Renua and Sinn Féin: Chilling reminders of how little has changed

At last the Irish crisis has spawned a new political party! Ireland has been something of an oddity amid the volatility that characterises European politics today that we have taken so long to see a new party emerging from the wreckage that our economic and political elites landed us in.

Greece has given us Syriza, Spain Podemos and now Ciudadanos, and Portugal Tempo de Avanzar. Neither has such political creativity been confined to the left as UKIP in England, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy and New Dawn in Greece show. But Ireland had, up until this weekend, shown no appetite for crafting a new collective political response.

Presumably, the bastardised concoction of a name that the new party has chosen is meant to signify that they aspire to a ‘ré nua’ for Irish politics. Yet, that is where the similarity ends with any of these other parties. For Lucinda Creighton’s new party is a firmly centrist party, even though we are told we have to wait months before we will know with any precision what exact mix of market and state it is going to promote.

Indeed, from the little we know, the new party seems uncannily similar to parties from the past rather than proposing anything new as all the other parties mentioned above do. Its mix of free market economics with ‘compassionate’ social policies and transparency in politics reminds many of the appeal of the Progressive Democrats when founded. Firmly right of centre, it would appear.

Yet, much more than its vague and aspirational identity, it is the manner of its formation that reeks so strongly of the old elitist politics that bears such a responsibility for this country’s deep malaise and lack of any new direction. The gathering of professionals from sectors of the financial, advertising and technology sectors seeking to craft an organisation, a message and an identity shows what an elite project this is, a million miles from any links with grassroots civil society.

It is this fundamental fact that marks Renua Ireland out as yet another manifestation of the takeover of politics by PR gurus, marketing strategists and media advisors that lies at the heart of the malaise of contemporary politics worldwide. Where a new politics has emerged, most notably in Latin America over the past decade, it has come from the self-organisation of marginalised sectors of society incubating an alternative project for transforming society.

Out of the intense struggles spawned by such civil society movements have emerged what are really new political parties, not just with a superficial new sheen but with a radically new way of doing politics, a politics from below. This is what is badly needed in Ireland but we see few signs of this emerging.

The other major political revelation of the past week concerns Sinn Féin’s dependence on corporate America for its financing highlighting how Sinn Féin comes to appear ever more like Fianna Fáil over the decades it dominated Irish political life: a populist appeal to less well off voters hiding a deep alliance with corporate capital whose interests it faithfully and instinctively served. That Gerry Adams could proclaim Sinn Féin as the party of business at the recent Ard-Fheis without it causing any murmur of unease is indeed disturbing. It wouldn’t happen in Syriza or Podemos.

But then, as was revealed so starkly yet again in the party’s hamfisted and self-serving response to the appalling revelations of the sexual abuse of Paudie McGahon, Sinn Féin doesn’t do dissent. In this aspect, at least, Fianna Fáil comes out in a better light: even in the darkest days of the ‘una Duce, una Voce’ period of the party, a dissident wing showed it couldn’t be cowed.

By contrast, it appears that, in public at least, there are no dissenters in Sinn Féin and everyone is willing to follow the leader no matter what he says and does. Apart from just how creepily unreal this is, it reveals a party whose overriding value is power at any cost, no matter what trampling on basic human rights nor cosying up to corporate America it takes. At least we know Sinn Féin won’t be supporting Renua Ireland’s attempts to bring more transparency to Irish politics.

All of which shows, yet again, how out of step we are with developments in Europe. What passes for the new in Ireland, whether from Renua Ireland or from Sinn Féin, resembles some of the more chilling aspects of the past. Meanwhile, one vainly looks for signs of anything new stirring in the undergrowth of Irish politics.

Climate Change: Is global momentum finally building?

Recent days have seen some important signs that the momentum needed to ensure a successful climate change treaty is agreed in Paris next December may finally be building. A major climate change protest took place in London today while the week just ended saw the first pledges of emissions reductions being submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat in Bonn.

Switzerland was the first country in the world to submit its INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution), initiating a process that will see the 194 member states make public their INDCs in the runup to the Paris summit. By the end of the week, the European Union had also submitted. So we now know that Switzerland intends to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 50% by 2030 over 1990 levels while the EU’s pledge is to a ‘binding target of at least 40%’ by 2030 over 1990 levels.

The crucial process that may finally see the global community take decisive actions to begin to rein in runaway emissions that cause global warming and ever more destructive climate change has finally begun. A study by the NewClimate Institute published during the week foresees a first wave of submissions between now and the end of March and a further wave in September.

This showed that, of the 81 countries studied, very few intend to submit by the end of March, about one third have initiated the process for agreeing targets while another third have yet to do so. Nearly half indicated that they have yet to set an internal timetable for their submission. Many face challenges with limited expertise and even a lack of certainty on what to include in their submissions.

While this may seem disconcerting, about two-thirds of countries report that they intend to include long-term goals for emission reductions while most will also include policies, specific actions and broader plans for institutional development. This shows therefore that countries are taking on board a broad interpretation of what is required that lends the whole process more credibility.

Meanwhile, various initiatives being taken around the world show a similar level of ambition in finally facing the enormous challenges of climate change. Not least among these is the decision of the editor of the Guardian newspaper, Alan Rusbridger, before he retires next summer to give prominence to the issue of climate change because of its overwhelming importance for the future of humanity.

Not only is this reported in a front-page editorial but today’s edition (Saturday, March 7th) is produced in wraparound that contains a lengthy extract from Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (Penguin, 2014), the front page of which contains no text but the following quote from the book:

‘We know that if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, climate change will change everything about our world. And we don’t have to do anything to bring about this future. All we have to do is nothing.’

This is an exceptional level of recognition and commitment by a major world newspaper of an issue that has been largely neglected throughout the mainstream media until now. It is a major sign of hope.

Somewhat less well know but of a similar magnitude of importance is the launch recently of CapGlobalCarbon, a civil society initiative to establish a Global Climate Commons Trust that would initiate a limit on the amount of coal, oil or gas that could be extracted through issuing licences to fossil fuel companies establishing the amount of fossil fuel that could be extracted. These would be based on the latest climate science and the amounts permitted would be reduced each year. The scheme would be enforced by governments. For further information read John Jopling’s paper on the Green House think tank website.

Growing inequality: disturbing evidence from latest data

Riveted by the Greece versus Germany standoff over the past week, some may have been distracted from the release of important data on inequality in Ireland. Rather like buses in Dublin, you wait ages for one and then three come along together. So it was with reports on inequality over the last week.

 The most significant among them is the TASC report entitled Cherishing All Equally: Economic Inequality in Ireland by Nat O’Connor and Cormac Staunton. Introduced as ‘TASC’s inaugural annual report on income inequality’, it is the most comprehensive ever done on economic inequality in Ireland covering not just income – which is the normal way in which economic inequality has been measured in Ireland over recent decades – but also wealth, public services, tax, capacities, family composition and the costs of goods and services. And all is placed in an international context, showing how badly we compare to other countries.

 As well as measuring inequality, it seeks to understand the processes and policies that cause it, in order more successfully to reduce it. It therefore deserves careful assessment and wide readership, not least among political leaders and policy makers, rather than the glib dismissal given it by Irish Times correspondent, Chris Johns, in that newspaper on February 18th, to which I will return below.

What is most striking about this report, and what generated media headlines last week, is the evidence it presents of the growth in the incomes of the top 10% and top 1% of income earners, in comparison to the other 90%. As shown in the charts reproduced here, the clear tendency since 1975 has been for the share of the very top earners (most strikingly the top 1%) to gain an ever greater share of gross income while the share of the rest has fallen. The result is that Ireland now has the highest level of inequality of gross income (that is income before redistribution through taxes and welfare payments) in the OECD, even higher than Chile which has been widely regarded as an extreme example of gross income inequality since the military dictatorship from 1973-90.

 

That tax and welfare succeed in reducing this income to a more average rate of inequality shouldn’t distract from the significance of what is happening. For it shows that we have permitted the income of the highest earners to grow to obscene levels even as that of average earners is declining. This is the US model but, paradoxically, with results even worse than in that country.

 

 

Another way of looking at this is that the market has been allowed in Ireland to distribute incomes even more unequally than anywhere else in the developed world; it is then up to the state then to put measures in place through taxation and welfare to try to redistribute some of this. But, if left unchecked, the fundamental tendency is towards ever greater levels of income inequality.

 As the evidence of our well-known ‘tax exiles’ shows only too clearly, when such an obscene level of inequality is allowed to become embedded, those at the top of the income divide tend to lose a sense of moral belonging to a national community and feel justified in avoiding sharing their income with those less well off. In other words, taxation and welfare systems come to be undermined, as is all too evident in the widespread calls for tax cuts at the moment.

Even more important than income inequality is inequality in the distribution of wealth like land, property or other assets such as shares. All of these provide further income over and above that from employment but, as highlighted by Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the 21st Century (Harvard University Press, 2014), wealth also leads to an exponential growth in inequality as it can be passed on from generation to generation, thus reinforcing inequality over time.

This report also estimates that the share of wealth owned by the top 10% grew from 42% in 1987 to 58.5% in 2014 while that of the top 1% grew from 10.4% to 27.3% over the same period. This is indeed a huge growth in inequality over a short period, even if places Ireland around the middle of the range among developed countries.

 So does this really matter at all? Is concern about growing economic inequality due to envy, as some claim? Chris Johns of The Irish Times thinks the evidence is exaggerated and that a return to full employment is going to ‘have a huge impact on Irish inequality levels’. Indeed, his main concern is levying additional taxes on the top earners. This shows that he has failed to understand the central finding of this report, namely that incomes from employment are one of the principal causes of growing inequality in Ireland.

And, to emphasise just how much these realities impact on the lives of ordinary people, we had two other reports over the past 10 days that make salutary reading. The annual CSO Measuring Ireland’s Progress showed somewhat divergent trends in poverty between 2012 and 2013 with the rate of those at risk of poverty (living on incomes below 60% of the median) falling from 16.5% to 15.2% but with consistent poverty growing from 7.7% to 8.2%. The latter combines income levels with a measure of being deprived of essential goods so its growth shows a deepening of poverty among the poorest.

The final report was a study of 11 to 15 year olds in North America and Europe. Of the countries studied, Ireland was found to have the third worst life satisfaction among the young. Add this to the fact that, according to the CSO report, the risk of poverty among those up to 17 years old was 17.9% in 2013, worse than the wider population, and we see evidence of problems accumulating among the young that will affect their overall life chances and their integration into society.

Often it is not the left but the churches that best capture the destructive effects of poverty and inequality on society. Last week the Church of England bishops issued what they called guidance notes to voters for the forthcoming UK election in which they criticised a society that ‘celebrates equality’ but ‘treats the poor and vulnerable as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed’. But it was Pope Frances who put it most strongly and unequivocally in his document entitled The Joy of the Gospel (2014) in which he says ‘Inequality is the root of social ills’ (160). This is why we neglect the evidence of these reports at our peril.

The road to a climate treaty in Paris: the latest steps

Given the almost complete lack of media coverage, most people will be unaware that the road to an historic climate treaty to be agreed in Paris next December was opened up considerably last week in Geneva. The talks between 194 states was the latest phase in the process put in place by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to agree a binding treaty by the end of this year.

While the meeting began with the hope that the Lima Call for Climate Action agreed at the last global climate summit in the Peruvian capital last December could be reduced and streamlined, in fact the opposite happened. The co-chairs, Algeria and the US, quickly saw that streamlining the Lima text could be divisive, and opted instead to go into what UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica called ‘listening mode’ so as to help participants ‘understand each other better.’

The result was that the text more than doubled, ending up with all proposals included, and now stands at 86 pages long (available on UNFCCC website). Yet, somewhat surprisingly, the outcome has been welcomed all around, including by the usually very critical NGO representatives. As Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute was quoted as saying: ‘At this early stage, the palpable positive spirit coming out of Geneva is a much better measure of progress than the current length of the negotiating text.’

Though long, what the text essentially does is to map out the options for what to include in the Paris Treaty under the headings of mitigation (targets to reduce emissions), adaptation (measures to develop resilience to the impacts of climate change), finance, technology transfer and capacity building (helping countries develop the capacities to make the necessary changes to move towards low-carbon development). As always, the greater responsibility of developed countries is emphasised as they are the cause of much of the problems.

 The text is therefore very instructive to examine. On mitigation, the target of holding warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels which has been the accepted target for over a decade, appears to be tightened considerably as the text in many places reads ‘below 2 or 1.5 degrees’ reflecting the latest scientific opinion. Significantly, the objective of ‘full decarbonization by 2050’ is in the text, though so also are some far looser objectives such as cuts of at least 50% by 2050 over 1990 levels or levels ‘consistent with the findings of the best and latest available science’.

 The chapter on finance mentions a floor of $100 billion per year to be transferred from developed to developing countries with larger contributions in the years before 2020. Mention is also made that developed countries should transfer the equivalent of 1% of their GDP to developing countries to help them make the transition. Given that only five countries have met the target set by the UN in the 1960s to give 0.7% of GDP in development aid, and that pledges of climate finance barely reached $10 billion last December as the Lima summit began, these targets seem extremely ambitious.

 So, with just over nine months to go, the hard negotiating on the commitments to be given legal form in the Paris treaty has yet to begin. Geneva has given us the parameters, and the process now moves forward on two levels. The first begins immediately as countries must between March and June notify the UNFCCC secretariat of their intended emissions reduction targets. The hard negotiations open at a meeting in Bonn in June with two further sessions planned between then and the Paris climate summit in December. Meanwhile, various ministerial meetings will be where the hard decisions are made.

Everything is to play for therefore between now and December. Last week’s meeting left us with a range of different possibilities; civil society needs to keep up pressure on governments to ensure that the more ambitious and demanding possibilities are chosen. Anything less condemns future generations to frightening scenarios.

Transforming politics: seizing this Greek moment?

The Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, in a speech in Mullingar on Sunday gave a somewhat ambiguous reply to SIPTU president, Jack O’Connor’s recent call for a common left-wing political project to present at the next general election. While Adams welcomed O’Connor’s call and agreed with the need for a ‘common anti-austerity platform’, he quickly went on to attack ‘the unrequited support given to the Labour Party by some in the leadership of the trade union movement’. An bhfuil sé ag iarraidh an dá trá a fhreastal?

This carefully choreographed manoeuvring comes as an Irish response to the new possibilities opened by Syriza’s dramatic victory in Greece and its highly visible strategic position-taking on the European stage. What is most striking about this is the sophistication of the position being mapped out and the alliances being created, not least those of Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis at his meeting with financial investors in London. These, of all people, see the sense of the Greek position.

Meanwhile, back in Athens, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was giving more details about the Greek government’s policy plans for the coming months, emphasising the humanitarian actions being taken as well as the rejection of a new bailout and the application for bridging finance. While the focus of media attention is on the possible clash with his eurogroup colleagues, the consolidation of his popular base of support in Greece, including among New Democracy supporters, is another vital part of the overall strategy.

So, what are the lessons for Irish politics and what Adams called the ‘unprecedented opportunity to transform the political landscape on this island, North and South’? The major lesson of the Greek position is the power of the big idea. It is their well developed proposal to deal with debt (as explained very well by Tom Healy of the Nevin Institute in his Monday blog) that is so sensible and that very effectively turns the tables on the exclusive austerity-based approach to the European crisis so far. Allied to this is the credibility of Syriza since they are outsiders to the Greek power elites and so the major changes they seek to implement in the way the Greek state is run hold real promise.

So, if Sinn Féin aspires ‘to lead an anti-austerity government’ after the next election, what is the big idea that they bring to the table that might be a game changer? Can Sinn Féin offer some new ideas that might make a breakthrough to what Adams calls ‘a citizen-centred, rights-based society’? This is where the comparison to Syriza and Podemos that the leaders of these two parties and the European media seem fond of making, breaks down completely. For Sinn Féin’s big idea has nothing to do with social transformation; rather it is a united Ireland. And, faithful to the mainstream tradition of Irish nationalism that has always prioritised issues of constitutional status over issues of socio-economic transformation, the party seems much more obsessed with the constitutional parameters of this project than with any radical well-researched vision for its political economy.

This gets us to the heart of the difference in two ways. The first is that socio-economic transformation requires a positive vision of the state and its potential; the positive language of Syriza about public servants and the role of the state is very telling and serves to highlight the absence of any such vision in the discourse of Sinn Féin and parties to their left. Secondly, this vision of the state is balanced by the fact that Syriza is a party of social mobilisation and of rich internal democracy and debate. By contrast, Sinn Féin is one of the last great parties of democratic centralism in Europe, harking back to the old communist form of party and completely at odds with the emergence of the new left of Syriza and Podemos.

However, the acknowledgement by Gerry Adams of ordinary citizens getting a sense of ‘their own collective power’ through community mobilisations is important and a recognition of a reality that the water charge protests seem to be strengthening. Yet, it does stand in some tension with attempts both by Sinn Féin and the Socialist Party/AAA to be seen to lead this movement.

A somewhat hidden dimension of this mobilisation that deserves much more careful attention is the extent to which local community organising and leadership is being strengthened and politicised. It may have been a poorly chosen issue (playing into the anti-taxation and anti-state instincts so deeply bred by Fianna Fáil hegemony) but if it leads to a mobilised civil society relating to political parties on its terms rather than the terms of the party leadership, then maybe we in Ireland are taking a first decisive step towards transforming our political landscape. But when is a party going to emerge that can credibly embody a big idea of socio-economic transformation?