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Fast Times at the the Oireachtas Committee on Education… on fee-charging schools. April 30, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.

As noted in the Irish Times last week, the Oireachtas Committee on Education saw the arrival of the:

…Joint Managerial Body (JMB) delegation yesterday. The JMB represents the management of almost 400 voluntary secondary schools in the State, of which 56 are fee- charging.

They were there to defend the case of fee-charging (not fee-paying – see below) schools. Mostly.

So we heard a lot about how fee-charging schools served the society… by saving money!

[Sister Eileen Randles of the Loreto Education Trust ] I had not finished my point about the salaries of teachers. The teacher requirement follows the pupils. Mr. Kelly said there are 26,000 pupils in the fee paying schools. They will have to be taught whatever school they are in. It is simplistic to suggest taking the salaries off the fee paying schools. If we had to become public schools, as in the English set up, most of the schools I know would not continue because we could not run schools to which parents would have to pay €20,000 to €30,000 per annum. If those youngsters were in the free scheme, the teachers would have to be paid. The argument is a specious one.
Senator Healy-Eames asked about fee levels. The average fee per annum in the schools in which I am involved is approximately €3,600 per annum. The question about the location got me agitated. We run four fee paying schools in the greater Dublin area. We also have four schools in the free scheme in the greater Dublin area, one of which is a DEIS school. It is fairly difficult to become categorised as a DEIS school in the current situation. We also are co-patrons of two community schools. I am happy to say Deputy Hayes soldiered with me on the board of one of the schools in west Tallaght.

And more:

The fact is that the payment of fees subsidises the lack of proper State funding for education in Ireland – not the other way around, as is sometimes suggested. In schools that do not charge fees, parents, teachers and school management are involved in significant levels of fund-raising as a matter of course. What is at times ignored is the saving to public funds that accrues from students being educated in schools that seek to raise funds through charging fees. It should be remembered that the parents of students in the fee-charging schools are taxpayers and are entitled to free post-primary education for their children. It is also important to point out that teachers have to be provided for the students in the overall education system at any given time regardless of the school attended.
In effect, the fee-paying school model is the public private partnership model at its most effective. The State contributes to the fee-paying school through teachers’ salaries and the parents contribute the remainder through fees and other fund-raising ventures. This results in a significant saving to the State on its obligation to provide free post-primary education to all citizens.

The public private partnership at its most effective. Hmmm… not the description I’d have proffered at this particular point in time.

Some hand-waving about percentiles of special needs…

The delegation also emphatically rejected claims that some voluntary secondary schools were not accepting their fair share of children with special needs.

Both Belvedere College and Wesley College said 10 per cent of their student intakes were children with special needs. Sr Randles said Loreto schools did not know of the students’ educational requirements until after they had been accepted into the school.


Ferdia Kelly pointed out that, under Section 29 of the Education Act 1998, parents were entitled to appeal a decision refusing their child a place in a school. There was no evidence of any “unusual patterns” associated with any particular types of schools in the appeals made, he said.

And elitism? Perish the thought!

The trustees of Catholic fee-charging schools are very aware of their obligation to address the issue of inequality. Many different approaches have developed. Some schools have established bursaries and scholarship schemes which are available to support a percentage of children in the school. In addition, fee reduction and waiver schemes are in place to support families who find themselves falling on tough times.
Both free education and fee-charging schools in the voluntary secondary sector are noted for their commitment to social justice programmes. Many very effective programmes have been initiated in voluntary secondary schools in response both to local social justice issues and global injustice and deprivation, especially in the developing world.
The legislation quoted earlier and equality legislation rightly oblige all schools to treat equally all applicants for places in the school. All of the 400 voluntary secondary schools, including fee-charging schools, welcome students with special educational needs. Applications from parents with a child with special educational needs are processed as per the school’s admissions policy which must be in compliance with section 15(2)(d) of the Education Act.

I wonder was Mr. Kelly used the phrase above very carefully when he rejected the charges of elitism against the ‘voluntary secondary schools’ because as he will know there are 400 in the state of which 56 are fee-charging. (as it happens the non-fee charging voluntary secondary schools are much less problematic than the latter group – at least to me). Because it is hard to take seriously the contention that fee-charging schools aren’t elitist. Of their intrinsic nature their makeup as regards socio-economic groups is skewed when compared with the general public. Or as Gerry Foley, principle of Belvedere College, noted:

The other area of key interest is the percentage of students coming from a background of socioeconomic difficulty. Currently, 10% of our intake is from a lower socioeconomic background. Bursaries are provided for this group. With the changing economic climate, this need is probably increasing as middle income couples lose one or both of the jobs in their households. The media have been interested in what has been the impact of this development on the intake to the schools.
The vast majority of the intake of the schools with which I am familiar is of students from middle earning families. These include many public servants such as gardaí, teachers and nurses who would not be considered to be in the lower socioeconomic group by any means. However, if one or both partners lose their jobs, the couple will find it has a different economic status which would not have come to our attention on their application. This is now coming to our attention as they warn or forewarn us that they are in difficulty.
The 10% figure refers specifically to students who are in receipt of bursaries. An increasing percentage of them could be finding themselves at a disadvantage and may ostensibly appear to be reasonably well off. Perhaps that answers the questions.

10% – that few… eh?

Sr. Randles skillfully threw a red herring into the debate…

I wish to make one point lest it be lost. I wish to dispel a myth. There is a perception about academic criteria for admission to schools. For the record, the schools do not use academic criteria for admission. The question of pupils with special needs presenting in the schools is wide open and we never know whether pupils have special needs until the youngsters present after they have been accepted or if parents tell us. No academic criteria act as a block or an obstacle to anybody having access to the schools. That is all I wish to say.

Of course, it’s not the academic criteria for admission that is the issue. And while there are, naturally, exceptions in terms of parents who have struggled to put their children through them the majority of their students belong to certain fairly clearly defined socio-economic brackets.

Odd that.

Now let’s get this straight. Parents of students in fee-charging schools are indeed taxpayers. And they are indeed entitled to “free” post primary education for their children. But they’ve chosen not to use the free post-primary education and instead have decided to pay some monies to have them privately educated (and isn’t Sr. Randles figure of €20,000 – €30,000 as a possible true economic cost for such an education, as distinct from the still eye-watering but rather lesser figure of €3,600, very revealing?). This operates in a similar fashion to tax relief for those on higher incomes. They’re getting the benefit of the state sector plus the additional extra. What is the additional extra? Well, in part it’s a cachet that comes with attendance at such schools. In part it’s the ability to lock into networks. And so on and so forth.

I don’t think that’s equitable in the slightest. I think that as there is a constitutional right to opt out of the public sector there’s not a lot to be done about abolishing them, although that would be my first option given the chance – and then implement a comprehensive universal system that would (as I’ve discussed here previously) allow other stakeholders, be they religious or whatever, access to school buildings after class hours. But I see no reason at all why those who make a deliberate choice to move away from the public system should be financed in whole or part by the state. I think the argument about lack of state funding for education is an irrelevancy in Kelly’s argument above. The fee-charging sector is getting the best of both worlds. It has the ability to impose its own restrictions and its costs are funded by the state. And the nominal savings that he refers to through the existence of fee-charging schools don’t persuade me of the legitimacy of his argument either.

But if you think that our politicians are going to actually address this central issue, think again. From Brian Hayes we were treated to the following encomium.

I welcome Mr. Kelly and his colleagues who have appeared before the joint committee to give evidence. I thank them for their time and presentation. Mr. Kelly referred to Articles 42 to 44, inclusive, of the Constitution on the question of parental choice, which is essential in terms of the rights of parents under the Constitution. Another aspect of these articles which is rarely referred to is the issue of neutrality between the question of public and private education. The Constitution explicitly states that parents have a right to send their children to public or private schools. This appears to be an obvious and fundamental choice available to parents. Flowing from that, there is an obligation on the State to support all forms of school, public or private.
It should be recognised that many parents make extraordinary sacrifices to send their children to the school of their choice. They are not all developers, speculators or Ministers of State but include people who live ordinary lives and put aside a substantial part of their income to ensure their children receive the education they want. This choice needs to be respected.

Rónán Mullen produced an interesting statement which seemed to accept that there might be a problem:

There is what I call a tabloid journalistic perception that fee-paying schools are the problem because they are elitist and they reject people from the wrong side of the tracks. Would the witnesses agree with me that there is nothing wrong with interviewing parents and children prior to admission and using the results as a basis for a decision on admission, provided the criteria in interviewing them are correct? This means the criteria cannot include the possibility of excluding a person on the basis of special needs or because he or she comes from the wrong side of the tracks. In principle, there is nothing wrong with interviewing families – that is, children and parents – and using that interview partially as a basis for a decision.
The witnesses are in the difficult situation of being asked to reason from the particular to the general. Is it not the case that whereas many fee-paying schools may be exemplary in their approach, there are undoubtedly towns in which a bad culture has emerged? By this I mean a culture whereby some schools do have snobbish attitudes – not necessarily fee-paying schools – and are not inclined to take children from a certain socioeconomic background. In some places – for a variety of reasons, including historical ones – some schools have a particular socioeconomic profile while other schools have a completely different one, and this is unhealthy in terms of school admissions. Do the witnesses have any personal or anecdotal knowledge of this in fee-paying schools or otherwise?

Sr. Randles response was yet again masterful:

In my experience the opposite is the case. We have 12 schools around the country, including four fee-paying schools. I have seen the admissions policies of nearly all the schools due to my position on the Loreto Education Trust Board, because the patron of the school must agree to this under the relevant Act. All the admissions policies include a section on children with special educational needs. Senator Mullen was leading into this issue. The reason is that we want to be sure the needs of the particular child can be served by our school and we need to know the extent of the special needs.
We were talking almost academically about streaming versus mixed ability. There is another whole discussion about the policy of integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools. I worked for the primary management association and there was a policy decision, which applied to all schools, that it was our wish to enrol every child who applied, but it could be irresponsible of a school to enrol a youngster with a particular set of special needs which the school simply could not address. It would be doing a disservice to such a child to enrol him or her. There are wonderful social reasons for entire families going to a particular school, but there is the other problem of the lack of resources. In fact, in one of the reports on this topic from the Department of Education and Science, the question of special schools was not even mentioned. Unfortunately, we will always need special schools for a particular cohort of children.

Ruairí Quinns suggested that…

I read the submissions and the background documentation in detail. It is true that the witnesses are here because of the publicity about €100 million or thereabouts of teachers’ salaries going into fee-paying schools and the assertion that fee-paying schools operate discriminatory practices with regard to selection, although that has been dealt with.

Hmmmm… not to my satisfaction. But in fairness to him he was at least more probing, which led to Gerry Foley making plain something that others appear loath to discuss…

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: My next question is for Mr. Foley. He has addressed the issue of non-discrimination in regard to special needs, so I will take that as read. Belvedere College operates a policy of scholarships or bursaries which are open to those parents who would love to send their bright child to a Jesuit school of Belvedere’s reputation and with its particular ethos but simply cannot afford to do so. This is the great aspect of our education system, that every parent can aspire to the best for his or her child and can put that child forward for a scholarship competition. I like the idea of that. If I were the parent of such a child, that would be my personal direction. However, some people in the education sector have made the point to me that such a system means these schools are cherry-picking bright children from other communities and thus somehow spiritually and educationally impoverishing those communities. I am very interested in Mr. Foley’s response on this point.

Mr. Gerry Foley:  The system in operation in Belvedere College is not a scholarship scheme in the traditional sense. That is a misnomer. Applicants are not required to sit an examination. We have had this system for a long time; the Jesuits had it way back before it became a formalised system. In the early stages, it was a more traditional scholarship system involving an exam. In other countries, that is the process by which schools and universities attract high talent. Although I referred to a bursary, we have struggled with the name of the scheme. It has been relaunched as the social integration scheme but we have reservations about that. The greater the financial pressure on the college to pay its way – and that pressure is greater in difficult economic times – the greater the pressure on the boys in receipt of the bursary. However, the bottom line is that they are not academically selected.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: How are they selected?

Mr. Gerry Foley:  They are selected according to financial criteria. In other words, their parents must show that they cannot pay the fees. That may sound crude but it is the reality. Such parents submit their application in exactly the same way as any other, through the admissions process. The most popular mechanism is for the principal of a primary school to recommend a child and say he and his family would really like what we have to offer but they cannot pay for it. The case is then examined confidentially. I am not involved in that. A group of teachers work with the application from the beginning. Parents who apply on behalf of their child show evidence of their earnings. Sometimes a child applicant is very bright and sometimes he is not. That is not the criterion for acceptance. Until recently we struggled to fill the 10%. We went out and marketed this scheme, particularly to local inner-city primary schools.
The trustees of fee paying schools look at their schools as part of a broad addressing of social injustice and inequality. The fee is not the difficulty. The major difficulty for people coming through the bursary scheme is their own social environment, lack of expectation and the difficulties they face as families. That is a growing issue. The programme is not about the fee. It is about the teachers who, voluntarily, work constantly with the families to support the students through the school.
How do I know they are not all academically gifted? It is not my business to know the individual students. I do not need to know which students are on bursaries and which are not. I know the students whose fees are waived because that must be applied for. Graduates of the bursary programme cover the full range of jobs from manual through technical to careers requiring university degrees. They are chosen purely on economic need. That is why we shy away from the word “scholarship” because that is quite a different thing.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: I am trying to reconcile two things, and I respect what everyone has said. Catholic fee paying schools seem to be in a different situation to Protestant schools. The Catholic schools cannot be seen as a homogenous set. Each school could be looked at differently. In the league tables published in newspapers, Catholic fee-paying schools in the Dublin area appear to have an almost 100% university participation. That seems to indicate a high academic base. Mr. Foley asserts that his students come from very normal middle income families. This implies a subtle argument that for bursary students socialisation is a more central issue than fees. A bursary student, for example, will not visit another pupil’s home because he would be embarrassed to invite him back. I cannot square the assertion that fee paying school students are from middle income families, as in the post-primary free education system, and that intake criteria have nothing to do with academic ability with the extraordinary out-turn in published league tables. I cannot reconcile those two pieces of information.

Mr. Gerry Foley:  I cannot answer for all the schools which feature on league tables but I have noticed that many are non-fee paying. There are also fee paying schools which do not feature in the league tables. The Economic and Social Research Council in Britain studied educational outcome and the determining factors of academic achievement. It found that school is a determining factor but not the primary factor. There can be variations in different year groups. In some years, an extraordinary percentage of our students go on to third level colleges, not necessarily university. Another factor is background. My father was a primary school teacher in Kerry and education was the be all and end all. In some families the major investment is in education. Their children go home and talk about education because that is their families’ focus of interest.
I was not being disparaging about the social integration problem. Coming from a poor home is not what is important. What is important is the culture of seeing that education is how one gets on in life. Another person might see earning money as the way to get on in life and might not see education as important.
Very often, bright children do not do well academically in our school and very average children do incredibly well. I have worked in nine schools, including schools in some of the most deprived wards in London. The differences are parental support, drive and expectation.
What has taken all the schools forward is huge teacher expectation. May I come back briefly to mixed ability teaching? I have worked with various types of mixed ability classes. The drive to get children to sit as many higher level papers as possible in the junior certificate is crucially important. Longitudinal studies show that leaving certificate outcomes are better for children who do as many higher papers as possible in the junior certificate. We encourage pupils to take higher papers in junior certificate. It is better to get a D on an honours in junior certificate than an A on a pass paper. We do not have to push hard because parents want it.

Which led to the following exchange:

Deputy Margaret Conlon: Mr. Foley spoke about average children who do very well. He hit the nail on the head when he emphasised parental support. We all want the best for our children. Parents in lower socio-economic situations want their children to do better than they themselves have done and give huge support. The best schools in the country with the best teachers and facilities do not necessarily get the best results. One needs a combination of factors.
Personal choice is important and it is particularly important that parents have a choice as to where they send their children to school. If parents want a particular school which represents their ethos, that is entirely their choice. If one decides to send a child to a private school there is also a cost factor.

Mr. Christopher Woods:  We are not private schools.

Deputy Margaret Conlon:I am talking about fee-paying schools.

Mr. Christopher Woods:  We are not private schools. We are state supported recognised schools.

Deputy Margaret Conlon:Yes, with fees.

Mr. Christopher Woods:  Yes.

Deputy Margaret Conlon:That is the point. I am sorry if I used the wrong word.

Mr. Christopher Woods:  The private sector does not provide the kind of support for students or the integration and breadth we have been talking about here.

Mr. Noel Merrick:  We are all voluntary secondary schools.

Deputy Margaret Conlon: Fee-paying schools.

Mr. Christopher Woods:  Schools do not pay fees.

Deputy Margaret Conlon: Of course. They charge fees.

Mr. Noel Merrick:  We are all voluntary secondary schools.

Deputy Margaret Conlon:If a parent makes a particular choice a fee may attach to that choice. That is the point I wished to make.

Ignore, if you can, the pedantic condescension and consider that this ‘choice’ is a choice that, for many, cannot be exercised thereby undercutting the entire notion of it being a ‘choice’ at all.
And lest this seem like carping against supposedly timeless institutions let’s note what Ferdia Kelly said at the Committee:

The joint managerial body represents the managements of almost 400 voluntary secondary schools in the Republic of Ireland, of which 56 are fee charging. It negotiates for, represents, advises and supports boards of management, governors and school managements at both national and local level in the network of voluntary secondary schools, all but 21 of which are under the trusteeship of Catholic trustees. The remaining 21 are also denominational in character but their trustees represent minority faith traditions.
Post-primary schools which charge fees do not form a homogeneous sector because they have emerged through the evolution of each school in its own right. This evolution has taken place in the context of the decision of the trustees of each individual school in the first instance to establish a school at a particular location. The development of these schools has, in turn, been heavily influenced by both local and national events. All voluntary secondary schools charged fees before the Government’s decision to introduce free post-primary education in 1967. The 56 fee charging schools have evolved from the voluntary secondary schools that decided for a variety of reasons not to join the free education scheme in 1967.

And nothing that even approaches a coherent left view of the necessity for universal state education as a prerequisite of any project to dismantle centres of privilege in this society.

Brits Out April 30, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in Iraq.
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So the British Army has ended combat operations in Iraq, and will now officially leave. I feel that there’s not really a lot to say about this. We all know that the Iraq war was a bloody disaster produced by a mixture of desire for oil, revenge, ideology, and good old fashioned US imperialism, facilitated by lies told to the entire world. And that the New Labour government played a prominent role in every step along the way. The number of deaths is enormous. I have to say that it is somewhat sickening to see the British army talking about its heavy losses of 179 in Iraq, when at the very lowest estimate this is around 20 times fewer than the number of civilian deaths in Basra alone. So, not a lot to say, but worth marking. The hundreds of thousands of civilian dead must not be forgotten; nor must imperialism be forgiven for the blood shed in Iraq.

What the F…. April 29, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in Irish Politics, Secularism.

A new law on blasphemy? These people should be ashamed of themselves. Especially Rabbitte, who should be opposing this outright, not proposing amendments. Utterly anti-democratic. It’s hard to believe that someone with Rabbitte’s background in a militantly secular socialist party – no matter how far he has moved from the socialism – should be so utterly lily-livered on this. More proof, if it was needed, that a proper left voice is needed once more, and that the battle for the secular politics envisioned as part of the republican ideal continues.

Engels: The Male Chauvinist Feminist April 29, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in Books, Feminism, History, Marxism.

Tristan Hunt in today’s Guardian has a piece promoting his new biography of Friedrich Engels. Surprisingly for something written on Engels by this champion of New Labour, it is actually not an entirely uninteresting article, discussing as it does the contradictions between Engels’ principles and his behaviour. Few of us could stand up to such scrutiny, especially by anachronistic standards, and in the article Hunt seeks to judge Engels by the standards of his own time. The article, like the book, seeks to restore the human element to Engels. Here is the man himself writing to Marx

It is absolutely essential that you get out of boring Brussels for once and come to Paris, and I for my part have a great desire to go carousing with you,” Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Marx in 1846. “If I had an income of 5000 francs I would do nothing but work and amuse myself with women until I went to pieces. If there were no Frenchwomen, life wouldn’t be worth living. But so long as there are grisettes [prostitutes], well and good!”

Hunt’s article essentially discusses Engels’ responsibility for the creation of modern feminism through his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, describing how that work opened the way for a new understanding of the oppression of women. Hunt’s account ends with a sting in the tail about whether we should be too smug about some of Engels’ own attitudes

Few great thinkers are able to live out their ideals, and Engels was more contradictory than most. But the personal is not always political; philosophy exists beyond the person. And if much of Engels’ life no longer appears very enlightened, in an era when part-time male workers earn some 36% more than their female equivalents and one third of British women in work take home less than £100 per week, his insights into the economic foundations of sexual inequality seem as relevant as ever.

As for the book, it is in shops (though the official release date is tomorrow), and Waterstone’s had it at five pounds less than the £25 official price. Interested though I may be in the topic, and pleasantly surprised by this article as I am, I doubt I’ll be shelling out given that, unlike Robert Service in his Times review and Roy Hattersley in his Guardian review, I have my doubts about Hunt’s competence to discuss Engels’ political thought. However, with International Women’s Day May Day approaching, Hunt has still raised important issues that we especially ought not to neglect.

May Day – Dublin Council of Trade Unions April 29, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Campaigns.




Thoughts on Iceland and the EU April 29, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Communist Party of Ireland, International Politics.
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Many thanks to Eugene McCartan of the Communist Party of Ireland for letting us carry the following taken from Socialist Voice (you can find the current issue by clicking on the link below):

Below are two articles from the current issue of Socialist Voice. They were written by left activists from Iceland and give a different perspective on event in that country and the background to the growing economic crisis. A perspective not carried in any of the establishment new coverage of the economic crisis in Iceland.

EU membership for Iceland still a toss-up

by Gösta Torstensson

The financial crisis and popular protests have given Iceland a new government, a coalition of Social Democrats and the Red-Green Movement. The protests led to the conservative prime minister, Geir Haarde, dissolving his government.

Iceland, with its population of 320,000, has been the hardest-hit of all countries by the financial crisis. The main explanation is that the capital markets were deregulated and the banking system privatised as part of adapting to the European Union’s internal market, which paved the way for a number of risky investments abroad.

Since 1994 Iceland has been a member of the European Economic Area and therefore part of the internal market, in which there is free movement of capital. Last autumn Icelandic banks had debts that were nine times the country’s GNP.

When the crisis arose, in October, the state was forced to take over responsibility for the three largest banks. The Icelandic crown has lost 45 per cent of its value since the beginning of 2008.

According to a recent prognosis, the GNP is expected to drop by 9.6 per cent this year, and unemployment will increase to 7.8 per cent and reach 9 per cent in 2010. The Central Bank has decided to maintain its interest rate at 18 per cent, in order to reduce inflation. The inflation rate in December was 18 per cent, an increase from 17 per cent in November. The economy has stabilised with a loan of 17 billion crowns from the International Monetary Fund and nearly 520 billion crowns from other countries, including Sweden.

The financial crisis and the collapse of the banks have put the question of membership of the European Union on the political agenda again. At the beginning of October 2008 opinion polls put support for membership at 70 per cent. Since then enthusiasm has diminished considerably: an opinion poll carried out by the daily Morgunblaðið and published on 23 January showed that 38.3 per cent are against membership and 37.7 per cent in favour.

Several days later an opinion poll in the daily Fréttablaðið showed that 60 per cent were against membership and 40 per cent in favour. (In that opinion poll there was no alternative for those unsure of their opinion.)

In his New Year’s speech the prime minister, Geir Haarde, said that Icelanders would be voting on membership this spring.

With the new government and new election, the plans of the establishment have been moved along. The chairperson of Heimssýn (Iceland’s “No to EU” movement), Ragnar Arnalds, says that the situation in Iceland regarding membership of the European Union is still a toss-up. “The bank collapse and the free fall of the Iceland crown have weakened support for EU opposition, but this, hopefully, is only temporary,” he said. “The demand for a new and more stable currency is the strongest argument for membership.”

Ragnar Arnalds sat in the Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament, for thirty-five years for the party that preceded today’s Left-Green Movement and is a former Minister for Finance. Today he is a member of the supervisory council of the Central Bank.

The leadership of the Independence Party has put the question of membership of the European Union on the agenda when the party holds its national meeting in March. Up to now it has been clearly opposed.

According to the latest opinion poll, in the daily Fréttablaðið, 70 per cent of the members of the Independence Party are opposed to membership. The general secretary of Heimssýn, Hjörtur Guðmundsson, who is active in the Independence Party, says that the question has been discussed thoroughly before the coming national meeting.

The new red-green government is divided on the issue of membership. The Left-Green Movement says no, while the Social Democrats have continually supported membership.

The chairperson of the Social Democrats has said that she wants a referendum on membership at the same time as the new elections in April. The Progressive Party opened its national meeting in January by calling for application for membership. However, this party is divided and also insists on very strict demands that, according to experts, would mean that the European Union could not consider the application. Among these demands are that Iceland retain sovereignty over fishing and agriculture.

The new government has announced that a parliamentary committee will be appointed to investigate and analyse eventual membership. This committee will present its results on 15 April.

The chairperson of the Left-Green Movement, Steingrímur Sigfússon, who is the new Minister for Finance, Fishing, and Agriculture, said that his party will not allow itself to be swept along with the euphoria for the European Union. He excludes a referendum under all circumstances during the period of the present government.

What will happen after the new elections on 25 April is an open question. In the meantime there are positive signals from Brussels concerning eventual membership for Iceland. If Iceland were to apply in the near future, and negotiations were quickly carried out, Iceland could join the European Union in 2011, at the same time as Croatia, according to the Commissioner for Expansion, Olli Rhen, in a statement to the Guardian.

The Treaty on the European Economic Area has forced Iceland to adapt to EU legislation in many areas. According to the professor of political science at Bifröst University, Eirikur Bergmann, Iceland has already adopted 80 per cent of all EU legislation.

Nevertheless, the question of EU membership is very controversial in Iceland. The leadership of the Icelandic Employers’ Association had decided to actively support membership; however, a survey among members of the association showing that they are equally divided forced the association to withdraw from participation in this debate.

Fishing is one of the main reasons why Iceland has chosen to remain outside the European Union. Nearly 30 per cent of all Iceland’s exports are fish. The export of fish and fish products provided 15 billion crowns in foreign currency. Iceland has no desire to see all the European Union’s fishing fleets in its waters. Fishermen have not changed their opinion. So, despite the friendlier climate for the European Union in Iceland, it is probable that fishing will have a decisive influence on whether Iceland says yes or no to membership.

“The new year will be very exciting for those of us who struggle against Iceland’s membership of the EU,” says Ragnar Arnalds.

The crisis in Iceland and the pressure for EU membership

by Thorvaldur Thorvaldsson

The capitalist crisis in Iceland exposed itself quite sharply at the beginning of October last year with the collapse of the three main banks. Suddenly the world press focused on Iceland. Deep corruption has been unmasked, and Iceland is not popular on the world scene. As we know, the crisis is developing fast in all the capitalist world and hits hardest where the finance sector is relatively biggest. But why did the crisis emerge so differently in Iceland, that is to say by the collapse of all three main banks but not in the basis of the economy?

For decades the Icelandic economy has been marked by fluctuations and inflation. Fishing has been one of the most important natural resource of Iceland, being between 65 and 70 per cent of exports until recently. During the 80s neo-liberalism was an increasing factor in Icelandic government policy.

The banks were free to decide interest rates on loans from 1983. In 1984 a quota system was established in fishing. Since 1991 the fishing quotas could be sold and bought in the market like any other commodity, giving fishing companies de facto ownership of the fishing stocks. The quota prices rose rapidly, and big capital was taken out of the fishing sector, which step by step was drowned in debts. The capital market flourished and finance capital was, so to speak, emerging on the scene as a stratum within the bourgeoisie. A stock market was opened in Reykjavík in the late 1980s, at the same time as the productive sectors were more tied up.

At the same time pressure increased for privatisation, first in the productive sectors, then also in health, education, and other welfare sectors. In 1991 a government headed by the conservative Independence Party came to power; then the general and almost total privatisation of state property came to the top of the agenda. A special administration was formed for this task, and state properties were sold in all fields: first factories, then services, such as computer service, telecommunications, etc. The culmination of this process was the privatisation of both state-owned banks in 2002.

In the beginning the idea was to sell the banks to a spread ownership, but in the middle of the process the plan was changed entirely to selling the majority of each bank to concentrated groups connected to the different parties in government, the Independence Party and the centrist Progress Party. The Landsbanki was sold to Björgólfur Guðmundsson and his son Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson for a token price. They had suspiciously rapidly made a fortune by beer production in St Petersburg (Leningrad). Later the Landsbanki was accused of laundering money for the Russian mafia. The other state bank, now known as Kaupþing, was given to a group of investors connected to the Progress Party.

The third bank, Glitnir, was taken over by a group of investors with the Baugur Group at its centre.

The activity of the Icelandic banks increased a lot. In the years 2003–07 they borrowed a lot of money while it was abundant on the international market. They absorbed the savings of Icelanders and most of the value from the productive economy. They made huge investments in other countries, and many of them have apparently not been so stable. In a country where most people own their own apartment, the banks began to lend up to 100 per cent of the market price for forty years. Some of these loans were financed with short-term loans from abroad.

The leading staff members in the banks were paid high bonuses on top of huge salaries, according to short-term results and the stock prices of the banks. The banks increasingly gave special service to the companies of their owners and lost amounts on efforts to keep up artificial stock prices on certain companies, such as Sterling airlines. The banks became the centre of an oligarchy with a large and hardly traceable network of companies in many countries, most of them in tax havens, where they could hide their fortunes and keep them safe when their pile of mess fell on the people. This oligarchy very soon had increasing direct influence on the state power and dominated cultural life. In 2007, when it became more difficult to get new loans on the international market in order to refinance the banks, Landsbanki opened the notorious Icesave accounts on the internet, concentrating on customers in Britain and the Netherlands.

When all collapsed at the beginning of October 2008, the foreign debt of the Icelandic banks was about 12–15 trillion Icelandic crowns, roughly ten times the GNP of Iceland. Because of a state insurance, the banks, and their debts with them, were taken over by the state.

The situation has been changed entirely for the people. The exchange rate of the Icelandic crown has fallen about 40 per cent, and for more than a year inflation has been about 18 per cent a year. Unemployment within half a year has increased from less than 1 per cent to about 10 per cent. The income of those who have a job has also fallen dramatically.

As Iceland is the only European country to tie interest rates on loans to inflation rates, the loans of average households have risen dramatically. Along with falling real estate prices, this has made a great deal of the population effectually bankrupt. Almost half the Icelandic families are thought to face bankruptcy in the near future if nothing is done to avoid that, and so far the government is not doing much.

After big demonstrations this winter, and a constant demonstration outside the Parliament, lasting a whole week, starting on 20 January, the conservative-social-democratic coalition government fell.

The Social-Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement formed a minority government until he elections take place on 25 April. There are no signs of any radical changes from the government in favour of the people.

The discussion on Icelandic membership of the European Union started in the late 80s, after Spain, Portugal and Greece entered the Union. In the beginning this idea had few supporters, mostly because of the fishing policy. In Iceland there is a law that permits only Icelandic citizens to own companies in the fishing industry. This is not in accordance with EU policy, where the fishing branch is administered from Brussels.

Another argument against EU membership is the situation of agriculture. Icelandic agriculture would have a hard time competing with cheap imports from EU countries. Because of its geographical isolation, local animal stocks are vulnerable to diseases, and Iceland has therefore long been opposed to the import of meat.

The debate on a closer relationship with the European Union continued and resulted in Iceland becoming a partner to the EEA agreement in 1994. This means that the so-called “four freedoms” became law in Iceland. In fact it means, first and foremost, more freedom for capital.

So Icelandic capital began to move. In the beginning productive capital was moved to countries with lower salaries, while at the same time foreign contractors came to Iceland, for example for construction projects. That was also used as pressure for social dumping in Iceland.

At the turn of the century the movement of capital began to increase, especially after the privatisation of the former state banks, and restrictions on finance activities were almost wiped out, one after the other, allegedly in accordance with the EEA agreement.

At the same time the debate on EU membership became more active. The Social-Democratic Alliance took a stand for membership and for the last few years has placed an emphasis on this question. It tries to manipulate the debate into being about a simple economic matter and mainly an easy solution to a weak currency by entering the euro zone.

But the weakness of the currency is not only because of how small the economy is but because too small a part of the economy is creative and productive.

In general, there has been a minority in favour of EU membership in Iceland, with some few exceptions. One of them was just after the collapse of the banks in October; then, for a short time, more than 60 per cent were in favour.

People were shocked, and after listening repeatedly to “If we were members of the European Union this would not have happened” many of them were ready for an easy solution. But EU membership is a big political question, neither a matter of weak or stable currency nor a matter that can be rushed through.

Among Icelanders there is a growing consciousness of the importance of national independence, also as a fundamental of democracy. If we can’t trust our own leaders who have endangered our independence with the adventurous neo-liberal policy, why should we trust Brussels, which follows the same political line? And why should the big powers of Europe even give a thought to the interests of a small nation in the north?

EU membership would mean that natural resources would be privatised and put on the “free” market, not only fishing stocks but also the country’s rich energy sources, water, etc. Now there is a broad popular demand for a change in the constitution to confirm the collective national ownership of all natural resources in Iceland.

The last opinion poll on support for EU membership, made in February, resulted in about 40 per cent in favour. It is possible that we will have a referendum on this matter anyway. Then it will become obvious that Brussels wants to take over our resources. That’s not negotiable.

As the European Union is striving for more integration and the concentration of its power into a great state power, a small people like us would have no possibility of deciding about its own life. Therefore we must unite and vote against any effort to bring Iceland into the European Union.

European Elections Poster Watch: Déirdre De Búrca of the Green Party April 29, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in European Elections Material.


Déirdre De Búrca of the Green Party. Over to you…

Man paid to give a certain opinion gave a certain opinion… Now he doesn’t give that opinion! Or Naoise Nunn’s departure from Libertas… and support for Lisbon! April 28, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in European Politics, European Union, Irish Politics.

Tough times for the Chairman. His European pan-political party project is rapidly morphing into a socially conservative pro-life/anti-abortion entity (something I intend to return to later in the week). No harm there, if that is to your political taste, but one might have thought that in the absence of a policy platform (and hey, we’ve what, seven weeks to the elections, better get working on it a chairde) this might have been noted before the election trail.

Meanwhile, as most of us read this morning, one of his lieutenants has turned…er…apostate. Naoise Nunn has:

…resigned as executive director of Libertas last September said: “The circumstances have changed: internationally, economically, financially and domestically.

“We don’t have the luxury of doing anything else. I am glad that we had a referendum. We were the only member state to do so, to have a proper debate, or something like a proper debate,” Mr Nunn told The Irish Times .

Greater joy in heaven over one sinner who… etc, etc.

The Irish Times certainly seems to think so:

His public declaration will come as an embarrassment for Libertas founder, Declan Ganley, who is running for the organisation in the European Parliament elections in the North-West constituency.

Still for me the most curious admission was not that:

Both sides were guilty, he said, of “scare-mongering and misinformation” during the referendum campaign. Mr Nunn, who was one of the central figures in Libertas’s campaign last year, is understood to have written a detailed critique of Libertas’s performance last year for Mr Ganley’s attention before his departure last year.

Or indeed that:

Mr Nunn declined to reveal its contents yesterday: “I am not into washing dirty linen in public’.

But the following:

I did work for Libertas. I was an employee. I was doing my job. I put the arguments out.”

Now, I’m not going to have a fit of the vapours over the fact that someone working for a political grouping might have divergent political opinions or that they would see it just as a ‘job’. But… Libertas seems to have treasured the old employee/job commercial model for quite some time and in a way which other political groups seem to eschew, at least partially. Sure, there are consultants and communications directors of all stripes in the most unusual places in formations one might not expect them, but most tend to at least publicly confirm their allegiance to the broad brush strokes of the enterprise they’re attempting to promote.

But this sense of ‘just doing a job…folks’ seems to permeate Libertas, perhaps in part because of its genesis as a thinktank/lobby group rather than a politically active vehicle. And that can, and perhaps has, lead to oddities.

Perhaps I should welcome his honesty. But somehow, when Lisbon was not merely a part of the Libertas agenda but was absolutely central to it, such a workaday attitude seems – odd. And it raises questions as to how fully aligned others within it are to the overall project.

It’s also interesting to read that:

He said he had changed his mind on the treaty before he left Libertas last September: “My opinions evolved. Political views do evolve over time.”

That latter is absolutely true. But… before last September? When before last September. The referendum was hardly three or four months before.

BTW, I see Nunn, clearly on a personal voyage of discovery of the more exotic corners of our polity, has been busy ‘advising’ former fire breathing anti-public sector, large number of civil servants employing, Junior Minister John McGuinness in what has been described as some as his ‘campaign’ following his departure from office. Er… what campaign? To what purpose? It sure isn’t to get himself reinstated by a grateful Brian Cowen.

Nor can it be to assume the role of colourful cult hero in this polity. So, what gives?

Obama and the issue of American exceptionalism April 28, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in International Politics, United States.

John Dickerson mentioned this on the Slate Political Gabfest the week before last, but it’s worth another look. Dickerson pointed to…

Barack Obama’s answer when he was at the NATO conference last week to a question about American exceptionalism… the whole theory [of exceptionalism] is seen as offensive to much of the rest of the world. Obama gave what I thought was quite an impressive answer…

Here’s the piece on YouTube:

And here is the text, available at the very useful White House website:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Ed Luce, from the Financial Times. Where’s Ed — there he is.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. In the context of all the multilateral activity that’s been going on this week — the G20, here at NATO — and your evident enthusiasm for multilateral frameworks, to work through multilateral frameworks, could I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy? And if so, would you be able to elaborate on it?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.

It’s certainly an elegant and thoughtful response and one which is a world away from right wing characterisations of Obama as being a man who is merely trekking around the world apologising for past wrongs of the US.

Indeed for a contrast it would be difficult to find a starker one than on the most recent Left, Right & Centre podcast where resident conservative pundit, and often times also a thoughtful individual,Tony Blankley was waxing lyrical about such matters and was sharply brought up by chair Lawrence O’Donnell. Blankley opined that:

I’ll tell you why I can’t embrace [Obama], because he renounced American leadership and dominance in the world, saying it’s no longer FDR and Churchill ruling the world over a glass of brandy… but he conceded on things… the Russian and Chinese negotiations…

To which O’Donnell made the very reasonable interjection,

Well… Tony, can I pause you there for one second? Are you in that reference seriously suggesting that there could be a meeting between the head of state of the United States and the head of state of the United Kingdom [sic] that could address a global issue that there could seriously be a meeting between those two people that could have any import for the world?

Blankley continued:

I do believe that the US does not need to renounce its capacity to lead the world on policy towards freedom. We’ve been doing it since the 1940s, shall we say. We produce the same amount of goods and services today 25% which is why we consume 25% of the worlds energy… that we did at the beginning of WWII… we’re still the leading economy, we’re still the leading military power, we’re still the leading culture in the world… led by an able President…we’re able to provide that kind of leadership…

If you renounce it you’re always going to get cheers from our fractious European cousins who are delighted to share a little bit of the purple.

O’Donnell interjected again..

Just to make sure I’m hearing through this rhetoric. You’re using this ‘renouncing American leadership’ terminology simply because he said this can no longer work in the style of an FDR/Churchill meeting.


But he did renounce it… but also by the actions he took with the Russians and Chinese…

Hmmm… the actual quote from his London press conference is as follows:

Thank you, Mr. President. During the campaign you often spoke of a diminished power and authority of the United States over the last decade. This is your first time in an international summit like this, and I’m wondering what evidence you saw of what you spoke of during the campaign. And specifically, is the declaration of the end of the Washington consensus evidence of the diminished authority that you feared was out there?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, first of all, during the campaign I did not say that some of that loss of authority was inevitable. I said it was traced to very specific decisions that the previous administration had made that I believed had lowered our standing in the world. And that wasn’t simply my opinion; that was, it turns out, the opinion of many people around the world.

I would like to think that with my election and the early decisions that we’ve made, that you’re starting to see some restoration of America’s standing in the world. And although, as you know, I always mistrust polls, international polls seem to indicate that you’re seeing people more hopeful about America’s leadership.

Now, we remain the largest economy in the world by a pretty significant margin. We remain the most powerful military on Earth. Our production of culture, our politics, our media still have — I didn’t mean to say that with such scorn, guys — (laughter) — you know I’m teasing — still has enormous influence. And so I do not buy into the notion that America can’t lead in the world. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that we had important things to contribute.

I just think in a world that is as complex as it is, that it is very important for us to be able to forge partnerships as opposed to simply dictating solutions. Just a — just to try to crystallize the example, there’s been a lot of comparison here about Bretton Woods. “Oh, well, last time you saw the entire international architecture being remade.” Well, if there’s just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that’s a — that’s an easier negotiation. (Laughter.) But that’s not the world we live in, and it shouldn’t be the world that we live in.

And so that’s not a loss for America; it’s an appreciation that Europe is now rebuilt and a powerhouse. Japan is rebuilt, is a powerhouse. China, India — these are all countries on the move. And that’s good. That means there are millions of people — billions of people — who are working their way out of poverty. And over time, that potentially makes this a much more peaceful world.

And that’s the kind of leadership we need to show — one that helps guide that process of orderly integration without taking our eyes off the fact that it’s only as good as the benefits of individual families, individual children: Is it giving them more opportunity; is it giving them a better life? If we judge ourselves by those standards, then I think America can continue to show leadership for a very long time.

I guess when rhetoric is more important than substance one might find fault in the above. But what, too, of the transcript of Obama’s speech in Strasbourg earlier this month which also seems to say otherwise:

In recent years we’ve allowed our Alliance to drift. I know that there have been honest disagreements over policy, but we also know that there’s something more that has crept into our relationship. In America, there’s a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.

But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what’s bad.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. They are not wise. They do not represent the truth. They threaten to widen the divide across the Atlantic and leave us both more isolated. They fail to acknowledge the fundamental truth that America cannot confront the challenges of this century alone, but that Europe cannot confront them without America.

There’s a blend there. And in a polity with such a pronounced sense of a national identity and self-worth that at times can overwhelm rational debate for a US President to be attempting to walk between a self-evident pride in his nation (as anyone would) while at the same time acknowledging that the world is not as it was in the 1940s is a difficult task that Obama has set himself. It’s a task that requires nuance and tact… and yeah, just a smidgen of diplomacy. And it’s an entirely necessary task after the chaos of the past eight years. But most importantly in word and deed it is an approach that seems a fair distance away from Blankley’s charge.

There’s no doubt there’s sport to be had in picking apart Obama and his programme, and those of us on the left will not be shy to do so. But the point is to pick it apart as it is, not as some would characterise it incorrectly. And here I think we see a drumbeat of opinion on the right which seeks to paint any decision not merely in the worst light but in an incorrect one. The risible sight of Cheney and Rove seeking government transparency last week, after eight years of their own actions moving the US administration in quite the opposite, should be a salutary lesson in just how opportunistic this environment is becoming.

European Elections Poster Watch: Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party April 27, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in European Elections Material.


Thanks to EWI for this… Those who have seen Eoin Ryan’s poster for Fianna Fáil will know that ‘fighting’ is becoming a trope of these elections.

Any posters or other European Election materials gratefully accepted.

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