Beware social liberalism allied to economic conservatism

Brendan Ogle UniteIn a TV debate with Joan Burton recently, the former leader of the Irish Labour Party made a point that is of interest in terms of how politics is conducted in Ireland, and elsewhere, today. The debate was about the direction of Irish politics and where a real alternative to address inequality and deprivation might emerge from. But that is for another day. For now, what interests me about this particular debate is something Ms. Burton said towards the end of it.

I had set out some of the issues that I think need to be addressed to build an alternative.  I had also set out my view of the way in which Fine Gael and Fianna Fail governments, throughout our history as an independent state, have looked after the few at the expense of the many. While agreeing on the importance of the issues I set out, Ms. Burton bemoaned the fact that I thought the Labour Party could not deliver this alternative. In fact she, quite legitimately, listed a range of social reforms that the Labour Party have supported going back decades. She spoke about divorce, contraception, the equality referendum and even Repeal, and held them up as issues that the Labour Party have gotten behind as evidence of that party’s worth and usefulness. It would be churlish to debate the extent to which this one party played a role in these changes. That would be a largely subjective analysis anyway. Whatever about that, I readily acknowledge that these issues hold within them evidence of real progress on what I call ‘social’ issues. Changes in these areas, and public support for those changes, is social liberalism in action.

Just how significant progress on these issues is was demonstrated to me at a recent event in Ballymun in which I participated. This was a ‘cross community’ event with representatives of communities in Dublin and of Northern Ireland’s unionist community. It was striking to note how the new right to gay marriage here, and even having a referendum on repeal of the 8th Amendment, is very far ahead of any similar legislative or constitutional changes in the North around LBGTQ rights, abortion rights and a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Yes, despite decades of often repressive and even abusive social conservatism here, we are indeed moving forward and seeing real progress in some of these areas and potential progress in others. This is positive stuff.

But what about change in our economic direction? It is clear that changes in the area of personal rights like these are absolutely no indicator of fundamental change in how society is structured economically, and in whose interests it is so structured. In that respect, not only are we not making progress, but we are going backwards at considerable speed. While social liberalism has seen slow but steady progress over the last number of decades here, economic conservatism ‘rules ok’!

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Citizens on all sides poorly served in Brexit talks to date

Brendan Ogle UniteI suppose I better write something about Brexit. In fact, in the months to come we are all going to have to focus a lot on Brexit and this blog will return to the issue on many occasions. But I have been somewhat reluctant to write on it to date.

My reluctance does not stem from any lack of interest in the matter, still less from any lack of appreciation of the massive ramifications of current Brexit ‘negotiations’. No. My reluctance here stems from two things. One is the sheer breadth of the issues and conversations that need to not only happen, but to manifest themselves in a whole series of trade agreements, customs arrangements and treaties. And the second is that, in having that discussion, it is necessary to do so in a way which may seem critical of the parties involved for, to date,  the ‘debate’ at a political level has been somewhat surreal.

Let’s begin today by looking at the main positions of the protagonists so far. They appear to be, in no particular order, the European Union, the Government of Britain and Northern Ireland, the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, and the government in the Republic of Ireland. The reality however is that this issue will have lasting and profound effects on the people, the citizens, of Ireland, Britain and the European Union. So how well are those people being served in the process to date?

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Another line crossed in the misuse of media by Government

Brendan Ogle UniteI’m going to say something good about the Irish media here, so note the time and date because it doesn’t happen often.

Insofar as the media has a propensity to become a participant in political affairs here, as opposed to simply reporting and commentating on them, recent developments around the government’s Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) give cause for even more concern than usual. But it also has to be said that the assiduous work in exposing the manipulation of media for political advantage by some journalists warrants acknowledgment and gratitude from those of us who worry constantly about the state of media in Ireland. In particular, the work of Hugh O’Connell in, and of, the Sunday Business Post has been really important for the democratic process in recent weeks. Others such as the Sunday Time’s Justine McCarthy also deserve special mention.

Before looking at the SDU and how your taxes are being used by the Taoiseach and Fine Gael to advance the cause of the Taoiseach and Fine Gael, it is important to look at this issue in a wider context.

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Do we want a real alternative, or just more of the same?

Brendan Ogle UniteThere is a legitimate debate taking place within what might loosely be called ‘the Irish left’ at the moment. It takes place within campaigns, within trade unions, in communities, online, in homes, and anywhere that concerned citizens meet.

The need for this debate is evident to all who take part in it. There is no argument or disagreement that the housing emergency is a policy-created disaster enabling profiteering and greed to feast upon human misery and suffering. There is no argument that, while headline job figures are spun positively, the precarious nature of work and the race to the bottom in terms of pay and conditions have created real and potentially lifelong ‘in work poverty’, and the current labour market is often debilitating to workers and their expectations of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. There is no argument that public services like health and education have not recovered from the years of austerity. There is massive personal debt. Deprivation, particularly among children, is among the highest in Europe. We tax middle and lower income earners, we have average consumption taxes, but we are a tax haven for the richest and the greediest. We have a broken media completely controlled by the neoliberal ideology and refusing to engage in an honest debate on these issues. And yes, like much else, that ideology and its followers will still try to privatise our human right to water, our recent victory being just a temporary success that must be built on if we are not to lose in the end.

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What happens when the ‘watchdog’ is watching the wrong people?

Brendan Ogle UniteDo you remember the infamous ‘Galway Tent’? As a symbol of the sort of gombeenism that pertained as the nation was led to penury, the ‘Galway Tent’ is a good example. Basically, Fianna Fail party fundraisers would hire a marquee at the Galway race festival in Ballybrit and invite their friends to enjoy their ‘hospitality’. Here beer and wine would flow, a canape or two maybe, and brown envelopes packed with wads of cash would be handed to the political worthies as ‘donations’. €150,000 a year is admitted to having been raised in this way. There were even long waiting lists of cash-clad citizens hoping for cancellations so that they might get in, get to dine at the ‘top’ table, and also hand over an envelope full of ‘green’. Of course no favours were ever asked for, or offered, in exchange for this largesse. That would be corruption. In Ireland? Of course not!

It was stopped in 2008 amid widespread public concern. And Ireland got cleaned up. Didn’t it?

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Let us take our collective heads out of the sand and just trust women

Brendan Ogle UniteIn 2015 in Croke Park the Unite Ireland Policy Conference debated the issue of Repeal of the 8th amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann. I was a proud Unite member that day, not only because of the outcome of the debate, but because we had it. As an observer it was a difficult debate to listen to in many ways. Feelings ran high. If you think of the most extreme views you can imagine on the issue, on both sides, or that you might see on social media or hear on your doorstep from canvassers, rest assured that they were expressed in Croke Park at that conference too.

The outcome was that Unite supports Repeal of the 8th Amendment, and will campaign for that in the upcoming referendum. We will do so as a founding member of the Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment, as a member of the Coalition for Repeal, and also in our own right as a Union. Of course, that does not mean that every member of Unite supports that position, and people will of course vote freely in the referendum in accordance with their own views, but it does mean that the Union has a decided position following a decision of our elected delegates at the appropriate Conference.

The necessary debate that we will have as a nation in the coming months promises to be difficult, and there is little enough sign that it will be conducted in an appropriate manner, but to me the matter has crystalised around a number of points.

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Trade Union rights and the need for change

Brendan Ogle UniteIf, as I wrote last week, there is a reason why ‘Neo-Liberals have anti-trade union positions’, this should not be interpreted as applying to employers only. On the contrary, many employers realise that collective bargaining with their employees through representative trade unions is not only a rational way for employees to look after their interests, but that it can also aid progressive employers to create a mutually beneficial working environment. In Ireland the search for anti-trade-union, anti-worker bias shouldn’t start with neoliberal employers. That’s the second place to look.

The first place is with our government(s).

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