Wednesday, 14 December 2016

If Sinn Féin want to win elections rather than arguments, Gerry Adams needs to step aside.

Another week, another Troubles related maelstrom for Sinn Féin to deal with. Austin Stack, the son of Brian Stack, a prison officer in Portlaoise prison, who was murdered by the IRA in 1983, is alleging that Gerry Adams is failing to cooperate fully with the Garda investigation in relation to his father’s murder. In 2013, a meeting was arranged by Adams between Austin Stack, his brother Oliver and a senior IRA commander who supposedly knows Brian Stack’s killer. Stack wants Adams to go to the Gardaí with information regarding the IRA commander. Adams claims he's told the Gardaí all he knows and that he and Stack entered into a confidentiality agreement when he agreed to help Stack discover his father's murderer and find closure. The controversy took a dramatic turn when Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell in the Dáil claimed Martin Ferris and Dessie Ellis, two Sinn Féin TDs, had knowledge relevant to the case and that they were two of four people named by Adams in an email he sent to Garda commissioner Noirin O Sullivan back in February. Adams claims these names were provided by Stack while Stack denies this. The whole thing has quickly descended into a 'he said, he said' farce, culminating in Stack directly confronting Adams at a Sinn Féin media event last week.

Sinn Féin might protest that these scandals are manipulated by the other parties to score political points against Sinn Féin and that certain journalists and newspapers would use any excuse to throw dirt at Gerry Adams. And they’d be correct. But that doesn’t mean there’s never any substance to the stories nor does it change to damage it does to their image. The fact remains that as long as he’s there, as long as he’s the president of Sinn Féin hostile elements within the press and in other political parties are always going to take advantage of similar situations.  

The problem Sinn Féin have is that they’re not a normal political party. That’s not meant to be an insult, it’s just a fact. Less than two decades ago they were the political wing of a paramilitary organisation waging war against the United Kingdom. While their transition to constitutional politics has been remarkable – and something which Adams and Martin McGuinness both deserve great credit for – the Troubles and its discontents still have a sizeable impact on how the party is governed and how it operates. A good example of this in action was the Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy case at the beginning of the year. Slab was a senior IRA commander in South Armagh during the Troubles. In December last year, he was convicted of tax evasion. Gerry Adams refused to condemn Slab and infamously referred to him as a “good republican” when pressed by the media for a comment. The press harangued Adams for weeks over his tepid response to a former IRA commander being convicted of a very serious offence and this flew into overdrive as the general election campaign began in February, just as Slab was due to be sentenced. Still, Adams was unmoved. The issue wouldn’t go away and it dominated the headlines as elements within the media ratcheted up their anti-Sinn Féin rhetoric. The reason Adams couldn’t condemn Slab, of course, was because Slab was instrumental in bringing the South Armagh brigade of the IRA to a ceasefire and convincing them to sign up for the Good Friday Agreement. He remains a respected figure in republican circles in the North today. Adams knows he cannot turn his back on those people as they still wield quite a lot of power and influence in Sinn Féin.

After the election ended and Sinn Féin didn’t do quite as well as was anticipated, many of their supporters pointed to the vindictive coverage they were subjected to by the media, particularly the Irish Independent which railed against Sinn Féin with a series of hostile and exaggeratory front pages. They do have a point. The Irish Independent’s behaviour throughout the campaign was shameful and a taster of the incendiary political reporting British tabloids dabble in. But it seemed to work. Sinn Féin did not do as well as they perhaps should have and the front page headlines and damning editorials certainly played a part. Government ministers were able to echo the commentary in the press to attack Sinn Féin and the party’s candidates found it incredibly difficult to worm itself out of questions about the party’s past. Gerry Adams’ “legacy issues” were brought up by Joan Burton, Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin at the leaders' debates and he was challenged on them in radio and television interviews. While Sinn Féin wanted to focus on their vision of a “fairer republic” they kept being pegged back to the past. Sinn Féin and their supporters can complain about this all they want but this isn’t going to change; the hostile media aren’t going to disappear tomorrow morning and as long as Adams remains there will always be a Maria Cahill or an Austin Stack. 

The party is very much at a crossroads and it’s difficult to know how they’re going to navigate it. They’ve made great strides in the last decade – both in terms of candidates elected to the Dáil and members recruited – and there is potential for them to continue to grow as Ireland’s largest left wing party. But they seem to have plateaued and the popular theory suggests that Adams might be the reason for it. Many posit that a sizeable chunk of the electorate – particularly those over the age of 40 who lived through the worst years of the Troubles- will never vote for Sinn Féin as long as Adams is their leader as he is indelibly associated with one of the darkest chapters in recent Irish history. Whether they’re right or wrong to think that doesn’t really matter to Sinn Féin but it does matter if it continues to hurt them electorally. 

The legacy linked crises Adams and the party continuously have to navigate also impacts upon the younger politicians, such as Mary Loy McDonald and Pearse Doherty, as they’re forced to row behind their leader and toe the party line. While it’s understandable that they do this, it does seem to undermine their credibility in the eyes of the public. Adams remains popular with the Sinn Féin base and the constant barrage of media criticism has fostered a sort of siege mentality among Sinn Féin supporters but they’re not the people who Sinn Féin need to convince to vote for them. 

Adams stepping down – and if he is to leave it will be by stepping down rather than being pushed – would not be an easy transition and how the party deals with his legacy will be challenging. The republican aspect of their identity is still naturally strong but it is their left wing platforms and policies – rather than any rhetoric about reunification or border polls – that has helped bolster their expansion in the last decade. That expansion could be further bolstered with either McDonald or Doherty at the helm. As a duo, they complement each other very well; McDonald is the firebrand politician with a gift for oration while Doherty is the policy wonk who revels in catching out other parties on their facts and figures. They’re both very popular with the public and, crucially, they have no Troubles related baggage that hostile elements within the media can throw at them. They’ll still try, of course, but the shit won’t stick nearly as much as it does with Adams. While they may still be compelled to be deferential towards unsavoury figures from The Troubles - as Adams was with Slab Murphy - they would help ease Sinn Féin's transition to a more conventional political party, which seems to be what the party wants.

It’s said that the party is undertaking a ten year strategy in order to properly prepare itself to enter government in the South over the next decade. A leadership transition, with Adams and Martin McGuinness both stepping aside, is a part of that strategy. No timeframe is being provided, however. It’s in the party’s best interests that Adams steps aside sooner rather than later. His legacy and his achievements as well as his shortcomings will be scrutinised by commentators and historians for decades to come but if the party wants to be pragmatic about its future it requires a new lease of life at the top. While it can never totally abandon or shed itself of its past, it has to look to a future where it does not feature as prominently in its commentary and coverage. Adams can remain as an elder statesman, appearing during election campaigns and ard fheiseanna to rally the troops, but a new generation need to start doing the heavy lifting. In short, Sinn Féin need to start focusing on formulating a viable left wing alternative to the policies of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and winning elections, rather than arguments.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The 'squeezed middle' narrative was an ideological fig leaf for attacking the poor - and the Irish media's reaction to the public pay disputes proves that.

The 'squeezed middle' has gone from the favoured buzzword of a few columnists to an accepted political fact, almost overnight.

For much of this year, the Irish media has been clinging to a narrative that the most hard done by group in the country are the so-called 'squeezed middle'. This group, according to Michael Noonan, is comprised of people who earn between €32,800 and €70,000 per year. The story goes that these people shouldered the burden of the financial crisis and are now failing to reap the benefits of the economic recovery, primarily due to the onerous taxes on income they're forced to pay. While compelling media narratives are no stranger to the Irish press, this one seemed to take on a life of its own. Well, with a little bit of help. The main engine propelling the 'squeezed middle' from the favoured buzz term of a handful of middle class columnists to becoming an almost universally accepted political fact was, naturally, the Irish Independent and Sunday Independent newspapers. Article after article and colour piece after colour piece appeared in each throughout the summer of 2016 and beyond bemoaning the plight of the squeezed middle, their high tax burden, the high cost of living and many of the material benefits they could no longer enjoy as a result of it all. The squeezed middle couldn't even afford to send their kids to private school any more! The horror of it!

While there were a couple of interesting points raised in the articles about the squeezed middle - one article by Kim Bielenberg, for instance, bemoans the emergence of the 'gig economy' and the erosion of worker's benefits that have occurred as a result - overall, the general thrust of the narrative and how it was applied to Ireland's class system was crass, wrongheaded and insidious. The first problem was the definition of who constituted the 'squeezed middle'. As we've already seen, Michael Noonan reckoned it was people who earned between €32,800 and €70,000 per year and this was the definition the Irish media used too. But are those numbers an accurate reflection of what middle income earners in Ireland actually earn? Not really. This problem was identified by Unite economist Michael Taft back in October who labeled the hullabaloo surrounding the 'squeezed middle' a "cynical and ill-informed debate". Taft rubbishes the idea that people earning €70,000 a year or even €50,000 a year are members of the 'squeezed middle' and points out that the median income (i.e. the income which fifty percent of people earn more than and fifty percent of people earn less than) is €27,550. A whopping 54% of workers earn less than €30,000 a year. Taft sums it up by writing, "[the debate over the squeezed middle] is led in many cases by politicians and commentators who make assertions without substantiations, claims without facts; all of which leads to policy proposals that are at variance with equity and economic efficiency. In many cases the numbers are just made up to rationalise a pre-determined policy preference."

The second problem with the 'squeezed middle' was the assertion that the middle classes had shouldered the burden of the recession and were liable for some kickback now the recession had rolled around. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom on austerity; when the state slashes public services and public spending, it's the poor who suffer the most. But the Irish press are quick to point out the bevy of new taxes and charges introduced during the recession - from water charges to USC - which they claim disproportionately affected the middle classes. This claim is presented as sort of an inalienable truth, not needing any evidence to back it up. But does the evidence back it up? A recent publication looking at the distributional impact of tax, welfare and public service pay policies between 2009 and 2016 by the ESRI poured cold water on the idea that the middle class suffered the most during the recession. While the publication acknowledges that all income groups suffered enormously throughout the recession, their findings suggest that "The greatest policy-induced losses were for the top income group, at just over 14 per cent, and the lowest income group, at 12¾ per cent". The paper also found that the " greatest proportionate losses, close to 20 per cent, were for single unemployed people without children – mainly those affected by cuts in payment rates for the young unemployed." 

The facts simply don't support the idea that the poorest were protected from the recession.

While few tears will be shed for the highest income earners having the suffered the most policy-induced income losses during the recession - particularly given the fact that NERI's study didn't look at wealth which is where many high earners have most of their fortunes tied up - the idea that the poorest in our society were hit harder than the middle classes might come as something as a surprise to the columnists of the Irish Independent and Sunday Independent. But it won't come as a surprise to any one who's been paying attention. 

Single parent families and the unemployed were the biggest losers during the recession.

Indeed, this juxtaposition of the poor and the wealthy as being equally cossotted from economic woe was perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the 'squeezed middle' narrative. It was subtly hinted at in many of the colour pieces that people on lower incomes were better protected during the recession because many of them were outside the tax net. This analysis obviously ignored the deleterious impact cuts to one parent family payment and job seekers allowance as well as changes to indirect taxes such as VAT (which, as a percentage of income, cost the lower paid more) had on the incomes of the lower paid. Instead, conforming to its 'squeezed middle' narrative, it clung to the idea that the poor had been somehow protected during the years of austerity and the brunt of it was born by the middle classes. This, as the evidence shows, could hardly be further from the truth. 

That disengenuous message was most clearly enunciated by an article entitled "The poor mugs who carry tax dodgers and freeloaders on their backs" written by Charlie Weston and published in the Saturday Independent back in August. The article, which naturally clings to the patently false idea that the poorest and the wealthiest in society are equally protected from economic woe to the detriment of the middle class, opens with the news that 2,200 jobseekers stopped claiming the dole this summer because they went on holiday. Weston writes, "Many of those who consider themselves to be among the hard-pressed, so-called squeezed middle will allow themselves a wry and doleful simile that those on the dole can afford to go on holidays at all." I'm just going to pause for a second and reflect on the idiocy of that statement. There, done. There are just shy of 300,000 people signing on for the dole in Ireland. If 2,200 of them are going on holiday that means around about 0.75% of people on jobseekers allowance went on a summer holiday abroad this year. 0.75%. Does Weston truly believe that less than 0.75% of middle class families went on a summer holiday abroad this year? I want to give him of the benefit of the doubt but he goes on to say "the fact that so many in receipt of unemployment benefit can afford to leave the country for a summer break perpetuates the troubling belief among the wedged middle that they are expected to shoulder an unreasonable burden, with many others hitching a free ride." Welp.

While Weston's article is obvious nonsense, the image that he crafts of a hardworking, hard-pressed middle class subsidising a life of luxury for the poor is not unique. And it's at the centre of the appeal of the 'squeezed middle' narrative. Because the only solution the journalists of the Irish Independent can muster for the middle classes is some form of tax relief to ease the burden of subsidising those feckless wasters. Any other, less right-wing solution is dismissed out of hand. Earlier this year, the Irish Independent created their own campaign entitled 'Ease The Squeeze'. The thrust of it was that the middle class needed to be given some sort of personal tax break - be that by cutting USC or fiddling with the income tax bands so less taxpayers had to pay the higher rate of income tax of 42%. They even have a section of their website in which all their articles on the squeezed middle are neatly compiled. Curiously, that section of the website hasn't been updated since the middle of October - not a single article has been published by them dealing with the plight of the squeezed middle in that time. Perhaps that might be because, with the budget done and dusted, they feel no need to carry the torch for the 'squeezed middle' any longer. 

But the cynic might note that their abandoning of the squeezed middle narrative has coincided rather neatly with the arrival of the public sector pay disputes. Gardaí, teachers and nurses are seeking pay restoration to pre-crash levels and they have been greeted with fury and belittlement from the Irish media, with the Independent titles leading the charge. The thing is, guards, nurses and teachers qualify as members of the squeezed middle.  They're middle income earners who endured pay cuts and tax increases during the recession and are now seeking pay restoration. One could easily imagine colour pieces and profiles, of the like which the Irish Independent published documenting the hardship of the 'squeezed middle', dealing with the downtrodden public sector worker and their attempts to claw back what they lost during the recession. But you won't. The reason for this is ideological. The Irish Independent portrays public sector pay increases as wasteful and reckless. They have to be subsidised by other taxpayers, we're told. Tax cuts, on the other hand, are not explored in such terms. Even though they also result in a net loss to the exchequer that must be filled by cutting somewhere else, this is not expounded upon by the Irish Independent. We're led to believe that decreasing taxes is a sensible, even justified measure even though past experience tells us it is not

It might seem like it's remarkable that the Irish media would spend so much of this year bemoaning the plight of the 'squeezed middle' only to turn so ferociously on public sector workers seeking pay restoration, many of whom are members of the 'squeezed middle'. But there is an ideological consistency here. The Irish Independent portrayed the middle class as being overtaxed in order to subsidise the tax dodging of the rich and the hedonic lifestyles of the lower classes. Their problem is framed through a right-wing lens and so it is no surprise that this is also the case with the solution. The idea that the poor have, along with the wealthy, winged their way through the recession and are enjoying the fruits of the recovery ignores what is actually happening in front of our eyes. Increases in child poverty, homelessness and lone parents and people with disabilities at risk of poverty bear testament to this. But, as always, a "cynical and ill-informed debate" will simply lead to cynical and ill-informed solutions.