Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Something's Broughan

Tommy Broughan, the somewhat insignificant TD for Dublin North–East and former member of the increasingly pointless Irish Labour Party, has in recent weeks set up a brand new irrelevant organisation of the left on this island that will bear the name Social Democratic Union.  To date the existence of this grouping has passed pretty much unnoticed, save for an article in the Irish Independent and a short report on The Cedar Lounge Revolution blog.  It is difficult to imagine such an announcement being greeted with anything other than indifference though if it had managed to trigger mass attention there would have been surprisingly little for the masses to get their teeth into.

Exactly what this 'union' is and where it intends to go in the future seems unclear, even to the man behind it.  According to Jason Kennedy's piece in the Indo, Broughan has stated that in his view "there is no social democratic party currently operating in the Dáil" but that Ireland "doesn't need another nice political party."  He has also remarked that the SDU is "a framework I have for myself and my supporters" yet added that he would contemplate joining a movement "which pursued egalitarian and cooperative policies."  And that is about as much as we know.

If Tommy has a grand plan to rehabilitate centre-left politics in the Republic he is doing a remarkable job of keeping it a secret.  The new group has no online presence.  On Tommy's constituency site the SDU name is featured just below his own but there is no other reference to it.  His Twitter account doesn't mention it at all.  No other TDs, trade unionists or prominent figures on the Irish left appear to have spoken about it.  Perhaps, as the item regarding this on The Cedar Lounge Revolution suggested, this curious little creature is nothing more than a pre-election branding exercise, although the choice of name does suggest something a tad grander.  There has been talk in recent times about Broughan and some of his pals in Leinster House (Halligan, Murphy, Pringle) welding themselves together into some sort of new formation but those rumours have yet to develop into anything tangible.

I do have some sympathy for Tommy.  In 2011 the Labour Party had the opportunity to form a strong centre-left opposition on the back of the best election result in their history.  Instead, they opted to squander it by entering a coalition government in which they play second fiddle to Fine Gael.  No amount of clichéd claptrap about 'putting the country before the party' should excuse the foolishness of their decision.  This strategy has always proved disastrous for Labour in the past and, as the polls would presently suggest, it will prove so again.  It is easy to understand why many supporters would be feeling disheartened and frustrated at the moment.

However, is going back to square one and starting a new movement really the way forward?  History is certainly not on the side of those advocating it.  Previous groups that set out to challenge Labour, such as Democratic Left or the National Progressive Democrats, ended up merging with it.  Others, like the Socialist Labour Party, simply went extinct after a short period of time.  Of course, while none of this means that the failure of another such vehicle is guaranteed, I don't sense a great public appetite for a 'Labour Party Mark 2'.  I recognise that the idea of remaining in the party and attempting to turn it around will no doubt be viewed by many as an equally worn-out old tactic.  Yet with a new social democratic entity unlikely to be a success, the far left ULA project an embarrassing mess and no gap in the market (to borrow a capitalist phrase) for anything in between, a long term strategy of breathing new life into the old beast seems the best and most realistic option open.

When Tommy Broughan says that there is no social democratic party in Ireland right now he is only partially correct.  Yes, the path being pursued by Labour at present might not be a social democratic one but the blame for that does not lie with the organisational model of the party; rather the fault exists with the absence of any discernible centre-left vision, not just amongst the leadership but also with those discontent with it.  To be fair, this is not merely a problem faced by the Irish Labour Party.  Their comrades right across Europe all seem to be endeavouring to produce a 'big idea' (John Harris's piece in the Guardian earlier this month is one small example of this ongoing ideological self-analysis).  The challenge then should not be to throw the baby out with the bath water and start anew but to provide Labour with a coherent democratic socialist philosophy, something which it has been lacking for some time.

While the party might have achieved significant electoral gains under Eamon Gilmore, those advances were made largely at the expense of a historic collapse in support for Fianna Fáil as opposed to the public being won over to a new radical vision of how Irish society should be (their outlook in this period is probably best summed up by the appalling slogan used in 2009, "We are neither Fianna Fáil, nor Fine Gael. We are Labour").  Unfortunately those gains made in 2011 are likely to evaporate next time around.  That said, recent opinion polls have repeatedly put support for Labour somewhere in the 10% region which if replicated in a Dáil election would leave them more or less back at the point they were at the end of the Pat Rabbitte era in 2007.  Not good, but not catastrophic.  What activists need to do now is to start to consider what exactly is it that they want their party to represent in the coming years.  If they do not then it is likely that their Groundhog Day political existence in which they achieve a good election result which is then followed by a period of being the prop for a right-led government that is subsequently followed by a poor election result will continue for the foreseeable future.

As for Tommy Broughan's SDU party/project/thingamajig, it appears doomed regardless of whatever path it takes.  Even in a best case scenario for the group that would see it develop into a proper political party that could actually attract widespread electoral support, such a development would have negative consequences for the left as a whole and would lead to the splintering of the progressive vote in a country where the two dominant parties have traditionally come from the right.  This is unlikely to happen though.  Like the previous initiatives mentioned above, it seems destined to drift off into obscurity.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A brief thought at Eastertide

As tends to be the case with any utterance from the leader of the one true church, Jorge Mario Bergoglio achieved headlines yesterday with a fairly banal call for peace in which he asked Jesus (for He is the go-to man on such affairs) to "put an end to all war and every conflict, whether great or small, ancient or recent."  I am sure this is a very honourable and indeed sincere declaration from the Pope, though in truth not all that different from anything articulated by his predecessor at previous Easter Masses. 

This time of year has not always been marked with a desire for harmony.  Sunday’s edition of Haaretz carried a piece about a much more malevolent historical flipside known as the Rintfleisch massacres, a series of pogroms against Jews which occurred in late thirteenth century Bavaria.  In what would be neither the first nor the last time paranoid antisemitic propaganda would be utilised as a way of fomenting bloodshed in Europe, Jews were accused of stealing and purchasing "Eucharist wafers in order to abuse and torture them."  David B. Green, author of the piece, states:
The Jews of Roettingen were charged with pulverizing the wafer until it began to bleed, and then they "split him and hung him on a frame." In Roettingen, 21 Jews are said to have been killed on this day by Rintfleisch and his banner-waving mob. They then moved on to other towns in the Tauber River Valley on the way to Nuremberg. Even after King Albert returned to his throne and called for peace, the killings did not immediately subside.  The Nuremberg Chronicle lists 146 individual communities where pogroms took place and names some 5,000 Jews who were killed.

The mention of Nuremburg in the article carries some added relevance as it was with pogroms such as these that lay the roots of a movement whose name has unfortunately become synonymous with that quaint Franconian city.  And following a week in which pro-Russian nationalists in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk decided to display their Christian love by calling for the compulsory registration of all Jews over the age of sixteen, one wonders whether our continent still harbours unsavoury individuals who aspire to emulating the deeds of Herr Rintfleisch.  Let us hope (and, if you are so inclined, pray) that if there are they do not have the ability to fire up the passions of barbaric mobs in the same manner that others of their ilk have done.  The repetition of history is, sadly, not always farcical.

Friday, April 18, 2014

My God, My God, why have you forced closing time on me?

When it comes to a dispute between Nelson McCausland and a group of pub owners I am, given that I have no particular love for either side, tempted to remain neutral.  However, on the subject of the Easter opening hours for local bars, the publicans are correct to describe our laws as "archaic."  Interestingly, this appears to be developing into an annual spat between the Minister for Social Development and the province's pub owners as last year an identical row took place with the exact same word featuring in some headlines when the story was being covered.

Even by Northern Irish standards the laws do seem dated and the argument in their defence has always seemed to me to be a weak one.  If the laws prevented bars from opening at any point (as they do on Good Friday in the Republic) I might still oppose them but I could at least understand the Christian claim that this somehow gives us a chance to think about the meaning of Easter, regardless of whether the majority of us want to or not.  Quite how allowing a pub to open at 5pm and then forcing it to shut it at 11pm in some way honours the sacrifice made by Jesus of Nazareth leaves me stumped.

I was pleased to see the Green Party raise their voice on this matter and declare their support for a "modern, vibrant night-time economy which reflects our status as European tourist destination."  For this to be achieved though would require much more than merely normalising the opening hours at Easter time.  One can only feel pity for a resident of, say, Barcelona or Berlin who decides to come to Belfast for a weekend city break at any point in the year; the trains grind to a halt around 11pm, the buses do the same at a similar time and just after one o’clock large burly men will order you to finish your drinks and get out of whatever establishment you've just spent your hard-earned cash in.  But that is a debate for another day.

Last year when the Easter opening hours debate was taking place Colin Neill from Pubs of Ulster remarked that "religious views should be included in the conversation."  I disagree.  By all means have a conversation, and if the people involved in that conversation harbour strong views on religious matters then so be it, but their personal faith must remain a private matter and should not be allowed to shape or influence any discussion.  If a Christian citizen of this fair land wants to pass on the option of having a pint on Good Friday or Easter Sunday in order to mull over the death and resurrection of Christ then they have every right to do so.  What they should have no right to do, however, is attempt to force other members of the community to do the same.

This is not a left-right matter; "archaic" laws of this type can be opposed from a conservative or right libertarian point of view just as much as they can be opposed from a liberal or left-wing perspective.  Rather it is a dispute between people those that want to live in a modern secular society and those that wish to cling onto the old illusion that they still live in a 'Christian country'.  In all disputes of this type it is former that wins through in the end.  On this small and relatively insignificant issue, the momentum is on the side of modernity.

Friday, April 11, 2014

"It is the first day of spring. The council have chopped all the elms down in Elm Tree Avenue."

Despite numerous promises to the contrary over the past two decades, I never have made it beyond the third book in the Adrian Mole series.  I must have been around thirteen or fourteen years of age when I finished the The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole and since then I have been unable to rekindle my passion for the angst-ridden little git's tales, losing track of the ins and outs of the Norwegian Leather Industry in the process.

Sue Townsend, author of the Mole series, died yesterday.  Though I might not have read any Mole for twenty years, nor read any of Towsend's other books in the same period, I did feel a little tinge of sadness at her passing.  While numerous people will no doubt say it and I accept it sounds horribly mushy and predictable, she was responsible for kick-starting a lot of young people's love of reading.  For that alone we should all be thankful.

Her politics weren't bad either.  A feminist and a supporter of the Labour Party, Townsend was also vociferously anti-monarchist.  In a piece she penned for the Guardian a couple of years back, she spoke of her admiration for Thomas Paine and her belief in a British republic:
More than ever I believe in the republican cause. I think that we should feel quite sorry for the royal family. Most of them were born into it, so they can't see how bizarre and strange it is to have these odd, dysfunctional people at the top of the heap in this country. Just today I found a website of the UK's top 20 tourist sites: Windsor Castle is no 17, and no 16 is Windsor Legoland. It's quite easy to dispel all the myths about the monarchy, and that is what Paine did, wittily and in language that everybody could understand. I think I've been slightly braver since I read Rights of Man in holding what are often considered unorthodox views. It taught me the importance of scepticism.
Well said, comrade.  Now, off to locate that unread copy of The Wilderness Years.