Author Archives: Brendan Ogle

From top: Simon Coveney and Boris Johnson in Brexit talks last November: Brendan Ogle

I 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 I 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?

The European Union

I well remember the night of the Brexit count. A knife edge vote that swung this way, then that, and resulted in a very tight, but profound, outcome – Britain had decided to leave the European Union.

The relationship between the European Union and Britain had always been fraught, and not just from Britain’s side either. Many now forget that Britain’s initial applications to join the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1963 and 1967 were vetoed by France.

Charles De Gaulle explained this by suggesting that the British economy was ‘incompatible with Europe’, and that he suspected that Britain retained a deep seated hostility to the pan-European project.

It was Edward Heath’s Conservative Government that ultimately brought Britain into the project in 1972. An uneasy ‘union’ was born. When Britain voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, it was but the latest of many trysts that country had had with the notion.

In fact, there has hardly been an election in over 40 years there where Europe wasn’t a massively controversial issue. There had even been a previous referendum that voted to ‘Remain’ in 1975, and of course Britain also refused to join the single currency project.

But whether the European Union likes it or not, the massive continent-wide support for a peaceful alliance of nations creating a social project of mutual benefit to citizens is simply not translating into widespread public support for what is now a militarised economic union pursuing aggressive policies of neoliberalism, and behaving in an increasingly anti-democratic manner.

One would have hoped that, in addition to the understandable frustration at EU level with the downright dishonesty that characterised the Brexiteers’ campaigning, the EU would have found this a moment for necessary critical self-analysis too.

For is there not widespread public concern across much of Europe with the current direction of travel? For example, are people not tiring of an elected European Parliament being routinely ignored by an unelected Commission?

Is the EU not increasingly looking like economic imperialism where banks have simply replaced tanks?

And does the 2008 economic catastrophe and the resultant bullying by the EU of Greece, Cyprus and – whisper it – Ireland not sound some type of alarm about whether a ‘one size fits all’ economic model is not just being used as a big stick to punish smaller, less, powerful, nations?

Put bluntly, is the EU currently developing a deeper union-wide democracy, or eroding it? An EU analysis of these questions and suitable reforms that go beyond ‘brit-bashing’ is surely required as even a minimal response to Brexit.

Britain Votes to Leave

Notwithstanding my criticisms of the European Union, the fact is that Britain did not vote to leave it in order to swing back towards socialism, or an alternative to neoliberalism. On the contrary, much of the ‘leave’ campaign was constructed by the far right using nationalism and race hate as electoral battering rams.

Brexiteers like Bill Cash, who campaigned within the Tory party for a referendum for years and who ensnared a gullible David Cameron into conceding one, are overtly on the ‘far right’ of even neoliberal Europe. They sit on their seats, and in their estates of privilege, knowing that they are well-protected from the economic effects of their jingoistic ravings.

That massive sections of what used to be the working (as in, they used to have jobs and industry to work in) class fell for blunt empty nationalism is a sadly predictable consequence of the hollowing-out of industrial Britain, not only by Thatcher, but by her successor Tony Blair and his ‘New Labour’.

Unfortunately almost two years on, while the EU finger wags furiously, the debate in Britain continues to be conducted in these terms. Just listen to Jacob Rees-Mogg – if you can bear to.

With a Prime Minister now utterly lacking in authority, and a riven Tory party steering the ship of state headlong into a glacier, one can only hope that Labour get into power soon and that their recent sensible positioning regarding the required customs union is a portent that sense may yet prevail.

Here’s an interesting thought. Do you suspect that even Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney now wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street?

I do.

Northern Ireland

While all this goes on, reports suggest that it is the people of Northern Ireland who will suffer economically more than any others post-Brexit. These reports make no differentiation between Orange and Green. They do not differentiate between those who support marriage equality and those who don’t, or those who want an Irish language act and those who don’t.

And the economic effects of Brexit on the people of Northern Ireland will not differentiate between those who admire Arlene Foster, or those who think she has serious ethical questions to answer about the Renewable Heat Incentive overspend.

The DUP have overplayed their hand. Theresa May cannot deliver an open border in Ireland without a customs union, and the EU cannot agree to one without the other. To suggest otherwise is to conduct the debate in an atmosphere of unreality.

What is more, it is an unreality that everyone is aware of yet is playing along with anyway. And, if the DUP’s ‘real’ position turns out to be that they could well live with a ‘hard’ border despite their protestations to the contrary, that must be seen in the context of Sinn Féin having viewed Brexit in the exact opposite way. Since the day of the vote, they have viewed Brexit as a sort of ‘trojan horse’ for a border poll as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement.

The DUP and SF have so far not managed to work together, even on Brexit alone, in the common interests of the citizens in Northern Ireland as a whole. Such a political consensus has never been more necessary, and it is to be hoped for everyone’s sake in the coming months that it is not as remote as it seems.

Republic of Ireland government

Things are not as good as certain sources would have us believe in the Republic either. To begin with, what was presented as an ‘agreement’ on the Irish aspect in phase one is nothing of the sort. In addition, I can’t get my head around a conundrum which has been on my mind for almost two years now.

What is going to happen if (I think it may be a ‘when’) what emerges is as follows – we either have border-free, tariff-free trade with the EU, or, we have border-free, tariff-free trade with Britain?

But we can’t have both.

What happens when the fantasy notion that everyone in this mess can have everything they want, simultaneously with their neighbours having the exact opposite, dissolves in the smoke and mirrors that it is? We in the South have not had a single discussion that I have heard about that potential outcome.

We haven’t even positioned ourselves between both sides as we ought to have, instead lining up with the EU in a partisan manner which may yet come back to haunt is. After all, if the hard border we are determined to avoid happens anyway, it will be on this island that it will happen.

And, when it comes to installing it and protecting the needs of the EU big guns, don’t be surprised if – just like after the crash of 08 and the austerity that followed – it is the EU which is again punishing us to save the overall project.

Brendan Ogle is a Right2Water Co-Ordinator, Unite’s Political, Education and Community co-ordinator. and blogs every Thursday here

From top: Bertie Ahern in 2008; Project Ireland 2040 launch at the Institute of Technology, Sligo last month; Brendan Ogle

Brendan Ogle writes:

I’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 and Ellen Coyne, of The Times Ireland edition, 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.

Listening to the leader of Fianna Fáil in the past week one could be mistaken for believing that the use of the media by those running the country to further their own ends began last summer, and that he and his party had no ‘form’ in this regard. But we know otherwise.

A TV3 documentary ‘Print And Be Damned’ aired in 2013 and in it Anne Harris, formerly of The Sunday Independent, shed light on the disgraceful run up to the 2007 general election.

The events are also set out in an article by the Irish Examiner’s Michael Clifford aptly headed ‘Bertie And The Sindo : An Affront To Democracy’, and they provide an invaluable insight into the shocking and sordid behaviour of then Taoiseach, and head of Fianna Fáil, Bertie Ahern.

At the time Ahern was up to his neck trying to explain wads of cash up his chimney, massive wins on the horses, why a sitting Taoiseach didn’t have a bank account, and much else about his personal and party finances at the Mahon Tribunal.

Then one day he bumped into The Sunday Independent editor Aengus Fanning in the Shelbourne Hotel. It was April 2007, and after 5 years of government and personal scandal Ahern was running out of time, and rope.

There was much interest and speculation about exactly when the election would be but rather than just ask, Fanning took a less direct route with the sitting Taoiseach.

He advised Ahern that The Sunday Independent had a massive file on matters pertaining to Ahern and the Tribunal and that it was ‘explosive stuff’. Would the Taoiseach happen to have any stories that he might supply the paper with? They’d be particularly interested in the election date?

Ahern didn’t respond directly but a few weeks later, on a Saturday – print day for Sunday papers – he called the paper with some news. He was going to dissolve the government and trigger an election, he would be going to Aras an Uachtarain the following morning, but not ‘until after you’re off the press with the first edition’.

By this means the dissolution of the 29th Dáil was announced, unusually, on a Sunday, and it is said even many of Ahern’s cabinet colleagues didn’t know about it before the Sindo announced it. Ms Harris also confirmed that, thereafter, Ahern gave many stories exclusively to The Sunday Independent, something that became obvious to readers over time.

In that election Fianna Fáil managed to return to office thanks to a Green Party coalition. They did so despite the impending and unprecedented financial catastrophe that they had sown in previous years, and the frankly embarrassing revelations about the financial dealings of the Taoiseach that dominated the early part of the election campaign. No matter. Ahern was elected Taoiseach for a third time, much to the approval of The Sunday Independent.

Micheál Martin was a cabinet member (Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment) when this happened and I wondered again last week, did he as a Minister know the extent to which his party leader was manipulating the media for party advantage, or did he read about it over his cornflakes in the Sunday Independent?

So what has changed under Fine Gael?

Well we have a first-time Taoiseach, shiny and new and full of vim. I’m sure he has a bank account, I doubt he puts cash up a chimney, and if he has ever darkened a bookies I’d be a tad surprised.

But he sure as hell seems to share Fianna Fáil’s penchant for using the media for the advancement of himself, and his party. And in his case he is doing it by spending literally millions of Euro of taxpayer’s money telling those very taxpayers how great they all are.

We are being propagandised by government at our own expense.

The SDU was one of Leo Varadkar’s first initiatives on becoming Taoiseach, headed by PR guru John Concannon. The unit has 14 staff and an annual budget of €5m.

From the outset, a suspicious public have worried that the role of the unit is to use taxpayers’ money to ‘spin’ like hell in the interests of Fine Gael and Varadkar, as opposed to providing essential public information about government services in an efficient and cost-effective manner, its claimed role.

That claim now looks very shoddy given the furore created by the manner in which the government strategy plan ‘Ireland 2040’ has been communicated.

Leaving aside the massive reheating of policies and announcements long made and yet to be delivered in the plan, it turns out that newspapers countrywide were paid for ‘advertorials’ made to look like media news and commentary.

Some were even adorned with Fine Gael election candidates, grinning as only election candidates can grin, in key marginal constituencies. ‘Vote for me, look what I’m getting for you’ seemed to be the message. And all paid for by us, the taxpayer.

Varadkar has attempted to defend this by arguing unconvincingly that the unit operates at arms-length from government. He repeatedly states this.

This is unconvincing because, thanks to the Sunday Business Post persisting with questions about the unit, the Information Commissioner forced Varadkar’s Department to release documents that say the very opposite.

One such document, written by John Concannon himself, makes it clear that the effectiveness of the SCU:

‘will be dependent on regular structured access to senior government decision-makers and processes’.

So much for ‘arms-length’! Caught out, Varadkar has now ordered a review of the unit that, hopefully, will lead to its abolition.

Fine Gael have led government(s) here since 2011, despite the fact that in 2016 less than 1/5 of those entitled to vote for them did so. Over 80% of the electorate rejected the party of government.

And Bertie Ahern was elected Taoiseach three times, despite massive issues about his finances,  and cronyism, and following policies pursued throughout his tenure that utterly wrecked a nation. Yet Varadkar is Taoiseach and Ahern is said to have ambitions to be our President!

The media play a key role in these events and the extent to which, even in the digital age, traditional media shape public attitudes should not be underestimated. That media, by and large, is there to defend the vested interests of the rich and powerful. That is why it’s the rich and powerful that own and control it.

In that context the relationship that government – and our Taoiseach – has with the media, and how the communications we pay for are used, should always be distanced, professional and ethical.

When those relations result in media acting as puppets of government or a Taoiseach (whether it is paid or unpaid puppetry) it is, as the Examiner rightly called it in 2013 ‘An Affront To Democracy’.

The Strategic Communications Unit should be abolished.

Brendan Ogle is a Right2Water Co-Ordinator, Unite’s Political, Education and Community co-ordinator. and blogs every Thursday here

Pics: Rollingnews, Engineers Journal