Saturday, November 27, 2004

Ireland at the Crossroads

I'm was in Dublin yesterday attending a Democracy Commission event in Liberty Hall, Dublin: Ireland at the Crossroads - Democracy in the 21st Century. The Democracy Commission, which is exploring issues surrounding democracy in Ireland, north and south, was set up by Democratic Dialogue in the North and TASC in the Republic. It was a very interesting event, although there was a little bit too much kvetching about politicians to my mind. Poor old politicos. Anyway, I thought I might report on a few thoughts that struck me through the day.

The most interesting thing for me was that very many people made an explicit link between democracy and poverty. Ireland is of course one of Europe's success stories, moving from the being one of the poorest three countries in the EEC (as was) to being one of the wealthiest. In a generation. I'm one week older than Ireland's membership of the EU, so I've seen most of that change. And a change for the better it is. Unfortunately, Ireland's wealth has not been spread evenly amongst the whole population, so as well as being one of the wealthiest countries in the Union, it is also one of the most unequal. Extreme urban poverty is obvious to anyone who's visited Dublin in the last few years. They have an enormous heroin problem (12,000 people I think I've heard, although I'd love to be corrected); homelessness is through the roof, so to speak. Dublin is quite simply a rough, poor city.

Actually, and this is a side comment, Dublin is the only place in Europe I know where it is impossible for the middle classes to hide from poverty. Even the residents of the Vico Road, the poshest, and most beautiful, part of suburban Dublin are only ten minutes walk from Ballybrack, one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods. And the city centre is very poor. Belfast, on the other hand, is almost completely segregated (in so many senses). When I read the Save the Children report on Child Poverty in Northern Ireland that was reported in the Guardian and on Slugger O'Toole last week, I was actually surprised. I knew that Belfast is poor, but the fact is that if you stick to the wealthy slice of south Belfast, you quite simply never encounter extreme poverty. In Dublin, on the other hand, staying ignorant is simply far more difficult. And that's just in Dublin.

Anyway, the link between poverty and democracy was generally articulated in terms that no true democracy would abandon 15 percent of the population at a time of spectacular economic progress. Or rather, would continue the abandonment of 15 percent of the population. Some people also spoke passionately about the fact that people in poverty quite simply cannot employ the tools of democracy. They are not empowered to have their interests represented in the fora that the articulate take for granted.

Which links to another theme - the connections between democracy, citizenship and literacy. It was striking how much people spoke about education. Some of the schoolkids at the event raised their dissatisfaction with civics classes as they are taught, saying that it is no surprise to them that people despair at politics when their introduction to it is so weak. But, more importantly, people pointed to the fact that political literacy requires, well, literal literacy. Without that, there is no access.

A third theme across the day was the status of Ireland as a pluralist society, with new groups and belief systems represented in the country. While some immigrants at the meeting expressed some hostility to the concept of multiculturalism, regarding it as ghettoising people, there was a real desire for new arrangements to be developed to represent Ireland's new members.

I should just mention a couple more things that could be traced through the day - first that a lot of expressions of social justice were articulated through a link to Irish patriotism. I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with the link, but neither am I entirely uncomfortable. This sort of talk reminds me of Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country. But this would require another post in and of itself. Second, that people felt profoundly alienated from politics, but not apathetic. As one of the students said 'people are still very political. It's parties that aren't political.'

All in all a worthwhile day. More details and an online forum at the Democracy Commission's website, I think.

Update: I really should be writing a paper, but instead am messing with the damn blog. Silly me. Anyway, Mel makes an interesting point in the comments. Ta Mel!

The heart and the hearth of Dublin

Well, Bewley's Oriental Cafés in Dublin close on Tuesday coming, the 30th of November. Not a particularly significant moment in the history of civilisation, but a rather sad event for Dubliners. Bewley's was set up in the 19th century by a Quaker family, right in the middle of Grafton Street, Dublin's primary shopping street. Bewley's was a real Dublin institution, a classy, slightly exotic institution - a café when Dublin only had pubs, where you could sit for a couple of hours in front of a real fire, nursing a cup of coffee and an almond bun. It was a place to meet people, a refuge at all times of day and night, and a great leveller, shared by all. It really was, as Brendan Keneally put it, the heart and the hearth of Dublin.
As actor James Bartlett said on a documentary about the place (what can I say, there's not much on Irish TV at the best of times!), there was five notable smells in the Dublin of his childhood: the biscuits being baked in Jacob's Bakery between St. Patrick's Cathedral and Stephen's Green, Keeve's the Knackers in the Coombe, where horses' bones were boiled up to make glue, the sniffy Liffey, polluted by the chemicals from Clondalkin's paper mill, the smell of Guinness's brewery as they roasted the hops, and the 'lovely comfortable aroma' of Bewley's Coffee coming from the café. Bartlett's a bit older than me, but I certainly remember the last three of those. My particular favourite was the Guinness smell, but Bewley's always brings back dark and rainy Winter nights, taking refuge in the warmth. And don't forget that real fire!

But I have to say that some of the uproar in Dublin at the idea of the place closing itself reflects an underlying sadness about change in Ireland. This is one more mark of how Dublin isn't what it used to be. In part people rage at the loss of Grafton Street's character, since the street has slowly been transformed into a typical British high street. But there's also a large amount of 'Dublin in the Rare Oul Times' sentimententality, harking back to an era which wasn't all that much fun. This nostalgia is at least partly a response to a general feeling that the pace of change in Ireland. In a sense this is a traumatised culture, where the place has completely transformed within, say, half my parents' generation's lifetime. So, the response to Bewley's closure fits (as a mild instance) in the same vein as blood scandals, anti-Europeanism and a range of other political troubles - the feeling that a breach has been made with the security and honesty of the past and all that is left is plastic, anonymous and inhuman. And also the ultimate humiliation, although I won't go into it here, that the new Ireland doesn't look all that different to England.

On a lighter note, it is worth keeping in mind that the cafés are closing for two simple reasons: in recent years Bewley's coffee and food was just piss poor. The place was all just a bit tatty and you could get better coffee elsewhere. And, of course, the nostalgic story for Bewley's (mine included) generally involves the idea of sitting for hours over a cup of coffee. As the owners of the place have said, that ain't a good basis for a business. And, unless the City Council takes the place over (interesting EU competition law questions there), it was just a business.

Update: Kieran Cooke has an interesting article about Bewley's in Saturday's Guardian, arguing that the place was destroyed by Ireland's nostalgia industry. It does make you wonder if we should change the name of Ireland to Irelandland...

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Letting Fly - A Guide to The Ethics of Buttonholing Politicians

When I was out last night, people raised an interesting question: how should you behave if you met a democratically-elected politician whose policies you find to be abhorrent? It's no surprise that this was raised in the context of current politics, both here and globally. Still, the general question is far more interesting. So, put that issue aside and simply imagine whatever democratically elected political leader it is you find most abhorrent. Think of someone who leaves you wide-eyed and foaming at the mouth. Someone who seems to have no shame in parading their dishonesty and political-moral stupidity for all to see. Should you bawl them out or not?

For the sake of reflection, let's qualify this question:
1. Your rage should be policy-oriented. Merely thinking that X is a gobshite (there's a great Irish word for your delectation) is not enough. They actually need to be up to something that you can disagree with.
2. It is important that whoever you are thinking of can (plausibly) be held responsible for the policy that sent you into the outer regions of frenzied apoplexy. So, I'm not talking about raving at an American or Frenchman (delete as appropriate) because you associate them with their government's policies. Even if they did support those policies, blasting their faces with invective and spittle is just rude (unless they've already stamped on your sandcastle, in which case...).

You have two options: you can keep mum and talk about the weather, or you can grasp the rare opportunity to vent your spleen and let them have it.

I'm not sure I have a full answer to the question: I suspect that I'm in favour of a venting that stops short of the volcanic. Here are my thoughts so far:

1. How often do you get to have a go at an important person? The fact that this person is dreadful just adds virtue to the occasion. Politicians are very skilled at avoiding real people, so an opportunity to take some mendacious bastard to the verbal guillotine is too good to pass up. We have to listen to them all day, so I figure that it's pay-back time: you’d be failing in a very important way if you didn’t go for it.
2. It may be that, as a moral agent yourself, you are under an obligation to object to abhorrent behaviour when you have the opportunity. This obligation is both to yourself (what sort of person tolerates the behaviour of a despicable character because they thought it wasn't the done thing to let fly at them) and to society in general (surely an important aspect of our being as moral agents is our capacity to resist cruelty etc.).
3. Your verbal assault may, at the very least, be embarrassing for your victim. You’ll add to their sneaky suspicion that they can't preen and swagger in public without someone throwing (verbal) stones. And that looks bad on camera, don't you know.
Or rather, it looks bad for them...

That said...
1. What precisely is your moral intent? Informing someone that you disapprove of their bad behaviour cannot be motivated solely or largely by the wish to get it off your chest. That’s just self-indulgence. Are you looking to change their minds? Or to shift their attention to other matters that they seem to ignore?
2. The people I'm talking about are of course elected, generally by a majority of the populace. Now, while majority votes are not particularly good methods for resolving moral questions, we surely do have some duty of politeness to the degree that someone represents the general wishes of large numbers of people. The fact that we might not see them doing the same thing doesn't justify us excluding this issue from our moral reasoning.
3. On a related note, we should also think about the political consequences of our actions. If you denounce the politician because you don't like what they're up to, an element of your calculations should be based on how you can, in your own tiny way, chip away at that person's electoral position. You should shape your statement around greatest impact. It may well be that the greatest impact is achieved through a well-pitched comment, but it may also be that greatest impact is achieved (in terms of not doing any damage) by saying nothing. Moreover, you are, I guess, going to be a bit of a persona non grata with your victim once you've done the deed. I suspect that if you've been looking to get crumbs of their table for something else, a little diplomacy might be worth it. The Bono doctrine, if you like...

In short, if you did have the opportunity, it would probably be good to let fly, but you should temper your actions with a regard to your own reasons for doing so, with respect for the person's office and with an awareness of the effect you ultimately wish to have.

And remember, sometimes it's best to stick with throwing your slippers/shoes/children at the TV.

Saturday, November 20, 2004


I'm always struck by the sorts of language that political theorists use. For example, I'm not sure I've read a book in liberal or institutional theory that the author hadn't, well, liberally sprinkled with the word 'require.'

In the same vein, people who are interested in utopian theories tend to use the term 'moment' a lot. They are intrigued by the 'utopian moment' in various literatures or ideas. Likewise, and more relevant to a liberal, Mel over on accountability bloke, talks about Bruce Ackerman's far more literal 'constitutional moment.'

I haven't lent too much thought to this. That is, beyond the fact that the moment metaphor refers to more than a unit of time, something chronological. Time is in there, alright, but it's not sufficient to explain what people seem to mean by the metaphor. It also seems to have within itself something like the Derridean concept of 'trace.' But I'll leave it at that - I'm well out of my depth with these faffy speculations. There are probably only two responses to the post: 'what?' or 'so what?'...
Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Albert Speer and Moral Extinction

I finished Vernon God Little (what a bizarre book!) last night and, looking to bide my time before collecting a book from the office today, I flicking through the introduction to Gita Sereny's Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. Even reading the first fifteen pages, I'm struck by what a beautiful, humane account this book is, all the more striking given that Sereny has chosen as her subject one of the most complex characters to come out of the Nazi regime.

One element of the introduction is devoted to the idea of decent people being involved with the Nazis. Sereny tells of being a young nurse in France under the German occupation. Like many young people, she fiercly wished to resist the occupation, but having no power to do so, she settled for venting her frustrations on two German officers who were seeking to help the children that were in Sereny's care. Eventually both men were re-assigned, one to the Russian front, where he died within weeks, and the other, who turned out to be half-Jewish, to a concentration camp. "They had both been devout Christians and opponents of the regime," Sereny writes,
    "We had never known. They didn't tell us, only tried to express it by showing affection to the children and helping us to care for them, which was strictly against Nazi rules. Indulging our emotions, we had abused their kindness. We had never sensed their pain and their dilemma, and that they despairingly wanted to be - and indeed were - our friends."
This sort of righteous self-indulgence, clouding a recognition of the other as a person, rather than solely a representative of injustice, is something I think I'll come back to.

One other passage in the introduction struck me especially, however. On page 10, Sereny suggests that Speer did not work at the heart of the Nazi regime for personal gain or mere vanity. She concludes (so far at least), that a large motive for him was his genuine (and reciprocated) affection for Hitler. She writes:
    Speer, I was already convince, had never killed, stolen, personally benefited from the misery of others or betrayed a friend. And yet, what I feel neither the Nuremberg trials nor his books had really told us was how a man of such quality could become not immoral, not amoral, but somehow infinitly worse, morally extinguished."
This strikes me as a perfect articulation of the self within various sort of regime - amorality and immorality are not the worst that can happen to the individual. They do not suggest the possibility of moral death. The passage also raises the question of whether, on top of wondering at Speer's moral extinction, we should think about whether working in institutional environments is bound to leads to some form of moral extinction.

I'm not suggesting, as sometimes happens, that the nasty things happening in bureaucracies is a little bit like Nazism or the holocaust - I'm sort of a fan of the 'the Nazis are a special case of awfulness' rule, but I also think that some of the mundane behaviours that sustained the regime - careerism, for example, or a non-thinking implementation of instructions, where the individual insulates themselves from the consequences of their actions - are just that: mundane, every day behaviours of people working in environments that encourage a disengagement of moral agency.

For example, and although there are certainly other moral problems here, there is something admirable about the actions of Katherine Gun in the run up to the second Iraq War, or those of Daniel Ellsberg in leaking the Pentagon Papers. But at the same time, it's a wonder that there are so few political whistleblowers. The imperatives of loyalty, of doing the right thing towards the boss, or of doing the right thing towards your sense of bureaucratic ethics, I guess, leaves you morally lobotomised. This is especially so, as seems to have been the case with Speer's relationship with Hitler, if you have genuine and heartfelt affection for the boss. So, doing the right thing gets caught up with your affections.

That's not necessarily a bad thing - liberal democracies are, at least in theory, run on a strict division of labour between elected actors who make decisions and unelected functionaries who translate those decisions into actions.
But at what point does obedience to the ethical dimensions of this regime tend towards the self being 'morally extinguished?' I think that it's too easy to say that, so long as your bosses are elected you should do what you're told. Neither do I think that you can intervene in line with your conscience every time the boss steps beyond the bounds of your conscience.

I suspect that some roughly Rawlsian concept of public reason - that (I'm being a little definitionally flexible here) your actions should be justified based on reasons that you expect other reasonable people would be able to accept - should be at play in the sorts of calculations that bureaucrats make. Rawls really thought public reason should be exercised only at pretty high levels, but I'm with Jonathan Quong (link to abstract: the full text requires a subscription) in thinking that public reason should be applied in a wider sense (I'm not suggesting that Quong would agree with this line of argument, though!). Still, some formulation of public reason might help turn moral agency outwards, towards the polity that one works for, but without abandoning the idea of the individual's responsibility.

What this sort of idea doesn't deal with is the genuine affection that one can feel for those in power. Ellsberg talks about this aspect of the cult of the presidency in the States, and it's not impossible that John Scarlett felt some loyalty towards his bosses in Downing Street during the events that led to the war, as covered by the Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Review. Loyalty and affection are powerful and morally valuable motivators. We don't tend to enjoy the idea of people shopping friends or family members to the police, although we do tend to qualify our attachment to loyalty by thinking that doing wrong can trump it pretty quickly. Still, perhaps loyalty and affection are simply the price we have to pay for the humanity of bureaucrats. We'd hate it if they couldn't or didn't feel these attachments but we have to live with the fact that the things that make us human can switch our humanity off.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Bye bye Pragmatism, bye bye.

On Newsnight, Sir Christopher Meyer, who was the UK amabassador to Washington, mentioned that, between Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, 'you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.' This is not really news. Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack very diplomatically intimates that the two are not overwhelmed by love for each other. Anyhow, as Fred Kaplan wrote last February in Slate,
Powell's best option, after January, may be to abandon his ambitions for further public office, nab a lucrative job in the private sector, and write the most outrageous kiss-and-tell political memoir that the world has ever seen.
I wonder, given that Powell has been loyal enough to lend his huge political capital to the Bush re-election campaign, would he actually anything really really scandalous up on the administration?

And as for the possible successor: Rice? I dread to think...

Standing at the Bar

I was watching Legal Eagles, RTÉ1's excellent documentary following people around the Irish Courts, last night. One thing that amazed me was the impoverished position of trainee barristers. Poor souls, they don't earn a bean, at least until the built a business and then earn lots and lots. Nothing like solicitors though, the real objects of my jealousy.

Apparently the two-tier solicitor/barrister division is being investigated by the Competition Authority at the moment. The consultancy reports on solicitors and barristers can be seen here and here (both pdf). Solicitors prepare cases and then hire barrisors to present them to the court. The system, with barristers depending on solicitors for work is hardly transparent.

Still, it's possible that there's not much wrong here. Of course, a solicitor could just give jobs to insiders, but it strikes me that they would be better served, not least financially, in finding the best person for the job. A case of patronage driven by quality.

I'd be more worried about who ends up in law in the first place. The investment required to enter the industry is huge, and the series suggests that the law profession has come up with some great tricks to keep their shop closed to the great unwashed. Surely a democratic state should be drawing its lawyers, and ultimately under the British and Irish systems, its judges, from across society, not from a narrow band of those who are curently welcome into the profession. I'm always a bit sceptical of the idea that parliaments should look like the populations they represent, but with the legal profession I'm not sure.

Update: I only had time for a quick glance at the reports, and the final conclusions include concern over closed shops for the training of barristers and solicitors. I suspect that the consultants' worries about this 'restricting the number of entrants' into both professions are not justice-based, but are rooted in the anti-competitive tendencies that are produced by this. Still, it's interesting that they note it. I still naively hope for a moment to read the full report, though of course the Competition Authority might not come to the same conclusions as the consultants did, so anything we draw from the reports is necessarily provisional.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Owning Public Spaces

One advantage of kicking off a blog is that zero-readership encourages, well, courage. So let’s start with something easy: Remembrance Sunday. As a Southerner, born and raised in the Republic but living in Northern Ireland (long enough to know I shouldn't say anything about this stuff), I’m more than a little perplexed by Remembrance Sunday. It goes without saying that I’m hardly going to be turned on by British Nationalism – by the occasion dressed up as ‘the nation remembers’ as Channel 4 put it. And I’m certainly not a fan of the militarism of the ceremonies themselves.

Still, lots of Irishmen died in the British army during both World Wars. I have at least one relative, a great-uncle, who fought in Burma. I’d be very surprised if some digging didn’t reveal more British soldiers in my past. It stands to reason – all of Ireland was part of the UK until 1922 and even after that the British Army was (and remains to a small extent) a pretty sure financial bet. But for the most part, this element of the Irish story has been forgotten(although there are notable exceptions to this).

When I lived in England I would stomach my discomfort and stand in front of the Union Jack with Ireland’s messy complicated role in the UK’s history in mind. I can’t take responsibility for the motives of others in being there, but I was there in large part to commemorate people who – not just during WWI – were slaughtered, not for noble ideals but because they thought the army was better than hunger.

What leaves me perplexed about Remembrance Sunday here in Belfast is the degree to which one side of the community – the Unionist side – owns the event. It’s hardly a surprise, on face of it, given the inherent Britishness of the occasion. But the fact is that, to my mind at least, nationalists and republicans should be as willing to commemorate war dead, and although this day is by no means perfect, it’s better than denying their existence.

Public occasions in Northern Ireland are very rarely owned by both communities. The 12th and St. Patrick’s Day are perceived, not without reason, as sectraian attempts to stake a claim to the city for the day, ensuring that the other lot know that they’re not welcome. Remembrance Sunday itself involves speeches by paramilitary leaders (although this one was not particularly bad news) and flute bands as well as the more official British pomp. The poppy no more includes nationalists than the Easter lily includes unionists.

Neither side of the community, in its public displays, does complicated very well.

Not much to be said about that, except that I think that this, and all the links, reflect the way in which Northern Ireland is characterised by a sectarianism of truth. With some exceptions, each side of the community seems to claim that they are the primary victims of the conflict and that they themselves are only guilty of responding to the other’s provocations or crimes or whatever. Everyone thinks that their resentment is justified and that the resentment of the other side is insincere or trivial or both.

What hope for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Northern Ireland? The South African TRC was partly possible because one element of the community was willing to admit that they had been the primary engine of the wrongs upon which SA’s conflict had been founded. In Northern Ireland, there is no sense of shared guilt. The ownership of public space simply mirrors this sorry state of affairs. Indeed, when someone does try to cross the divide, their move is, perhaps understandably, rebuffed. Those who are engaged in the laudible work of creating a shared sense of the past have their work cut out.