Saturday, January 26, 2008

Lisbon Treaty: How green was my party?

On Saturday 19th Green Party members voted in favour of supporting the Lisbon Treaty in the forthcoming referendum, but fell just short of the required two thirds majority.

This was taken to means that the party itself will not take a position, but that individual members will be free to support whichever side they wish.

195, or 63%, of the 318 delegates voted to support the Treaty, while 117 (27%) were opposed.

What the vote actually means is that the Greens will enthusiastically support Lisbon, which stand in contradiction to all their declarations in defence of the environment, while a few ‘left’ figures will trumpet their opposition, thus helping to hold the shrinking radical base with the party and thus defend the Greens and, by extension, the coalition government that is pushing Lisbon through.

A leading opponent of the change in policy, former MEP Patricia McKenna, said she was 'over the moon', as she had feared the party leadership would secure the two thirds majority. As things now stand she will be perfectly comfortable in the new reactionary party and happy to support it.

So far so standard – fake radical party moves right. What role should socialists play? In the past that would have been straightforward. We would have wanted to break workers from the Greens and we would have lent hard on the leftists, urging them to put up or shut up. In a party supporting outright reaction their place was outside the party.

How likely is that? To ask is to answer. Patricia will be gracing the platform of the endless variety of micro campaigns opposing Lisbon, all fronting for one small left group or another. While they cut each others throat to prove their role as the true opponents of European capital they will, through Patricia, be one step away from the Green party and the capitalist reactionaries pushing through the Lisbon treaty!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

DUP advisor denounces “Popery”

Anyone that helps dispel the myths surrounding the settlement in the north is undoubtedly performing a useful service. If they manage to puncture the smug and self satisfied public consensus that prevails in the south then they deserve a double commendation.

So step forward and receive your accolade - Wallace Thompson. Never heard of him? Well never had anyone else before his barnstorming appearance on the Joe Duffy radio phone in show. Listeners were treated some of that good “old time religion” that many had believed was on the wane in the era of peace. But here was Wallace to demonstrate that there was some life in the old tunes yet.

He had been invited onto the show as a spokesperson for the Evangelical Protestant Society. They had stirred some controversy by denouncing the Church of Ireland for selling rosary beads in the shop attached to St Patrick’s Cathedral. Thompson claimed that it was wrong for a Protestant church “to be selling things that are Roman Catholic.” So much for ecumenism! Warming to his theme Thompson went on to castigate listeners for adhering to a corrupt and idolatrous creed that demanded the turning of Protestant partners in mixed marriages. To top his performance off he denounced that People as “the anti-Christ” and said that he would be doing everything in his power to prevent a papal visit to the north.

These opinions and the people that hold them are often dismissed as marginal – bigoted no doubt, but fortunately with little influence. However, when we look at the background of Mr Thompson we actually find that the contrary is true. As a former career civil servant who is currently employed as a special adviser to the DUP minister Nigel Dodds, he is very close to the centre of power in the north. Such posts are among the most prized items of political patronage that Stormont has to offer. For Mr Thompson to occupy such a position he would have to share a broad political perspective with the DUP leadership. What he obviously doesn’t share with them are some diplomatic skills. That people such as Thompson occupy positions at the heart of the Executive is more evidence of its thoroughly reactionary character.

Also cutting against the perceived wisdom were unionists in Limavady. As a means of creating a more neutral environment in council buildings, nationalists made the modest suggestion that some militarist and royalist symbols be removal. In response unionist councillors, one of who had literally wrapped himself in the Union Jack, whipped up a lynch mob which invaded the chamber and forced the abandonment of the council’s monthly meeting. This harassment was endorsed by the local MP – the DUP’s Gregory Campbell.

The ideology surrounding the settlement, propagated by Sinn Fein in particular, holds that things are changing. But the episodes above suggest otherwise. They demonstrate that sectarianism, rather than diminished, is actually being entrenched and legitimised. They also show the severe limitations on any prospect of progressive change. If unionists can get so agitated over things such as rosaries and a Charles and Diana mug, how must more resistant would they be towards anything that pointed towards real equality!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Paisley’s little list

Given the thoroughly corrupt character of the political settlement in the north the exposure of the sordid dealings that accompanied its inception at the St Andrews talks should not come as a surprise. Some of these have now been revealed in a ministerial letter released under the Freedom of Information Act.

This letter was a response by one of direct rule ministers at the time to a “shopping list” of demands from the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr. The demands raised by Paisley were pure pork barrel politics - all related to commercial activities with his own north Antrim constituency. They included planning approval for a "resort spa" including "200 homes"; a request for "private sector land to be included in development" of the new visitors centre at the Giant's Causeway; and a suggestion that a judicial review of lands in Ballee be dropped. The letter concluded with an assurance that Tony Blair’s government would "try to respond positively" to the requests, that the letter itself should be regarded as a “statement of intent". The clear inference of such correspondence is that the restoration of devolution would be eased by a favourable response.

Ian Paisley Jnr claimed that that these dealings were on the “margins” of the talks and that he was merely taking the opportunity to raise issues pertinent to his constituents. However, when his “shopping list” is examined it is clear that its items relate to one constituent in particular. Two of the projects listed are linked to the millionaire developer and DUP member Seymour Sweeney.

The judicial review of the sale of land in Ballee related to a dispute between the Department of Social Development over how much landowners would have to pay for the return of land that had been vested in the 1970s. The legal action taken by landowners, which was subsequently the subject of a review, was backed by Sweeney. At the time Paisley was lobbying for the review to be halted Sweeney and his associates were offering just £9m for the land. The court battle was eventually settled in June 2007 when a £50m price was agreed. For a party that supposedly supports law and order (with Paisley Jnr as its justice spokesperson) the DUP was very relaxed about such an overtly political intervention in the judicial process.

The case of the Causeway visitors centre is better known, with the attempts by the DUP to scupper the long standing commitment to a publicly owned centre in favour of a private development owned by Sweeney. The subsequent decisions by DUP ministers on the Causeway are consistent with the demands made by the Paisleys’ in their lobbying of British ministers. What these cases have in common is that despite the rhetoric about benefitting the constituency, all the benefit accrues to Sweeney. In both cases the public loses out.

Despite the allegations of sleaze and corruption building up around the DUP, Paisley’s Jnr in particular, there is very little criticism from other parties. Obscure backbnmcnhers are allowed to make minor criticisms. But without backing from the party leadership their opposition is merely tokenistic. When asked to comment on the Paisley shopping list, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams made some pious statement about his party not being interested in side deals but the common good. This is nonsense. Sinn Fein have made numerous side deals with the British. Most of these have either collapsed, such as the On the Run legislation, or been reneged upon, as in a case of the devolution of policing and justice powers. The difference with the DUP’s side deals is that are actually delivered upon. Four of the six demands on Paisley’s wish list have been granted!

Given the lack of real opposition, scandals such this are unlikely to destabilise the settlement. However, they do serve a useful purpose as they erode the illusions that workers may have in the Assembly. Such a process is as essential element of building a new opposition movement.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

PSNI presses ahead with introduction of taser weapons

The weakness of claims that the police in the north are being made accountable and subjected to scrutiny has been exposed by the announcement from the PSNI that it is to press ahead with the introduction of taser weapons. Within the next few weeks a small number of officers will begin training in their use when twelve of the guns are to be issued to specialist response teams. These particular weapons will be capable of delivering a 50,000-volt shock to a subject.

The dangers of such weapons are well documented. People can be in serious risk of injury, or in some cases death, when tasers are used. Figures show that more than 270 people have died after being shot by a taser in the US and Canada since 2001. Recent examples of the use of tasers have been the killing of a distressed Polish man at Vancouver airport and the ejection of an audience member from a political meting in Florida.

These incidents, which were captured on camera, provoked widespread condemnation. However, such incidents have not given pause for thought to the PSNI. Of course they assure the public that tasers won’t be used as they are in north America; that only a small number of officers will carry them; and that they will only be used as a last resort. These are the familiar arguments that accompany the introduction of any new piece of weaponry by the police. Experience shows however that over time the use of the weapon becomes routine and is often the first response. Just look at the example of CS spray.

The danger of tasers has been the main focus of the commentary over their introduction. But what is of greater significance is that they have been introduced in defiance of the Policing Board. The body, which is supposed to hold the police to account, voted 11 to five in favour of a motion calling for no deployment until an impact assessment was completed. In addition, the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Police Ombudsman all cautioned against the introduction of tasers. Therefore, all the institutions created by Good Friday Agreement, which are supposed to act as guarantors of accountability and human rights, were ignored. In the face of the determination of police to acquire a new weapon their protestations counted for nothing. Moreover, the ultimate guarantors of the whole peace process, the Irish government and (most importantly) the British government, did nothing to intervene.

This episode while relatively minor does illuminate a broader truth about the nature of the political settlement. Despite the claims for devolution and power sharing, real power still remains with the British state. Nationalists may sit on the Policing Board but they cannot hold the police to account; they be in government but can’t make a decision without the approval of unionists. These two elements come together in the proposal to devolve justice and policing powers to the Assembly. This was part of the deal between Sinn Fein and the British to pave the way for the restoration of power sharing, but because the DUP are opposed it will not happen.

Sinn Fein are reduced to making muted protests. They cannot make it an issue of contention as that would reveal their own bankruptcy and risk bringing the whole edifice of the settlement crashing down. Determined to hold onto their ministerial positions they are forced to swallow whatever humiliations and disappointments the British and the unionists serve up.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The eyes - watch the eyes. Bureaucracy sell out again

On 3rd January SIPTU shop stewards agreed to a €20 million cost-cutting programme being sought by Aer Lingus management. Aer Lingus Branch Organiser Teresa Brannick said: "We are committed to the process, which has already identified some €10 million in savings in the areas where SIPTU has members."

Yet in October, when Aer Lingus management demanded the cuts and imposed a freeze on pay increases agreed under the ‘Towards 2016’ partnership deal,” SIPTU National Industrial Secretary Michael Halpenny had said:

“Aer Lingus has sunk to a new low … management has reneged on both local and national agreements between the Social Partners under T2016. Further, it is in breach of commitments entered into prior to privatisation ... Our members are not going to succumb to this kind of blackmail…they are entitled to respect as workers and not have to endure these attempts by management to bully them into submission.”

So how did we get from this sort of forthright opposition to the January collapse? The case is a textbook in bureaucratic manoeuvring – talk tough, threaten action, keep on the move and never left the left hand know what the right is doing.

So the first step was to ‘consult with other unions’ and promise members that industrial action ‘was not ruled out’. Aer Lingus were so overcome that they issued sacking notice to temporary staff and called for contract changes and wage cuts for those remaining.

In response the union balloted for strike action. “The justification for this relentless attack on the living standards of workers on, or near the average industrial wage, is that Aer Lingus rates are ‘not competitive’ in aviation sector terms. The methodology on which this claim is made has never been disclosed …” In other words the attack could be justified if the airline could prove it needed to be more competitive!

By this time the National Implementation Board (NIB) – SIPTU and ICTU officials in partnership with bosses and government – were stepping in to resolve the dispute and by mid-November had issued a report that called for the suspension of strike action wothout any guarantees from management and organised an independent report into Aer Lingus claims of financial misery. In time the report concluded that yes – if Aer Lingus could cut costs then it would make more profits.

That was enough for SIPTU. They agreed to ‘suspend’ strike action. "We expect the airline to involve itself in the process in good faith. Our objective in this process is to ensure an alternative solution can be explored which does not involve reducing our members’ pay and conditions of employment," said SIPTU National Industrial Secretary, Michael Halpenny. In other words – we will help organise the cuts!

Despite constant threats by the airline the unions could not be forced into opposition. What we got was militant bluster and practical collaboration. The union threatened action, writing to Congress seeking an all-out picket, while continuing with the process established by the National Implementation board to seek alternative ways of achieving the company’s objectives.

The success of this strategy does not lie in the mesmeric powers of the bureaucracy or the inability of workers to understand the process of betrayal. It rests securely on decades of betrayal that have demoralised union militants. Unwilling to enter battles where they will be isolated and stabbed in the back by their own leaders, they look for what appears the least worst option. In this case they were promised they could keep their current pay rates – as long as they agreed speedup and redundancy to the tune of 4000 euro per worker to pay for the company’s self-sacrifice!

It’s a pattern that has been repeated across public service, with the latest benchmarking report offering pay increases of 0%, an effective pay cut. There will be no cut in demands for speedup and job cuts. The hypnotic powers of the bureaucracy will in future be tested to the limit.

Monday, January 7, 2008

'A new low in Irish life'

Over the weekend Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fail launched another attack on the Mahon Tribunal investigating the alleged receipt by him of large sums of money from property developer Owen O’Callaghan. This comes after the latest revelations that Ahern won’t have a tax-clearance certificate to give to the Standards in Public Office Commission next month; although the toothless nature of this anti-corruption measure is exposed by the fact that he only needs a statement acknowledging that ‘issues need to be resolved.’ It follows revelations that he is under investigation by the Revenue Commissioners. He stands accused by the opposition of ‘misleading’ the public and the Dail over previous explanations of his tax position. ‘Misleading’ means lying to you and me.

The majority of Irish people no longer believe Ahern’s ever increasingly bizarre explanations for the sums of money he received from close friends, and which act as an alibi for the allegations of corrupt receipt of money over planning matters. These are ‘close friends’ who he sometimes can’t remember and one of whom has denied ever being a friend, claiming he gave the money more or less under duress as a donation to the Fianna Fail Party. He supposedly received this money because he was hard up though he managed to have tens of thousands in savings at the time and was paid a fortune in everyone else’s terms as a politician. He held it in a safe in his constituency headquarters because he didn’t have a bank account all while he was Minister of Finance of the Irish State. As one wag put it – he was in charge of our taxes while he took out a loan when interest rates were very high at the same time as he had cash spare which he let it sit without earning interest!!

For years Ahern has acted the cowardly Lion in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, declaring his desire to get to the Tribunal as quickly as possible to put things right while out of sight doing everything he could to avoid having to face it.

Now Ahern has attacked the Tribunal for allowing leaks of his tax affairs marking, he says, a ‘new low in Irish life’, a statement so outrageously over the top and self interested that it will surely not pass without comment. He is now complaining he will not get the ‘same fair hearing’ as others and grumbled that ‘it’s highly unfair’ and ‘unjust.’

Of course if this is what it is the Tribunal should be halted and there is no doubt Ahern and Fianna Fail could do it (The Greens wouldn’t stand for it? Don’t make me laugh!) Ahern yesterday said the Tribunal was not ‘beyond question or reproach’ and was not a ‘sacred cow.’ The question is will they try?

Today’s ‘Irish Times’ has a debate about whether the Tribunals are good value for money. The ‘yes’ columnist points to the increased revenue taken by the tax authorities following the banking scandals. The ‘no’ answer points to the scandalous legal costs, with some senior counsel receiving €2,500 per day!, and points out that the political culture hasn’t changed. In support of this it could reasonably be pointed out that Ahern has just won the general election while a new controversy raged about his finances.

The point however isn’t how much the Tribunals cost. The point is that they have been created in order to protect the corrupt body politic in the South by seeming to involve action, but action which is so slow and open to challenge, so lacking in the capacity to reveal the truth or invoke punitive penalties on the guilty, and yes so expensive, that it will drag on until the verdicts no longer really matter. The public will have become wearier of the Tribunals than of the hidden corruption they are supposed to reveal.

Socialists should oppose the latest attempts by Fianna Fail to soften up the electorate for restrictions on the Tribunals but they should not support them either. When faced with the corrupt the first and elementary step is to make sure you stay clean yourself. The fact that the trade unions have been and still are partners with this crowd of crooks is the most scandalous fact of all, and it doesn’t take a Tribunal lasting ten years to see this. A Tribunal won't do anything about it either.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

A slip of the tongue – No Irish need apply on Aer Lingus Belfast route.

On December 13th Aer Lingus decided that their standard greeting of: “Go Mbeannai Dia Daoibh, ta failte romhaibhar bord na heitilte seo,” would not be used on Belfast routes “to avoid causing offence”. Belfast becomes the only city on the globe where the greeting is not deployed. This seemingly minor shift, this exception, along with the earlier disputes about the new Belfast route, tells us a lot about the current role of the Irish bourgeois.

It is when one asks why this decision was taken that one begins to gain an insight into the strange world of post St Andrews, post-settlement Ireland. What we are observing is what the CIA call “blowback” – the strange and unintended consequences of an initial decision. In this case the blowback is the astounding (only in the sense of its speed) growth of 26 county nationalism. The Irish bourgeoisie believe that the national question has been settled by the excision of the 6 north-eastern counties and are unable to disguise their relief and luxuriate in their ability to express freely their real faith in a shrunken and parochial dependency they now call Ireland. They are only matched in that belief by their social partners in the Trade Union bureaucracy who long ago went from being an obstacle to the unity of Irish workers to being facilitators of that division. Their idea of opposing Aer Lingus was to firstly support the privatisation that gave them free rein and then to oppose the new conditions in Belfast by supporting Ryanair!

It is hardly surprising that Aer Lingus, for so long the flagship of Irish attempts to construct an independent capitalist economy and now the flagship of capitulation to globalisation, deregulation and privatisation, should be to the fore in this new definition of nationalism, first declaring Belfast to be a foreign city, then forcing lower conditions of service on staff based in the North and, on the day of the ‘No Irish’ announcement, hailing the Belfast routes as the first step to establish the company as a major player on the international market!

The darker dimension to this new nationalism becomes evident when one asks why an Irish greeting would be offensive. No-one would be offended by a French phrase on Air France or a German phrase on Lufthansa. The offence in this case would be to loyalism because, from the loyalist viewpoint, the present settlement is not based on any form of equality, but on the assertion of loyalist supremacy and the denial that expressions of Irish culture have any legitimacy within the Northern colony. What the representatives of the Irish bourgeoisie are saying with this decision is that they have no problem with the anti-Irish bigots. The bigots don’t even have to complain. The Irish bourgeois have bought the whole heap – not just partition or the British occupation, but the demands of bigotry and discrimination within the statelet.

This is bad news for Sinn Fein. Not only is there no Irish Language Act to protect language rights in the North – something they had already accepted in the St. Andrews deal. Now there is unlikely to even be the compensation that they expected to gain in the form of a language commissioner. In the longer run it is very bad news for the nationalist working class, when the bigots realise the limited constraints there are on their bigotry they will go to town in an attempt to turn back the clock to the days of fullblown Orange supremacy.

But of course the Sinn Fein leadership knew all this long ago. 10 years ago, at the start of the current process, they led a language movement in Queens University and Irish signs were erected in the Students union. The signs were removed following unionist protest and a deal negotiated where bigger grants were given to the language movement. When we realise that the signs were bi-lingual we can see the depths of unionist bigotry and the early signs that equality was not on the agenda – only a hand-out in compensation.

Even the handouts are drying up now.