Politics

alphatoomega

From Alpha to Omega Podcast #059: Test Those Theories

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This week I am delighted to welcome to the show Jose A Tapia Granados, associate Professor in the Department of History and Politics in Drexel University. Originally trained as a medical doctor, Jose now specialises in the links between fluctuations in the economy and health conditions. He also is interested in purely economic issues, and is the co-author of the book ‘La Gran Recesión y el capitalismo del siglo XXI’ or ‘The Great Recession and capitalism of the XXI century’ in english. The interview is based upon a really fascinating paper of his I read recently called, ‘Does investment call the tune? Empirical evidence and endogenous theories of the business cycle’. In this paper, Jose looks at the different theories of crisis, in particular those of Keynes and Marx, and sees how they stand up when you test them against the historical empirical data. Very interesting stuff indeed.

Here is the podcast’s new YouTube channel, with all the episodes uploaded:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCD63zXEPxFpl9Y0Vh8abp4A

You can find the paper here:
http://sitemaker.umich.edu/tapia_granados/files/does_investment_call_the_tune_may_2012__forthcoming_rpe_.pdf

You can find his book here:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/GRAN-RECESION-CAPITALISMO-DEL-SIGLO/dp/8483196115

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brollyT

When Joe Brolly Met Georg Lukács

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Joe Brolly wrote an interesting article on the commodification of sport in this week’s issue of Gaelic Life. It’s a topic that crops up frequently as a critique of capitalist culture, from the Against Modern Football movement to combat the pricing of working-class fans out of the game, to controversies over the proliferation of performing-enhancing drugs in elite sport, to debates over whether college athletes should unionise in the United States.

Brolly, a former Derry footballer turned RTÉ pundit, explores it in the context of the amateur GAA and specifically men’s gaelic football. His thesis is that the increasing commercialism of the GAA leadership is driving the sport towards professionalism, instilling a will to win that is sapping the love of the game from the players and producing private bodies which are enriching the few at the expense of the many.

What he’s describing is similar to a process philosopher Georg Lukács called “reification”. This is where human relations or properties are transformed into human-produced things, given a value independently of and surpassing people themselves, and eventually coming to govern our lives. This distorts human relations, forcing us to interact with each other in terms of things rather than as people ourselves, producing a commodity fetishism. The pre-eminence of economic relationships over social relationships also causes a generalised condition of alienation, where we feel divorced from the work we do, the parts of life we enjoy, each other and even ourselves.

Interestingly, Brolly’s analysis reminds us that these processes do not happen in isolation or simply as economics. They are effected by the latent culture. So, in the GAA, commodification is buttressed by existing ideology like the “doctrine of club and county” and “strong community expectation” which produce a “loyalty” to the organisation and make deviating from its line difficult.

Ideology plays an important part in the GAA, which as well as being one of the largest amateur sporting organisations in the world has also, as an institution, often been on the side of conservative forces in Irish politics. In certain respects sport has a similar social function to religion, bonding communities, giving them rituals to share and establishing a sense of tradition – even if anyone who has attended Catholic mass would tell you sport’s entertainment value is a good deal higher. But any organisation of that kind that lasts under capitalism will have the GAA’s contradictions – partly playing a role in reproducing the system, partly providing ordinary people relief from its hardships.

And so on the one hand you have an organisation of over a million members, operating on a communitarian ethos, rooted in local communities, with a genuine sense of ownership for the grassroots, and at the same time its assets are over €2.5billion, many fans are priced out of its biggest games, its former leader sits in the European Parliament with Fine Gael and its most notable moment in 2014 was when it tried to force through a series of multi-million dollar concerts against the wishes of a working-class urban community.

Brolly’s description of the merits of the GAA, an organisation that teaches us “the joys of community and the great satisfaction that comes from collaboration and hard work”, echoes what Liverpool greats said about their sport in the past.Bill Shankly said that football was about “everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards”. John Barnes said that “for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end.” Both compared this ethic explicitly to socialism.

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ula

Time for the Left to Act Together

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Popular desire for political change has become a feature of the current campaign against the water charge. This charge is the last straw in a litany of bank-bailout  impositions; and many want an entirely different set of socio-political priorities. Recent months have also shown the power of the mass movement to bring change. The movement now needs to drive home the advantage by making the charge unworkable through mass non-payment and continued mobilization. But this in itself is not enough to create the radical political alternative that would implement the significant change that many in the campaign, and across society, desire.

Such change would require a new left party – committed to a socialist alternative. The imperative for socialism has never been greater given the disastrous impact of the financial crash on working people and impending environmental meltdown due to the failure of the market system to curb fossil fuelled growth.

Is a new left party on the political horizon at present? Clearly not. The closest recent approximation to the start of such a party was the United Left Alliance. While we acknowledge its failure, we think there are some lessons from the ULA experience that can help us today.

At the time when ULA TDs were elected there was little mass challenge to the government: dissatisfaction was expressed through the election and there was no mass movement behind the new political formation. So there was no big growth in the ULA.

But other factors also influenced the difficulties in the ULA. There was insufficient trust between the leaderships of the two main political groups; there was unease at working together in a common organization, while having differences. There was also a failure to prioritise the ULA and build it as a functioning organisation.

But the political conditions for such a formation have changed for the better: there now exists a powerful mass movement against the water charge and other austerity measures – albeit quite fragmented. It has created the conditions for a political alternative to the Troika parties and to Sinn Fein, which is prepared to go into coalition with the Troika parties – with the inevitable political accommodations that preserve inequality such as we have seen Labour and the Greens implement.

Based on the experience of the ULA, we think that any new left formation cannot be based solely on an amalgamation of the current small parties but would have to draw in activists who have mobilised in recent months and who want real change. Relations between these parties are not great at present: witness the electoral competition in the European elections and Dublin South West. But a commitment to develop common work against the water charges and a common electoral project involving many new activists could generate positive working relations and create the momentum and trust required for the construction of a new, anti-austerity political formation after the election.

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paristhumb

Discussing Charlie Hebdo

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It is possible to mourn human loss without embracing everything those humans did.

It is possible to mourn human loss while being openly disturbed that certain deaths are never mourned, and the reasons for that.

It should be possible to discuss the political consequences of an act without having to dissociate that discussion from the politics of the act itself.

It is possible to speculate as to motivation, causality, experience, relations and histories without condoning, or being accused of condoning, an act.

It is possible to defend a right and also to enact it in criticizing the way in which that right is enacted, and reductively understood.

It is possible to oppose an assault on free speech, while also insisting on the hypocrisies, inequalities and elisions that undermine the idea that free speech is a cornerstone of ‘the West’.

It is possible to value politically the freedoms you have without understanding them as deriving from exclusively Western ideals, or as evidence of civilizational superiority.

It is possible to understand the political value of ‘the right to offend’, while opposing the political deadness of the contemporary duty to offend.

It is possible to defend a universal right to free expression, while noting the strange contemporary relativism that has little interest in the content, context and consequences of what is expressed.

It is possible to recognize the intentionality of an expression without accepting that this defines its meaning or significance.

It is possible to insist on the importance of context without assuming that there is but one context.

It should be possible to recognize the importance of context without writing dissenting voices and evident antagonisms out of that context.

It is possible to oppose oppressive institutional and political uses of religion while not contributing to the ways in which presumptive religious identities are racialized.

It is possible to be critical of positions derived from faith while not succumbing to the kind of identity politics that depends on treating faith as a failure of the mind.

It is possible to grasp that the lack of secularism, in one context, underpins oppression, and that a surplus of secularism, in another, extends it.

It is possible to approach racism as a political effect and not as an individual moral failing.

It is possible to critique racism without the reductive certainty of categorising racists and antiracists.

It is possible to understand that political actors can act against particular forms of racism while simultaneously extending others.

It is possible to affirm that ‘Islam is not a race’, while still contributing to anti-Muslim racism.

It is possible to hold onto the diversity of Muslim populations while recognizing the ways they are collectively racialized as Muslims.

It is possible to grasp that effects matter more than intentions, and thus that what is presented as antiracist may be received as having racializing consequences.

It is possible to wear your values on your sleeve, if you wish, and still reject monocausal explanations.

It is possible to advance a grinding form of communitarianism while criticizing the appeal to community.

It is possible to insist on the living legacies of colonialism and the hierarchies of the racist state, while recognizing that this does not determine the political agency of  ‘extremists’.

It is possible to oppose both antisemitism and anti-Muslim racism, and not to present them relationally as a zero-sum game.

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laugh

From Alpha to Omega Podcast: #058 Radical Laughs

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This week I am delighted to welcome Sean Michael Wilson to the show. Sean Michael Wilson is Scottish comic book writer, who now lives and works in Japan. In the last couple of years, Sean Michael has released a couple of explicitly political graphic novels:

‘Parecomic: The Story of Michael Albert and Participatory Economics’

‘Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protests Among the English Speaking Peoples’

He has also recently wrote a post for the Forbidden Planet Blog on how an anarchy-based economic system would benefit the creation of comics, and all art in general. We discuss the creative process of the comic-book writer, the emergence of the adult comic-book genre, the Walking Dead and it’s Hobbesian view of the world, why Hollywood does not do anarchy, progressive politics in comics, socialism and the world of art, and the need for revolutionary jokes.

You may also be interested in a promising new podcast that has just been launched by Amogh Sadu and C. Derrick Varn called ‘Symptomatic Redness’. It features a really good interview Amogh did with me earlier in the autumn, where I give my opinions on all things economic and political, and slander all my previous guests. You can listen to the interview here.

Here is where you can get your hands on Sean Michael’s Work:

Here is Sean Michael’s blog:

You can find Sean Michael’s Forbidden Planet blog post here.

The music on this show was:

‘The Order of the Pharaonic Jesters’ by Sun Ra and his Arkestra
‘Turning Japanese’ by the Vapors
‘wrapping the green flag around’ by The Dubliners
‘Such A Waste Of Mind’ by Faron Young
‘Bring Me Sunshine’ by Morecambe and Wise

You can find the Sligo Anarchist here.

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gram_letter

Antonio Gramsci: A New Year’s Letter

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This translation originally appeared on William Wall’s website on the 17th of December.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was one of the great political philosophers of the 20th century. Founder of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), he was imprisoned by Mussolini in 1926 despite his parliamentary immunity. He would spend the rest of his life in prison. He is most famous for his philosophical and cultural writings collected in various volumes as ‘prison notebooks’, often written on scrap paper, in a sort of code, and smuggled out to friends, in particular Palmiro Togliatti who would succeed him as head of the PCI. But he was also a father and family man, and many of his letters to his wife, his sister-in-law and his children still exist. Tender, amusing, nostalgic, loving and paternal, they show a different side to the great thinker. This letter, to Tania Schucht, his sister-in-law who had charge of his affairs, is a good example. It was probably written on the prison island of Ustica.

The text of this letter comes from Fiabe, Antonio Gramsci (Edizioni Clichy, Firenze). I am grateful to the editor, Tommaso Gurrieri for his approval of this translation. The translation is Creative Commons, as is all my work on this blog. See the note at the end of this page.

Dearest Tania,

And so the new year has begun. It is necessary to make plans for a new life, according to tradition: but even though I have thought a lot about such a plan I have never managed to achieve it. This has always been a great difficulty in my life from my earliest rational years.

In those days the elementary schools would assign, at this time of year, as a theme for composition, the question: ‘What will you do with your life?’

A difficult question, which I resolved for the first time, at eight years of age, fixing my sights on the profession of carter. I found that the carter unites all of the characteristics of usefulness and delight: he flicks the reins and guides the horses, but, at the same time, he performs a work that ennobles the man and earns him his daily bread.

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3t

Working Hard to Maintain the Status Quo

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In an article in last Saturday’s Irish Times entitled ‘The water charges fiasco: a lesson in how not to do things’, Kathy Sheridan describes the saga as “an accessible, textbook study of how an unaccountable Government and Civil Service can unite to patronise and insult us.”  Drawing on the views of Eddie Molly, she goes on to identify a number of reasons for public anger at the charges: rushed legislation, perceived cronyism in terms of board and management appointments, and, under a deal with the trade unions, the guaranteeing of workers’ jobs at Irish Water. I have to confess that at last week’s mass demonstration against the charges I did not see a single banner bemoaning the fact that workers were being allowed keep their jobs, but it was a very big turnout so maybe I missed one.  

However, many banners highlighted other issues concerning Irish Water, including the regressive nature of the charges and the fear that a public asset might be privatised.  The vast majority of people on the march were not attacking a claimed bogeyman nexus of civil servants and trade unions.  Many were, however, attacking a perceived cosy relationship between decision-makers and corporate interests, specifically those of Denis O’Brien.  The story of how an O’Brien-owned company won contracts to install water meters despite not being registered as a company at the time, and had a large chunk of debts owed to the former Anglo Irish Bank (i.e., the public) written off, need not be rehearsed again here, but it was common currency on both posters and in speeches at the demonstration. Kathy Sheridan’s elision of corporate power’s baleful influence over governmental decision making serves a reactionary agenda that places Ireland’s governance problems at the door of public sector workers and trade unions.

On the day of the water demonstration itself, Sheridan was scathing about the fact that the protestors had, she claimed, “hijacked” World Human Rights Day and foregrounded such relatively petty concerns above more pressing rights violations such as those endured by the people of Gaza.  Well, maybe there is something in that, though I saw lots of people at the water demonstration who I also see regularly at small Gaza protests (where I am pretty sure I have never spotted Kathy Sheridan). Let us take one example of what is a very urgent human rights concern in Ireland right now – the scandal of Direct Provision for asylum seekers.

Sheridan interviewed the Minister responsible for Direct Provision in November in an article entitled ‘Minister with a mission to deliver’ and in which Frances Fitzgerald is described as “[p]ractical, tireless, sharp and fast-moving”.  It was the sort of article that makes one wonder why the Minister bothers with a PR officer when she has the services of Ms Sheridan available to her.  In fairness, Minister Fitzgerald is quoted sympathetically as saying that “I think it’s quite tough on families”, but she is referring to the problems faced by the families of politicians, not asylum-seeking families forced to live for years in inadequate and  often abusive conditions.

Am I being unfair in singling out Kathy Sheridan?  Perhaps, but she exemplifies many of the traits of Ireland’s mainstream journalists.  She professes horror at the state of governance in Ireland but ignores the corporate constituencies that have been at the heart of bad government and the current economic crisis.  She laments the lack of protest in Ireland and then maligns and distorts the views of those who have the courage to come out on the streets. She claims to be concerned for human rights but, given the opportunity to ask a minister challenging questions about human rights abuses, she opts instead for servile flattery. The status quo is safe in such hands.

 

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LL3

LookLeft 20 is Out Now in Easons and Country Wide

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LookLeft 20 is in Easons stores and hundreds of selected newsagents across the country now. Still only €2 the highlights of this issue include:

Boiling Point – Dara McHugh takes a look inside the working class revolt over water charges from Donegal to Cork.

This ain’t no fairy tale - Justin O’Hagan takes on the myths and realities of the Northern economy.

Not afraid of the fight - Brendan Ogle has been to the forefront of organising the water charge resistance. Paul Dillon discusses the campaign with him.

No debtor solidarity - Éilis Ryan looks at Ireland’s shameful lack of solidarity with other debt-ridden nations.

Citizen Baby - Michael Taft outlines the need for a greater State role in supporting families, while Éilis Ryan and Gyunghee Park assess the damage done by bad policies.

Forum - Opinion from across the Left, trade unions and the feminist movement.

After the referendum – David Jamieson and Tom Morrison debate the Left’s next steps in Scotland.

The republican congress – Brian Hanley looks back at one of Ireland’s most iconic Left organisations.

Cycling ac ross the border – Jimmy Dignam takes a spin through the famous Rás Tailteann and republican cycling.

Women to blame - Therese Caherty looks at Ireland’s feminist struggles, past and present.

And much, much more…

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_t

The Time for Left Unity is NOW!

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The latest Ipsos MRBI poll shows that ‘Independents and Others’ are currently on 32% therein making them the most popular group amongst the electorate. If these poll figures were to be replicated in a general election tomorrow this would equate to around 52 seats – by all accounts a massive number. To put this number in perspective, in the 23 general elections that have taken place in the state since 1937 Fine Gael have only managed to exceed this figure on 7 occasions. This is pretty remarkable considering the complete duopoly they have shared – alongside Fianna Fail – on our political system.

Now it goes without saying that the ‘Independents and Others’ grouping is a broad brushstroke comprised of People Before Profit, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, former Workers Party members, ex Labour party members, the Fine Gael rejects and a range of other independents from across the political spectrum. And the conflicting political positions of this 52 mean that it would obviously never act as a coherent political unit. In fact some are even rumoured to be considering starting a party of their own, likely a centre right entity reminiscent of the Progressive Democrats – so in other words, nothing we haven’t had before.

However, in saying that, many of this 52 if not elected on a left platform could at the very least be considered anti-austerity anti-establishment candidates. These individuals should certainly look to coordinate as much as possible but where the small left wing parties are concerned this should go beyond mere coordination toward something more concrete. We saw that the transfer pacts used during the local elections in May bore fruit, but the question is why stop there?

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shitting_itT

Guaranteeing Recidivism

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This article originally appeared in Irish Left Review, Issue 2, Vol 1., published in November 2013. 

Recidivism (from recidive and ism, from Latin recidivus “recurring”, from re- “back” and cado “I fall”) is the act of a person repeating an undesirable behaviour after he/she has either experienced negative consequences of that behavior, or has been treated or trained to extinguish that behavior.

In June 2013, the ongoing rumblings of discontent at the blanket guarantee decision exploded on to the front pages with the publishing of the ‘Anglo Tapes’ recordings by the Irish Independent. After three bank inquires of a sort, through the Nyberg Report, the Honohan Report and the Public Accounts Committee Inquiry, the remaining fog around the events leading up to the guarantee and what happened on the night and early morning of 29th and 30th of September 2008 was such that it only took the selective leaking of a fraction of the tapes held by the ongoing criminal investigation to stoke up public rage and renew calls for a proper inquiry or tribunal[i].

This continuing fog and the far reaching consequence of the decision have led many to reach all sorts of conclusions about who ultimately was responsible. In 2013 commentators like Fintan O’Toole[ii] and Stephen Donnelly TD appear to think that the protection of Irish banks provided by the 2008 guarantee was so devastating for the Irish economy that it must have been insisted upon by the ECB.

More often than not, however, this regularly repeated belief is a conflation of the 2008 guarantee with what Brian Lenihan, and later Michael Noonan, suggested was the insistence of the ECB that unguaranteed senior debt must be paid back after the 2010 bailout.

There is no indication of ECB involvement in the 2008 decision despite Brian Lenihan’s retrospective claim in 2010 that it was impelled by Jean Claude Trichet’s voicemail directive in 2008 to ‘save our banks at all cost’[iii]. On the contrary there is plenty of evidence that there was widespread surprise and anger in Europe at the ‘unilateral’ move and the problems it created, as well as pressure to change it.

It is important to understand that the original guarantee was an Irish decision alone, without any outside involvement, because it helps us dissect the nature of power and class in Ireland. The facts need to be separated from the myths in order to appreciate how decisions like it continue to determine the shape of the economy and the nature of Irish society.

The action in September 2008 is an illustration too of how a type of ‘rentier’ class in Ireland are able to exploit Ireland’s resources without consideration of the consequences for wider society. These rentier capitalists benefit from the managing of assets, whether through financial services, the movement of corporate profits tax-free or investment property. Their interests are boosted by the state leading to the side-lining of productive capital and the continually undermining of labour’s position[iv].

The guarantee was not put in place simply to maintain liquidity to Irish banks. Officials and politicians knew enough to be aware that the problems at Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide were far greater than one of a temporary lack of liquidity due to a crisis elsewhere. Funds from the Central Bank of Ireland had been provided to Irish banks through unprecedented quantities of Emergency Liquidity Assistance. Banks in other countries were experiencing similar problems and received extraordinary quantities of emergency funding from their central bank during the crisis in September. Yet, significantly, no other EU country provided an unlimited guarantee.

In Ireland’s case the problem was twofold. One, to keep cheap interbank lending available to Irish banks, they needed a guarantee that would remove the sense that Irish banks were increasingly high risk because of their over-exposure to collapsing property markets.

Two, in order to keep the level of emergency liquidity available to ensure that Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide remained open they needed a guarantee that would make an insolvent bank ‘solvent’. The dangers of this approach were clearly outlined before the decision was taken, yet we are still asking ‘why did they do it?’

To try and answer that question we have to go back to the last time the Irish government provided an unlimited guarantee to the banks to enable them extract themselves from a speculative fiasco even though there was incredible risks to the wider economy by doing so.

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crisis_dt

The Crisis of Irish Democracy

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The current crisis of Irish democracy is not the one currently being given space in the nation’s mainstream media outlets. Ungovernability is supposedly just around the corner according to some. A “sinister fringe” is engaging in acts of violence. “Marxist-Leninists” are standing in the way of the government and its wishes. Michael Noonan is on record as saying that he and his government “govern for the reasonable people,” and not the sinister fringe of ungovernable Marxist-Leninists in our midst. Reading this, one would imagine that the Red Army of old is engaging in ideological, and very physical, warfare on Ireland. Of course this is sheer nonsense, but the ghost of the “Dreaded Red” is well risen from its grave, courtesy of the necromancers currently inhabiting Dáil Éireann. Such propaganda is a reaction to the citizens of Ireland having had enough of years of austerity measures.

They have taken to the streets, engaged in peaceful protest, and civil disobedience, in order to show their contempt for their treatment by the government. Compared to other European countries over the last few years, Ireland has been relatively quiet on the protest front. The planned introduction of water charges has changed all that. And now, the government and the Irish media, are panicking. A citizenry of a Western and ostensibly democratic state is not supposed to be actively engaged in the democratic process. To do so is to cause a “crisis of democracy”. This is nothing remotely new. During the 1960s and 1970s, people on both sides of the Atlantic demanded equal rights, an end to war, and generally demanded social change from their leaders whom they considered to have failed in their duty to create an equal society in the post-war years. To that end, they engaged in massive demonstrations and civil disobedience in order to achieve their aims. Such activity on the part of the wider citizenry frightened the leaders of the Western world, so much so that it became the basis of a report by the Trilateral Commission.

Published in 1975, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, examined in some detail the causes and effects of the active citizenry that emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s in Europe, the United States, and Japan. Written by three leading academics for the NGO, it is premised on the idea that a previously apathetic citizenry became more active and therefore undermined the credibility and functioning of democracy. Although the introduction states that the report is “designed to make democracy stronger”, the definition of democracy being worked off is a top-down approach to governance in which the population is preferably apathetic, passive, and stratified. All three authors wondered how to make democracy not more democratic or effective in the popular understanding of the term, but how to enable a return to the previous state of affairs of an apathetic, passive, and stratified citizenry.

A “crisis of democracy” was “a breakdown of traditional means of social control, a delegitimation of political and other forms of authority, and an overload of demands on government, exceeding its capacity to respond.” An “increase of social interaction” resulted in the breakdown of the means of “traditional social control imposed upon the individual by collective authorities, especially the state, and by hierarchical religious institutions.” In turn, this meant that citizens “resist any kind of social control that is associated with the hierarchical values they have learned to discard and reject.” Individuality was seen to have usurped traditional civic values and stratification, and therefore people were more free than ever to choose their jobs, friends, partners, and general future, as they saw fit. At the very least, the wider population had decided that they could make those decisions for themselves without government interference.

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joan

A Brief History of Those Who Made Their Point Politely And Then Went Home

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this poem is rededicated to the protesters in Jobstown, Sligo and elsewhere

On this day of tear-gas in Seoul
and windows broken at Dickins & Jones,
I can’t help wondering why a history
of those, who made their point politely
and then went home, has never been written.

Those who, in the heat of the moment,
never dislodged a policeman’s helmet,
never blocked the traffic or held the country to ransom.
Someone should ask them: “Was it all worth it?”

All those proud men and women, who never
had the National Guard sent in against them;
who left everything exactly as they found it,
without adding as much as a scratch to the paintwork;
who no-one bothered asking: “Are you or have you ever been?”,
because we all knew damn well they never ever were.

KEVIN HIGGINS

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ob_so_uls_go_marchT

1916, the poppy and Ulster Unionism: A More Rounded Memory in the Decade of Centenaries

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Whether you agree with wearing a poppy or not, all Irish people who fought between 1914 and 1918 deserve to be remembered. Since the 1990s and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, the Irish nationalists who went to fight for the British army in the Great War have re-entered the public’s historical consciousness. However, we are still slow to recognise the role that Ulster unionists played in the war.

The 1916 Easter Rising is a central event in modern Irish history, and is particularly significant in the development of Irish nationalism. Equally, the massive losses suffered by the 36th (Ulster) Division at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 were a formative event in the development of Ulster unionism. 1916 is a crucial year in history for both communities on the island of Ireland. Loyalties were consolidated and identities were crystallised in the GPO in Dublin and in the trenches at the Somme. While considerable differences existed between the two communities before 1916, the events of that year polarised them. Both nationalists and unionists would look back on the events of 1916 as moments of great sacrifice which were endured to assert the rights of their respective communities.

As Professor Keith Jeffery has convincingly argued, the First World War was the single most significant event of the Irish experience of the twentieth century. 210,000 catholic and protestant men from the island of Ireland enlisted in the British Army, 50,000 of whom were killed. Despite this, there persisted what historian F.X. Martin referred to as a ‘collective amnesia’ regarding these events in the Republic. Historical research, public discourse and political commemoration focused on the military events which happened at home during this time. The 1916 Easter Rising was regarded as more important than the experiences of Irishmen who fought in the British army on the continent between 1914 and 1918. About 2,000 rebels took part in the insurrection against British rule, while up to 105,000 Irish nationalists were fighting for Britain on the continent.

In the more inclusive atmosphere of the 1990s, fostered by the Peace Process, historians began to examine the role Irishmen played during the First World War. One fascinating aspect of the war was what it meant to the different confessional communities on the island. Nationalists were encouraged to enlist so that Home Rule would be implemented upon their return, while unionists joined up to prevent the implementation of Home Rule. There was also a new found appreciation of the difficulties faced by Irish nationalists returning home to a country where an armed rebellion against the British had taken place while they had been in Europe fighting for the King. This more inclusive analysis of the 1914-1918 period has deepened our understanding of the complexities of life and loyalties in Ireland at that time.

However, in the Republic, there is still a gap in the public understanding of the events of the period. The Ulster unionist experience of the Great War needs to be further explored and this is particularly pertinent as we approach the 100th anniversary of 1916. Less than three months after the Rising in Dublin, 5,500 men of the 36th (Ulster) Division were either killed, wounded or declared missing in the first two days of fighting at the Battle of the Somme. The 36th was drawn from the Ulster Volunteer Force, established in 1912 to prevent the imposition of Home Rule in Ireland. The wartime contribution and sacrifices made by Ulster unionists left an indelible mark upon the psyche of that community. Murals of the Somme can still be seen on Belfast gables and the battle is commemorated every year. If we are to fully grasp the dynamics and complexities of this period, it is essential that the Ulster unionist experience of the war be further explored and remembered.

The first stages of the Peace Process allowed for a reinterpretation of recent Irish history, resulting in a new found appreciation of the role played by Irishmen in British uniform during the First World War. But the role of Ulster unionists, their motivations for enlisting, the sacrifices they made and their commemoration of the war are aspects of the Irish experience are unknown in the south. While the 1990s provided the impetus for the exploration of the forgotten aspects of Ireland’s wartime past, this decade of centenary commemorations is the perfect opportunity to explore the Unionist experiences of the war. With the 100th year anniversary of 1916 approaching, there needs to be a greater awareness of the sacrifices made by those at the Somme. Just as the Rising was a formative event in the history of Irish nationalism, the Somme is equally important in the development of Irish unionism. A more comprehensive historical understanding of the divisive year of 1916 can foster empathy between the two communities on the island. This is critical for the development of the Peace Process.

A better understanding of the formative events in the histories of both nationalist and unionist communities is required if the Peace Process is to continue. 1916 is the fulcrum around which ideas of loyalty and badges of identity have been based. In this decade of commemorations, and as we approach the 100th year anniversary of 1916, a more rounded assessment of this period of Irish history is needed. In order to achieve this, we must – in the words of playwright Frank McGuinness – ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.’

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The Rise of Sinn Fein and the Abuse of the Past

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Speaking at a fundraising event in New York last week, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams remarked that during the War of Independence, Michael Collins had his men enter the offices of the Irish independent, hold the editor at gun point, and dismantled the printing press. This was in response to that papers accusation that Collins and his men were guilty of ‘murder most fowl.’ He went on to say ‘I’m obviously not advocating that.’[1]

Notwithstanding this qualification, Adam’s comments have been criticised by his political opponents and by the media. Such criticism is yet another example of the fear of the rise of Sinn Fein and the desire of the established parties, as well as some sections of the media to vilify the party. Opponents of Sinn Fein point to the party’s violent past in an effort to discredit its current leadership and to scare the public into thinking that Sinn Fein still advocates violent methods.

The Irish state: Born in Violence

On Easter Monday, 1916, a tiny, unrepresentative armed group, comprising of Irish Volunteers who had not gone to fight in the Great War and members of the Irish Citizens Army, affect a military insurrection which primarily took place in Dublin city.  More civilians were killed during Easter week than British soldiers or Irish rebels.

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