From top: Nigel Farage and John Waters at the irexit conference in the RDS on Saturday; Dr Rory Hearne
It is incredible how angry supposedly sensible people get when you express a contrarian view point. Or if you even raise questions about supposed ‘truths’ and general ‘commonsense’.
The impossibility of Ireland leaving the EU, or Irexit as it come to be called (or probably more appropriately Eirexit) is apparently one of these accepted ‘truths’.
On Saturday I had the temerity to question this assumption on twitter and got one hell of a reaction.
I posted the simple tweet:
Don’t dismiss potential of #Irexit gaining support. Significant minority of Irish ppl (38%) do not trust EU.European project has prioritised markets & financial system over health, housing needs & rights of citizens,millions left in poverty, democratic deficit =citizen distrust
— Rory Hearne (@RoryHearne) February 3, 2018
Now to make it clear from the outset, I am not arguing that Ireland should leave the EU, and I am pro-immigration and I actually blame the policies of our own successive Irish governments of various hues of Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Labour/Greens/PDs as being the primary cause of our current problems. Although I do think the EU/ECB has had an important role too.
Clearly then I will have nothing to do with the Nigel Farage/John Waters Conference and any potential new Irexit party. They stand for a right-wing, conservative vision of Ireland and Europe that offers nothing positive for Irish people.
However, what I am saying is that there is a ‘progressive’, outward and forward looking critique of the EU that has real legitimacy, and it is this critique that needs to be listened to seriously.
For if it is not addressed, and quickly, then support for Irexit could grow.
I am also, therefore, making the case that some of those expressing support for Irexit have legitimate concerns that represent a not insignificant proportion of the Irish people.
Rather than dismissing these concerns, the Irish and European establishment should take them serious and engage in a radical overhaul of the direction of Ireland, the EU and its institutions.
There is a problem with our democracy, our political culture and this exists in wider Irish society. We are afraid to question and challenge the status quo. And our government and establishment media even more so.
Our ‘state’ not just dislikes questioning and challenge – it is terrified by it. And that’s why it actively silences dissenting voices – through gag orders on charities such as homeless NGOs or community organisations working on poverty.
And the system likes to portray those who question as dissidents or ‘Left-wing’ in order to try undermine your concerns. Rather than maturely engaging in a discussion there is a hysterical over-reaction. And this is reflected in the response to my tweet.
Why is it not possible to be pro-Europe and question fundamentally the current EU structures and process?
I am involved in the cross-European ‘Re-InVEST’ study into the impact of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent austerity on the most vulnerable in 13 European countries.
The project aims to contribute to a more solidarity and inclusive EU through an inclusive and powerful social investment strategy at EU level and to give voice to vulnerable groups and civil society organisations.
We have found that:
“As a consequence of the recent economic crisis, institutional trust in these countries has fallen to dramatic levels. In particular, in Greece, Cyprus, Portugal and Spain, the effect of the economic crisis on public trust in institutions is especially prominent…respondents with low subjective incomes, low level of education, and those who are unemployed report significantly lower trust in national parliaments and the European Parliament”.
The reality is that in response to the 2008 crisis the EU institutions focused on macro-economic stabilisation rather than social consequences. As a result poverty and inequality have increased, particularly in the peripheral countries and political trust has declined. There has been a rise in the support for populist, anti-establishment, political parties.
But this is not just something that started in 2008. Inequality has been on the rise since the 1980s and the shift to neoliberal financial capitalism.
The EU has played a key role in promoting the free-market, neoliberal globalisation model. Citizens have become much more insecure – particularly in relation to work, pensions, and housing. The future for their children looks much more difficult than they had it.
There is a sense of going backwards, or not going in the right direction. And there is a sense of loss control over major decisions.
Ireland is changing too and Irish people are increasingly experiencing these insecurities. The generation in their 20s and 30s are scarred by emigration and insecure jobs and unaffordable housing.
Poor communities remain excluded across the country. Who represents these excluded groups? The establishment, particularly as represented by Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael, continues to ignore the excluded and is more focused on trying to stem the tide of change – as Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohue said after the last election –“ That is why it is more important than ever that the centre of Irish politics holds” he wrote in the Irish Times in April 2017.
There is a real danger that if these concerns are not given a political expression then the support for a right-wing xenophobic Irexit could grow.
That is why progressive, civil society, and ‘Left’ critiques of the EU and the unequal Irish model should be given a much bigger voice in the Irish media, and it is why the political left in Ireland need to maintain a strong critical voice in relation to EU – arguing for a Europe of social justice and human rights and opposing the current free-market corporate-dominated EU.
Dr Rory Hearne is a policy analyst, academic, social justice campaigner. He writes here in a personal capacity. Follow Rory on Twitter: @roryhearne