asks to go to Israel When these pigs who call themselves socialists went to the aid of the Arabs then I know that no matter what kind of Communist I was, I was first and foremost a Jew. A Jew! Do you understand now?’

I think this is interesting if only because it points to one period and set of events during the war years which was a huge betrayal to many on the left (and coincidentally while I was writing this post Ed Hayes brought up much the same point in comments on the CPI). Charlie’s idealism is gone by the end of the war. It is clear from the narrative that actually existing Communism failed in his eyes. Frankel’s devotion to the cause persists much longer. And his split is over religion/nationality in the context of the USSR treatment of a religious minority.

In a later exchange with a German there is the following…

“And if you’d been living just a few miles farther east, you’d be doing your duty on behalf of the Communists, I suppose.’

Claude smiled. ‘I can remember a few nights during the war when you were telling us all how much you favoured theoretical Communism.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Well, almost everyone’s in favour of theoretical Communism. Maybe even those bastards in the Kremlin.’

In a way it is a sad and bitter little tale. The British are no longer masters of their world. Schlegel, the US intelligence officer is the one in charge.

‘Not all of it,’ said Schlegel. ‘Long after the file closes, Champion was still reporting back to this department.’
‘Was he!’
‘Long before my time, of course,’ said Schlegel, to emphasize that this was a British cock-up, less likely to happen now that we had him with us on secondment from Washington.

Former ‘officer’ class characters such as Charlie’s nominal superior Dawlish appear. Their position is diminished by the intervention of the US. But there is little sympathy for them as the following excerpt demonstrates:

I’d hardly started having a look round when Dawlish arrived. If Schlegel was hoping to keep our break-in inconspicuous, I’d say that Dawlish screwed up any last chance, what with his official car and uniformed driver, and the bowler hat and Melton overcoat. To say nothing of the tightly rolled umbrella that Dawlish was waving. Plastic raincoats are de rigueur for the rainy season in Barons Court.
‘Not exactly a playboy pad,’ said Dawlish, demonstrating his mastery of the vernacular.

And throughout it there runs a strain of civil service speak. Small complaints about the nature and conditions of the job.

Dawlish said, ‘So, should I infer that you have a little blot-hole like this, just in case the balloon goes up?’ Even after all these years together, Dawlish had to make sure his little jokes left a whiff of cordite.
‘No sir,’ I said. ‘But on the new salary scale I might be able to afford one – not in Central London, though’.

It is this mix of the banal and the extraordinary which characterises what Deighton writes. And it is curious because the political analysis is one which is resolutely anti-elitist, but one which in a grudging identification with the US ultimately can be seen as a precursor of certain narratives which are perhaps best exemplified by those who supported Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. The understanding, even the critique of class is present and correct, but then it veers off in a completely different direction from the left. I am thinking in particular of the developments in the UK Conservative party which were very much a reaction against the traditional patrician ‘one nation’ mentality which had infused the party for much of the 20th century. This is, to some degree, the same song as that sung by Rupert Murdoch when through his media he decried old monied elites who held back entrepreneurial endeavour. That he was establishing a further elite appears to have eluded him. It’s a populist message, one where the ordinary man cannot trust the old elites, cannot trust those who supposedly speak for him (there is a throwaway line in a club setting where two “socialist” MPs are talking about golf and wine) and in the end it is the Americans who are – if not quite heroic – at least a means towards some sort of a better future.
Deighton wrote many books after these, again mostly dealing in the world of intelligence agencies (bar the extremely odd, and rather cheerless MAMISTA which dealt with South American guerillas). And they’re all fine books. But, something was missing by then. The edginess and friction that his exploration of the interface between different social classes during a time of rapid societal change had dissipated. The later books are rather…well…middle class, as are the concerns. The last really good book I read of his was Violent Ward, set in California and something of an homage to Chandler. He is still around, lives in the US and holds fairly right-wing views on unions and suchlike.
But for all that I think he had something back in the 1960s and early 1970s and caught, perhaps inadvertently, a snapshot of Britain and what it meant to be British.

I should also note an excellent essay by Charles Stross, the science fiction and fantasy writer, who has, in the form of his novella The Atrocity Archive, written a homage to Deighton that manages to cross the Cthulu mythos with…well… the hierarchical structures of the civil service. Good fun and very perceptive (incidentally am I the only one who thinks Stross is something of a latterday Silverberg or Pohl who tries his hand at everything the genres have to offer and generally comes away successfully?).

The 30th Dáil and the new recruits to our great democracy… Part 1 of a continuing series… September 29, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Irish Politics.

A difficult evening on Wednesday for Bertie Ahern during the debates on his leadership. Still, notable, as the Irish Times put it, for the following example of discomfiture on the part of our hero.

Mr. Ahern singled out an attack made on him by new Fine Gael TD Leo Varadkar.
“I am big enough to take it, but when you hear a new deputy who isn’t a wet day in the place not alone castigatin me – well, I will take that – but also castigating Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

And the cause of his ire?

From the Dáil Record…

Deputy Mary Hanafin: I am proud to be Minister for Education and Science.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Deputy Hanafin is the worst Minister by a mile.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: I wish to share time with Deputies Sheehan and Creed.
This debate is not about the Government’s record on Northern Ireland, the economy, the health service, transport and the environment. It is not about the personal affairs of the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, despite his attempts to bring family problems into the debate at every possible opportunity afforded by RTE but not by the tribunal.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Following in the footsteps of gutter Fine Gael.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: This is about low standards and credibility. Politicians should not take money for personal benefit from wealthy people. I do not know why the Taoiseach took the money. I do not know if the reason he took money in Manchester was that some of them were the Manchester investors in the casino project in my constituency. I do not know why the Taoiseach took money from Mr. Michael Wall, a private bus operator looking for bus services to be deregulated in this country. I would like to know because I do not accept the reasons provided.
What the Taoiseach has done is no different from what Mr. Liam Lawlor, Mr. Charles Haughey, Deputy Lowry and former Deputy Ray Burke did. In none of those cases do we have documentary evidence of corruption. The reason they are discredited, disgraced and removed from office is they behaved in an inappropriate manner by receiving large sums from private individuals for personal gain. The same standards should be applied to the Taoiseach. Just because he is Head of the Government does not mean lower standards should be applied. By any international standard, he would no longer be Head of the Government. In Germany Ministers resign when they keep frequent flyer points accrued on Government flights. In Britain Ministers resign for accepting undeclared loans. In the United Kingdom the Taoiseach would not be fit to be a member of a county council. He is certainly not fit to be a candidate for the Fine Gael Party.

Deputy Lucinda Creighton: Hear, hear.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Regarding credibility, most people in the State do not believe the Taoiseach’s assertions about his finances. A journalist in the Sunday Independent wrote that if there was a simple explanation, we would have heard it some time ago.

Deputy Simon Coveney: Was that Deputy O’Dea?

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Nobody believes the Taoiseach’s story. Privately, most of those on the Government benches do not believe it. Nobody believes the Taoiseach did not have a bank account. The only reason he did not have a bank account in that period is worrying and sinister. Nobody believes his claim that the dig-out came from friends. Even Mr. Padraic O’Connor of NCB Stockbrokers, for example, denies that he is the Taoiseach’s friend and stated the money was given to Fianna Fáil. Nobody believes the money the Taoiseach received was for the refurbishment of a new house. Nobody believes the Taoiseach did not deal in dollars. Nobody believes the 24 people in Manchester were his friends. The Taoiseach claims that they were but cannot name them. Nobody believes the Taoiseach, his partner at the time and the bankers forgot to count the money.
History will judge the Taoiseach with more sophistication than the Sunday newspapers or Senator Harris.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: The people judged him on 24 May, which Fine Gael keep forgetting.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: History will judge him and, in some ways, as a successful Taoiseach. It will also judge his years as Taoiseach as a lost opportunity to achieve great things done in other booms such as the Adenauer years in Germany or the post-war years in America.

Deputy Willie O’Dea: We will see what Deputy Varadkar achieves.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Sadly, this dark affair will darken the Taoiseach’s record in the same way as Tony Blair’s involvement in Iraq or Bill Clinton’s corruption and personal scandals darkened theirs. History will judge the Taoiseach as being both devious and cunning, in the words of his mentor, master and, clearly, role model.

Deputy Brian Lenihan: The Deputy was well trained by US Republicans.

Entertaining on so many different levels. Firstly, in fairness Minister Hanafin is actually not bad at all, so lets put that one down to partisan political sniping. Still got to love the sideswipes at ‘Senator Harris’, the apparent superiority of Fine Gael and indeed the mention of Bill Clinton’s corruption (?) scandals.

Also got to love Brian Lenihan’s gibe. When in doubt push back hard with the opposite message. Still, does make one wonder whether it is the most effective argument LV could deploy in this context. Dissing those who might well be your allies – or partners – in future is not necessarily the wisest course of action and while I’m fairly certain the State Department doesn’t worry overly much about the comments of one opposition Deputy we have a hungry media all too willing to keep such things on file for the – ahem – appropriate time… We’re not in Dublin West any longer.

Rumour has it that Leo Varadkar is 28.

I’ll leave the last word with Ahern.

I wish him well, I would say he will get an early exit,” he concluded.

The Left Archive: The Communist Party of Ireland and the “Irish Socialist” from the late 1980s September 28, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Communist Party of Ireland, Irish Left Online Document Archive.


I’ve always been fairly intrigued by the CPI. It has had a remarkable, some might say even a tenacious, ability to remain extant in the face of all the slings and arrows of the Irish political system (or in spite of that system might be a more accurate description). Despite the fact that the support for the further left is quite minimal, despite the fact that it supported a political system that was excoriated by both Church and (as Donald Horne would put it) the Public Culture and that it came under sustained attack for that support, despite the fact that it was more or less unquestioning in its support for ‘actually existing socialism’, or rather the one state which gave it a go, the CPI has survived. Those of us of a certain age may remember Left Bank Books, the WPs short-lived attempt at a left bookshop down on the Quays in Dublin. Short-lived being the operative word. No such problem – indeed none of the high-falutin’ trendiness of the name ‘Left Bank Books’ for the CPI which even today manages to run the more astutely Connolly Books (although the goodwill and support of individuals such as the worlds most progressive builders Wallace shouldn’t be overlooked there).

In many respects the CPI was and is admirable. The issue of Irish Socialist here
(4.5 mbs approx) is well worth a read for determining the particular worries of the party (and as a counterpoint to the IRSP newspaper posted up in the Left Archive last week). Their chiding of the WP is fascinating in itself. it must have been difficult for the CPI to view their rise during the 1970s and 1980s with many of the same policies as the CPI (well, bar the idea that one should vote FF!). Of course the national question was the biggie. And here the CPI took a line which would be reasonably progressive being resolutely antagonistic to the armed struggle but still clearheaded enough to see that the then status quo was a busted flush. Something the WP never quite got. In a way what is remarkable is not how much has changed – farewell Namibia as a cockpit of global change but hallo again and again and again to the Middle East.

Still, I wouldn’t join it, and problematically for the CPI, neither would most on the left. Because it raised one major problem.

What exactly did it do?

Who would be a communist when one could be a Militant/Socialist, or a Socialist Worker of SF or WP – as was? The Soviet experiment had failed and 1968 was arguably crucial in pushing a disconnect between the CPI model of communism and students or others. The WP in the 1980s mopped up a huge reservoir of those who wanted an activist Marxist party model. Don’t laugh, but the DL served a similar function for at least part of the 1990s, and today SF (and offshoots such as Éirígí) do much the same.

My own personal reason was a combination of a certain aversion to the Moscow line (Dubcek was always a hero of mine, Tito also in his own way, and reading Rudolf Bahro made me fairly certain that socialism with a human face was a damn good idea, but not one likely to be practised with any seriousness in the SU, and sure while the WP might well have been Moscow’s pal in all but name at least there was some some blue water there) and the sense that for all the good intentions the CPI was a talking shop. The CPI popped up in the unions and here and there, but for such an avowedly collective organisation it seemed oddly individualistic. I’m not sure how much that fed into a broader dynamic of disinterest in the CPI, but the fact that other political formations were littered with former CPI members (I’m thinking say of people involved in community activism, the LP and so on) tells its own story.

But for all those criticisms one cannot fault individual CPI members – or at least not much. They have hauled the flag and banner out for many a meeting or protest. Their very existence was and is an exemplar and they have had the advantage of locking into a broad communist fraternity, one which ironically contained, and contains, a huge diversity and range of opinions. The truly legendary Mick O’Riordain was a tireless contributor to the Irish Times letter page. I vividly recall his apologia for the Soviet incursion in Afghanistan and while as Emerson noted consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I was somewhat amused by his rather less effusive response to the US intervention in that same country some twenty odd years later.

So today the CPI remains part of a network of various ‘traditional’ CPs. Their fraternal party in the UK is the Communist Party of Britain – probably best known for their prominence in the Stop the War coalition.

The CPI has an interesting take on the Soviet Union.

Sufficient time has now passed since the demise of the Soviet Union to assess what that counter-revolution has delivered. Though under attack from its first days, the Soviet Union was able to transform the lives of millions of people for the better, in comparison with the feudalism and colonialism they were rescued from by the October Revolution. This was never acknowledged amidst the advertised promise of the post-Soviet utopia. Throughout the history of the Soviet Union one of the pillars of the propaganda war waged against it was presenting a bogus contrast between a caricature portrait of “life under communism” and the treasures that awaited its citizens once capitalism had come to their rescue.

…As the leadership of social democracy retreats from its own goals and preaches neo-liberalism as the only economic model, imperialism aims to stir up ethnic tension within the former Soviet republics, particularly in the southern states, such as Georgia and Uzbekistan, and to install compliant governments. This is carried out in alliance with organised criminal gangs masquerading as entrepreneurs.

Their aim is to destroy any potential co-operation between Russia and the western republics—primarily Ukraine—with the ultimate prize of the vast oil reserves in the Caspian basin and the Black Sea. An additional weapon in the armoury of imperialism in this context is the use of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as conduits for money, ideas and personnel seeking to secure their interests throughout the former socialist countries and to prevent any return to socialism. These bogus organisations provide a cover for imperialism’s political machinations and aim to subvert any nation that challenges neo-liberal orthodoxy…

In short, the dismantling of the Soviet Union has been catastrophic, impoverishing millions of its former citizens and encouraging imperialism’s confidence in imposing unfettered market solutions in western Europe by threatening that cheaper, unregulated labour will be used or imported if organised labour tries to retain its hard-won working practices, benefits, or health and safety requirements.

Some interesting stuff there.

In the policy platform there are also many interesting elements.

Note their view of the EU which is pragmatic, albeit negative, to a fault:

We would welcome the break-up of the European Union, but the possibility of that happening at this time is slim, particularly as Ireland, one of the smaller member-states, would be vulnerable to the economic consequences. If one or more of the bigger countries were to withdraw, that would open up a completely new scenario. Our strategic position is to work for its break-up, but we must develop tactics that bring new forces into play and defend Irish national interests. This presents new challenges to those forces that share our understanding of the European Union.

Their view of the GFA:

The consensus reached in the multi-party negotiations resulting in the Belfast Agreement marked a rejection of the use of violence to achieve political ends in favour of a political and constitutional arrangement, with protections built in, through which they could pursue their aims. The Belfast Agreement provides for
• a power-sharing arrangement capable of exercising executive and legislative authority, with protections built in to avoid the domination of one section of the community over the other
• joint North-South governmental bodies to implement shared polices
• the decision to join a new all-Ireland political structure or remain within the United Kingdom to lie with the people of Northern Ireland.
Communists are well aware of the nature and limitations of the political “solutions” for Ireland that the hegemony of international capitalism is prepared to accommodate and accept. While fully recognising its faults and shortcomings, the CPI supported the Belfast Agreement and continues to do so.

Some years ago – and I know I’ve mentioned this before – I was talking to a former member of the CPI who told me with all seriousness that while Gorbachev had been little better than a traitor Andropov was the real deal who, had he lived, would have steered the SU to a better place, a bit ‘more free’ I think the phrase was. But not too much. Hmmm… (Incidentally, one has to admire the hammer and sickle T-shirts now available on the CPI site with the legend ‘Made in Ireland’ underneath them. Would I buy one? You never know)

But that is to evade the point of the various CPs. As the CPI notes:

Its aim is to win the support of the majority of the Irish people for ending the capitalist system and for building socialism—a social system in which the means of production, distribution and exchange are publicly owned and utilised for the benefit of the whole people.

In the absence of any clear route to winning this support it is hard to see and in a way this reminds me of that other great casualty of left history, the legendary SPGB, which in a way retreated into an ideological cul-de-sac that negated the need for any particular activism. Sure, the revolution is coming, but in its own time. Truth is neither the CPI, or the SGB, are alone in such a position despite the assiduous hand waving of their larger rivals on the further left.

And in fairness to the CPI it is no slouch when it comes to operating as a sort of think tank on the left, the recent Greaves Summer School being one such. But it’s an odd position, isn’t it. Respected, affection for individual members and with some fondness for the overall entity (perhaps more for its oppositional stance in the past than its actual ideology). Still, as legacies go that’s probably a bit better than the poor old WP – eh?

I’d be fascinated to hear from others on this topic. As you’ll gather from above my contacts with CPI members has been quite limited so these are only my own impressions. And perhaps the last word should go to the CPI in their summation:

The Communist Party of Ireland is a partisan party of the working class but not a sectarian one. We do see and understand the need to build alliances, to walk the road with those forces that will walk the road with us, both on immediate demands and for the transformation of our society. We champion the cause of our class within the broader labour movement, in the political, social, cultural and gender spheres of struggle. The challenges facing our class and nation are manifold; but it is only in class struggle, with the development of the consciousness of workers, that advance will be made and sustained.

Speaking about lists… We didn’t do too badly on the Socialist Unity Top 101 left blogs… September 27, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in The Left.

Okay, I was debating whether to post this, but gratitude won out over modesty and I think a serious thank you is necessary to Andy over at Socialist Unity. He placed us at Number 1 in a list of 101 left blogs from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Here at the CLR we’re both delighted and a bit awestruck to be placed in such company. I’ve already name checked Socialist Unity before here, and will do so again. In a curious way I’ve always seen it as doing something similar to ourselves in bringing together a number of different left voices which eschew identification with a single party (as they do, through the Socialist Unity Network). It would be interesting to analyse where our two blogs sit on the political spectrum in relation to each other, but I think a broadly non-sectarian approach, informed by various other ideological positions (obviously in our case specifically dealing with Republicanism and Unionism, and like Socialist Unity attempting to have a conversation where progressives in many formations, Green, Marxists, socialist, social democratic and other can be involved) which argues from the left of the larger left formations might be as good a way as any to put it.

Anyhow, I’d strongly recommend, whether people agree with the ranking or not, going through the blogs listed there. It’s a revealing and fascinating compendium, and as one might expect incorporates left blogs from widely different and indeed conflicting positions. I think that tells us something about Socialist Unity itself.

Another couple of small points about the list. The top two blogs (excluding Socialist Unity which Andy has put with outrageous modesty at 0) are ourselves and Splintered Sunrise. I’d argue about that order (actually I’d argue about the order of the top 101). But I think it is telling that they are both Irish based. I think that’s something that might be worthy of further investigation. It’s also been noted that there are Irish links in at least five of the top 10.

But another point. As you’ll perhaps have noticed, we also did well in Iain Dales listing compiled by Mick Fealty. Yet Andy notes today that there is a real danger that the view of left blogging through such lists can give a distorted view of the relative positions of different left formations. Most notably he reflects on how Lenin’s Tomb (which I’d have some criticisms of, but is clearly representative of a specific and widely read left position and moreover represents it forcefully and entertainingly) was 260th on the Dale list of left UK blogs. Hmmm… That can’t be right. And it does, as Andy says, narrow the consensus to one which regards the definition of ‘Left’ in the UK as being inherently one which contains the UK Labour Party and excludes other formations. That excludes so many as to be hardly workable. This is particularly so in blogging where it is often difficult to find sites without considerable digging. And maybe that is the best argument for such lists. Otherwise how on earth can we find out who writes what.

One of the most frustrating things about blogging is coming to blogs which need one to be signed into the specific platform that delivers them in order to post messages. It’s defeated me on numerous occasions because my password isn’t recognised by the platform, and this stops me from posting to many excellent blogs (for example Couanago and Spaves who share my leftism and a passion for 1980s Marxist bands)

BTW, not entirely sure why, but our hits since we got on both lists have gone down (it reminds me of an old shaggy dog SF story by – I think – James Blish about a substance that is superstrong because it’s perforated again and again and again until it becomes invisible weightless sheets of almost infinite strength. Perhaps that’s the way we’re going, more and more highly thought of but unknown to more and more people..!

Weirdly enough, I kind of like that… 🙂

And so it begins… The Seanad and Dáil open for business. Lucky, lucky us… Meanwhile, seeing as we’re talking about corruption September 26, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Irish Politics, Labour Party, The Left, Uncategorized.

Quite a day down at our second chamber, perhaps slightly less so in the first. Alex White and Pearse Doherty were uncontentious and professional. Perhaps a little nervous if anything. Shannon loomed large throughout the afternoon.
And it has to be said that there were quite a number of younger faces there. Which is probably good.

Eoghan Harris?

Wish Cathaoirleach well…too much posturing… Burma one place I would support protests against the regime…real republicanism… Aer Lingus moving to Shannon…. build motorway to Belfast to send those who fled North back… market forces good…All states are founded on force….Political correctness… delusion of left… posturing…criminals victims of society…accordingly… losing track of argument… can’t quite remember what I was saying… oh yes…protect unarmed members of Gardaí against those who would use lethal force…. old rule of law inadequate… sooner or later armed policement… confront gangs… ordinary decent working class people…

Dear Jesus… and we have five more years of this? Still, a clever, clever speech in terms of making a mark from the outset. Whether he can maintain that sort of energy will be interesting.

Meanwhile here comes Paschal Donohoe (Fine Gael) to second this idea albeit in a softer voice.

[I have to be honest. I think that the idea that we should arm the Gardaí is a dim idea. We are actually well served by our Gardaí on a day to day basis and broadly so institutionally – their unarmed profile is one of the most important and fundamental aspects of an ethos that has survived through a bloody civil war and the considerable political unrest of the early 1930s. The idea that we need an armed policing more than the UK which somehow manages with many multiples of our population and endemic gun crime doesn’t make a lot of sense to me].

Ivana Bacik made some sharp points about posturing and suggested that calling for an armed Gardaí was the sort of posturing the Burmese regime might well be supportive of – ouch!

And then Fidelma- Healy Eames of FG got a lash in at Harris arguing that ‘trivialising’ the issue as regards Belfast and Dublin was wrong.

And so it went, clearly enunciated, generally calm speeches about these issues where speakers were quite happy to get the boot in.

It makes me wonder how Harris will operate in a context where there are clearly competing visions of populism. It’s one thing to condemn ‘hypocrisy’ on the part of representatives for areas around Shannon, slightly more difficult when one considers that they actually represent an interest, and of quite a significant section of the population.

Perhaps it won’t be the worst five years after all…

Then back to Leaders Questions. I had no real sense that Ahern is under huge political pressure. He still has that harried look. But seemed well prepped for the questions Kenny put. And as ever there was that seemingly impenetrable wall of figures and accounts. Gilmore came over reasonably well… he was able to say to Ahern directly that he did not believe him. A strong performance and a nice little sting in the tail with a question as to when he did intend to resign.

But the giveaway that all this was political theatre was in the reiteration of good wishes between Ahern and Gilmore and a sort of chumminess. This wasn’t the day for a hanging.

And with that, it was all over… bar the vote… at least for the moment.


Meanwhile today the papers are filled with the wonders of the latest TI Corruption Perceptions Index. Transparency International is a Berlin based organisation that conducts surveys of perceptions of corruption. The key word, of course, is perception. Business people are surveyed to see what their perception is. Clearly that will be to some degree subjective. Yet this provides a useful tool for at least some analysis of the situation.

And a mixed message it is for us, too. The good news? Well since last year we’ve risen from 18th to 17th place. Were at a rating of 7.5, up from 7.4 last year. Where does that place us? Ahead of us are Denmark (1), New Zealand (3), Singapore (4), Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Norway, Australia, Luxembourg, the UK, Hong Kong, Austria and Germany. Level pegging us is Japan and France comes in a little behind us on 7.3. After that it’s the USA on 7.2, Beligium Chile and so on and so forth, all the way down to Myanmar and Somalia both on 1.4. In total there are 180 countries assessed in the survey.

The bad news? Well, the media are making great play over the fact that our rating in 1995 was 8.57 and we were 11th. Very good. Except that that was in a field of approximately 41. The following year we slipped a bit to 8.45 (although still on 11) in a survey of 54 countries. By 2001 we were 18. Dreadful, except that our rating was 7.5 in a field of 91. In 2003 we were still on 18, but pehaps a tad more cheerily in a field of 133.

And it’s worth noting that the CPI report itself in 1996 noted that:

Score´95 has to be interpreted similarly, but fewer countries were included in the Index and fewer surveys were drawn upon – thus the ´95 column is at best a rough comparison.

But let’s avert our eyes from the stats and look at the local because it is here that the outline of serious problems begin to emerge.

TI Ireland Chief Executive [John Devitt] suggested that “Ireland’s international reputation has been damaged by weak Government safeguards against corruption”. This may be so, although it is difficult to believe that a fairly constant rating in the higher percentiles over the past five years, and one that actually indicates a slight improvement, is going to destroy that reputation.

He also said in the IT:

that earlier this year the Government trebled the value of loans or gifts that politicians could accept without publicly declaring them. Only donations over €5079 to parties and €635 to candidates must now be declared to the Standards in Public Office Commission.

TI Ireland also claims that “too little has been done to prevent corruption in the two areas that are subject of current tribunal investigations”.

I’m no fan of donations, and I think this is yet a further argument to finally prohibit them, but I genuinely don’t believe that this is indicative of ‘corruption’ in any systemic fashion and I’m highly dubious that in the surveys of corruption that most business people would be aware of the level of donations. But forget the donations for the moment. The concentration on finance is understandable. That’s what tends to raise the most ire amongst people, and that response is entirely understandable particularly when they compare and contrast bank dealings running in to multiple thousands of pounds Irish, pounds sterling and dollars with their own situation. But that’s the individual and the specific. It is the systemic where the real problems lie.

In an op-ed piece John Devitt made some very good points. He acknowledged that ‘our ranking is relatively good internationally’ and that ‘the conditions for good governance have improved in Ireland over the past decade. For one thing, our ethics framework is far stronger than it was up to the mid-1990s’. But he also pointed to some fairly disturbing aspects of our public life that while not corrupt in themselves suggest troubles ahead. He noted that:

…there was a decision to discard the Whistleblower Protection Bill which would have extended legal protection for whistleblowers in both the private and public sectors against legal or disciplinary action.

The Government has decided instead to take a “sectoral approach” to whistleblower protection without any timetable or indication as to who will and will not be covered.

That the Privacy Bill announced in 2006 would:

allow the subject of a media investigation into corruption to seek a closed High Court hearing to request an injunction against a reporter. The reason for the court’s decision would remain secret.

The effect of this would be to gag the media before it could even begin its inquiries. This would also be likely to be in violation of the UN Convention against Corruption, a treaty that Ireland has yet to ratify.

And that the institutional structures to oversee transparency and openness in government were too limited, underfunded or in the case of fees for FOI requests simply too expensive. Talking truth to power is a great phrase, but if the means to do so are cut away power walks away unscathed every time.

Most notable, to my mind, is his point about:

The Taoiseach’s remark last year that he had appointed people to the boards of State bodies because they were “friends” didn’t lead to the expected clamour for reform of the appointments system. Instead, the Opposition sat on the fence and the issue was quietly laid to rest.

This really is a matter of serious concern – or should be – because, unlike the Ahern issue, which is time limited, and cannot happen again due to the current ethics acts, the issue of appointments is one that will return again and again. The complicity of the Opposition in this indicates that a ‘winner takes all’ mentality pervades our political culture – even to the extent of influencing those who might be prospective ‘winners’.

And this is where I think there is a genuine problem. Not financial corruption, which while extant can be hemmed in by relatively straightforward laws, but instead a culture which sees the deliberate distortion or evasion of responsibilities – or the peddling of influence – in our political life as something all can indulge in. And while those sort of activities remain legal – which they are – the scope to alter that aspect of the political is limited. I genuinely hope that this is an area that the Green Party will retain its activism in, but seeing the dismissive response from some in FF (people who have no doubt are absolutely not corrupt) about their ‘standards’ being as good as anyone else’s and seeing it as some sort of personal insult, I tend to doubt we’ll see huge movement forward.

So, if anything we could reflect upon the fact that during a period of unprecedented economic activity and growth the country has managed to broadly remain as uncorrupted (or corrupted) as ever. That while the financial side of the equation is being dealt with is a step forward. That there seems to be an unwillingness to recognise non-financial issues as equally problematic is a step back. It is not cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth, but neither is it an unqualified success. As ever the message seems to be ‘by no means the worst, but could do considerably better’. In a response to yesterdays post on Ahern Simone Burns made a good point about the left seeing honesty as an issue. It’s true, but it’s also crucial that the understanding of the term be drawn much wider to shift it away from narrow and partisan political charges (and defences) to incorporate a wholesale reworking of the way we do business, both political and economic, in this society. By encouraging others, rather than indulging in attacks on the probity or otherwise of largely uncorrupted individuals, parties or groups, the left might actually have a significant role to play.

Credibility, the opposition and the future of Bertie Ahern September 25, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Irish Politics.

I’ve shied away from discussing this issue. In a way I don’t see it as hugely political in any meaningful sense. Sure, it may or may not lead to resignation, yes there are issues regarding the handling of financial affairs when in high office and so forth. But to be honest one B. Ahern was also instrumental in ensuring through various guidelines that recurrences of the most egregious ethical lapses of the 1980s are unlikely to return. It’s certainly not central to the sort of politics I value which is ideological. But that said it is quite fascinating on a human level. Ahern’s tenacious grip on credibility is remarkable.

One of the most revealing aspects of the current situation as regards Bertie Ahern has been the way in which his personal authority and credibility has remained intact since the story broke a little over a year ago and his political capital was enhanced. In part that has been due to the curious mixture of the personal, the financial and the political that this affair has incorporated. Indeed each of those elements has acted at different times and in different ways as a shield to be deployed when and as needed.

When the opposition trundled forward last year around the time of the infamous interview it was the ‘personal’ which came into play. Later attacks were dismissed as being political and more recently – tellingly as the Tribunal drew closer – the financial was proposed as the key issue. In this way, and due to the effectivity of these defences, no significant damage was incurred by Ahern – indeed counterintuitively one might suggest that the attacks actually shored up and increased his support amongst the electorate and beyond that the general public.

I’ve pointed elsewhere to the way in which politicians live in a bubble. Anyone who has had any contact with those in government will know that the very process of being in government leads to a curious detachment from reality. Everything is provided, programmed and managed. Encounters are guided, appearances rationed. And in such a context – where the hand is never put in the pocket to pay for anything, the concept that a whip around among friends is legitimate can be regarded as entirely reasonable. The idea that because he didn’t keep the money in the bank it somehow imputes wrong is difficult to sustain. It doesn’t look great, but it is not beyond the bounds of credibility. Tangled financial transactions in the context of significant personal issues suggest motivations quite different to naked financial gain. A lack of records, unfortunate, but once more clearly not a crime. If anything surely what we see here is a clear warning about how political detachment can abrade natural caution and lead to actions that appear unwise.

All of which has helped no end in retaining the Taoiseachs credibility.

But credibility is a tricky thing. It can be spent much faster than it is earned. Politically we have a remarkable series of statements today. Eamon Gilmore called on the Taoiseach to resign. Meanwhile Trevor Sargent and Eamon Ryan offered a sterling defence on the News at One on RTÉ who suggested opportunism on the part of Labour while also arguing that the Tribunal process must be followed through ‘its proper course’. Although termed ‘brazening it out’, one might argue that there is a point to their defence. Fine Gael have yet to move on a motion of no confidence, which will inevitably be defeated.

And yet.

Seems to me that the situation has shifted somewhat over the past two weeks. And why would that be? Well, predictably the exposure hasn’t really done any favours to the protagonists. The SBP poll on Sunday indicated that 32% believed Ahern while 43% didn’t. It’s likely that those figures have always been more or less the actual level of ‘belief’ on the issue, but it is one thing is evaluating largely in the abstract whether a story holds up and then quite another in having it forensically analysed within the context of a Tribunal.

That the story appears to have changed, that there is no supporting evidence to underpin the story, that even Ahern’s own staff seem unable to remember these transactions, leads to something more than simple confusion in the public mind.

And yet, some of the supposed ‘killer’ facts that were meant to knock the story over the head, tie it up and deliver it helpless to the satisfaction of the Taoiseach’s detractors, the dollar lodgement, and so on have not been supported by any specific evidence. The Irish Times notes that ‘AIB’s remit records of the time, which show how much foreign currency was sent to currency services at the time of the transaction, were found to be inconclusive’ …. and in an analysis piece noted that although the evidence ‘clashes with available bank records of transactions’ and how:

“The topic is not easy to follow. Mr Maguire outlined how a bank witness, Rosemary Murtagh, had in her evidence agreed that certain of the facts concerning this remittance to headquarters “destroyed” the tribunal’s hypothesis concerning the remittance.

However, [Des] O’Neill [SC, Counsel for the Tribunal], in his comments yesterday, seemed to indicate his view that the examination of the remittance records failed to resolve the matter one way or the other.”

This inconclusiveness is no small matter. John Waters in a piece in yesterday’s Irish Times suggested that this was an unreasonable hounding of Ahern. Des Fennell made much the same point in a letter to the Irish Times. It’s difficult because what we see is a situation where Ahern has done nothing wrong. All is implication, all is inference. I have considerable sympathy for him. He might well, and with some reason, ask what justice he is being extended in the context of trial by insinuation in an adversarial context where he has been charged with nothing. But if there are further shifts in public opinion then his political capital will start to be expended. So far that is relatively unscathed, perhaps can even remain so. The public memory may skate across the last number of days at the Tribunal, may come to the conclusion that the confusion over these financial dealings is the product of an understandable conjunction of personal and other issues.

Looking at his expression as he left the Tribunal it certainly seems as if Ahern hopes that that is the case.

9/11 and after. Six years on and still taking stock… September 24, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in 9/11.

Reading Donagh recently on Dublin Opinion I couldn’t help to some degree agreeing with him as regards 9/11. He writes:

One of the reason it continues to have an impact is because of the way people like Amis fixate on it as being a sort of massive schism. I don’t want to suggest that 9/11 is without historical significance, but if ever there was an event that has been misused as a weapon of mass distortion it is this one.

Watching a remarkable and quite moving program a week or two ago on Channel 4 about the Cornish born head of Security in Merril-Lynch, Rick Rescorla [who had the basic sense to see the vulnerability of the WTC and planned for it so that most M-L employees made it out safely, although tragically not himself], it was difficult not to see how for a brief period the attacks could not be interpreted as epochal. Here were civilian airliners flown into one of the most prominent civilian buildings on the planet. The deaths of near 3000 people by that methodology in the space of a couple of hours was unprecedented in terms of pure terrorism.

Yet the physical irruption into the US that was 9/11 was thankfully relatively limited. The scale of the attack was considerable but open to disruption by counter-measures. This was a one-time tactic, not the ground work for a strategy. Civilian airliners would prove vastly more difficult to compromise after it and the scope for attacks on urban targets would become more limited. The murderous nature of the attack was something that could be combated by actually quite simple but increased security measures.

The psychological irruption into the US (and arguably the Western) psyche was, by contrast, much greater. At one fell swoop 9/11 provided the back story for an intransigent and unthinking global policy prosecuted by the US. It transformed a rather indolent and isolationist US administration (remember the US surveillance aircraft forced to land by the Chinese?) into an activist hegemon. Projects that had been left on the back burner, such as dealing with Iraq, suddenly assumed an importance out of all significance to their real or potential threat.

The nature of the discourse entered into by the US administration was one which was, over time, utterly counterproductive as regards their ultimate aims. The ‘War on Terror’ is a sound bite of such inherent self-limitation that it is difficult to believe that they thought it would be of any serious utility.

I say that because despite everything it is clear that the response immediately after 9/11 by the US was sufficient to break up or disrupt the Al Quaeda networks then extant. But the shift towards war with Iraq changed the nature of the conflict. Suddenly one “War on Terror” became subsumed in another, entirely different sort of war.

Eric Hobsbawm once noted, rather grimly, that the US could sustain many multiple attacks like 9/11. Of course no society would want to, and I wouldn’t wish it on any society either. But that ability to sustain remains a basic fact. And a crucial point is that AQ was, and one hopes, remains, in no position to mount such attacks. In fact it is hard to envisage any non-state organisation being able to do so. It took years of planning and large numbers of personnel to bring 9/11 to fruition. On the day the attacks were not entirely successful. Knowledge of what was happening was dispersed rapidly, so rapidly that it seems fairly safe to suggest that the fourth aircraft was prevented from carrying out it’s objective precisely because the passengers knew of their likely fate and worked to prevent that outcome.

But that narrative, not one of complacency – because AQ was and remains a threat – but instead one of a proportionate and clear-headed analysis of the situation was ignored. Rather as a British Labour aide considered 9/11 to be a good day to conceal bad news, so the US administration saw an opportunity to change the world ( Incidentally was there ever a more dishonest and self-serving thesis than that of Norman Podhoretz – quoted by Donagh – when he suggests that Saddam was supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. Whatever else Saddam was, and he was a despicable near-genocidal dictator, he was not entirely stupid and the idea that he would hand out WMDs like candy to groups which he could have no control over is an absolute nonsense).

And that is an even more central point. 9/11 itself, for all it’s horror – and it was an horror – was limited. It’s historic significance considerably less than was thought at the time. It was a catalyst, but not one that led to an inevitable outcome. What was historic was the course determined by the US administration. That was the hinge upon which our contemporary history would swing for better or for worse.

War with an enemy that is broadly quiescent is frustrating. AQ itself subcontracted terrorist attacks to affiliates and emulators. There have been, and no doubt will be, attacks around the globe. But to date there has had the raw visceral power of 9/11. Madrid and Bali were also terrible crimes. But they lacked – and I am conscious of the need to be sensitive here – a visuality that 9/11 had. The scale and the backdrop of the latter was greater, more immediate, more novel. I was reminded of an article in Atlantic Monthly by Richard A. Clarke (national coordinator for security and counterterrorism for Clinton and Bush) who of all people should know something about these matters, written some years ago. In it he presented an alternative history from 2005 to 2012 which saw waves of attacks by AQ that took various forms, most of them remarkably simple. The upshot was a militarized US society, civil rights leaching away, locked down by massive security at transport, communication and economic hubs slowly losing power and influence. And the worrying aspect was that it was all too feasible. Clarke, no fan of the Iraq invasion saw it as the possible catalyst for much worse events. He pointed to a basic mistake, that in the intervention in Afghanistan – one supported by the UN – there was insufficient effort made to take Osama. But to return to the visceral power of 9/11, few of the attacks he writes about retain that sort of immediacy. A horror is no less a horror because it is difficult to see, but nevertheless the form it takes does shape responses to it.

That we have had no reprise, even in limited form, suggests to me that Al-Queda was always more limited in capability than was presented after the fact. And as noted above, while it remains a threat, it has been unable to operate at the level seen as plausible by Clarke.

9/11 was gestural terrorism. There was no clearly defined objective [By the way OBL’s latest screed is quite fascinating in that regard. He presents a sort of generalised, and then sometimes overly specific, complaint against a range of issues ranging from the banal to the extraordinary]. Indeed one might argue that it was entirely counterproductive on any rational political or military standard. Had Iraq not taken place the enormous global sympathy that followed in the aftermath might have been retained. Yet even with Iraq it is hard to see global attitudes to the US – as distinct this administration – as substantially worse than prior to that event.

And simply put the world hasn’t changed much either for better or for worse. I think that one might view it as largely similar to the assassination of JFK. Something that at the time was seemingly earth shaking, but as time moved on appears less so. The system reasserted itself. History was torn from its course for a period, but the broader historical, social and political dynamics continued to shape the future as they largely would have anyway. Vietnam would most likely still have happened. Ironically some social progress might have been more difficult to implement in the area of equal rights but they would have arrived eventually.

With 9/11 we can see, from this remove, as Clarke notes, that the single greatest shift was the Iraq War. Yet as we move towards the end game there the most likely outcome appears to be a situation where a regime of greater or lesser authoritarianism – perhaps politically not dissimilar to the authoritarianism we see in China will take power attempting to consolidate the state of Iraq as a single unitary entity. This is far from the outcome promised – it’s arguably as bad or worse, if one factors in the sectarian violence, than the Saddam regime. The waste of human life on all sides is prodigious and profligate and the awful pointlessness of the exercise is best exemplified by the latest round of ‘non-partisan’ ads spots on US television arguing that to withdraw now would make a mockery of the sacrifice of those who fell or were injured in the past four or five years. I’ve heard similar arguments from dissident Republicans as regards the Good Friday Agreement and I find them no more convincing. Whatever the individual sacrifice, and it has been considerable on the part of many, to argue more sacrifice is necessary because of past sacrifice seems to be a counsel of desperation. Unless the outcome is significantly better than the present there is little point in continuing. And after all the promises made, and broken, who would or could see the risk of progressing as worthwhile? Timothy Garton-Ash argued last week in the Guardian that to withdraw now would be folly, despite the original sin of the invasion. On the one hand I tend to agree, but then looking closely at the situation outside of a genuinely international effort I cannot see how the current players can operate in good faith, or more importantly be regarded as acting in good faith. Perhaps the situation will improve. That seems to be the thinking in Washington (while London gently steps away from the fray). Slim hopes upon which to construct a new and better world.

And it is a dispiriting example for the left, because it suggests that transformative projects are perhaps much more difficult than we like to imagine (indeed I need hardly reiterate the point about how former and current Trotskyites of various positions appear to loom large in the meta-history of the War). If the US couldn’t do it in a society crying out for stability and progress then what hope for the tiny groups that seek change in largely content societies? Realistically, for all the huffing and puffing of the past three or four years, the world has largely been a bystander, taken on journey which it has little or no control of – and the greatest irony of all is that the architects of the interventions subsequent to 9/11 despite their seeming omnipotence in the months afterwards are clearly also lack any capability to control this journey.

Robert Scheer on KCRW’s ‘Left, Right and Centre’ often uses the phrase ‘people must make their own history’. He believes that Iraqi’s should have been, and should continue to be, given the opportunity to shape their own society. When I first heard him use it it infuriated me, but as time has progressed I think I finally understand where he is coming from, and to a degree I think he is right – albeit with certain caveats. But it’s worth noting that in a fundamental way people are shaped by history. Sociopolitical dynamics feed into traditions and beliefs that direct behaviour. The inability to recognise how those dynamics would play out in Iraq is a part of the continuing tragedy of 9/11.

Fianna Fáil, the North and unintended consequence September 23, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The North.

Now that the first flush of enthusiasm for the idea of Fianna Fáil organising in Northern Ireland has dissipated further reflection has led to some interesting points being raised. First up the Sunday Business Post notes that during Freshers Week in various colleges and universities FF will have a recruiting presence. However no cumainn will be formed, individuals will merely be ‘individual members of the party’. A dispiriting situation to be in, no doubt. Hard to see that attracting the hordes.

Meanwhile, the SBP Belfast correspondent suggests a dynamic which might give pause for thought. At very best, even in the context of an FF/SDLP merger it appears unlikely that such an organisation could outpoll Sinn Féin. The psychological effects of coming in second as representative to Nationalism and Republicanism would have its own significance. No one will deny that the recent election in the Republic was for Sinn Féin enormously problematic, while not quite the disaster it has been painted as. The gloss of an almost unbroken succession of electoral advances in the North suddenly lost its lustre. Fallibility, even vulnerability, became apparent with the loss of a seat rather than the acquisition of two or three new ones. And this was a surprise. An enormous surprise for many, both inside the party and outside it.
The attendant crowing may be misplaced. SF occupies a niche, and has a discipline and persistence which I suspect will see it do better in the future. Not hugely better, but that couple or even more seats are still there for the taking. And the deal with Labour has clearly broken some unwritten block on any communications or accords with other parties. Strangely there has been very little written about the reports in the media that Fine Gael and Labour are willing to share some speaking time with Sinn Féin [this according to a report on RTÉ news this Thursday]. Small acorns… etc, etc. This ‘normalisation’, as it were, is probably indicative of the future. Opposition has a dynamic all its own and leads to, well, more unintended consequence. No doubt Bertie Ahern thought that cutting SF off as regards speaking rights or group rights was a clever move, and perhaps it was. But in a Dáil denuded of many oppositional voices by their co-option within our Coalition of all the talents almost inevitable momentum would build up between Labour and Sinn Féin, both left of centre, both damaged somewhat by the election to deal with one another – if only to hold what they retained. That Fine Gael is also party to this – even at arms length – is unsurprising, at least to those of us who saw a similar situation in the 1992-1994 period from within Democratic Left.

And for the sharper eyed amongst us there were the photographs (see above) from the SF meeting in Howth this week of Oireachtas [and wrongly reported Assembly and European Parliament representatives present – thanks Wednesday for the correction].

One of the most entertaining, albeit tragic, aspects of Irish politics has been a simple minded belief that some are beyond political redemption. This is a line trotted out by those such as our newest Taoiseach’s nominee, the good Senator Harris. There are pools of such thinking within all the parties, including FF, FG and Labour. But… it isn’t true. Time and again we have seen how political parties linked to Republicanism have entered constitutional politics. Fianna Fáil, Clann na Poblachta, Sinn Féin – The Workers’ Party and now Sinn Féin. All had legacies, for better or worse [and such legacies aren’t entirely restricted to Nationalism or Republicanism on this island].

So what about Fianna Fáil? I think they’re moving onto dangerous ground – although if they were to actually proceed towards full representation that would broadly be a good thing. It is hard to envisage a ‘big bang’ speedy transition from SDLP to Fianna Fáil/SDLP or just Fianna Fáil. Neither option would be sufficient to encompass all within the SDLP. A split, however minor, might take place, and one suspects that would be far from the sort of introduction to the North FF would want. But even were things to go smoothly it seems enormously unlikely that a Southern party could expect to wrest SF from its preeminent position in Nationalism and Republicanism. How does that play in the South? Granted FF is not quite the electoral colossus it once was, but it retains a formidable reputation. I spoke of managing expectations in relation to this issue previously. Here FF would have to significantly ratchet down those expectations. And that too has problems, because as with SF once you lose some of the gloss it is hard to get it back.

Of course, if FF are sensible they’ll be planning for the long term. But politics is a predictable business and those involved want success. Electoral success, and electoral success with a view to exercising power in some form or another. Already one hostage has been lost to fortune with the news that FF wouldn’t sit in Westminster. That may have some impact both positive and negative on FF in the future. But doesn’t it look as if the Nationalist/Republican ‘centre ground’ may become all too crowded, because at base what huge distinctiveness will FF bring that either the SDLP or SF already contain? The question seems unanswerable. And in that context does this not just simply seem to be a solution to a problem which does not actually exist?

The Northern Rock, The Bank of England, the limitations of Market and the opportunities for the left… September 22, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

A telling article in the Guardian on Wednesday by Nils Pratley considered the fall out from the Northern Rock affair. I have to be honest, I felt for the last number of days that the long lines of people queuing to retrieve their savings were generated by considerable media hype and misreporting. I certainly don’t blame the individual in the face of that media onslaught deciding that a financial catastrophe was unfolding and that they were more than bit players in it, but the reality, as ever, appeared significantly different.

No doubt some will see this as evidence that the financial system is unstable and doomed to failure, and perhaps it is although considering the remarkable adaptability of capilitalism I tend to doubt it. But putting that to one side there are a number of fascinating elements to the story. Firstly is the clear public wish expressed by those who had placed their savings in Northern Rock that the government should underwrite their money. Not the Financial Services Authority who has taken the lightest of light touches in the recent past, and which in any event has no power to underwrite anything. Not the Bank of England which since the early days of the first New Labour administration has been given independence (although the nature of that independence is now under some discussion). No, the customers of Northern Rock, and a broader constituency which includes pretty much everyone who puts their savings in commercial financial institutions, demanded that the government must come to the rescue. Now why would that be?

Well this requote of Nick Cohen from the good old days might supply the answer…

“…however novel the ability of companies to shift money and jobs around the world, and however restrictive the limits on the autonomy of national governments have become, corporations remain weak. When all is said and done, they are hierarchical associations for the production of profit. They can’t raise armies or levy taxes or enact legislation. Governments can do all three and turn nasty if they have the inclination…”

Because it is government and state which remains the single unit in local and global economic processes with the authority and resources to deal with these situations.

Which, after some agonising, the British government eventually did. In a way I don’t blame it for the agonising. This, after all, is not the way the script is meant to be written in the contemporary period. We’re far from the laissez-faire approach to state intervention of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but there is a mindset that has evolved whereby the state is little more than a facilitator, not an actual player, in terms of commerce. What has effectively happened is that a company went through a difficult financial period, saw its customer base beginning to flee, this dynamic held within itself the potential for panic across the financial services sector in the UK (and perhaps further afield). The government reluctantly stepped in to assist the company and its shareholders (although note that the actual customers, whose money was the bedrock of the bank, were disregarded in this little dance until they started to vote with their feet). Would this largesse on the part of the state happen in any other sector? Most unlikely.

And as Pratley notes:

That looks like a straightforward bail-out for Northern Rock’s shareholders, exactly the outcome the Bank of England has warned would store up trouble for the future.

Why trouble? Because:

The Bank is right, of course. If all deposits at all banks were to be guaranteed – which seems to be the implication of the chancellor’s statement – the state is potentially accepting an enormous liability. Worse, an odd incentive is created: managements who are insulated from a run on their bank might be inclined to take wilder risks with the cash.

Of course there are differences to other economic enterprises that no doubt apologists will reiterate. Northern Rock remains a viable concern, although the likelihood is that it will be subsumed into some rival in the near future. The government isn’t in the process of throwing good after bad, at least at this point in time.

But Pratley points to a bigger issue. In the US depositors are guaranteed savings up to $100,000 in the event of a bank going bust. As he says: The US-style system seems infinitely fairer on customers, who can’t reasonably be expected to assess the merits of various banks’ business models before deciding where to place their savings.

Indeed. The perfectibility of markets seems yet again to be held hostage to the imperfection of the human agents who interact with them. The problem is again, that such largesse creates its own problems, as with his point about banks taking ‘wilder risks with the cash’. The answer?

How about a higher rate of tax on banks’ profits, or some other form of annual charge based on a bank’s capital ratios? Banking bosses and their investors would scream at the idea, but it’s perfectly logical.

And the rationale for such a disgraceful intervention? Well, it’s remarkably sensible in purely commercial terms…

If deposits, up to a certain sum, are to be guaranteed by the state, then the state needs to be compensated for taking on that risk.

Because, after all, as has been pointed out on numerous occasions by the prevailing economic narrative, the state is using our money. But what is interesting is that that idea of intervening in this particular area even in the lightest way, which arguably belongs to a counter-narrative, reformist and minimalist as it is, hasn’t been promoted in the past by the left [incidentally, not to be too negative, but the actual level of real as distinct from perceived economic knowledge on the left is remarkably thin despite the great founding works being explicitly rooted in economics… that too is a problem]. Yet such an idea belongs in a broader approach by the left which is willing to exercise power and not simply accept that the market – useful as it is on so many different levels – is beyond reach or logic.

As we’ve seen, when it comes to the crunch it is the state which is seen, at least in European societies (but not just there, note the way the US is ahead of the curve on this issue at least and provides at least the outlines of a model for investor and customer security), as the guarantor of social and economic stability. I’m wary of a simple-minded or reductionary statism – say the nationalisation of all financial institutions – but as with this there are mechanisms available, through taxation, through subsidiary regulatory bodies and through – perhaps – at the end of the day a willingness to seriously engage on this terrain and provide those counter-narratives (consider the ironic popularity now of state backed savings plans which have just received a shot in the arm in the UK due to the Northern Rock debacle) which are necessary if a left project is to commence and to sustain itself. The thing though is, if left reformism doesn’t actually make a stand on such issues is it any wonder that left projects become discredited, and not merely to those further left….

We need more from Lorraine O’Connor, and less from Harney and Drumm September 21, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Health, Trade Unions.

On Thursday a young nurse from Cork brought the crowd at the annual conference of the Irish Nurses Organisation in Killarney to their feet with an impassioned cry for people to ‘wake up’ to what is going on in our health service. Her name is Lorraine O’Connor. She was one of a number of speakers to point out the damage the cutbacks the HSE is implementing to save between 245 and 250 million Euros is causing.

Liam Doran pointed out that nurses due to go to London to receive training in neo natal and intensive care provision from top medical practitioners were unable to go because the hospital was not allowed to hire replacements for them during their absence, despite the massive shortage of nurses with those specialised skills. The London-based training programme was put in place following the death of a two-year-old child in Crumlin Hospital because of a lack of intensive care nurses.

Joan Tobin, from Waterford, said there had been cutbacks in the numbers of porters, security staff, laundry service and up to 30 clerical staff. Some of our more simplistic minded right-wing commentators might argue that these cutbacks are worth it to save ‘frontline’ staff, part of gutting what Fine Gael today called the ‘bloated bureaucracy’ of the Health Service.

Let’s throw some facts at this, courtesy of IMPACT. The Government’s 2003 Brennan Report on health service management found that 6% of health service staff work in backroom administrative or management roles. Drumm himself admitted not too long ago that ‘back of house’ admin staff accounts for 3,300 (About 3%) of health service staff. The reality is that these people are what allows us to have frontline staff in the first place. Without them, nurses would be spending their spare time providing their own legal services, doing patient laundry, running their own Human Resources and in-service training, IT services, administration and filing.

But even frontline staff are under threat. One of the places that will be ‘unaffected’ by the budget cuts is Sligo. Sligo General Hospital is to lose 30 agency nurses, four locum consultants (Specialising in orthopaedics, obstetrics and gynaecology, breast disease and ear, nose and throat problems) and a number of housekeeping staff. The INO, who are advising members not to co-operate with the proposal, say that the loss of 34 frontline medical staff as well as housekeeping will lead to bed closures, reduced services and more suffering for patients. The IMO says it will lead to longer waiting lists and cancelled clinical appointments. Harney and Drumm say it will have no, repeat no, effect on patient care.

The nurses strike, the HSE told us with that feigned concern for patients its management teams do so well, would be devastating for nurses. It was also a breach of the Social Partnership agreement, but as the National Implementation Body has pointed out this evening, the ban on recruitment and personnel cutbacks the HSE has announced were introduced without consultation and breach the partnership agreement. One wonders if the boot will be put into the bed closers of the HSE to the extent it was put into the nurses.

But sure if the beds are closed, is there not a hotel nearby they could be put up in? There was some media attention on the revelation that lack of bedspace was forcing the Rotunda to put patients in the Jurys Hotel on Christchurch. This is a phenomenon that Drumm described as ‘forward thinking’ and ‘the way forward for the Irish health system before going on to say that ‘our whole plan in building new hospitals will be to have hotels on the sites.’

Drumm’s explanation for this is that a patient staying in a hospital costs ‘four and five times’ more than it costs for a patient to be put up in a hotel. I suspect, though no expert on medical budgeting I be, that this may have something to do with the provision of a number of highly trained medical professionals and technologically advanced medical equipment common to some Irish hospitals. If I am unwell enough to be in a hospital, or at risk of worsening from my ‘low-risk’ status, I would prefer, if it was all the same to Prof Drumm, that my chief carer was not the Jurys bellhop using a green box first aid kit.

So, what’s the explanation for all this lunacy? The cutbacks in frontline staff. The cutbacks in their administrative support. The number of top HSE Managers increasing from six in 2001 to a staggering 526 today. The suggestion that we should be putting patients in the local Jurys. Well, it’s simple enough really.

According to Minister Harney, “Each hospital manager has to plan the running of their hospital based on that budget, as every organisation has to do. The health service is not different to any other organisation.”

Two points. Change the word ‘organisation’ to ‘business’ and reread the sentence. Hospitals must conduct their operation based not on assessment of need or patient requirements (Perish the thoughts) but, like any other ‘business’, on the budget they are allocated.

Secondly, it is stunning that the Minister for Health and Children says that the health service is not different to any other organisation. It is fundamentally different, or supposed to be. It is the primary caregiver to millions of Irish people. It is there when we are born, it is there when we die. It is a key component of the contract between the citizen and the state. It is arguably the most important service provided by the state and access to healthcare is a basic, fundamental human right.

Worth noting as well that when it comes to increased bonuses for Drumm, more top managers and, as I noted previously, more bonuses for top managers, the money can always be found.

Finally, and not too far off topic, a report in today’s Irish Times (Sub required) pointing out that the inequalities in our health service begin before birth. With Harney and Drumm, they will continue, even be exacerbated, throughout their lives.

Our health service needs more from the likes of Lorraine O’Connor, and a lot less from the wacky world of Drumm and Harney.

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