Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brains to burn

"I semi-jokingly asked how badly she wanted this favour... I asked her how good she was with her hands... she responded positively... I said I could ease through a decision if she showed me how good."

Brian Crowe (aka, guyfromlisburn)
Transcript of discussion from UKCB internet chatroom
Belfast Telegraph
March 24th 2011

I wondered where the Northern Ireland-based Burke's Corner blog had gone to. As an old teacher of mine used to say, it's the quiet ones you have to watch out for. And all this from a man who had gained the nickname 'brains'.

Behold, the master race!

I originally thought that this was some sort of Chris Morris-style spoof. It is, however, genuine footage from a piece broadcast on Press TV about the English Defence League. A fascinating insight into the mind of a fascist:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The revolution continued

"The problem has a name: Gaddafi. He must go."
José Manuel Barroso
March 11th 2011

The drawing of parallels between the Spanish Civil War and present day political developments in various parts of the world is a habit that many of us on the left just cannot seem to shake off. Sometimes though it is simply unavoidable. I found myself doing it again last Monday as I sat in the departures area of Cardiff Airport reading Jason Webster's ¡Guerra!, a book which looked at the scars left by the civil war of the thirties on today's generation of Spaniards. In one of the final chapters there is an account of the desperate attempts by people in the Republican zone in the spring of 1939 to escape Alicante, the last city in the country remaining loyal to the elected government. Amazingly even at such a late stage there was hope among some that the democratic world, or Britain to be specific, would intervene. Webster wrote:

The hope in Alicante was that the British would finally come to their aid and help them fight against the fascists who were threatening the whole of Europe. The British, on whom everyone's hopes had rested through all these years of war. But the British didn't want trouble, and they didn't want war.

Unfortunately no cavalry came over the hill at the last moment. You know the rest of the story.

Thanks to UN Security Council Resolution 1973 the city of Benghazi in 2011 will not be subjected to the same treatment as Alicante had to endure from the fascist forces of General Franco in 1939. There is of course still some way to go. I do have some concerns when I hear leaders like Cameron claim that this has nothing to do with regime change but instead being about the protection of Libyan citizens (as if a situation could even possibly exist whereby the safety of citizens could be guaranteed under Gaddafi). Nevertheless, at least something is being done and the promised merciless slaughter in Benghazi which Gaddafi was telling us about last week has been averted.

Had the usual minority of anti-intervention leftists had their way it is likely that things would have been very different. The most common position adopted by groups like the Socialist Workers Party has been one of supporting the revolution in Libya but opposing western intervention (outlined here). That sounds fine in theory I suppose yet the fact remains that this time last week the Libyan armed forces had pushed the anti-Gaddafi militias back to the point where they were under siege and on the verge of being annihilated.

I have no more love for Mr Cameron and Monsieur Sarkozy than Richard Boyd Barrett has, however if toppling a 41 year old totalitarian dictatorship and establishing a new democracy in Africa means standing with them on this issue then I am more than willing to do so. Now ask yourself what the alternative outlined in the pages of Socialist Worker and the Morning Star would deliver. The answer? Passive support for a revolution that ultimately failed and was ruthlessly put down. Or in other words, another glorious defeat. You might think different but personally I think left-wingers and progressives have suffered enough of those over the years.

Had the gutless Daladier and Chamberlain managed to drag up the courage to (belatedly) intervene in the early months of 1939 it is unlikely that those living in Spain's Republican zone would have come out in opposition at such a move. It is no surprise then that, despite whatever dirty dealings the Americans and the French and the British have engaged in down the years, the people of Benghazi and the areas controlled by the revolutionaries celebrated in the streets when the UN Security Council Resolution was passed last Friday night. These people are not counter-revolutionaries. They are not dupes of imperialism. They are men and women engaged in a struggle to liberate their country from one of the most oppressive regimes on the planet and they realise that to achieve their goals they will have to build alliances with some who may not exactly be their ideological bedfellows. That, comrades, is genuine practical internationalism and it is infinitely more revolutionary than the isolationist policy advocated by those socialists who declare their support for the revolution but who promote a strategy that would in due course kill it.

What happens next is the big question hanging over this whole affair. There has been much talk of mission creep and the possibility of ground troops being introduced. I find that scenario hard to envisage, but then again very few would have imagined that what we are witnessing right now could actually take place. Perhaps, alongside the current coalition support from the air, a Libyan equivalent of Peter Tatchell's 'Arm the Kurds, Topple Saddam' slogan could be made policy. Putting arms in the hands of the anti-Gaddafi resistance would certainly be much more preferable to the all too common western practice of selling sophisticated deadly weaponry to all manner of dictatorships. But whatever happens from here on in it is crucial that the democratic world does not shirk from its responsibilities to the struggle taking place.

Solidarity with the resistance. Death to fascism.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Here comes the science bit

I bring you good news. Well, sort of. I actually bring you a report from the BBC's science and technology reporter Jason Palmer that claims religion "is set for extinction" in nine countries. The nations concerned? Canada, the Czech Republic, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand, Finland, the Netherlands, Austria and... Ireland. I can't say I'm overly convinced by the findings of the Northwestern University in Illinois and the University of Arizona but we can always hope. Or pray.

The world turned upside down

2011 has been quite a year so far. First we witness revolution across the Arab world. Then Ireland beat England at cricket. And now this:

You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology... Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.

I wonder if George has also had a change of heart about the Liberal Democrats? I do hope so.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Return of the Irps

In an intriguing development that I've only stumbled across now I see that the Irish Republican Socialist Party is planning to contest the local elections here in May. While it is news that is unlikely to have Sinn Fein shaking in their shoes, it will be fascinating to see how both the IRSP and éirígí, two left-of-centre republican groups, will perform in the coming council elections.

I'd be extremely surprised if one of the parties won a seat, however I would be less shocked to see either one or both of the groupings put up a decent showing at the polls. I know a few people who vote Sinn Fein yet at the same time like to express a certain level of dissatisfaction with the way things have developed for the party in recent years. Perhaps one of these groups may be a sufficient outlet for such individuals to channel their frustration when they get to the polling booth. I would also be interested to find out the last time anyone stood on an IRSP ticket in an election anywhere in either Northern Ireland or the Republic. They certainly didn't contest any elections in the last decade and I cannot recall anything in the nineties. I imagine you have to go some way back to find the name of whoever it was last stood under the Irp label.

I can't say I've ever been a fan of the Irish Republican Socialist Party or its odd brand of politics. For me there is little in the works of Marx or Connolly that sits all that well with sectarian atrocities like the Darkley massacre. Nevertheless we are in a completely different era today and we should at least be critical of the party on the basis of what politics and ideas it brings to the peacetime table. Whether voters in two months time will be able to take a similar attitude and look beyond the group being the political wing of the INLA remains to be seen.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Themselves alone

"You had something that was working and now its not" - that's how Kevin Myers summed up the tragic sectarianisation of the Saint Patrick's Day parade in Downpatrick on today's edition of Talkback on Radio Ulster. Whatever your view of Myers when it comes to other matters it is hard to fault him on this one. Downpatrick has for many years now been an example for how we can have a successful event in Northern Ireland which genuinely unites everyone and one of the ways in which this success was secured was the exclusion of flags which were considered contentious (in short, no Union Jacks or tricolours).

Congratulations then must go to Sinn Fein councillor Eamon McConvey for finding a way to bugger it all up. He insisted marching with the Irish tricolour this year as, in his opinion, the Saint Patrick's Cross which was being distributed by the local council was a symbol of the Protestant ascendancy. The Saint Patrick's Flag certainly has a strange history (it has been used by everyone from Eoin O'Duffy's Fine Gael forerunners in the Blueshirts to the Police Service of Northern Ireland) however it has rarely been looked upon as a particularly contentious symbol. If anything I would imagine most people in Northern Ireland, if not the island as a whole, would view it with indifference. Apart from Eamon McConvey.

If I could ask the councillor one question it would be this: why now? Why after all these years - 25 to be exact - has the Saint Patrick's Flag suddenly become something to be offended by? Could he not have been offended by it before now? Or has he simply decided to develop his offence eight weeks before an election? The only other time McConvey seems to have got a tad upset was in 2003 when he objected to a Comic Relief campaign operating in the town during the Saint Paddy's Day parade (something which in itself sounds like the synopsis for an episode of Give My Head Peace). Eamonn O'Neill of the SDLP has accused the Shinner of dishonouring the flag by using it as a "taunt." Quite right too, though then again we tend to enjoy using flags as taunts in this part of the world.

If councillor McConvey really does desire the Saint Patrick's festival in his town to be an inclusive day out for everyone then he is clearly going about it the wrong way. On the other hand if he would like to transform it into little more than a Taig version of the Twelfth then he is probably heading down the right route. This is, however, not naivety; this is classic Provo politics. You sometimes wonder how they plan on uniting Ireland when men like Eamon McConvey's only goal appears to be to keep places like Downpatrick partitioned along sectarian lines.

They slaughter thoroughbreds, don't they?

I've always viewed horse racing as something of a semi-sport. In fact, there is a case to be made that it isn't really a sport at all. Were the government to suddenly outlaw gambling it is likely that football and tennis and rugby and snooker and tug of war and just about every other sport under the sun would make it through the ban, yet it is almost impossible to imagine the survival of the 'sport' in which a toff beats the living crap out of a horse in an effort to get it to the finish line before all of the other toffs hammering dumb animals with a whip in the field alongside him.

So, it'll come as no surprise to you at all that I couldn't give a damn about Cheltenham. But even I didn't think when I awoke this morning and switched on the BBC World Service just after 5am that I would be provided with a new reason to hate in the most intense terms possible this pathetic practice for it seems that the recession south of the border has led to some people having to put down/kill/destroy thoroughbred race horses that they can no longer afford.

Last year 4,618 thoroughbreds were slaughtered in the Republic. According to Shane O'Dwyer, a representative from the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, this was the correct thing to do as had the horses not been slaughtered they would have been left "out in the field to be a welfare case" (something which struck me as a sort of horsey version of the infamous statement made by a US Army officer during the Vietnam War that the village of Bến Tre had to be destroyed "in order to save it"). To be honest I can see whereabouts Mr O'Dwyer is coming from, I just happen to also think that sending almost 5,000 horses off to the abattoir should be a last resort. I somehow doubt it was.

Perhaps O'Dwyer and his pals in the ITBA could also issue useful advice for small-time businessmen to stop pretending to be big-time capitalists and stay well away from the horse racing game. It isn't called the 'sport of kings' for nothing. Unfortunately for 4,618 horses such advice has come a wee bit too late.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mae fy hofrenfad yn llawn llyswennod

I'm away off to Cardiff for the weekend to watch Ireland take on Wales in the Six Nations at the Millennium Stadium. While I'm gone I'll leave readers in the capable hands of The Joy Formidable, a three-piece Welsh band that released their debut album The Big Roar back in January. Despite being first released as a single back in 2008, the track featured here, Austere, was repackaged and reissued in the UK just before Christmas. And why not. A fine tune. However you choose to spend it, enjoy your weekend:

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Seventh time as farce

"We must not prop up Fine Gael and offer that party a monopoly of power. Fine Gael and Labour are distinctly different parties. In any other European state, we would lead the opposition. It ought to be no different in Ireland. Allowing a government to form with 114 seats out of 166 is inherently undemocratic and would allow a discredited Fianna Fail, who the people rejected outright, lead the charge. Labour Youth believes that this new government must be accountable to the people, and the only way of achieving that is by creating a strong opposition, led by the Labour Party and Mr Gilmore."

Colm Lawless
Labour Youth

I feel almost ashamed to say it yet last weekend as the general election results came in from around the Republic's 43 constituencies I found myself willing on Fine Gael to win a majority. The reason? If they won a majority the Labour leadership would have no option but to take their place as – for the first time in history – the primary party of opposition in Leinster House. However, FG did not get their majority and, as a consequence, the top dogs in both the Blueshirts and Labour were discussing coalition plans before the 166th seat in the 31st Dail had even been filled. Now, as expected, agreement has been reached on establishing the new government.

Those of us on the left will view the deal struck between Kenny and Gilmore in one of two ways. The first way views coalition as a way of providing a strong social democratic voice at the heart of government that can keep FG in check and prevent some of the more savage measures they would otherwise unleash were Labour not there; the second looks upon the decision as a mistake which relegates the party to the position of playing second fiddle to Enda and co and will ultimately deliver little of substance in the short, medium or long term. I fall into the latter camp.

The position of junior coalition partner with a larger right-wing party has been tried repeatedly by Labour down through the years and has repeatedly failed. While I cannot predict the future I see no reason to believe why it should be any different this time around. How much more intriguing a prospect it would have been to enter this new parliament as a 37-strong left opposition. With a discredited Fianna Fail gravely wounded and Fine Gael unlikely to maintain their present unprecedented level of popularity in these harsh times, who knows what position Labour could have found themselves in after a few years of providing effective centre-left opposition. The holy grail of a left-led government may not have been such an outlandish prospect. Now, with the party in coalition with the centre-right, such a possibility seems hard to imagine. If the next administration manages to somehow improve the south's current economic state it is likely that most of the credit will go to the larger of the two beasts in the government. If things go disastrously wrong, and they might, it is difficult to see how Labour could avoid an electoral mauling.

Labour should also remember that people who vote for them in elections are different in many ways to an FG voter. That might seem to be an absurdly obvious statement to make but it is one that may not be appreciated fully by some in the red camp. While some people who gave their first preference to FG on February 25th may in time come to regret doing so, it is probably fair to say the average Fine Gael voter will be more than willing to accept the planned cuts when they arrive ("everyone is going to suffer," as Enda himself callously put it during the five-way leaders debate on RTE). However, Labour voters are a different breed.

Note how backing for the Conservative Party in Britain has appeared to hold up relatively well since last year's general election in both the opinion polls and in subsequent by-elections while the Liberal Democrats seem to be haemorrhaging support. It will be interesting so see if this pattern is repeated in the Republic in the coming months, with the more progressive-minded Labour voter withdrawing their support for the party as they play their role in a coalition implementing extensive cuts that impact hardest on the people Labour should really be fighting to represent – the working class.

In the end though there was not even a serious debate on the virtues of acting as a strong left opposition. We were told that the choice was between 'the party and the country', a vomit-inducing political cliché that I recall being used by the Greens both before and on numerous occasions after they went into government with Fianna Fail (and didn't that arrangement go just swimmingly for the junior partner). We were told, in the words of Eric Byrne, that Labour now had a "patriotic duty" to go into government (where have I heard rubbish about patriotic duties before?). A Fine Gael-supporting friend of mine remarked to me yesterday that Labour had done the right thing as politics in the Republic at the moment is not about left and right but about "getting the job done." He is not the first and nor will he be the last to make such a statement, although it is an odd one to make as I appear to remember during the boom years that we were regularly told that politics was no longer about left and right. Quite why these people still think we should even have elections if politics is no longer about ideas beats me.

Anyhow, this combination of patriotism, emotional blackmail and supposedly commonsense political pragmatism has, for now, managed to quash debate on alternative political strategies for Labour. So, what alternatives are there for party members disgruntled with how things have transpired? One option would be to jump ship. But where?

Sinn Fein will no doubt attempt to pose as the main left-wing opposition force in the Dail now, however even after fourteen years of having TDs in Leinster House the nature of their socialism remains unclear. Their anti-establishment image is derived largely from the fact that they are the only one of the main parties south of the border never to have been stained by the responsibilities of holding office. Where they have sat in government, namely up north, their actions have been far from radical. For a party that was so ready to enter government with Fianna Fail prior to the 2007 general election, and one that sits comfortably in coalition the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland at the present time, I would not hold out much hope that the Provos holding a few portfolios in a future government could be the basis for radical social transformation in the 26 counties. The party leadership still appears to have an ongoing fixation with being in power in both Stormont and Leinster House by 2016, a plan which is itself a pitiable fifth-rate version of a united Ireland designed to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising.

As for the ULA, they have some excellent hard working activists and have already went much further than most groups in Europe containing Trotskyists in that they have actually secured seats in their national parliament. Even so, the bulk of the United Left Alliance is made up of revolutionary Leninist groupings that ultimately believe the bourgeois parliament in which they won their seats must be smashed and replaced with a workers state. That detachment from reality, combined with the fact that there remains a substantial degree of long-standing hostility between the CWI and IST factions in the alliance, means that it is difficult not to imagine some situation in the not-too-distant future which sees the ULA go the way of the Scottish Socialist Party, RESPECT in England and the Communist Refoundation Party in Italy. They will no doubt function as an important parliamentary voice to challenge the more unsavoury policies followed by the government in the forthcoming Dail but as a potential coherent left of centre vehicle for change in the long term I am simply not convinced.

Nevertheless, the election of a strong Sinn Fein/ULA bloc can only be a good thing in a parliament that is crying out for some proper adversaries to put it up to the incoming government. Whilst I am no admirer of the Provos and would not be a supporter of any of the Leninist parties involved in the ULA, their presence in the Dail should provide some much needed vocal (and at times possibly even entertaining) opposition. If it sounds like I am carping on a bit too much about the necessity for a solid opposition then I make no apology. In a democracy a strong opposition is as important as a stable government. As someone resident in Northern Ireland who has had to endure the yawnfest of what is essentially an elected dictatorship at Stormont over the past decade, that is a fact I have come to realise only too well.

Fianna Fail will certainly not be able to provide that constructive opposition in any shape or form so it will be to these smaller groups we will have to look to effectively articulate the views of the unhappy. FF have been severely weakened and for a party that has historically been motivated less by ideology and more by power and being a mass organisation the future remains extremely uncertain. Since its foundation the Soldiers of Destiny have always styled themselves as a broad church, much like the Ulster Unionists here in the north. The problems for a broad church begin, however, when they cease to be a dominant force. Ever since the DUP overtook the Ulster Unionists in the 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly election, the UUP has struggled to find a place for itself in the contemporary political scene – indeed it has drifted even further backwards. Don't be surprised if Fianna Fail's slide continues in the next few years. Don't be surprised either if, in their efforts to come up with something new in their time out of power, they have their 'UCUNF' moment. I'll leave it up to you to decide just what that might entail.

Returning to what you could term the 'real' opposition, the success of the Shinners and the United Left also means that for the first time since the heyday of The Workers Party in the late eighties and early nineties, Labour now has a sizeable electoral threat positioned to its left, a place to go for the discontented. Hopefully that threat in its backyard will prevent any further drift rightward. Well, hopefully.

While I genuinely hope that I am wrong, I fear that the Labour Party may have blown a once in a generation opportunity to actually make possible a left-led government in the south. In the end both imagination and ambition was lacking. It does make one wonder whether the party and its members actually want to become the largest party or whether they have some bizarre in-built inferiority complex that means even when they receive the greatest election result in their history they still feel the need to play mudguard. If they are happy with their role of making up the numbers in a coalition then such a mindset explains this week's decision perfectly. If they do not then it leaves you perplexed as to just how they can expect to build on the 37 seats they currently hold. After all, Labour's history as the perpetual prop for right-wing administrations makes for horrific reading.

The eighteen seats gained in the 1954 general election was followed by the winning of only eleven just three years later after a coalition government with Fine Gael. In the 1973 election nineteen seats were won and another administration was formed with FG. The result three years later was a mere sixteen seats and a Fianna Fail landslide. Four more seats were lost in the 1987 election after the party had spent five years in government with Garret FitzGerald. The thirty-three seats won during the Spring Tide election of 1992 was followed by the loss of almost half of those seats five years later following successive coalitions with both FF and FG. Yet still, even with such a track record to go on, well over 90% of delegates at UCD's O'Reilly Hall endorsed the decision to enter government, a statistic that leaves you wondering just whereabouts the Labour left is.

Only one TD, Dublin North's Tommy Broughan, has spoken out against the move. He accurately described the decision as a "tragic and hopeless error" and cleverly turned the sickening old party/country cliché on its head by suggesting that it might actually have been in the country's interest for his party not to enter government. With neither Sinn Fein nor the ULA providing, in my view at least, a credible long term vision I can only hope that the numbers in the Broughan camp swell as the weeks go by.

For now though the Labour Party can expect to get little more than a bit of mild applause and some patronising guff about their "courage" from the conservative media. Beyond that and a few fancy job titles in a centre-right-led administration? Not much. But sure at least they put the party before the country and isn't that the main thing?

Eamon Gilmore's place as Ireland's answer to Nick Clegg is surely sealed.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Bad winners

And just in case it escaped your notice, we beat England. In cricket. Now, literally anything is possible:

Clothing by Philosophy Football.