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Social conservatism as a political platform might not be what it was a week ago. May 28, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Religion, Social Policy, Society.

A week is a long time in politics, and one wonders some are pondering that thought a little more deeply than most of us. For reading the Irish Times I was struck by an analysis of the North West Constituency in the European Elections, and in particular the following

It addresses the fact that social conservatism, and in particular abortion, have become a part of the campaign in North West.

Undoubtedly, the Libertas head has deliberately put himself at odds with the candidates from the major parties, thus emphasising his profile at every point. His campaign infuriates his opponents, who argue that they have no choice but to respond to unfounded allegations; even if this plays into his hands.

But it notes that:

Ganley, the only Galway-based candidate in the race, will, however, need more than the conservative Catholic vote enjoyed by the former Eurovision winner 10 years ago.

And continues crucially:

Indeed, Ganley’s emphasised links to the church may have downsides too, since the political landscape has changed in ways yet unknowable following the devastating report into institutional child abuse. As of now, it is far from clear if he has anything else other than a conservative vote, and his decision to row publicly last week with the Irish Farmers’ Association could alienate as many as it impresses.

The race is not short of conservative candidates, so he will find it difficult to prevent leakage from the socially conservative as polling day approaches.

It’s difficult to assess the Report in political terms, or not that it’s difficult but rather that it seems to almost demean it in some fashion. And yet the Report – and now the events that it has initiated – is already shaping the future of this state across a range of measures from social policy to political positioning. One might tentatively wonder would Fianna Fáil be most hit by the simple historical connection between its stewardship of this state and the fact that these crimes occurred on its watch. But, much the same charge could be leveled at any party in power in the post-War of Independence era and up until the 1990s. Or perhaps it is that the societal implications are so great in and of themselves that issues of political guilt are secondary or tertiary to that. One could also argue that because this is rooted in the past that gives a degree of political cover to the present and potential future incumbents of high office. And added to that is the simple reality that time has seen parties change. The idea that Fianna Fáil would one day seek entry to the European Liberal group is hardly one that troubled the conscience of any of its leaders or members during the past. Indeed the brand of social conservatism that might most readily be identified with that past has not been served particularly well in recent years (despite the obvious exceptions as regards social policy).

Which made the positioning of Libertas over the past month and a half as an overtly socially conservative grouping something of a surprise to me. Had you asked me prior to that what sort of profile they would take I’d have put money on it being focussed simply on the European issue with, perhaps a tilt towards economic conservatism in their policies. A sort of technocratic right wing approach. Maybe something not dissimilar to the PDs. It’s not that the socially conservative aspect to them was in any sense hidden, but rather that it didn’t seem that high up in the mix. Indeed quite recently Libertas was issuing press releases that sought to portray it as almost neutral on such matters.

But Ganley and Simons have run hard with social matters, supposedly under threat from the hegemon in Brussels, and in the former case very specifically against his rival Marian Harkin.

Outgoing Independent MEP Marian Harkin is Ganley’s main target, and he has frequently alleged that her MEP grouping in the parliament is “soft” on abortion. Harkin, a social conservative by her own description, has been stung by the charges and forced to deny them in a constituency where the conservative vote is strong.

Highly impressive as an MEP, Harkin has built a network based on care and community organisations throughout the constituency, which is coming out now to canvass for her.

That latter connection of Harkin’s with care and community organisations might just be the sort of thing to deflect the charges from Ganley.

As a tactical move running on a socially conservative platform was far from the worst idea. At least prior to the release of the Ryan Report. There is a constituency there which overlaps with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but which is not quite represented, at least not now, by either of them. Its size is difficult to judge, but taking the North West constituency clearly it was sufficient in part to swing the vote towards Dana in the past.

I’ll hazard, and I may be utterly wrong and proven so next Saturday week, that that vote in Dublin is of rather smaller proportions, or perhaps it is that the field of battle is considerably more crowded.

In any event, in the immediate short term, I’d tend to think that the impacts will be relatively slight and were it otherwise one could argue that was somewhat unfair, not least because whether it is to my taste or not it remains an entirely legitimate viewpoint. Clearly one can hold socially conservative views, and profess a strong loyalty to Catholicism (or any other religion), and yet find the events catalogued by the Ryan report anathema. And in fairness to Declan Ganley his religious beliefs are clearly sincere and nor has he sought to hide them.

But, at the same time, he has been willing to raise issues that have been hugely divisive in the past. And he has very clearly identified with a strand of Catholicism which is avowedly ‘traditional’ in outlook.

Again, perfectly reasonable, but a difficult place from which to enunciate a clear and distinctive viewpoint that differentiates between the wrongs overseen by that Church in the past.

Not least due to the continuing inability of elements of the Church to deal with these issues with any alacrity. It is this secondary, and even somewhat indirect aftershock which is causing grievous and (let’s be clear) self-inflicted damage to the Church, which hourly undermines its authority and efforts to legitimate its stances not merely on issues relating to care health and education but, as we’ve seen with CORI, in other areas as well and perhaps further afield.

And yet, in a way what is the surprise that a political formation should appear in this guise? The last decade has seen a renewal of the conservative social right in this state (and further abroad as well). We’ve seen the ‘think-tanks’, the commentators in the press and even the occasional elected representative grace our newspapers, our television screens and the Seanad. It’s not that they ever went away, note the resistance within Fianna Fáil to civil unions legislation (and it’s not restricted to FF by any means), but in this newer more media savvy and apparently user-friendly incarnation it has managed to achieve a degree of respectability that it either didn’t have, or didn’t need. These aren’t people getting down and dirty, as it were with Youth Defence, but instead are a cohort who have a very clear, if occasionally diffusely projected, vision of the sort of society that they want to see in this state. And this vision is one which explicitly and fundamentally links into a certain aspect of what we can broadly term the Catholic ethos.

They’ve had some success. This Version 2.0 is mild-mannered, covers itself in some intellectual and even empirical trappings (they’re particularly fond of statistics), it talks a fuzzy language of emotion and empathy. Up to a point. But… it also is of the right and as such locks into a smorgasbord of ‘right’ concerns, be they home schooling, bioethics, reproductive rights and so forth. And economically, for all the soft focus they’re not seriously in conflict with the status quo.

But the events of the past week or so pose a problem, perhaps not to Ganley and Simons, but to the broader conservative social project.

The past which those who seek a more ‘traditional’ Church, supposedly true to its teachings, is to return to where these crimes took place, one where the power of that Church was all but untrammelled in the political and social spheres. This is a very real contradiction, because it entirely undermines an analysis which seeks to promote some sort of moral or ethical golden age which if we could only but institute [and here you can insert your social policy of choice] we would see anew.

There are means of squaring these circles, at least in part. But I would wonder how easily it will be from here on out to fashion a primarily socially conservative party that has a serious chance of making a mark on the polity.


1. FutureTaoiseach - May 29, 2009

Tomorrow night’s Irish Times poll is rumoured to show Libertas not only in with a shot in NW, but in East. Evidently its tactics are proving effective. The negative attacks are forcing Harkin and the others to explain their records on issues like abortion and taxation, and when you’re explaining, you’re losing.


2. WorldbyStorm - May 29, 2009

Your paragraph contains two unlinked assertions. Firstly that the IT poll shows any such thing (it may, but we don’t know). Secondly that ‘evidently its tactics are proving effective’. Since you don’t know the first you can’t possibly assert the second.

As regards Harkins’ ‘record’ on abortion. What pray tell would that be, and what does that have to do with the future shape of the EU which I thought was the primary purpose of Libertas? Or are tactics ‘effective’ simply as a means of attacking others and the principles one operates by are irrelevant?


3. FutureTaoiseach - May 29, 2009

It’s relevance is that it pertains to the question of where responsibility for abortion-law should reside -at national or European level. Harkin and FF’s membership of the ALDE (Liberal) group in the European Parliament, whose website is stridently pro-abortion raises questions about the future viability of our prohibition on abortion should Harkin and FF’s new party increase its influence (it currently has around 101 seats) in the next EP elected next week. Furthermore, it’s relevant to the future of Europe in that the Lisbon Treaty, which Harkin, FF, FG and Labour support will introduce Qualified Majority Voting in the area of Justice and Home Affairs. The Government has announced as of last year that it intends to review the Irish case-by-case optin/out over Justice and Home Affairs (contained in the Protocol on the Area of Justice and Freedom in the Amsterdam Treaty) within 3 years. Coupled with the text of the Referendum Act 2008 which allows the Oireachtas to revoke the Protocol without a referendum, it clearly has a strong relevance in this campaign. MEPs have to be accountable for the policy-positions they hold.


4. WorldbyStorm - May 29, 2009

No, no, you’re missing my point. You’re making an unsubstantiated castle in the sky from an unsubstantiated poll. You could be proven correct this evening or not but it’s pretty futile to be extrapolating from a rumour.

As for the point you *try* to make it is very clear from reading the relevant texts that there is a snowballs chance in hell of abortion being introduced into the RoI through the EU. That’s a complete diversion on your part and Harkin’s and FFs membership of ALDE isn’t going to change that one iota.


5. FutureTaoiseach - May 29, 2009

I disagree on abortion. The wording of the Irish Protocol in the Maastricht Treaty only refers to Article 40.3.3., but it does not mention “abortion” or the life of the unborn. The Charter of Fundamental Rights states that there is a right to privacy – the same basis for the Roe v Wade judgement in the US Supreme Court in 1974 which legalised abortion across the US. Furthermore, the X Case ruling of 1992 is hanging over this whole issue. The Irish Supreme Court effectively ruled that abortion is legal where there is a risk of suicide by the mother. That arguably leaves wriggle-room for the ECJ, in the context of the Charter, to liberalise the rules on abortion in Ireland while arguing it isn’t violating Article 40.3.3. of the Irish Constitution.


6. WorldbyStorm - May 29, 2009

FT, you’re arguing an absurdity. The idea that the EU could (or would particularly want to) impose such a measure on us, or that the Irish state would acquiesce is a nonsense. It ain’t going to happen and it’s simple scaremongering on your part to propose it as such – not to mention an analysis so totally and completely detached from Irish political dynamics and logic as to be hardly worth countering.


7. FutureTaoiseach - May 29, 2009

Worldbystorm, before Nice II we were also told tales of a mass influx of cheap labour was “scaremongering”. Look how that turned out. The workers in Irish Ferries sure found out. We have to anticipate possible problems down the road when we vote away large elements of national sovereignty. When you expand Qualified Majority Voting on the Council of Ministers, you are going from having an absolute veto to allowing other countries – theoretically – to pass laws for you. When Brian Lenihan was Justice Minister, he stated that the Government intended to review the optout on QMV for Justice and Home Affairs and the text of the Referendum Act 2008 states that the govt and the Oireachtas may relinquish the relevant Protocol (on the Area of Justice and Freedom) that gives Ireland such an optout.

You say “the EU” wouldn’t want to do this. But that is to misunderstand that the EU is a labyrinth of institutions which sometimes have their own respective agendas. The ECJ has constantly shown itself to have an expansive interpretation of the scope of EU competences. The Charter of Fundamental Rights is written in very general-terms, and as we know from bitter experience in this country, that leads to anomalous rulings down the road that require referenda to resolve. Except this time, we won’t even have that option, because as something enshrined into EU law by Lisbon, the Charter cannot be changed without unanimous agreement among all member states and then ratification in all member states. We are just locking ourselves into something that may prove undesirable in years to come.


8. Paddy Matthews - May 30, 2009

Tomorrow night’s Irish Times poll is rumoured to show Libertas not only in with a shot in NW, but in East. Evidently its tactics are proving effective. The negative attacks are forcing Harkin and the others to explain their records on issues like abortion and taxation, and when you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Given that:

a) The famous opinion poll is out tonight, showing El Maximum Líder Ganley still stuck on 9% up here in Ireland North West,
b) Harkin is up 1 point to 20% in the same poll,
c) O’Malley is actually sinking without trace in Ireland East, and
d) Caroline Simons is tonight’s Libertas success story having doubled her vote from, eh, 1% to 2% in Dublin,

would there be any chance that you’d toddle off back to your 25,000-odd posts on Crackpot Central aka politics.ie, where you’d be much more at home?

Don’t let the door hit your arse on your way out.


9. FutureTaoiseach - May 30, 2009

My source was Kerrynorth who is usually correct. Sorry about those predictions.


10. WorldbyStorm - May 30, 2009


As regards the EU, ECJ, etc, the essential problem is that you argue from a position where not merely could the worst happen contingent on significant number of other things happening, but that it will almost inevitably happen.

And the essential weakness of that argument is that it depends on massive bad faith and indifference amongst all players and apathy on the part of the Irish people. Or to put it another way, count up the number of ‘mays’ in your paragraph above.

The influx of labour is significantly different to abortion. That was an event brought about by a very specific development in the EU at a particular historic time. What ever the merits or not (and I think it has broadly been a positive experience which has incurred remarkably few problems) that is entirely different to social policy on abortion which, again whatever its merits or not, is something that is a long standing aspect of the sociopolitical ethos of this state.

But more to the point it is an area which this state and its EU partners have specific agreements. You can say that 40.3.3 doesn’t refer to abortion, but so what? The agreement is that:

‘Nothing in the Treaty on European Union, or in the Treaties establishing the European Communities, or in the Treaties or Acts modifying or supplementing those Treaties, shall affect the application in Ireland of Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution of Ireland.’

I can’t imagine a more explicit guarantee that the EU has no competence in that area. All else is… well… you know what it is. To say it has to spell it out in any clearer detail seems to me to arguably be an intervention in what we as a sovereign state determine 40.3.3. contains.

Re the poll… that’s fair enough, fair dues to you.


11. FutureTaoiseach - May 31, 2009

The Sunday Business Post will purportedly acknowledge a swing to Libertas today, but will not release its regional figures on purported grounds that the sample sizes (around 200) would be too small. A claimed source “journo” on politics.ie (Red C poll thread) claims Ganley is on 16% (+10) in NW in the poll.


12. Arcadius - May 31, 2009

The margin of error on a sample of 200 is 7%.
Assuming the 16% figure is correct, this means Ganley is somewhere between single-digits and just-under-a-quota.

It’s a useful straw in the wind that MRBI’s number for Ganley is probably on the low side, but I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on it (and I’m impressed that the SBP handles polls responsibly, unlike a certain other Sunday newspaper)


13. Meanwhile… back at the Senate! The famed courtesy and legendary quality of debate of the upper house on display yet again… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - May 31, 2009

[…] it’s telling, isn’t it considering this piece on the socially conservative right, to see our most public elected exponent of same in conflict […]


14. WorldbyStorm - May 31, 2009

FT, Arcadius is absolutely correct. The polls are far too small to give a proper read. I have no doubt DG is in or around 9/10/11% most probably. Which is a good result. But there’s no point in trying to posit that he’s waaay above that or indeed waaay below it. “Journo” is no more credible than Kerrynorth was. Rumours and innuendo. We have a mere five days or so to wait until we know. My bet? DG is not quite going to pip the post. But if he slipped in fair enough.


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