Monday, January 31, 2005

Well Worth Reading!

When we set up our respective blogs, they were supposed to be about work, but Mel shows how far we've travelled (if you'll forgive the pun!). Take a look at his great homage to Top Gear!

Etzioni on the Holocaust

Via A Fistful of Euros, Amitai Etzioni has a post on Germany and Collective Guilt.


My feedreader delivered a number of photographic posts to me this morning. I recommend that you take a glance mountainy pictures from Planet Potato and Gavin of Gavin's Blog, or, if you're in a more cosmopolitan mood, at the wonderful London photo over on Apparently Nothing At All and the bizarre goings on documented on Lex's Folly. Great stuff!

Iraq: What Would Success Look Like?

I just posted a comment over on A Tangled Web on the subject of the Iraqi elections. My general attitude, I think, is summarised by Michael Ignatieff, linked through Left2Right (unfortunate URL, by the way!). But we are left with the important question of what precisely would constitute success for the coalition. Instead of abusing ATW's bandwidth, I thought I might take the opportunity to expand here.

Writing of the elections, David Vance suggest that
...what we saw on Sunday was the wonderful sight of democracy slowly emerging from the dark shadows of decades of Saddamite tyranny. The pathetic spectacle of the Jihadists detonating themselves to hell and back around Baghdad shows how evil and useless they are. I suspect that it will indeed take some people on the left and right of the political spectrum some years for some to realise just what a wonderful gift the Coalition forces, and the vision of George W, have offered to the people of Iraq.

I'm not so sure about David's characterisation of the insurgency as a mixture of local Ba'athists and foreign jihadis (if only life were so simple), but that's not the subject of this post. I'm more interested in his argument that those people who will not "realise just what a wonderful gift the Coalition forces, and the vision of George W, have offered to the people of Iraq" for "some years" are somehow proven to be mistaken by the fact of the election.

Now, I'm pretty suspicious of visions, but putting the rhetoric aside, I think David is wrong in thinking that the election, which I'm glad to see take place, is proof of very much. Functioning states entail more than elections. But what do they entail? It strikes me that there is a very important issue in this: are there tests that everyone, whether pro- or anti- the coalition's actions, could accept, not to prove that the war was right or wrong (which would take other moral and political questions), but to prove, over some specific period of time, whether Iraq is a functioning democratic state or not?

So, here are my suggestions. I'd love to hear yours.

1. A Functioning Democracy: A series of generally uncorrupt governments in power, with smooth transitions between blocs, that hold to some concept of rule of law. That is, that they attach themselves to the equality of all Iraqi citizens before the law, regardless of ethnicity, religious affiliation or gender. This is a bit of a difficult one, given that I'm not convinced that many established democracies actually hold to this rule or, certainly in the UK, that politicians understand precisely what rule of law means, but nevertheless a government that introduces partisan laws, that favours its constituency over others or that sets about designing the state around the interests or predelictions of those in the seat of power doesn't seem like a particularly successful success story.

From what I've heard, this needn't entail an abandonment of sharia law, although it would require some limiting of the remit of sharia courts (which, from what I've heard, is the situation in Pakistan (admittedly not a significant model for democratisation!).

2. Economic Independence: A visible and significant degree of independence from American and other coalition interests in policy-making: that the US embassy is actually an embassy and does not become the de facto defence, foreign or economic ministry of Iraq. To use a trivial example, buying Boeing when Airbus gives a better offer would be pretty damning of an Iraqi government. More significantly, an Iraqi state that pursues an economic policy, from oil contracts to fiscal policy, that seems detrimental to the short-term and long-term interests of the people would be significant.

In general, though, an analysis of this sort of thing would be rather difficult: how can one prove that co-incidence of policy is actually co-ordination of policy? I'm sure it's possible, but, if we agreed that this was a good test, we'd have to agree on how one might go abot testing it.

3. Military Sovereignty: That, if Iraq became peaceful, the relationship with coalition forces would change over time. I wonder whether the test would be a complete withdrawal of coalition forces, but this would be a bit of an odd demand in and of itself. After all, the presence of US troops in Germany doesn't generally suggest that Germany is under the US thumb (well, generally anyway!). Perhaps, though, the test would be the manner in which coalition troops would be present: a successful Iraq could hardly have them either venturing out of barracks in an official capacity or engaging in offensive operations that would be detrimental to Iraqi interests from within the state.

Are there any more? I've tried to invent some at least hypothetically testable criteria, but they may not get to grips with your vision of what a functioning, democratic state looks like. Are my standards too high? Too low? If you're sufficiently bothered, let me know!

Friday, January 28, 2005

Mary McAleese on RTÉ Radio

There has been a bit of a blogosphere spat over comments made by Mary McAleese, the Irish president, on RTÉ Radio (Real Player required) on Thursday morning. Being interviewed by Áine Lawlor, she made a comment about how, to quote the BBC (for RTÉ News's account, see here), 'Northern Ireland children were taught to hate Catholics in the same way Nazis despised Jews.' I read through various remarks and comments, made on A Tangled Web, United Irelander (also here), on N.Irish Magyar and on Slugger (also here). I'm sure there's more dotted about, but it's Friday evening and I don't want to spend to long at this. Otherwise you might think that I don't have a life, and I do, I swear!

Anyway, I have one or two things to add to the debates taking place elsewhere, one of which is a transcript of the specific question and answer that caused all the furore in the first place...

So, here it is, with the usual provisos about my writing transcripts that I included when I transcribed parts of a Today Programme interview with Tony Blair. Basically, that is that speaking ain't writing, so don't expect absolute coherence:
Áine Lawlor: And isn’t also something that we have to remember that it simply starts with intolerance and it simply starts with not caring about someone’s humanity because they’re part of a group and what happened with fascism was that it was converted then, that logic, to its ultimate efficient conclusion, the killing machines of the concentration camps?

Mary McAleese: You’re absolutely right and that’s a very good point worth remembering. And Nazis didn’t invent anti-Semitism. They used anti-Semitism. They built on anti-Semitism. But they didn’t invent it.

It was, for generations, for centuries, an element of the lived lives of many people, who on the surface lived very good lives and many of them would have regarded themselves for example as very good Christians. But they gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland for example gave to their children for example an irrational and outrageous hatred of Catholics, in the same way that people give to their children an outrageous and irrational hatred of those who are of different colour and all of those things, all of those hatreds in the wrong circumstance on the street in Dublin they can outcrop in, as I have seen and heard, a little child from Somalia being pelted with rotten eggs. They can outcrop in a knife being taken in a fight and someone from Eastern Europe being knifed to death.

It’s a toxin, you see, it’s a poison, and it can be in weak and diluted form but in concentrated, even in that weak and diluted form it’s still capable of surviving long enough for a Nazi-type era to come along and to force it into concentrated form and in concentrated form you get Auschwitz, you get Birkenau, you get Darfur, you get Rwanda. That’s what you get when you don’t stop the toxin.

This longer thing, in and of itself, neither proves nor disproves anybody's point. My own opinion is first that I don't think her comment was meant vindictively, in the sense of being pre-meditated or politically strategic. Second, it was certainly a insensitive and selective and should never have been said.

It is certainly true that anti-Catholicism, as an extreme sort ethnic supremacy (as opposed to the theological kind), is akin to anti-Semitism in its mechanisms of transmission and as a basis for action, but it certainly doesn't tell the full story of NI, as Paul on N.Irish Magyar points out. Moreover, slip that it was, President McAleese should just not have said it: it was inappropriate for the day that's in it and was going to cause a significant amount of very much justifiable offense.

The terrible pity of the whole thing is, as I hope you can agree from the extended quote, that she made a good general point about irrational hatreds, about one of the lessons of Auschwitz, and it has been lost. Which is a shame.

Slightly off this topic, I'm making my way through Avishai Margalit's The Ethics of Memory at the moment. It raises questions that (explicitly in the book) links into a lot of comments passed this week: what are we obliged to remember and how are we to remember collectively? One starting point might be described here. Hopefully I'll get to post on Margalit's conclusions when I get to the end of the book.

Update: I see today that the President has apologised for her remark.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Bread or Dead

Warning: This post definitely falls into the category 'singular obsessions!'

Like most people, I've gone through life unable to identify very many activities of which I could say that I was a bit of a dab hand and that I actually pursue, but weirdly enough baking is one of them. I can't recall when I started, but I did, and I've continued to this day. Generally, if I feel like eating bread, I'll bake it.

Moreover, I tend to know quite a bit about the whole bread thing: I have read histories of bread pricing (yeah, I know!) and the like. Generally the rise of the modern state can partly be traced in how the powers of millers and consumers of bread was regulated. This was crucial question for the rulers of early modern Europe. If they got assizes wrong, there would either be food riots or millers' revolts. But once prices were fixed tensions over how bread was to be made shifted to how weights and measures should be maintained, which required a state policy on what a loaf of bread should weigh which required a state policy on what weight actually is.1

Anyway, I was throwing together a couple of loaves on Tuesday evening when I was struck by a recurring question. Why do the some baking traditions rely upon yeast baking and some upon bicarbonate of soda baking?

Well, if you've made it this far you'll probably indulge me a little bit further...

OK: a little background. First, the yeast/bicarbonate thing is a relatively new issue, again to do with modernity. We can generally guess that bread, for the first 50,000 years or so would have been made to rise, thus tasting better and not ruining our teeth, the old fashioned way. Which is that periodically a batter would have been left in the open to pick up naturally abundant yeast from the air. Generally though, there would always be a little bit of bread proving away. When it came to be thrown on the fire, a section would be put aside, mixed with more flour and would provide the basis for the next loaf. There are still traditions, in Continental Europe and the USA, of having that sort of continuity: I read somewhere about a so-called friendship loaf that was a century old or more. Anyway, the basic point is that all bread was this kind of sourdough bread until the 19th century, when people could buy commercial yeast or bicarbonate as it became available.

Second, as anyone who bakes knows, the great thing about bicarb is that you can throw a dough together in about 10 minutes and it goes straight into the oven. The bad thing, which is slightly irrelevant if you have a big family, is that the bread is stale within the day. Properly made yeast bread, on the other hand, lasts for up to a week. So there are real efficiency gains to be had with yeast.

Third, bicarbonate of soda works because, when mixed with an acid, it releases CO2. In Ireland, the traditional method is to bake soda bread with buttermilk: literally the acidic milk left over after butter has been churned.

Perhaps you know different, but I've only heard of two places that adopted a large-scale tradition of soda bread baking, They are, and this is a little strange, Ireland and Bulgaria. Two countries on each end of the European continent that adopted at least similar methods for baking, while most places in between adopted yeast baking. Anyway, here's a couple of theories as to what the reason for this might be (and I'm pure guessing here: if you think you know better please let me know):

1. I'm wrong. Perhaps bicarb baking was prevalent in Europe for a while. It's not time consuming, it uses up valuable milk products that might otherwise go to waste. Perhaps it's remaining as tradition in some places only has more to do with volk cultural movements, or with a more recent relationship with peasant cooking methods than more industrialised regions, where people abandoned such methods before the idea of heritage lent them value.

2. Perhaps until recently certain areas had little access to mass produced yeast, which tends to require special storage, but had access to bicarb, which is more robust (although it would have to kept dry: no mean feat in Ireland!).

3. It has something to do with soil conditions. Soil certainly has a bearing on what wheat will grow. Northern Europeans tend to use rye, whereas the Romans used spelt a lot (not strictly a wheat: it's a grass). Perhaps certain sorts of wheat were more amenable to bicarb. Yeast requires a pretty narrow range of conditions to grow very well, one of which is a high gluten content in the dough, so maybe the Irish and Bulgarians grew wheat that didn't work well with yeast. I have to say that this is a little implausible, but it relates to the far more plausible...

...4. Milling habits. This question was kicked off by my wondering about why (when I bother with top class flour) I prefer using English flour (Dove's Farm, BTW) to the Irish flour (Abbey is best, to my mind). Well the reason is that Abbey is a far rougher flour than Dove's Farm. It's designed for soda bread, so the whole grain is in the flour. Yeast finds that difficult, since it can't work on the gluten in a very mealy dough. I wonder if, instead of Irish flour being designed for the local soda bread baking habits, the habits were originally designed for the flour: if Irish (and perhaps Bulgarian?) mills tended to make rougher flour. This might be because bread was the preserve of the poor, so they wanted every bit of grain in the bread (unlike the rich who traditionally showed off by buying white bread, with most of the grain removed). Or it might just be one of those things.

Anyway, if you haven't given up in boredom, and you have an alternative theory, let me know. Indulge my obsessions!

1By the way, one of the best brief histories of bread is in Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery. The whole weights and measures thing is mentioned in James Scott's Seeing Like a State, but the best history of it is a book by a Polish historian called Witold Kula, called Measures and Men.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Satin Pajama Awards

God, two posts in a row telling you what other blogs told me. Have I no original ideas? Anyway, Paul on N.Irish Magyar posted that A Fistful of Euros is holding its weblog awards here. At the risk of pre-empting your choice, the way to vote is to click beside anything called Slugger O'Toole or Crooked Timber!

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Remembering Irish Service in the World Wars

Inspired by Holocaust Memorial Day, Young Irelander makes a few touching comments about remembering Irish service personnel who fought in the two World Wars. He asks if anyone knows of websites that commemorate these people's role, so if you know of any, can you pop over to his site and leave him a comment?

Commemorating Auschwitz

There's an article in today's Guardian, written by one of the Soviet soldiers who liberated Auschwitz. It's a pretty stark account and gives a picture of the terrible condition the prisoners must have been in: they were the people the Nazis hadn't bothered shipping out, and the soldiers, who were in a state themselves, were horrified at what they found.

Monday, January 24, 2005

RIP Lectures

I just receive a reminder about the Royal Institute for Philosophy Lecture Series, continuing between now and March. If I was living in London, I'd go to them all!

Botanic Gardens

This post is partly a friendly dig at poor old Mel, who's well and truly stuck in the snowy USA. For your information Mel, it was a beautiful day in Belfast yesterday: blue skies and a crisp feel to the air!

As part of my meanderings, I took in the Botanic Gardens that surround the Ulster Museum.

I'm fascinated specifically by the Tropical Ravine, built in 1886. I'm sure it was a real technological innovation at the time, and stands as a testament to Belfast's industrial past, but I think I love it because of its doddery ramshackle air. The ferns and mosses have taken over and now everything is covered in life. There's something almost post-apocholyptic about the place, as if we have abandoned the fight to control nature in this little corner of the park. And quite right too! More photos over the page...

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Conservatism Beyond Thatcher

I've just been skipping through the book reviews in yesterday's Guardian and came across this piece on Kieron O'Hara's After Blair: Conservatism Beyond Thatcher. It seems like a good plea for conservatism to return to the basic principles espoused by Burke et al: skepticism of big plans and control of society, sympathy for the less well off. I doubt I'd agree with much of it, though I might agree with some of it (I still have some faith in improvement, or at least in the European model!) but it would be a relief to read an intellectual who had something positive to say about the idea of decent conservatism and about what makes it attractive for so many people, without the shrillness of the American neos or the social cruelty of the Thatcherite free-marketeers. One for the ever-expanding to-read list, methinks!

Saturday, January 22, 2005

N.Irish Magyar on Paisley

I've just taken a look through the N.Irish Magyar's great site. Lots of interesting thoughts, including this piece on Paisley (continued here). Well worth the read.


Well you learn something new every day! Today's revelation from Slugger O'Toole is that there was a language called Yola spoken in Wexford, along the South-East Coast of Ireland until the 19th century. It was a varient of Middle English, and was introduced with the Norman invasion of the 12th Century. Apparently, 'Yola' means 'old,' presumably implying 'the old tongue,' or the like. More grist to the mill for people who bang on about Norman Davies comments in The Isles that, until very recently, the sea was the conduit around which larger cultural entities were built, not a barrier to outsiders. According to comments in this paper (pdf), there might be more information in McCrum et al's The Story of English.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Map of London

The Guardian has a special report on ethnic diversity in London today. There's a big map here (pdf), with the key here. The more interesting information is contained in two pages on religion and on ethnic groups. I find two maps most interesting. Irish people are still concentrated in the traditional areas around North London:

I am surprised by this. I thought (mistakenly obviously) that Irish people were more integrated into the general (white?) population. I wonder to which degree this map reflects people choosing 'culturally comfortable' neighbourhoods and to which degree it reflects class difference, especially compared with the suburban distribution of 'white British' people:

This is spectacular. Now, I do think that London is as cosmopolitan as things get but (viewing all the maps) it is interesting how much people congregate in specific areas. I suppose that this has as much to do with movements of people at similar times, property values, average incomes, the age profiles of different groups and the availability of facilities as it has to do with people just plain prefering their own kind, but I wonder if anyone has ever actually tried to break the components of the preferences down?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Pay Gaps and Gender in Sweden

Via Foreign Dispatches, I came across this article in the Guardian, about the position of women in the Swedish labour market. According to the article,
Working motherhood getting you down? Fed up with living in a country where you're made to feel like a bit of a slacker for getting pregnant?

Well, don't move to Sweden. The Nordic country may have been boasting for decades about its fantastic parental pay and rights packages and its nurseries on every street corner, but according to a leading academic in the field, we have all been duped. Dr Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics who specialises in women's employment and women's issues, says in a book out this week that what we have been told about the Swedish experience amounts to "true lies".

While it might be 'technically true' that women benefit from all sorts of legislative protections, it seems that women are paying a price for childbearing. There is 'a pay threshold in Nordic countries below which are 80% of all women, and above which are 80% of all men.'
"What is more, the glass ceiling problem is larger in family-friendly Sweden than it is in the hire-and-fire-at-will US, and it has also grown as family-friendly policies have expanded. In Sweden 1.5% of senior management are women, compared with 11% in the US."

Apparently, Hakim reckons that there is a roughly 20% wage gap in Sweden, which is not a particularly good showing.

Well this is all a little shocking to me, given my overly-romantic Nordo-phile partiality. On the wage gap, it seems that Hakin is roughly correct. According to a report from the European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions,European pay gender gaps break down as follows:

Sweden is marginally, but not significantly better on the pay gap front than the UK and Germany, and is much much worse than Italy and Portugal (the figures in the table don't tally with the figures in the Guardian. I'm not sure which one is exactly right).

Apparently, Hakim's argument is that
the story of Sweden over the past two decades is the story of a country whose small industries couldn't foot the bill for the ideological parental-rights packages being embraced, and who have largely taken avoiding action when it has come to employing women of childbearing age.

I'm a little perplexed by this. I of course haven't read Hakim's book, so I may not be getting her right. But... While it is one thing to argue that the evidence cited in the article supports the notion that, as Abiola cheekily says, 'time spent looking after kids is time that might have gone to impressing one's bosses and stabbing one's co-workers in the back,' it is quite another to argue that Swedish employers are refusing to employ women who might possible have children. Given that 75% of Swedish women are employed in the public sector, there may be elements of career choice, but I'm not sure that there's evidence about exclusion.

All that these stats require is a loss of working years and more women going part-time after having children (although I have seen stats (I forget where) that control for these things in Europe and still find a pay gap). As Hakim says further in the article, the problem is time: child-rearing and furthering a career are not entirely compatible. If you do the first, and that function tends to fall on women, you will find doing the latter more difficult.

What is to be done? I do wonder, for instance, if hiring and promotion decisions should account for the socially valuable activity of child-rearing. If academic promotions are based, say on publications, then one might be able to account for years worked in one's calculations vis-a-vis publication success. But I suspet the basic question is over whether or not the value of child rearing should require interventions in the labour market in order to remove disincentives, or to prevent the (I'm implausibly assuming) inadvertant disadvantages that child-rearers suffer.

Reflecting the Mind

Chris over on Mixing Memory links to V.S. Ramachandran's work on 'visual agnosia.' It all makes for a fascinating read. Ramachandran gave the BBC Radio Reith Lectures in 2003 and I was glued to the radio for the duration. I'm still not sure whether I was succumbing to the radio version of a tour around Bedlam (spot of gratuitous link-linking there!) or whether I was engaged in serious learning. Either way, I fully recommend a read of Chris's links and a listen to Ramachandran's lectures.

Update: More from Mixing Memory

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

United Ireland Debate

Frank McGahon continues a debate by asking whether people in the South would opt for a united Ireland, if they were asked to stump up a sum of money for the privilege. The debate was kicked off when Young Irelander contemplated a straw poll on the subject. All very interesting (for other comments, see Slugger O'Toole).

I'm sympathetic to McGahon: I agree that people's support for a united Ireland is pretty fragile. I've been asking around in work as to whether there has been any polling evidence garnered on what value people in the Republic would place on a united Ireland.

I just have a couple of things to add to McGahon's post. First, we know pretty well what sort of costs a united Ireland would face: they are the costs that the rest of the UK faces at the moment. Putting aside the security cost to the British exchequer, and the number of people (like yours truly) whose wages are paid by Westminster, the subvention to the North is somewhere in the region of £3.3bn. Of course, given the fact that NI receives much more per capita than English regions, some of whom are terribly poor, receive, and given that it pays in part for the supply of twice the welfare state because people are not willing to share things like health centres, this is a source of some resentment in Westminster. If they could bring it down, they probably would.

Still, if we imagine that the extra security cost for the Republic was negligible (just for the sake of argument) and that the subvention was cut by, oh I don't know, half, the cost per capita to the Irish taxpaying public would be, according to my back of the envelope calculations, about £1000 per annum. Now put that unrealistically low figure in front of people, and my guess is that any romantic attachments to the idea of a united Ireland would disappear pretty quickly. Still, that's not based on any empirical evidence beyond my intuition that the Irish electorate isn't all that different to electorates anywhere: it's ultimately the bottom line that counts.

Second, if this was established by evidence, which would mean that a united Ireland would just not happen (the Irish get to vote on it too) and this was recognised in the North, it might have something of a profound effect on political discourse. It strikes me that parties in both sides of the community mobilise their electorates by waving the unification stick in their faces. The electoral appeal of Republicans is largely rooted in the promise to deliver unification. The electoral appeal of the DUP, it strikes me is partly rooted on the threat that if the electorate goes elsewhere, a united Ireland might just happen. Now, if this motivator was taken out of the mix, I do wonder what people would find to talk about.

Republicans might be at a loss. Although their equality agenda might attract lower income voters, their generally young electorate might just stop voting. It would certainly force nationalists in general to re-assess their aims from politics.

That said, I suspect that unionists would face the biggest challenge if the united Ireland myth was dealt a blow. I suspect that the UUP is safe enough - it might rebrand itself as a local varient of the GB Conservative Party. The DUP, on the other hand, assuming Big Ian is going to pop his clogs at some stage, would face serious division, between a more evangelical membership (which from what I've read, does not mean that the DUP has a more evangelical electorate) and, er, the other lot. I'm genuinely perplexed as to what they stand for, beyond standing up to Republicanism. What would become of them? It strikes me that the last thing that unionism needs is further division.

Well, that's a bit of a ramble from me, but I suppose my basic point is: if a united Ireland was guaranteed not to happen, what would happen to politics in the North?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Constitution for Europe Part 2

I'm still boning up on the European Constitution, but just to let you know that I've had a couple of very good guides to the treaty pointed out to me. One is published by the Institute of European Affairs in Dublin. It costs €20, but is very thorough. The other is by David Phinnemore for the Royal Institute of International Affairs and is freely available in pdf format online. More (and lots of it, I suspect!) on all this in the next few weeks.


Far be it from me to tell you how to travel, but I've discovered the marvellous Aircoach from Dublin Airport to Belfast. It costs €30 return and is very very comfortable. A much more comfortable bet than the Bus Éireann/Translink service.

Don't worry, I'm making no money from this spot of promotion. I'm advertising the service because I love it. But the buses always seem to be empty. Unless Aircoach's business plan actually just involves my travel schedule (or my solipstic attitudes were actually founded in fact), I can't imagine how they make any money. And I want them to stay in business! So give them a try if your heading to Dublin Airport: they leave Jury's Hotel hourly from 06:30 and Dublin from 07:00 (you need Euros to buy the ticket, which strikes me as being a bit silly, but you can buy online: they text the confirmation to your mobile).

Threat Perceptions

I'm having a very pleasant few days research in a very cold (for Ireland) Dublin. Mostly I'm reading Gibney's very interesting Ethics and Politics of Asylum, but I've also been pottering around other issues.

When looking at an article by James Gibson and Amanda Gouws on factors behind tolerance in South Africa, I came across the following paragraph on how people's threat perceptions drive their attitudes to specific events:
Based on a highly realistic experimental vignette presented to a representative sample of the South African mass public, we test the hypothesis that willingness to tolerate a demonstration by one's political enemies is affected by: (1) the community's antipathy toward the proposed demonstration; (2) whether the demonstration is expected to result in law breaking and violence; (3) the position of community leaders; and (4)the effect of deliberation and debate. Our general findings are quite unexpected: the general context of the civil liberties controversy matters little to South Africans. Instead, attitudinal predispositions - in particular, preexisting threat perceptions - seem to shape all aspects of tolerance judgements. We conclude that context matters for tolerance, but that it is the South African context - the immediacy and realism of the threat posed by one's political enemies - that is more influential, not the elements of the situation itself.1

So, South Africans don't tend to make their judgements about whether to put up with their political enemies based on the specific facts of any situation that arises, but based on their general perceptions and fears vis-a-vis their position in society.

I have to say, I'm really bad at getting my head around the sums that back this up, but let's take it on faith that the authors know how to do their own analysis. With that in mind, it's always interesting to see intuitions confirmed by quantitative or experimental analysis. And I suspect that this might have some relevance to our understanding of divisions and disputes in Northern Ireland. Something to muse over...

1 Gibson, J.L. and A. Gouws, 'Making Tolerance Judgements: The Effects of Context, Local and National,' in The Journal of Politics 63:4, Nov. 2001, 1067-90.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Constitution for Europe

Young Irelander lays down a gauntlet for those of us who are in favour of the EU Constitutional Treaty here, here and here. I'm heading into a busy few days but hopefully at some stage will expand on the few comments I make here and here (with interesting replies from YI). There is much to say on Ireland and the treaty, both in terms of institutional issues and in terms of Irish identity. And if that doesn't work, I'll resort to the blogosphere habit of engaging in drooling wide-eyed invective against everyone who disagrees with me...

Heist Guesswork

It strikes me that one way we might make sense of the infamous heist would be that it was supposed to work as a reminder that the IRA was still in business. Now, I've no idea whether or not the Shinners knew what was going on, and Martin McGuinness has certainly suggested that whoever did it was no friend of republicans. Still, it would make political sense to time a spectacular (though not particlarly lucrative) robbery for just after the signing of a deal that includes decommissioning. A case of rubbing the DUP's nose in it combined with a 'we haven't gone way, you know' message to the Republican electorate. Now, that would make sense (which is by no means the same as saying it is likely to be what was going on).

George Burns posts a similar (perhaps more plausible) suggestion, to do with SF's electoral ambitions, on Slugger O'Toole this evening.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Themelves Alone?

As everyone knows at this stage, Sinn Féin has been fingered for the £26m heist in Belfast last month. Reactions to events have followed their expected courses (see also here, here and here) , but, given that the accusations against the Shinners seem to have the benefit of being true, they also seem completely justifiable. How can anyone be expected to sit in government, or indeed compete in elections, with a party that seems to either fund itself through these means or associate with a groups that do?

All well and good, putting aside the obvious glee of some people at being let off the hook of having to do the hard work of politics with people they don't like. One problem that remains, however, is how to deal with the 24% of Northern Ireland's electorate who voted Sinn Féin in the last assembly elections?

(Actually, SF's share of the vote is rising: it was 22% in the 2001 Westminster elections, 24% for the assembly in 2003 and 26% for the European Parliament election in 2004. At this rate, SF will be winning 100% of the vote by 2042. What can stop them with their amazing powers of persuasion???)

Aaaanyway, there is a serious question to be asked here. Even assuming that the SF vote is fragile for a variety of reasons, it would be strange to think that they won't garner at least a consistent 20% of the vote for the foreseeable future. I'm a little sceptical about the idea that this gives a party a mandate of any substance, but it does mean that booting the party out of power risks alienating a substantial portion of Northern Ireland's citizenry.

Just saying that people shouldn't vote for a group of crooks doesn't really solve the problem. They shouldn't, but they will (story via Slugger). Also, ignoring Sinn Féin's base would seem to at least raise questions about political inclusion in NI.1 Given this, it would seem that there is a real challenge in not talking to the Shinners and simultaneously giving that section of the community some stake in the running of the state.

1 I doubt it's a specifically Irish thing that a party's association with criminality doesn't undermine people's willingness to vote for it. For one thing, Silvio puts paid to that (subs required. For a review of the story, see here). It's not at all surprising that people have a range of reasons to vote for a party. It might be, moreover, that NI's bizarre political culture actually insulates parties from such carry on. I wonder.

Update: I'm just listening to Ian Paisley on this morning's BBC Radio 4 Today Programme (Realplayer required) and it strikes me that there's a slightly different way of looking at this. As democrats, we do tend to go on (and quite rightly) about what constitutes appropriate behaviour for political representatives, but we tend to be rather more obtuse about appropriate behaviour of and towards voters. If we want to boot one group out for their bad behaviour, what obligations do we have towards their voters, who may have perfectly legitimate concerns and needs that the party we're now refusing to talk to were representing. Or, have those voters forfeited their voices by voting for the crooks?

Update 2: It seems (via Slugger O'Toole) that Martin McGuinness has made comments about the mandate provided by 340,000 votes on the island of Ireland and how that mandate can be shut out. As I said, there are two things at stake here: the behaviour of parties and the needs and rights of voters. McGuinness conflates the two just as much as his opponents do. Sanctions for criminal activity cannot be set aside because of mandates, but voters cannot be set aside because of the criminality of their chosen party. Presumably they didn't vote for the heist. They did vote for a variety of other things, however.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Smoking and Free Choice

One of the best things to happen in Ireland this year, from my point of view, has been the smoking ban. As I'm sure you know, smoking was banned in all workplaces across the country last year. This is an important point (that I plan to largely ignore in this post!): the ban was not motivated by a nannyish wish to protect smokers from themselves but by an imperative to protect workers from the smoke of others.

Nevertheless, objections to the ban that did not focus on the proported financial losses to publicans (which don't seem to have materialised) tended to suggest that the ban infringed smokers' freedoms.

I suspect that questions of free choice raised by smokers are misplaced here, and not just because the motivations behind the ban related to passive smoking, not to the habits of smokers themselves. The fact is that, even if we acknowledge that harm to the self is perfectly permissable in a liberal society, and we put aside problems with distinguishing between harm to self and harm to others, smoking is just not an arena to which questions of free choice are appropriate.

Given that cigarettes are addictive (in fact, nicotine is as (and in some cases, more) addictive as heroin or cocaine), it is very difficult to argue that one is exercising free choice. Fact is, very many people just can't give up. Arguing that one is exercising free choice when the likelihood is that one could not act otherwise seems rather strange.

But what of the original decision to begin smoking? Well, as a Royal College of Physicians report pointed out, given that most people begin smoking as adolescents, they cannot be seen to have exercised full original choice either (as the report puts it, there was 'an attenuation of free choice initiated in childhood'). In Ireland, according to the Health Promotion Unit, 'by the age of 15 to 17 years one third of all boys and girls are smoking between 3 and 6 cigarettes a day.' Now, given general perceptions we have about adolescents1, it doesn't seem sensible to include a teenager's decision to smoke as within the (at least formal) remit of free choice. We usually acknowledge the good grounds to qualify adolescent choice in terms of their generally under-developed senses of the possible consequences of their actions and in therms of of their less than fulsome levels of resistance to peer pressure. This counts for the decision to begin smoking as much as for other areas.

Given all of this, how should state agents see their roles with regard to smoking? Well, I would strongly argue that restrictions on smoking should be seen, not as preventing smokers from living their lives as they see fit, but as market restrictions, protecting consumers (especially young consumers) from the manipulations of an industry2 that sets about getting children hooked in the hope that they'll have a captive market over the individual's (significanly truncated) lifetime. Bans on tobacco advertising near schools should of course be seen in this context, but so should restrictions on adult smokers. The issue is not about protecting them from themselves but about protecting them from the producers of cigarettes. State action in this arena should be seen as roughly akin to restrictions on the production and uses of asbestos, or on the mis-selling of financial products to consumers. Except, of course, that an addicted child becomes an addicted adult. Free choice? I don't think so.

1 On a completely different, and more serious subject, see here and here.

2 An industry that is hardly celebrated for its straightforward approach to informing consumers.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Fistful of Euros on Laïcité

Scott Martens over on Fistful of Euros tells us of attempts to ban Christmas trees in schools and to force students to cafeteria meat under France's laïcité legislation. Now, I'm all for secularism, but legislation may not be the best answer when it just serves as an opportunity for people to bring their petty and vindictive sides out into the open.

Thankfully we in NI don't need legislation to help us behave in this way...

Tony Blair on the Today Programme

Tony Blair was on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme this morning, talking about the tsunami, the past year's events, the forthcoming Election, relations with Gordon Brown, Iraq and his own position.

Following an article by Gordon Brown in today's Guardian, Blair made very encouraging noises about the welfare state, especially on extending universal childcare for children between the ages of three and fourteen. I'll believe it when I see it, but it's a positive commitment.

Anyway, I've transcribed a few of his comments which are over the fold, relating to Africa, the recent Law Lords Ruling regarding the detention without trial of terrorist suspects and Iraq.

I should begin by saying that my transcribing skills are pretty poor and, in any case, you can't really get a sense of what he had to say from reading what I've put here. I mark pauses or gaps or revisions with ellipses.

The much more satisfactory audio recording of the interview is here. You need Realplayer to listen to it. I've included everything I heard from the sections I am most interested in so, coupled with my shoddy punctuation, Blair might sound a little incoherent. Only on paper. He came across as articulately as he usually does, although some of what he says buckles under a basic analysis. Especially given that he was responding to prepared questions that would have been submitted prior to the interview and was almost certainly speaking from briefing notes.

Anyway, with that set of contextual caveats in place, here's a few of his comments. I have one or two things to scribble about, but I'll leave them to the end.

On whether the tsunami would divert attention from Africa, which is one of the governments major priorities for 2005, he said:
Over the past five years in the Congo alone almost 4 million people have died. Every day over six thousand people die of AIDS in Africa preventably. Every day, 3000 children die under the age of five preventably from malaria alone. If you add up all the deaths that happen in a week for children in Africa it will come to tens and tens of thousands. Now, these things aren’t so visible to us as the impact of the tsunami has been but I think if we raise the profile and visibility, hopefully what will happen is rather than people saying that we have to spend all this money looking after the effects of the tsunami, people will say ‘yes we have to do that but actually we should same spirit of generosity and use it for Africa too.'

On the Law Lords Judgement, ruling in favour of non-nationals who have been detained indefinitely without trial in the UK, James Naughtie pointed to Lord Hoffman's comment that 'the real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.' Blair's response went as follows:
When a law lord uses language that strong you’ve got to reflect very carefully on what you’ve done. Let me try and explain it to you from the point of view of the law maker…and just remember incidentally it’s only because we have introduced basic human rights law into this country that such a case could be brought. But the difficulty that we have is this: these are people who aren’t British nationals. They’re people who our security services believe are engaged in and planning terrorist acts in this country. They go through a judicial process that is not a normal judicial process…I entirely accept that…but has a high court judge presiding over it. They are…if they are then…em…incarcerated or imprisoned as a result of the verdict of that court, they are free to leave the country. What they’re not free to do is to walk the streets of this country and the reason for that is that, you know…I think it’s very easy to become complacent about this. We still have an active terrorist threat in this country. I don’t…I’m not trying to alarm people by saying that. I’m simply trying to say that we have a serious problem, all countries do actually…em…and have been more aware of it since September the 11th and I think…I understand entirely the civil liberties considerations and I am not dismissive of them or disrespectful of them in any way at all, but I just…the fear I have as you will imagine is what happens if the security services are telling us these people are a threat, we allow them to walk the street, and then they end up killing large numbers of innocent people. Now I’m not saying these…this is going to happen, I’m simply saying that that’s the dilemma we face.

Naughtie: Do you accept the idea or at least the possibility that laws like that could themselves be a threat to the life of this country which is what Lord Hoffman said?

Blair: Look, I think that if they lead us to be casual or as I say disrespectful of the basic liberties of the subject then yes they could be. But that is not our attitude. On the contrary, it is only in the most exceptional circumstances that we’re doing this with very small numbers of people and we’re doing it because of our genuine worry and fear that otherwise we would be subject to the legitimate criticism that we knew people who had come from abroad into this country who were a threat to this country and we weren’t doing anything about it. And so I…you know…it’s what…I think it’s one of these…it’s…the important thing about an issue is not that people end up dismissing each other’s point of view but just understanding…I understand the civil liberties argument against the legislation. I hope people understand the security argument for it.

On Iraq, Naughtie said that 'It gets worse and worse. Even the president of the country now says there’s a question mark over whether elections can be held at the end of this month. Are you absolutely committed to that?' Blair replied:

I am committed to it, yes because I think it’s extremely important that the terrorists don’t gain a victory. I mean…whatever the original conflict and the removal of Saddam…let me just make this thing very clear…I just saw this for myself talking to people when I visited Baghdad before Christmas. Nobody in Iraq wants Saddam back. The vast majority of Iraqis want to participate in these elections. When I talked to the United Nations organiser there he said that he thought that everybody including Sunnis wanted to participate. The question is…and this is what this conflict is now about…it’s not about us versus Saddam…it’s about a group of terrorists and insurgents who want to stop the Iraqi having the democratic say.

Naughtie: But what happens if in the end they can’t, if the terrorists to that extent win and you get a government which doesn’t generally represent the views of the Iraqi people, which is quite likely now, isn’t it?

Blair: Well I…I don’t believe that will happen, I mean I think that…because remember there’s a vast number of people, there’s two…over two hundred and fifty names on this list including many Sunnis. Now it’s important that we provide security to people in the areas where the terrorists are trying to kill people involved in the electoral commission, kill members of the United Nations, kill ordinary Iraqis who want to make the country better, but surely our attitudes got to be to defeat them because, this is what I think is also important to say, if we establish, establishing democracy in Afghanistan has been a huge blow against this worldwide terrorism, establishing democracy in Iraq, allowing Iraq to become a democratic country, that would be a massive blow to everything they’re trying to achieve.

Well, there's lots to mull over there, and I won't try to add much in the way of interpretation. I think that most of what Blair said makes sense, more or less, but he also pulls a few characteristic rhetorical stunts that are probably less than helpful to his cause. Primary amongst these is the suggestion that we should be comforted that the Belmarsh inmates were in a position to take the government to court under human rights legislation. Blair omits to mention that when a government ignores human rights rulings it implies that those rights are really privileges, the honouring of which is subject to the whims of those in power.

One of these is the marvellous 'trust me' turn that he always takes. So, the Lord Hoffman is correct in describing the threat, but there is no need for concern because Blair and co don't approach the undermining of civil liberties casually or with a disregard for the opposing argument.

Putting aside the coherence of Hoffman's comment (David Velleman makes some interesting observations on indefinite detention, including Hoffman's remark, from an American perspective over on Left2Right), Blair's line suggests that he doesn't actually understand the rule of law. The problem is not solely what individuals in power ('law-makers,' as he pointedly describes the government) do, but what they could do. Restrictions on the discretionary power of the state, embedded as they are in traditions of British government, are what defines the state as democratic, not the degree to which the PM is a nice guy.

I should also say that I'm not at all reassured by Blair's saying that these laws, contrary as they are to human rights legislation, only target a small group of people. That's hardly the point, is it?

All that said, Blair is right to point to the dilemma that policy-makers face when they're trying to deal with terrorism. There is undoubtedly a dilemma here. But that's a subject for another post...

Another element in Blair's manner is his incessant personalising of the issues. Apart from the 'hey, I'm a nice guy' schtick, you also get a personal report from Baghdad and lots of 'I understand the opposing argument' stuff. These are lines that have repeated themselves in various forms especially since the invasion of Iraq. The events leading to the publication of various dossiers (as catalogued on the huge Hutton Inquiry website. If you're sane enough to not be bothered, the BBC has a helpful site on the various issues) were interspersed with Blair telling us that the opposition were reasonable but he had to make the call and that, as reasonable people, they would change their minds if only he could share the information he personally had with them. This particular leadership neurosis, spotted in Nixon and Kissinger by Daniel Ellsberg is fascinating, but also pretty galling.

Finally, and briefly, it's interesting how Blair pulls both Saddam and Afghanistan into his comments on the elections in Iraq. As I said above, he must be speaking from notes, so I suspect that he did these things on purpose. Again, they're rhetorical sleights of hand. Whether they are effective in the circumstances, I don't know.

I suppose my line on the interview is that, on balance, Blair said a lot of reasonable things. But this shouldn't obscure his evasions and the manner in which he uses the issues at hand to retrospectively justify Britain's presence in Iraq. A skilled operator at work: pity the other lot are worse!

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Big SA Lead

It's good to see South Africa doing so well in the third test in Cape Town, especially in the light of their recent poor form in the rugby. And especially especially because they're beating England!

Of course this is really a gratuitous excuse to post a photo of the stunning Newlands Stadium in Cape Town.1

1I lifted the photo from the national website for SA.

Update: Rest assured, humble pie tastes bitter!

Cohen, Burma and Consequentialism

Mel was kind enough to link to me regarding a mail I sent him on Nick Cohen's piece in Sunday's Observer. I did mention in his comments that there is an interesting and largely sane comments thread on the piece at Crooked Timber.

Mel's line on the issue follows his thoughts on accountability and responses to terrorism as outlined in Michael Ignatieff's The Lesser Evil. I'm not so sure that I agree with him on the Burma issue, however.

Cohen's piece is a bit of a rant, though I'm not sure that Mel does him complete justice is in his reading of the article. Cohen does seem to be saying that (as Mel puts it)
What Cohen seems to be arguing, however, is that efforts to get aid and assistance to the Burmese people ought not to become an obsession given the nature of the Rangoon regime and its efforts to maintain a wall of silence around any information that reflects badly on life in Burma.

The game, as Cohen puts it, may not be worth the candle. That said, I'm not sure that Cohen is saying that we should abandon the people of Burma. Rather, I think he's saying that getting involved in trying to help the people of Burma might aid the regime to the detriment of the people. The aid would be used by the junta to its own advantage, not to help those affected. Moreover, misused aid might help stabilise the regime, thus consigning the people to more years of repression.

Of course, there are lots of empirical issues here that I am not au fait with, and so can hardly comment on. What I do want to discuss is the juncture between deontological approaches and consequentialist approaches that hard cases such as these provide (for more a detailed discussion of consequentialism, see here).

It strikes me that a deontologist would give priority to the duty to do all that one can do in the wake of catastrophic events, seeking to prevent further deaths and to aid the living in rebuilding their lives, over the principle that one should not have dealings with repressive regimes. The needs of people must take priority over the longer term imperative towards political freedoms. (This claim probably requires more work than I'm willing to do. If you want to be less lazy than me, I'd be delighted!)

This is all beginning to look very very straw-mannish, but a deontologist will have regard for consequences in the following manner. After all, the duty as I outlined it above (roughly speaking, save lives) is action oriented, even if I omit the 'all that one can do' bit. The question raised by Cohen is whether the action will have the consequences that it is intended to have, namely saving lives and helping the living. In a certain sense, the calculation of consequences is about whether the action one takes is the action one intends to take, or whether it is another action altogether.

If it is another action altogether (one that benefits a vicious regime and does little to assist the people) then it does not comply with the duty that one is trying to follow.

So, the consequences orientation of a deontologist works as follows: one's moral duties guide actions, but they do not necessarily suggest the appropriate action in hard cases. In order to figure that out, one must say something about the consequences of the various actions one might possibly do.

Back to Cohen and Mel. It strikes me that if collaboration with the Burmese junta was merely the lesser evil, compromising the 'don't engage with repressive regimes' duty in following the more important 'save lives' duty, then fair enough. If one's actions will do nothing for the 'save lives' duty but will nevertheless undermine the 'don't engage with repressive regimes' duty, then things become more difficult.

As I said in commenting on Mel's thoughts, this may seem like an obscene opportunity to engage in a revery about moral principles, but I do think that there are very important issues at stake here. The two duties I've outlined are of crucial importance. While events will get in the way of our arriving at a definitive balance between the two, some thought about negotiating is essential.

Although I've no idea where to start...

Geldof on Today

No link on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme site, but Bob Geldof was on after topping their 'Listeners' Lord' poll. All good fun, but Geldof did make the serious point that we cannot prevent catastrophes like that in the Indian Ocean, but can only do everything we can to alleviate the suffering caused. The problems of Africa, on the other hand, are man made and could be prevented, if only the will existed. This year the UK chairs the G8 and (from July) holds the presidency of the European Council. Here's hoping that the government honours its commitment to place Africa at the top of its agenda.

Update: There's a link to Geldof's comments here (requires Realplayer).

Update 2There is an piece about Geldof's appearance on the BBC site (courtesy of (it's a common name!) Ciaran's Blog)

Monday, January 03, 2005

Back in Belfast

Well, I'm back in Belfast after a break in the Republic (or doyn soyth, as they call it up here). It's good to be back in town even though I had a great Christmas, including a very pleasant New Year with friends in Limerick, a city that, much like the one I live in, is much lovelier than its terrible reputation.

This was Dublin's first white Christmas in 52 years, although the snow didn't quite cover the grass and then didn't stay more than the day. That said, the defining memory of the year will be events around the Indian Ocean. I've nothing to add on that front, not that I should I suppose.

I'm in the middle of writing a post about attitudes in the Irish Republic towards a united Ireland - lots of musings on opinion poll questions etc. But first I have to find an actual opinion poll that asks the questions I think have been asked. Trinity College Dublin's opinion poll archive seems to be down (I'll link to it in the next post), so I'll have to beg some assistance from colleagues. Expect ranting in the next few days....