Boys Do Cry – A Gonzaga Education

Boys Do Cry – A Gonzaga Education

Revelations of sex abuse in all-male private schools in past decades have been powerfully conveyed across the Irish media. That barbarism should not, however, deflect from other enduring problems. I believe grave damage is still being done to the development of boys in ostensibly civilised institutions. Moreover, unequal educational provision widens inequality, and underpins a pervasive competitive individualism. I draw on painful memories of my own educational experience in Gonzaga College SJ to provide a personal critique of private and all-male education.

In his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s boyhood character disparages children from non-private schools as “Mickey Muck and Paddy Stink”. We have an enduring educational snobbery, and many a privately-schooled chap still dons the proverbial old school tie.

By the 1920s, one of the leading Dublin Catholic secondary schools for boys of its time, O’Connell School on Richmond Street, recommended its pupils in the following terms: “Your ‘Richmond Street’ boy makes a good official. In the first place he possess the necessary academic qualifications to place him high on the examination lists. He has, in addition, certain qualities which make him a good colleague. This is an essential point. However clever an official he may be, he has to pull with the team …”. The abiding ambition of most all-male private schools remains not only to produce good examination results, but also to develop a cast of mind disposed to “pull with the team”, rather than swim against the tide. Jesuit institution have led the way in this regard.

Since independence a disproportionate number of high office holders in this state have been educated in Jesuit schools, Clongowes Wood SJ in Kildare, Belvedere College SJ in Dublin, and after its foundation in 1950, my own alma mater Gonzaga College SJ, also in Dublin. All three of these are all-male and private, while the first is also a boarding school.

The appointment of John Marcus O’Sullivan as Minister for Education in 1926 marked a tipping point such that non-combative Clongownians in the Cabinet outnumbered veterans of the 1916 Rising. Simon Coveney and Richard Bruton continue a long line of Clongownians, though the former was expelled, seemingly for under-age drinking.

This elite education is now more likely to produce managerial material in a thrusting private sector than diligent civil servants. But in these academic hothouses, creativity is still conflated with rebelliousness. After school, positions of influence, and wealth generation, are preserved by ‘old boy’ networks. Pressure is felt in middle class families to reproduce this status in their sons and, to a lesser extent, daughters.

A dominant Catholicism permitted horrific abuse against an older generation in Ireland. Nonetheless, professional lawyers applying Thomistic principles built a State founded on principles of universal justice. For good, and ill, Bunreacht na hEireann – our Constitution – is promulgated “in the name of the Holy Trinity”. The 1960s was the advent of an era of unprecedented judicial activism. By then most of our judges were drawn from all male, Catholic, especially Jesuit, schools. They “discovered” “Unenumerated Rights”, based on a Catholic Natural Law interpretation of the Constitution, an expansive approach the Court has since grown wary of.

Moreover, Fine Gael’s “Towards a Just Society” document, conceived by Belvedere-educated Declan Costello in the 1960s, aligned closely with Catholic social teaching after Vatican II, contemplating a society built on socialist principles, including state ownership of banks.

There are still Jesuits, such as the visionary Father Peter McVerry, who maintain a missionary vocation for social justice. But arguments for a fair distribution of wealth did not figure prominently during my own ‘Jesuit’ education, where charitable activities tended to be characterised by noblesse oblige, and an assumption that it was valuable to witness how ‘the other half’ lived. Class divisions were, if anything, upheld by an awareness of a pronounced economic fault line.

The 1990s was a peculiar era to be a teenager as Irish society embraced the conformities and staid hypocrisies, of 1950s America, which the beat poet Allen Ginsberg decried in his “Howl” (1954). He asked: “What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”. In both, a hypocritical conformity was maintained. We abided: “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls”. Binge drinking – and later bad hashish – were our preferred responses to a creeping sense of purposelessness.

We stared agog at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and encountered foggy notions of an End of History. A pervasive popular culture, beholden to Mammon, including the exotic promise of sex in the sun played out on Australian soap operas, leached away instincts towards radical politics.

The Leaving Certificate-obsessed and rugby-besotted Gonzaga I encountered demanded a dull conformity that did not give room for progressive post-Catholic ideas to flourish. Free-ranging speculation of a sort associated with the intellectual, or poet, was widely scorned. We passed from strangling religiosity to Neoliberal vacancy without coming up for breath. This has hobbled some of our best minds.

Well before revelations of serious sexual misconduct, a Catholic ancien regime was already creaking, their pronouncements at odds with an upwardly-mobile generation of businessmen, who really ruled the roost. The emerging financial and technological sectors also boosted the professional classes, many of whose earnings spiralled.

Gonzaga College SJ is still among the leading all-male secondary schools in the country, claiming a thoroughbred stable of academics, lawyers, and politicians such as Anthony Clare, Michael McDowell, and Peter Sutherland, the so-called “father of globalisation”. A sense of meritocracy was based on an entrance exam and Leaving Certificate results that often bred a preening elitism, without consideration of the worth of either.

In my time, shades of Eton and Oxford co-habited with bog-Irish institutionalism, dissolving individuality into a corporate body toughened on rugby, and kept in check by cruel humour. Endowed with superficial polish, for many, meritocracy provided a fast train to plutocracy.

For ten years I spent most of my waking hours in a gilded cage: surveying the copper beech on the front lawn we were prohibited from setting foot on; running a gauntlet between the cynicism of peers and the naked ambition of certain teachers who saw students as examination numbers, or fodder for the rugby trenches. Fortunately I found interstices, where kindness and humour were weighed in the balance.

When I began the secondary cycle I dared opt out of playing rugby, and despite obtaining the necessary parental permission – I believe – I was selected for humiliation by the coach, who was also a teacher. As an awkward twelve-year-old I recall being ordered to stand with my back to the door for some minor infraction in one class. He warned menacingly that if anyone entered the room I would be stabbed in the kidneys by the knob. This version of Russian Roulette did not last long – the door never opened – but it had the desired effect.

In Gonzaga the real nastiness was expressed not in physical bullying but in contempt and exclusion – the not-so-subtle suggestion your face did not fit. This method honed a capacity for cutting speech advantageous in subsequent managerial careers. I acquired a forked tongue myself too, and am sadly aware that at times I threw my weight around.

Still, I recall tears welling inexplicably when it got too much. The memory of a “scrap” one lunchtime lingers. Tears flowed as a delighted crowd bellowed “AG-AGR-AGRO-AGRO”. My opponent repeatedly came at me with fists, which failed to land. I responded by putting him down with headlocks. At the end of ‘the fight’ he boasted he had won, because I had cried.

I hold an abiding image of stern-faced boys seated in rows down the classroom. Creative self-expression was left to a small group of self-identifying eccentrics who seemed unaffected by the constraints, but paid a price. They never had a hope with the local convent girls, put on occasional display as fragrant reward if you kept your head down, and kept shovelling at the Leaving Certificate pile.

Some years after leaving school, one of that rare breed was the random victim of what appears to have been a gangland initiation in windy Chicago. In my memory now he retains a mystic glow, insulating him from the petty egos in his midst: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix”.

Another offbeat character from my class died of cancer last year. I still remember him standing up to a suburban bully intent on giving me a beating. But in school he would eventually face exclusion once the bitching started. I probably played my part.

I lived with a sense of being devoid of intelligence for many years. As a contrarian teenager I viewed homework with suspicion, but would work hard if I found a subject compelling. This brought inconsistency: I fell behind in mathematical subjects, whose contents read like manuals of machines I had no use for. The contest we were involved in required a loser, and that’s how exam results often portrayed me.

In later years, my worst experiences came in English class, where a teacher shredded my self-confidence as a writer. This in a subject that should have transcended the educational trough I felt I was feeding from. His poignant remark at the end sixth year was that he never liked me for accurately mimicking him.

We were embedded in the white noise of a Catholicism that had lost its lustre; chained to catechism that nobody bothered uttering. We bowed before creaking totems of authority, choking any wonder in a divine creation our youthful minds might have conjured. There were a few Jesuits still teaching in my time, but they had none of the vindictive clarity inspiring James Joyce’s Portrait. Instead we found inchoate conviction in some, and angry pedantry elsewhere; no manifest evil, but misplaced servitude.

For a period in the early part of my schooling, a cabal of rugby coach-teachers instituted a system of chastisement known as the “Levels” (proceeding unimaginatively from one to three), requiring us to copy out meaningless texts for designated offences. It was nostalgia for the biff on their part: offending boys were compelled to queue up after school to await the sanction, and its accompanying venom. It worked as well at rehabilitation as most forms of punishment.

The power of dominant teachers was inversely proportionate to the authority of those more sensitive, whose lives we made a misery. Our shrill arrogance is still probably ringing in their ears. Alas, the unquestioned authority of the disciplinarians demanded this sacrificial contrast.

Human warmth was rare in those insipid corridors, least of all in toilets emitting such noxious odours that some pupils avoided defecating over all their years in school. I took to smoking in the bike sheds as a palliative to the recurring blues of each morning’s bell summoning us to classrooms loaded with the tedium of the syllabus. The Leaving Certificate was a results business, and Gonzaga was primed for that purpose.

In a throwback to another age, Gonzaga maintained instruction in Classical languages. I revolted instinctively against Latin as the language of oppressive scholasticism, but at least I was exposed to the pagan marvels of ancient epic, when Classical Studies was introduced to those who bridled at conjugations. The muses whispered through the cracks of a frigid structure, their contemplation assisted in later years by a female teacher who brought quietly subversive, feminist ideas.

Another teacher I encountered with genuine charm taught biology. There at last wide-ranging speculation was permitted, of a type usually denied to us in religion classes. I became an atheist when the simplicity of genetic inheritance was explained, cohering with a growing contempt for an institution that drew legitimacy from blind faith.

Of course it could have been a lot worse, more violent anyway. For me at least, the first ever lay headmaster who arrived in my fourth year felt like a breath of fresh air, conveying a decency usually sorely lacking. An occasionally mincing authority figure, he probably made being gay seem less of a mortal sin. However, he might have contributed to the entrenched elitism of our “little Eton”.

School life grew more tolerable as the years passed: livelong summer afternoons playing pick-up games of football on the back pitches come to mind, and activities with neighbouring girl schools diluted the overpowering maleness. I rose to officer class, performing in plays, once even captaining a rugby team.

Thankfully, I was excluded from the full-blown hypocrisy of being made a prefect. This prohibition came about after a friend and I recited a salacious poem at an inter-school debate: “expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull”.

In rugby, a sense of duty, not fun, was instilled, and certain coaches seemed to look favourably on a capacity for violence. In one senior second’s game I recall a member of our team kick an opponent full-force in the head. This required an ambulance to be called to the pitch. The next week the offender was elevated to the senior team.

I had been subjected to a similar attack in an earlier age group, when an opponent from another school stamped on my head, missing my left eye by half an inch. The next week I made my debut for the As, seemingly for sucking it up. Nevertheless I came to enjoy the game, on my own terms, mainly for the comraderie it brought.

I enjoyed the company of brilliant people growing up. Wits and raconteurs who would leave you breathless with laughter, but for anyone to emerge from that experience as an artist, or even entrepreneur, probably required purgation, and maybe a trip to a psychedelic Underworld. Sadly, great talent has been lost to artless corporate jobs. We were not encouraged to look askance at that grey world of conformity. It took me many years to escape that fate, and confront my background.


Children require space for new ideas to germinate, especially as the social and economic fabric of post-Second World War societies unravel under the weight of grotesque inequalities, climate chaos and the epistemological confusion wrought by the new medium of the Internet.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, all-male private schools have long incubated an upper stratum, who accumulate wealth and set cultural norms. But a simmering violence and sense of entitlement damages many students, ossifies class divisions and muzzles creativity.

I shudder to think of societies of hundreds of young boys co-existing for years without an admixture of femininity. Most of us hardly set eyes on girls of our own age, who were not family members, for months on end. Studious boys, especially, didn’t tend to hang out with other kids in their neighbourhoods. Many of us have, I think, found it difficult to develop meaningful friendships with that dangerous creature referred to as the “opposite sex”.

All-male educational institutions, including Gonzaga College SJ should be abolished altogether. Men may come together positively of course, even through rugby, but to segregate boys and girls from one another entirely throughout their formative years creates unhealthy gender divisions. Statistics show boys perform better academically in mixed environments, and measures need to be taken to address the growing preponderance of girls in higher education.

Moreover, when all-male environments coincide with wealth and privilege this taps into energies that are the source of much of the corruption in the world. This seems brutally apparent when the aggrieved male ‘winner’ brings a sense of entitlement into his sexual relations.

The damage to many boys is also apparent from the number of young men who commit suicide in a society where all-male education is the norm. Survival in that social milieu often demands emotional suppression: the tears that welled inside me were the accumulation of years spent in a setting where showing your feelings was a sign of weakness.

Embracing best practice would see all abilities being taught in a single classroom until the age of sixteen. This is what the Finns have done, while topping European league tables in reading and science for fifteen-year-olds. The great benefit of this approach is that weaker students “scaffold” their learning on those who excel. This could play a vital role in generating wider equality.

It seems an odd situation where the state pays the salaries of teachers alongside fees averaging €6,000 per annum for a private day school in Dublin. This is an added burden on anxious middle class parents who fret about their children being disadvantaged by attending a state school.

A Gonzaga education did not involve the infliction of torture on me – or any contemporaries I know of – unlike other institutions have done. But it is at the apex of an educational system that encourages a competitiveness that is the foundation of our growing inequalities, and where an often clandestine violence smoulders.

Gonzaga carried the pretence of a Liberal education with its copper beech and Classicisms, but it merely equipped some of us for financial success. It did little to encourage the pursuit of social justice the Jesuit order claims as their vocation. Moreover, originality was – in my team at least – conflated with rebelliousness. Above all, it strove for its pupils to achieve high Leaving Certificate grades, and pull with the team.

Gonzaga was the worst, precisely because it was the best where savagery was expressed in taunts rather than blows: the apotheosis of all-male private schooling justifying the rest.

Unionists are seen as Irish ‘White Trash’

Unionists are seen as Irish ‘White Trash’

By 1900, when Joyce and Yeats were strutting the streets of Dublin, Belfast had a higher population. Moreover, Ireland is the only country in the world with a lower population now than in the early 1840s. The extensive livestock agriculture that dominated after the Great Famine depends on low labour inputs for profitability, and the Industrial Revolution never took off. Apart, that is, from in the north-east corner where Belfast was the industrial powerhouse in which the Titanic was built.

Today, like many other former industrial regions across an archipelago commonly referred to as ‘the British Isles’, Belfast and its hinterland has fallen into seemingly irreversible decline. A succession of industries have departed, notably the Harland and Wolff plant, while efforts in the 1980s to resuscitate a flagging economy, such as the arrival of the DeLorean motor factory, failed spectacularly. Of course the Troubles played a significant role in turning the Northern Irish economy into a basket case dependent on subsidies from HM’s government, but this stagnation has more to do with Belfast being a part of the first wave of the Industrial Revolution, like other post-Industrial cities across the North of England. The peace dividend in Northern Ireland was negligible, and even after s spectacular economic crash the Irish Republic is considerably richer.

Working class Protestant and Unionist communities also lack a tradition of prizing academic education, while historically even poor Catholic family, across Ireland, would have been accustomed to having a bright son study for the priesthood or enter the civil service. Leaving school at a young age to enter into an industrial job was linked to religious affiliation in Northern Ireland, where Catholics were often discriminated against. ‘Low church’ Protestantism tended to encourage education to a point where a person could read the bible in their vernacular. Catholicism on the other hand invited scholarship in a number of languages, as well as surveying a philosophical tradition dating back to Aristotle. This brought Irish Catholics into the mainstream of European culture.

The dominance of the Catholic Church over education in the Republic permitted terrible abuses, but religious orders played an important role in educating a population much of which was living in poverty, at least until the 1960s. Alongside the introduction of free secondary education under Donnacha O’Malley in 1966, this provided the intellectual capital for the emergence of the Celtic Tiger.

Until the late 1990s, Ireland was a highly conservative society by European standards, with divorce permitted only after a referendum in 1996, but since then the liberal intelligentsia have become the dominant force politically. The Marriage Equality Referendum revealed the increasing dominance of liberal ideas in mainstream media and politics. The victory of the unapologetically gay and half-Indian Leo Varadkar in the Fine Gael leadership election this year, and his subsequent popularity, appeared to reveal the Irish as a cosmopolitan outward-looking people; although continued absence of access to abortion in the Republic puts the state at odds with most other countries.

Having secured peace through the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the gun seemed to have been finally taken out of all-Ireland politics, and since then Southern Irish liberals have tended to ignore the North. Most Dublin people I know have absolutely no interest in visiting there either, even though it’s only a couple of hours away. But Brexit and the prior collapse of the Northern Executive has re-acquainted liberal Ireland with the Northern Question, just as Westminster is now haunted once again by its own existential Irish Question.

It is hardly surprising that the DUP, which now represents the main body of working class Unionists, aligned itself with the Brexiteers in the UK. Lest we forget, Brexit was to some extent the revolt of the English working class who were doing poorly under the Common Market. Cities such as Sunderland (61%) and Hull (67%), structurally, and in religious makeup, similar to Belfast, voted by large majorities to leave the Union.

There were many reasons for Brexit, and also for the success of Trump, not least the cognitive unwinding that seems to have come about in the first wave of the Internet Revolution. The sounds chambers of social media seem to have amplified grievances and opinions. Liberal and Conservative have each become more shrill in their condemnation of one another, epitomised by Hilary Clinton’s condemnation of ‘the basket of deplorables’ who supported Trump.

This may have helped Trump’s side characterise themselves as defenders of a put-upon common man in states such as Pennsylvania. Liberal condemnation of the ‘white’ working class is common across Europe, as any defence of cultural relativism excusing their conduct does not usually apply. Simon Kuper observed in the Financial Times (17/2/16) when visiting white working class areas in Manchester and Lyon that he: ‘hadn’t realised just how much the white working classes are mocked.’ They can be referred to as ‘chavs’ in Britain, ‘white trash’ in the US and, sometimes ‘beaufs’ (‘oiks’) in France: ‘“Poverty porn” TV shows make fun of supposedly lazy, half-witted, track-suited scroungers.’ As a result: ‘Many poor whites complain that the “elite” care about ethnic minorities and gay people but not about them.’ This old-fashioned social snobbery is often evident in ‘respectable’ journalism, and its ventilation does not breach the same taboo as racism.

In the Irish media and politics the DUP are often portrayed as equivalent to a white trash on the economic scrapheap, with their noxious homophobia and ludicrous low church Protestantism. The high priest of Irish liberalism Fintan O’Toole often subjects them to ridicule, which falls short of outright abuse. Thus he wrote in June:

Dante and Beatrice. Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Cyrano and Roxane. Don Quixote and Esmeralda. These unrequited loves have great poignancy. But they’ve nothing on the tenderest, most poignant tale of unrequited love in our times, the tragically one-sided crush the DUP has on Britain.

He takes an unseemly glee at their political naivete:

It is one thing to be infatuated with someone who just ignores you. The unfulfilled love retains its bittersweet purity, its dreamy half-life of pure possibility. But the true tragedy occurs when your love is apparently consummated at last and you find that the loved one really despises you. The DUP has long dreamed of being wrapped fully in the warm embrace of the Tory world with which it strives so hard to identify. And now, miraculously, its moment has come. But the loved one is thinking of England, sneaking glances at her watch and praying “Oh god! When will this be over?”

The commonalities between the English working class ‘chav’ and the DUP ‘trash’ become more apparent:

does it [the DUP] notice that, even as the Tory party clasps it to its bosom, the lack of enthusiasm would be scarcely less evident if the Tories were wearing rubber gloves and surgical masks? They are not swooning with love, they are fainting with revulsion. The DUP may think it is coming home; most Tories think the mad woman has come out of the attic of an old hyper-Protestant British identity and is sitting in the parlour demanding tea and scones with lots of jam and a bucket of clotted cream. She has to be humoured for now, but only until there is some way to get rid of her.

O’Toole has also been a trenchant critic of the inequalities that beset ‘liberal’ Ireland, but an article he wrote in June for the New York Times puts a rather different spin on modern Ireland. He wonders whether Irish people should be allowed a moment of schadenfreude as we ask whether the Brexit-voting English are fit for self-government, and refers to Theresa May government’s reliance in Westminster on a small party from Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, that trades on a ‘backward expression’ of British and Protestant identity.

He contrasts this with Dublin where a new prime minister Leo Varadkar is 38, half-Indian and gay, as well as being ‘leader of what is traditionally the most conservative of the Irish political parties, Fine Gael, long a bastion of Catholic moral values.’ Irish people he says ‘like him or dislike him to the extent that they like or dislike his party and the minority government it leads. The rest is just personal detail, interesting but of minor significance.’ Surprisingly, there is no mention of Varadkar’s conduct as Minister for Social Protection when he launched a campaign against ‘welfare cheats’, which seemed a calculated appeal to his own thrusting constituency.

Moreover, I am not convinced the Catholic Right has been completely extinguished from Irish politics. Overall, I find the tone unsettling: the division between the backward DUP, and the suave cosmopolitan Irish, epitomised by Mr Varadkar. O’Toole also reminds his American readers that Varadkar is a doctor now faced ‘with a neighbor going through a nervous breakdown’, which, ‘will need his best bedside manner.’ The intellectual gap is emphasised, but O’Toole must surely recognise that the shrill superiority of the liberal emboldens the reactionary.

One senses that this is a journalist playing to his gallery, and, frankly, seeking clicks online. An intellectual such O’Toole can do better. Indeed, one of the reasons why the DUP scuppered Theresa May’s first attempt to agree on terms with her European counterparts may have the crowing from the Irish media, not just of politicians.

On RTE’s Liveline, where our old friend Damien O’Reilly was sitting in for Joe Duffy, a pro-Remain Unionist guest, Will Taylor, told the aspiring shock-jock that ‘the example you give is almost inflammatory’. O’Toole himself, in reaction to the final agreement, triumphantly wrote: ‘To adapt Henry Ford, Britain can have any Brexit it likes, so long as it is green.’

I would like to see a United Ireland come about in my lifetime because I think the presence of a border represents a failure to reconcile diverging ideas. I believe the industrious Unionist people have a lot to offer the Republic; Protestant rationality has bred technical acumen that seems to have missing since the inception of the Irish state. I also suggest that stolid working class Unionist values would not have permitted the level of mendaciousness which has been tolerated of politicians in this Republic. The great tragedy of Irish history in my view is the failure of the United Irishmen of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter to remain a political force.

And let us not delude ourselves as O’Toole seems to be in some of his gushing articles in the foreign press, the Liberal, or really Neoliberal, Ireland of Varadkar is a country increasingly short on compassion for the poor. Health and education provision are steadfastly two tier, and if you don’t work in the corporate sector there is little chance of you even being able to afford to rent a house in Dublin’s city centre. The streets of Dublin are still filled with human casualties that hark back to a time when the city had comparably poverty to Calcutta, and the area beyond the Pale never recovered from the Crash. Varadkar’s only ideological commitment is to people who get up early in the morning, like himself.

While rejecting their xenophobia and homophobia, I suggest Irish politics could benefit from integrating working class values and technical skills. It might even be able to stop looking at Brexit as an earth-shattering calamity, but an expression of British exceptionalism that was never going to be accommodated in an ever-closer European Union.

I even dream of a time in Ireland when social discontents are no longer channelled through parties that draw their identities from approaches to the national question, from Fine Gael through to the DUP. If anyone wants to see a United Ireland they should be receptive to the Unionist identity, and failure to accommodate this is also a failure of imagination.

Paradise Papers, ‘Regulatory Capture’ and Democracy

Paradise Papers, ‘Regulatory Capture’ and Democracy

We may fulminate against a corrupt nexus connecting multinational capital and a deep state, but identifying clear illegality is more difficult. The collapse of the Anglo-Irish trials shows ‘white collar’ crime is difficult to prosecute. This is because much of what is widely considered immoral behaviour falls short of criminality.

The generally accepted distinction here is between tax evasion and tax avoidance, the latter of which can be technically compliant. Transactions exposed in the Paradise Papers were, it may be assumed, largely in the category of tax avoidance.

A number of Irish Times journalists participated on a transnational investigation conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), yielding evidence of companies and individuals – including U2’s Bono – channelling of assets or income through countries with low taxation regimes. These transactions were undertaken, in many instances, on the advice of one or other of the ‘top 5’ accountancy firms in the world.

A particular specialism of these firms is to advise clients how to transfer assets between jurisdictions so as to avoid tax liabilities. Highly-educated individuals develop esoteric legal instruments and mathematical models that would defy the comprehension of most of us.

Such expertise also calls for intimate knowledge of the practical workings of a particular fiscal agency in a given country. This may lead to ‘Regulatory Capture’, which has been observed across a range of sectors including Pharma and Transport.

It could cover a situation where an individual gains experience in the state sector – working for NAMA say – leaves his job and then takes up employment in an accountancy or other advisory firm. Direct conflicts of interest, which could give rise to illegality, are naturally avoided; so-called gardening leave may even be demanded in some cases. But intimate knowledge of the workings of state institutions – and perhaps continued social relations – is of great value when it comes to a firm advising a client on how they should go about doing business anywhere, including Ireland.

Niamh Callaghan describes ‘regulatory capture’, as being where: ‘one operator in the market uses its influence or resources to extract a regulatory decision, or lack of decision, for their own benefit rather than the benefit of society as a whole’. It is a form of lobbying that is not subject to legal controls and disclosure requirements, for the benefit of a particular company or sector.

With these lenses I perused a recent opinion article in the Irish Times by Padraig Cronin of the accountancy firm Deloitte, one of the ‘top 5’ accountancy firms mentioned in the Paradise Papers. It is also noteworthy that the Irish Times Opinion Editor John McManus worked with the ICIJ.

As a long-time observer, and recent contributor, to this page I see an attempt to strike a balance between left and right views, although this occurs in a newspaper with a structural reliance on generally multinational commercial advertisers. This inevitably affects editorial positioning, favouring broad acceptance of the fiscal status quo, including our low corporation tax regime.

One can imagine that Deloitte contacted the Irish Times and argued that the editor, in the interest of balance, should carry an article representing their views, which would provide a balance to the paper’s coverage.

In the article that was accepted, Vice-Chairman Padraig Cronin begins by counselling that business operates best when there is legal certainty. On the surface, this is reasonable, but he also implies that no government should endeavour to change our fiscal regime. His rationale is: ‘Ultimately, the private sector creates jobs and opportunities, with government policy being the key enabler.’

The characterisation of government as “enabler”, and the private sector creator as “creator” of jobs and opportunities is a profoundly ideological statement, disregarding the creative work the state does in a whole range of sectors. A teacher is surely a creator of jobs and opportunities for a student, however deficient our Leaving Certificate regime.

In many of the most developed European states disproportionately large state sectors exist, and no business without a private security force could operate without a state holding a monopoly on violence in a given territory. Private enterprise may have an important role in harnessing human creativity, but a state can generate economic activity without private enterprise, however inefficiently, whereas private enterprise requires a state to operate.

Mr Cronin justifies the ‘various complex but legal methods used by businesses and individuals to minimise their tax bills’, meaning the bespoke advice on tax avoidance that firms such as his own offer at a rate no ordinary person could afford. The rule of law that underpins these methods is then referred to as ‘a key foundation stone of democracy’.

There is, however, a distinction between the Rule of Law and positive law. The idea of the Rule of Law was conceived in Classical antiquity by philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, who said: ‘True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions.’ Positive law, on the other hand, is any law, however unjust, which is passed by a legislature, carried out by an executive and upheld by a judiciary.

Mr Cronin also contends that ‘it is the role of an elected government to fulfill the wishes of an electorate as regards what the laws (including on taxation) should be’; followed by: ‘it would undermine the democratic model if corporate behaviour were judged not against how well it complied with the law, but against more subjective criteria and opinions.’

This is disingenuous, to say the least. The vast majority of voters in elections have little idea of how different tax codes work, which is why these specialists can charge such high fees for their services. Moreover, any bill that passes through Dail Eireann is the legacy of not only Dail committees, but also the oversight of civil service draftsmen and the influence of lobbyists; we also know that voting populations are easily manipulated, especially by those with deepest pockets.

Democracy, to quote Churchill is the ‘least worst system’, so let’s not pretend otherwise. In Ireland, as many environmentalists find, it takes an exhausting level of effort to bring stories that do not reflect well on big business to public attention.

Yet another contradiction emerges when Mr Cronin urges the government to make a long-term commitment to follow recommendations of the ‘OECD-sponsored base-erosion and profit-shifting (Beps) process’. These are non-binding legal instruments which purport to close off tax loop holes in participating states. Leaving aside the democratic oversight he previously urged, he argues that to ‘ensure it obtains a fair share of the increased tax take of this state must move at the same pace as other countries while maintaining its competitiveness as a location.’

He is now saying it is the OECD’s advice we should heed, and we may assume there is no better organisation than a top-5 accountancy firm to guide any client on what will emerge from the research of this transnational agency. But an important caveat is added: “while maintaining its [Ireland’s] competitiveness as a location”. A pro-business (or really pro-multinational) exception, maintaining our low rate of corporation tax, is thus lodged in his submission alongside (or perhaps at variance with) OECD recommendations.

The next paragraph speaks directly to Taoiseach Varadkar, calling for an examination of our tax strategy, presumably insofar as it relates to the “competitiveness” exception rather than adhering to OECD recommendations. Has democratic accountability asserted itself over OECD recommendations again?

In the most brazen passage of the article he writes: ‘If we do not do so we might all be “getting up early in the morning to work hard” but others could be eating our lunch.’ Cronin seems unaware that that is precisely the purpose of taxation: to ensure the poorest can eat lunch even if they are out of work, or homeless.

A coded message then seems apparent when he says: ‘Ireland now needs to determine how it will play to win within the evolving Beps framework’. What exactly does “playing to win” mean in this context? I suspect it relates to regulatory capture; dangling long-term incentives to officials of the Irish state in their negotiations with officials from other jurisdictions in order to manipulate a favourable tax regime.

Cronin returns to the theme of certainty in the closing paragraphs, calling for the government to set out a road map to 2030 that would bind future administrations: ‘sticking to it would send a powerful message to the business community that it should feel it is safe to get on with business and underpin economic growth’.

An earlier appeal to democracy is forgotten once again when he argues: ‘knee-jerk reactions by governments are bad for business, certainly with a knock-on negative impact on economic growth. We need to avoid these’. In other words: democracy is fine when it works to our advantage.

I also wonder who he means by “we”? Is that the Irish people living in a period of stark income inequality, or is he referring to the plutocratic circles in which he presumably moves?

Less damningly, he refers to research by OECD showing that a greater focus on consumption and property taxes would be more equitable than increasing income tax, again ‘while maintaining a competitive corporate tax regime’. Disregarding the bias of someone who undoubtedly enjoys a six-figure income there is merit to higher property taxes, particularly on unoccupied properties, while Carbon and Sugar taxes are eminently sensible. But he appears to be advising that low corporation tax regime should be defended at all costs.

He concludes with a slightly forlorn request that companies playing: ‘by these rules should be allowed to get on with business without fear of criticism.’ He seems to saying: stop investigating our activities because what we are doing is legal.

Accountancy firms such as Deloitte have been subjected to stinging criticism in the UK over the Paradise Papers, and not just by Labour leaders. Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: ‘Some years ago it emerged the big banks were facilitating tax avoidance and a code of conduct was introduced. It’s surprising and regrettable that accountants have seemingly failed to take the hint and carried on regardless.’

Even Justine Greening, the education secretary, acknowledged on BBC’s Question Time: ‘As we close down these [tax avoidance] schemes, accountants and lawyers will try and find out new ones, and that is why this business is never really complete.’

The evidence which has come from the Paradise Papers regarding Deloitte and other accountancy firms does not appear to involve illegality. For a firm such as Deloitte to advise a client to commit a criminal offence would be bad for business, and in any case, often unnecessary. This should be the case in Ireland where a multinational-friendly fiscal regime is already in place, but even then companies such as Apple have managed to pay virtually no corporation tax. Regulatory Capture, along with the best professional minds, allows firms such as Deloitte to develop greater acquaintance than even the government on the import of the state’s tax codes.

The rewarding of individuals in the state sector who work on behalf of private interests is almost untraceable. The pay-off may come much later in the form of a directorship or other sinecure. It might never arrive. But, we can assume that within the state sector a certain ideological conformity underpins the perseverance of sacred cows such as a low corporation tax regime, protection of which seemed to have been the government’s one red line during the bank bailout negotiations.

Whether a different Ireland can be built, one that is not a tax haven for multinationals, is rarely considered. A substantial, though diminishing, upper middle class does well under the current regime, while both of the main political parties favour the current model. I wonder can we imagine another kind of Ireland.

Green should mean Red

Green should mean Red

The leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan has written an article for Village Magazine on the origins and current orientation of his party. I welcome references to seminal influences such as Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring (1962) drew attention to the environmental damage wrought by industrial farming; and to 1960s ‘systems thinking’, culminating in the Club of Rome, which used the latest information technology to measure future use of resources, thereby showing the finitude of economic growth.

As a lifelong supporter, however, I bridled at his contention that Green economics ‘is not easily categorised on a left/right ideological divide’. In my view Green ideas build on Red for a better world, but with crucial differences.

Left-wing ideology has tended towards over-reliance on narrow socio-economic data, which underplays the wider human experience, and often diminishes empathy. As Isaiah Berlin puts it:

the calm moral arithmetic of cost effectiveness which liberates decent men from qualms, because they no longer think of the entities to which they apply their scientific computations as actual human beings who live the lives and suffer the deaths of concrete individuals.

That is not to diminish the value of carefully-collated statistics, but selective citation of economic data was a recurring failure of the Old Left, as was denial of natural capital, and the value of individual wellbeing.

A problem with Marxist theory, and ‘historical materialism’ more generally, is a view of the progress of man, and his happiness, in isolation from Nature, and divorced from a spiritual life, which Marx castigated as an opiate. The idea of anything being sacred, including Art, is generally dismissed. Thus Terry Eagleton writes: ‘Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value distinguished by certain shared inherent properties does not exist’.

Communist regimes caused enormous damage to the moral fabric of societies of Central and Eastern Europe. Rather than fostering empathy, they had the opposite effect of incubating materialism, and more selfish behaviour than might otherwise have arisen. The response of people brought up under Communist regimes to the plight of Syrian refugees has been instructive, and a theoretical dislocation from Nature permitted wholescale ecocide, including Chernobyl.

Eamon Ryan makes a valid point that Green ideology: ‘values our quality of life rather than just increases in the quantity of goods that are consumed’; and the pleasure my 85-year-old English friend Richard (pictured above) derives from his life bears out this point.

Richard prefers to spend the summer months living out of doors in a tent, and chooses to wrap up and take plenty of exercise, rather than pay heating bills during the winter months. Having given up driving long ago, he takes public transport or cycles, and has been a Vegan for over thirty years. Despite not flying, he is on holidays much of the time, including a recent four-month stint in the French Alps, where his advanced years gave him a free ski pass! He’s mostly joyful, and in rude health, while living off a meagre income.

While not everyone would accept the perceived privations that Richard happily embraces it has been established that monetary wealth only brings an individual to a fixed point on a graph of happiness. But everyone’s wellbeing, and survival, is now threatened by something far deeper, which is the devastating impact of mostly Western consumption on the planet. Richard himself is outraged and wants to organise a mass march on London to protest against government inaction.

Vast wealth now co-habits with shocking poverty in Ireland, and in fairness to Eamon Ryan he acknowledges this with his criticism of the American economic model. This battle against inequality must be put centre-stage, however, as merely focusing on environmental questions without first addressing social context risks making the party an irrelevance to the majority of the population.

Government parties argue that the population enjoys adequate social supports, notwithstanding the current housing crisis. But this is useless when lives are beset by anxiety over economic status, after sophisticated advertising techniques manipulate our behaviour towards ever-greater consumption. Many luxuries are now seen as necessities – not least owning a car – to the benefit of a declining number of beneficiaries, whose wealth is virtually untouched.

Marxist theory, relying on David Ricardo’s labour surplus theory of value, is correct that a free market leads to accumulation of wealth. That is the important justification for taxation of individuals and companies.

Seen ecologically, we have allowed a situation to develop wherein a small number of individuals are leading the despoliation of the Earth’s resources. Picture humanity as a forest that has spread over most of the biosphere, but within this forest there are certain trees that draw a disproportionate share of the water and minerals that sustain life, like Giant Redwoods towering over the rest, while everyone is running out of resources, and time.

That is not to say there isn’t a role for individuals, like Richard, who minimise their impact on the planet; but we need top-down structural changes to bring the giant interlopers down to a manageable scale.

Much of the power of capital now resides in a capacity to dominate the media space; we can see this in our own country where the white noise of news agendas infects the body politic, producing politics of incoherence and theatrical bile. To Eamon Ryan’s credit he is one of the few politicians who rarely engages in ad hominem attacks, and concentrates on addressing the important issues.

I believe, however, he must go further, and not simply in order to harness the anger over homelessness, and the absence of housing policy. Green politics arises as an extension of Marxist critiques of wealth and power, while acknowledging the limits of natural capital, and a human yearning for meaning through spiritual and artistic practice.

The influence of unchecked capital is evident in the deficiencies in our health system, which does nothing to promote health as opposed to treat diseases. As one general practitioner friend of mine forlornly observed: the health industry is indistinguishable from the wider capitalist economy. It is dominated by avaricious pharmaceutical companies and private insurers that sow fear. Leading Irish oligarchs such as Denis O’Brien (the Beacon) and Larry Goodman (the Blackrock Clinic) have stakes in a sector displaying the same wage disparities as in the wider economy.

Unsurprisingly, the government’s response to the obesity pandemic has been no more than a long-delayed, and tame, tax on soft drinks, which I called for four years ago. Moreover, the Irish Livestock-Industrial Complex has been allowed to dictate dietary recommendations, and the burden of disease grows each year. There is an important role for Green approaches to the health of society, as living Green invariably confers health, as Richard’s example shows.

Today a Neoliberal discourse holds sway which says that a conniving state is inherently inefficient at spending resources. This was articulated by Sunday Times columnist Niall Ferguson in his book Civilization (2011): ‘Private property rights’, he says, ‘are repeatedly violated by governments that seem to have an insatiable appetite for taxing our incomes and our wealth and wasting a large proportion of the proceeds.’

The use of the seductive “our” is revealing: Ferguson is really manipulating the low paid worker into a low-tax alliance with the Super Rich. This is a formula that the Republican party have turned into an art form in the United States. That is not to say that there aren’t serious problems with the way an étatiste elite wields power in Ireland. The salaries of many state officials are still disgracefully high. This is the legacy of the failed policy of the Tiger – boomenomics – and the grave planning failures that concentrated too many jobs in the capital city, driving up property prices as a result.

Green economics would embrace degrowth, and an aggressive response to the consumer economy, focusing initially perhaps on ending the use of plastics made from crude oil. That is a battle requiring more than a consensual approach, but it will be to the ultimate wellbeing of the collective, and Nature.

I share Eamon Ryan’s enthusiasm for a revolution in energy, which will bring an end to the use of fossil fuels, but the understandable worry is that the fruits of any windfall will not be shared evenly. In rural Ireland people don’t feel invested in alternative energy, and continue to fuel their cars with toxic fossil fuels that generate horrendous overseas conflicts, while many continue to extract peat from the precious remaining peatlands.

We need more than a technological revolution. A revolution in mindsets is required such that acquisition of monetary wealth ceases to be an overwhelming ambition. This will only come about when we alter a destructive relationship with the natural world, and see wealth in river banks not bank balances. A radical change in the way we ‘do’ education is called for, with far greater focus on human development than non-sensical state exams.

I welcome Eamon Ryan’s acknowledgement that we are losing the battle to save our natural world, including in Ireland, and I believe we cannot concede any more ground on this. The Green Party is primed to take on the Livestock-Industrial Complex and it should not shirk this challenge. To be an extremist in this cause will be a badge of honour to wear before the generations that follow: ‘What did you do in the Great War against Climate Change Grandpa?’

I anticipate a time when the Green movement becomes a mainstream political force committed to ending an exploitative relationship with Earth, and the patriarchal structures that underlie this. For this to occur we must take on the oligarchs, and their drones in mainstream media. We require a mass political movement that reverses the course of the great battle we are facing to save Nature, and humanity.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn showed that a leader imbued with principle, and poetry, can speak directly to a population when given the opportunity, especially through social media. The Green Party should be ambitious enough to take on the Byzantine political parties that dominate our dysfunctional system. These parties stand for nothing, and as we see this week, can fall out over anything.

Ireland’s Livestock-Industrial-Complex

Ireland’s Livestock-Industrial-Complex

It may come as a surprise that a Republican President, and former Allied commander-in-chief, Dwight D. Eisenhower coined the term ‘the Military-Industrial Complex’ before leaving office in 1961. Throughout the Cold War, and beyond, the US arms industry has exerted profound influence on political decision-making. This has yielded vast federal investment in manufacturing operations, and brought sinister deals with tyrannical foreign governments, including, recently, Saudi Arabia.

U.S. society has been weighed down by this relationship with the industry, as Michael Moore poignantly showed in his documentary ‘Bowling for Columbine’ (2002). Moore pointed to how the presence of the arms industry in small towns incubates states of fear that can have terrible consequences, including mass shootings.

The Military Industrial Complex has been defined as: ‘an informal and changing coalition of groups with vested psychological, moral, and material interests in the continuous development and maintenance of high levels of weaponry, in preservation of colonial markets and in military-strategic conceptions of internal affairs.’

Replace “weaponry” and “military” with “livestock”, and “agricultural”, and it could describe the “informal coalition” of interests operating to preserve the livestock-farming sector in Ireland. This country is similarly dominated by the concerns of an industry that would hardly survive in a free market. This has long been evident in media reporting on Climate Change, and even when it comes to nutritional guidance from professional bodies.

Since the Great Famine (1845-52), Irish agriculture has been dominated by cattle-rearing for beef, and dairy; although Irish farmers have been no laggards in adopting CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), mainly for pigs and chicken. Michael Pollan described one such CAFO in the United States as ‘a place I won’t soon forget: a deep circle of porcine hell.’ He adds: ‘Specialisation makes it easy to forget about … the hog that lived and died so I can enjoy my bacon.’ Adding: ‘however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity’.

Ireland operates facilities on a similar scale as those in the United States. One such was found to be in violation of what are very limited animal welfare provisions. In February 2015 the Irish Times reported on a case in which pig farmer Rory O’Brien was given a jail sentence of 18 months. Judge Sean O Donnabháin said: ‘This is cruelty on an industrial scale by one of the biggest pig farmers in the country. On a continuous basis he knowingly and without regard acted in this way’. Inside the rat-infested piggery, animals were left to starve leading them to eat one another. O’Brien’s farm held over 2000 pigs. That implicates a lot of breakfast rolls.

A curious psychology appears to operate whereby, since the Great Famine, Irish farmers have equated growing crops with poverty. The first Minister for Agriculture Patrick Hogan (1922-32) was a substantial cattle farmer, and an export-led strategy left a deep impression on state policy thereafter.

During the 1930s, and especially the Emergency years of the Second World War, government policy necessarily shifted towards a more diversified agriculture, designed to feed the populace. However, since the 1950s, livestock agriculture has become increasingly dominant, and a host of semi-state organisations including Teagasc and An Bord Bia, intertwine with multinationals such as Larry Goodman’s ABP Food Group and the Kerry Group, to create an “informal coalition” with tentacles reaching deep into media and politics.

Successive governments have supported these companies, including, most obviously, the extension of state benefits by Charles Haughey’s administration to Goodman International in 1990, after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, which caused losses to the company estimated at £70 million. The Middle East remains the preferred “colonial market” for the Complex, including the disturbing live animal trade.

It is at least symbolic that while Minister for Agriculture (2011-2016), Simon Coveney’s brother and political supporter Patrick was CEO of Greencore, while another brother Rory was Strategic Advisor to the Director General, and Head of Strategic Partnerships, in the national broadcaster RTE. The alignment of business, media and politics lies at the heart of maintaining the informal coalition, and Coveney’s new role as Minister for Foreign Affairs, leading Brexit negotiations, should be scrutinised closely for his efforts on behalf of the sector.

European subsidisation from 1972, through the CAP, essentially keeps cattle farming afloat in Ireland. Accounting for over half of Ireland’s c.85,000 farms, the vast majority of dry cattle (“beef”) farmers actually lose money on their enterprises, relying on Direct Payments (subsidies) for income. Government intervention in the market has long caused distortions. In 1966 then Minister for Agriculture Charles Haughey claimed: ‘agitation directed only to getting higher prices may develop a kind of dole mentality which would eventually make agriculture subservient to the state.’ This “dole mentality” is now ensconced in a subsidy-dependent sector.

Prior to the introduction of the CAP in 1971 the economist James Meenan had claimed: “the small farmer cannot profitably raise beef on his limited acreage”. He contended that it is: “…increasingly recognised that price supports are of most benefit to the large farmers who as a rule, are least in need of them, and that such supports do nothing to provide a lasting solution to the problems of small farmers”.

Far fewer in number, dairy farmers (c.15,000 out of c. 85,000), also avail of EU grants, but tend to be profitable, while operating on the best lands in the country. Cleavages have opened up between the two – with the advent of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA) in 1993 – although it is convenient for the more profitable farmers to maintain an illusion of unity through the far larger, and industry-supported, Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), at least for the moment. If nothing else, this allows the Livestock-Industrial Complex to associate itself with embattled small farmers.

The Livestock-Industrial Complex operates via a number of pillars in both the public and private sector, which have brought successive governments to heel and maintained a spooky allegiance to the “farming way of life” in mainstream media, especially through the state broadcaster. The Agricultural-Industrial Complex faces its greatest challenge in a generation, however, as the state is committed to reducing its carbon emissions at a time when the sector wishes to expand with the ending of EU milk quotas.

Over a number of years I covered the media reporting on this issue for Village Magazine. An instructive example came from an RTE Drivetime report from Wednesday, 2nd of October in 2013 about the connection between livestock and climate change. It began with presenter Mary Wilson stating: ‘A UN report (‘Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock’) on the contribution of livestock to greenhouse gas emissions has been rubbished as misleading and outdated by JBS, the world’s largest producer of beef.’

In the first instance it would surely be customary to begin with a commentary on the findings of the UN report, rather than the response of an industry representative. There followed a four-minute interview in which Countrywide’s Damien O’Reilly questioned Gerry O’Callaghan the chief Executive of JBS, a Brazilian company heavily implicated in the destruction of rainforests. O’Callaghan was allowed to question the veracity of the report and impugn the credibility of its ‘out of touch, ‘academic’ authors.

O’Callaghan claimed de-forestation was ‘being managed really well’, and ‘only a fraction of it is associated with the meat industry’; claims environmentalists vigorously contest. He went on to claim that the research used in the report was ‘out of date’, and that the industry was making ‘great strides’ in reducing its footprint.

Back in studio Mary Wilson proceeded to interview Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth. The credibility of the report was immediately raised: ‘Does he have a point. Does it devalue the impact of the report?’, she asked.

As is still usually the case, the environmentalist was placed on the defensive. But the psychological and moral influence of the Livestock-Industrial Complex seemed evident in his response. While defending the report, Coghlan said in effect that it was a good news story for agriculture: ‘Better pastures and better grasses – we are seeing that in Ireland too.’ Placed on the defensive, Coghlan failed to use the opportunity to advocate a significant production towards environmentally friendlier and healthy alternatives.

Our ‘paper of record’ the Irish Times has also been slow to highlight the responsibility of farming for emissions, and still tends to slide away from doing so. Certainly its food coverage emphasises meat and dairy cooking; while sympathy for small farmers seems to extend to an unwillingness to meaningfully confront the industry. The Irish Times also contends with the interests of significant advertisers such as National Dairy Council and An Bord Bia.

Responding to the then FG-Labour government’s Climate Change Bill Harry McGee wrote in the Irish Times on February 26, 2013: ‘The Government argument is that an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 means annual emissions of 11 million tonnes of carbon equivalent, for everything. But agriculture alone accounts for 19 million tonnes at present. That means if everything else was reduced to zero, Ireland would still need to substantially reduce the amount of food produced, or dramatically cull national herds.’

He followed: ‘That is not a feasible solution, practically or politically, it is argued.’ The use of the passive voice tells us what we need to know: unspoken influences prevent deviations from a dominant line. The media bears a level of responsibility for the Irish state facing hundreds of millions in EU fines.

We also find the interests of the Livestock-Industrial Complex entering nutritional discourse, especially through the National Dairy Council. Maintaining consumption in the home market is clearly still a priority, perhaps for symbolic reasons as much as anything else.

The funding of research and development, including through charities, plays an important role in maintaining government nutritional advice that is not necessarily best practice, but ensures dairy in particular is consumed at high levels.

The Osteoporosis Society of Ireland was founded in 1996 by Professor Moira O’Brien as ‘a patient support organisation for those suffering with Osteoporosis and their families.’ Two of its leading sponsors listed on its website are Avonmore and Yoplait, and it has collaborated in the past with the National Dairy Council. As regards dietary calcium their website states:

“The richest sources of calcium in the diet are yogurt milk and cheese. Three servings a day will help meet calcium needs of an adult or child, five servings are recommended during adolescence and pregnancy. Smaller amounts of calcium may be obtained from other food sources, such as green vegetables, bread and sardines. It should be noted however that the bioavailablility of calcium from non-dairy sources is lower. Calcium intake can be boosted by including dairy foods in a variety of ways such as in smoothies, hot chocolates, pizzas, cheese sauces, lasagne etc. For some, milks fortified with extra calcium and vitamin D can be useful.”

This is at odds with the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) which say: ‘studies suggest that high calcium intake doesn’t actually appear to lower a person’s risk for osteoporosis.’ The authors refer to the Harvard studies of male health professionals and female nurses in which individuals who drank one glass of milk (or less) per week were at no greater risk of breaking a hip or forearm than were those who drank two or more glasses per week.

The HSPH states bluntly: ‘Calcium is important. But milk isn’t the only, or even best, source.’ They recommend: ‘Look beyond the dairy aisle. Limit milk and dairy foods to no more than one to two servings per day. More won’t necessarily do your bones any good—and less is fine, as long as you get enough calcium from other sources. Calcium-rich non-dairy foods include leafy green vegetables and broccoli, both of which are also great sources of vitamin K, another key nutrient for bone health. Beans and tofu can also supply calcium.’ One may fairly speculate as to whether sponsors influence the Osteoporosis Society’s recommendations.

The informal coalition of the Livestock-Industrial Complex operates at the highest levels of Irish society, and its role is rarely interrogated in mainstream media. A moral dimension flows form the Industry’s capacity to associate itself with historically downtrodden small farmers, now locked into the “dole mentality” Charles Haughey anticipated. Environmentalists should be prising small farmers away from this model and arguing for progressive re-rurification that will increase opportunities for employment in labour-intensive tillage and horticulture.

On a personal note, I would add that the “complicity”, which Michael Pollan alludes to, operates where the vast majority of the population eat, and enjoy, livestock-derived foods produced in Ireland. Nobody likes being told what they should eat, but until a greater proportion of the population shifts away from foods that have traditionally been considered an aspect of the pleasures of life – the butter melting on your toast in the morning; the Sunday roast; the turkey at Christmas; it seems unlikely that the Livestock Industrial-Complex will meet significant opposition.

Offering alternative dietary perspectives – a plant-based gastronomy – is therefore an important role for environmentalists. My own experience of shifting from a traditional gastronomic diet in my mid-thirties to a plant-based regime might perhaps be instructive. Contrary to carefully cultivated propaganda this was not an exercise in asceticism. I found my taste buds shifted considerably to a point where I began to derive enjoyment from different, usually healthier, foods. More importantly, I found my eyes opening to injustices that I previously took for granted.

Feirme-geddon. Ten reasons why Irish farming as we know it is on the way out.

Feirme-geddon. Ten reasons why Irish farming as we know it is on the way out.

We have already seen two agricultural revolutions in Ireland, now we are set for a third. This presents opportunities to farmers who are willing to adapt.

After the last Ice Age, the agriculturists who arrived in Ireland brought with them a tool kit of grains and domesticated animals that had spread from the Middle East into Europe. Irish conditions could sustain both, with pastoralism more evident in the rainy west. But before mechanization a living off cattle only allowed a semi-nomadic existence, forestalling the development of state structures.

It is said the Romans never colonised Ireland because they could not be sure of taking back a harvest surplus. Nevertheless, the arrival of Christianity coincided with innovations in water milling showing that grain was widely grown – wheat, oats, and rye – especially in the south and east.

Ireland’s first agricultural revolution coincided with the second wave of English colonisation in the seventeenth century. From that point, land ceased to be held as a common patrimony of clan or tribe, and individual ownership and possession – landlord and tenant – became the norm.

Colonisation turned Ireland into a bulk supplier of both grain and livestock for the Empire. But it was the arrival of an ambrosial New World crop, the potato, which was the game changer. Small tenant farmers, even in the rainy west, could survive on miniscule holdings, while much of the better land was devoted to cash crops and cattle for export.

The second Irish agricultural revolution began after the Napoleonic Wars when grain prices collapsed due to renewed European access to the British market, culminating in the Great Irish Famine. Geometric growth in the peasant population brought a monoculture that was susceptible to disease. The potato blight (phytophthora infestans) is reckoned by economic historian Joel Mokyr to have brought the worst famine to afflict any European country in the nineteenth century. Up to a quarter of the population either died, or were forced to emigrate.

Out of the devastation, pastoralism became increasingly dominant. That is an extensive system, however, which depends for profitability on low labour inputs: population in Ireland continued to decline for a century, and has still not reached the heights of the 1840s, which makes Ireland unique in the world for having a higher population then than now.

Membership of the European Community in 1972 fossilised this system, guaranteeing an income even when a farm is losing money, and keeping the price of land artificially high, thereby hindering the development of alternative agriculture, including horticulture. But large cracks are apparent, and a third agricultural revolution is required for the following reasons.

Carbon Emissions: thirty-three percent of the country’s emissions come from agriculture which is overwhelmingly livestock-based. We have the highest proportion of our emissions coming from agriculture of any developed country apart from New Zealand. Hundreds of millions in fines are on the horizon if we don’t hit EU-mandated targets. Overall we are the least Climate-friendly country in the EU. It seems unlikely that the EU will continue to finance a form of farming that is inherently carbon-intensive. Carbon sequestration is the Holy Grail of earnest livestock apologists, but there is little evidence to support this approach, and it seems like a chimera delaying necessary changes to production, and consumption.

Brexit: Ireland is about to lose favourable access to its traditional trading partner, and tariffs may be placed on Irish agricultural products. A weak sterling is already making life difficult

Peak Oil: our mechanized system is utterly dependent on oil and other fossil fuels such as natural gas, which is necessary for the Haber-Bosch process that produces the artificial fertilizers which are intensively used on Irish grasslands. Fracking may have bought some time, but the end of this finite resource will arrive eventually.

Climate Chaos: already we are seeing an increase in catastrophic storms passing over our exposed island. When it comes to defences cities will be the first priority for the state to protect; rural areas will be far more exposed as freakish weather becomes the new normal and oceans rise. Low tree coverage increases susceptibility to flooding.

Food Sovereignty: if we were to rely entirely on Irish products we would face severe food shortages, unless we adopted diets comprised almost entirely of animal products. Little grain is grown for human consumption, and knowledge of a traditional method of harvesting – bindering – in our wet conditions has been lost. The horticulture sector is almost non-existent, meaning most of our fruit and vegetables are imported from countries such as the Netherlands, which has conditions not dissimilar to our own.

Biodiversity Loss: the intensification of agriculture in Ireland is leading to extinctions of numerous native species. Agricultural authorities seem oblivious to the plight of other animals native to the island. Thousands of badgers are exterminated each year for a spurious connection to bovine TB. Loss of biodiversity could lead to ecological breakdowns affecting water and air quality. The present pace of ecocide cannot endure.

Disease Risk: the prophylactic use of antibiotics in Ireland has been documented, but this is not all. In factory farms antibiotics may be used to increase the weight of animals’ carcasses. Over-use of antibiotics in agriculture is a major factor in the emergence of superbugs that have already led to thousands of deaths across Europe, and threaten much worse.

Consumer Preferences: in almost every supermarket in the land there is a ‘free-from’ aisle. In particular the number of vegans is on the rise, which seems to have led the National Dairy Council to market their milk as ‘plant-based’, as if a cow can photosynthesize! Even meat-eaters are becoming increasingly uncomfortable at images of incarcerated animals having parts of their anatomy cut off in industrial farms, and dairy calves being taken from their mothers at just one day old.

Carcinogens: the WHO has defined red meat as a ‘probable’ carcinogenic, and processed meat as simply carcinogenic, which is placing a burden on our beleaguered health system. There is also compelling evidence that adoption of a plant-based diet diminishes the possibility of heart disease, and may actually be better than any pill. Meanwhile the dairy industry insists on the necessity of milk products to our health, despite the advice of the Harvard School of Public Health that dairy is neither the only, nor the best, source of dietary calcium.

Availability of Alternatives: billions are being invested in plant-based alternatives to animal products, including analogue meat and genuinely plant-based ‘milk’, which reduce environmental impact, and can be better for human health, besides avoiding a cruel system of production. The advance of laboratory meat technology also endangers the current model.

Ireland will not have to fall back entirely on its own resources immediately at least in the short term, and contrary to popular notions, becoming a locavore actually has a higher carbon footprint. Nonetheless we need to make our food system sufficiently diverse to withstand the challenges that lie ahead, while adopting best environmental practice.

We should be preparing for a third agricultural revolution on this island which can accommodate enhanced biodiversity through afforestation. We can also harness alternative energies in production. Old-fashioned greenhouses may be one of the best ways of diminishing the Greenhouse Effect. A widespread dietary shift towards plants is both necessary and desirable, for all concerned.


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It’s personal: why I want to give up Ryanair.

It’s personal: why I want to give up Ryanair.

Most of us have a Ryanair horror story to recount. My own version occurred at the end of a trip to my then Czech girlfriend in Prague. I blame Ryanair for the end of that affair. Though it was also my own fault for getting into a post-modern, long-distance relationship.

Anyway, we’d just spent a week together before Christmas in wintertime Czech Republic, taking in a memorable cross-country ski trip and a few days in Prague, which is sprinkled with magic over Christmas: outdoor markets with steaming hot wine and trinkets, interspersed with happy burghers, in a toy town setting.

On the last night, however, relations were strained. “Where are we going with this?”, we both wondered. Some space after the heady immersion would do us no harm.

The following morning I set off for the airport with a sense of coming up for air, notwithstanding my deep affection for her; she too was looking forward to getting her routines back, away from the maniac Irishman.

It was a bitterly cold morning, a frost hung in the air under a marble-glassy-sky. A portentous gloom was apparent as I caught the smoothly-efficient, and cheap, public transport to Prague Airport, arriving in good time for my Ryanair flight.

I proceeded through the baggage checks and passport control without incident, and found the gate for Dublin listed for 8:30, settling into my book before boarding. But the gods were not smiling on me that day. In a flash of awareness I realised the flight I was awaiting began with the prefix EI, rather than FR.

This was an Aer Lingus flight! I swiftly discovered that Ryanair was leaving at 8:15, which gave me a few minutes still. I took off as fast as my legs could carry me to the Ryanair gate. There, I found two attendants waiting at the glass door to the runway, and could see the aircraft nearby outside with people still boarding. Saved! Or so I thought.

When I presented my boarding pass I received a shock. “I am sorry the gate is closed”, was the stony response from a lady, who, in another era, might have denied bread to someone with the wrong ration card.

“But the plane hasn’t left, I can see people boarding”, I cried in rising consternation. Her programmed response suggested I was not the first to be confused by the proximity in departure times, and that this was part of her job: “You can purchase a ticket for tomorrow morning for €150”.

I pleaded with her, told her I was broke, brought every emotional ruse to bear, including summoning tears. But she was an immovable stone to my emotional wave, and kept repeating the mantra of the price of the ticket for the following morning.

Then an older Czech woman arrived who may have made the same mistake, or just been late. She was given the same stock response in Czech. She put on a really impressive show, wailing like a banshee before a lady who, alas, was not for turning. We watched on in horror as the last of the passengers snaked on to the aircraft, a mere fifty paces away.

I then went to the Aer Lingus desk seeking another flight for that day, but was quoted an astronomical figure. When I got to the Ryanair desk they immediately presented me with a bill of €150 for the following day’s flight. They seemed quite familiar with this routine.

So I scuttled back into Prague that grim morning, filled with foreboding. In hindsight I should have booked a hotel but I’d already taken a significant financial hit. The day went as badly as might have been expected. It was never the same afterwards.

Ryanair’s success is built on people making mistakes, such as mine. Of course they brought down the cost of flying considerably, but profitability depends on inflicting misery on an unlucky minority.

It’s as ruthless a form of capitalism as can be imagined, inducing a stress the like of which never existed before Michael O’Leary got involved in aviation.
Of course other airlines aren’t much better anymore, and also treat their passengers with all the warmth we extend to numbers on a spreadsheet. But O’Leary is the dark prince who re-wrote the rule book, and consumers should recall what kind of character we are dealing with.

There is a story – apocryphal perhaps – about him from a period when he ran a newsagent in the Dublin suburbs. It was Christmas day and the ever-vigilant O’Leary stayed open when other shops were closed.

Sniffing an easy buck, the arch-opportunist quadrupled the price of batteries and lay in wait for the kiddies to come in search of them for their Christmas toys. He knew they would beseech their unfortunate parents to pay over the odds.

The story conjures an image of O’Leary dressed as Santa Clause for one of his giveaways. But really the big bad wolf lies underneath.

To become a multi-billionaire probably takes a degree of ruthlessness akin to that of a war lord of yore. What could drive a man (it seems to be a Y-chromosome thing) to seek such extraordinary wealth and power? There are only so many cars to drive and mistresses you can keep. Why do we allow unaccountable wealth like this to accumulate, while millions are still malnourished?

O’Leary masquerades as a country squire on his cattle farm and conveniently denies human responsibility Climate Change. He also refuses to recognise or negotiate with unions. He’s a decidedly sinister role model.

The recent cancellations of hundreds of Ryanair flights shows that his pilots are mustering opposition against him. Let us support them by boycotting Ryanair, where possible. For motivation just remember the stress he has probably already caused you.

We should really be reducing our carbon footprints by taking longer holidays, rather than short breaks according to the Ryanair model. Also, there is a ferry and rail deal that takes one anywhere in the UK for just over €50, and you don’t have to book it long in advance. Be the change you want to see in the world, and hurt this guy in the one place he feels it.

A New O’Reilly?

A New O’Reilly?

2017 has been an annus mirabilis for shock jocks around the world. Stateside, their doyenne, Bill O’Reilly was given his marching orders by Fox News, after claims of sexual harassment.

In Ireland George Hook was given an extended stay in the Sin Bin by Newstalk for laying a degree of blame on rape victims. Only months earlier his kindred provocateur Kevin Myers was also shown the door by the Sunday Times for comments perceived to be anti-Semitic.

The art of the shock jock is to shock but not to breaking point. As a character from a Woody Allen film puts it: “if it bends it’s comedy, if it breaks it’s tragedy.” The shock-jock skirts the boundaries of taboo, but can easily fall off the precipice.

Ultimately it seems to be the advertisers who decide where the red lines lie. During the Hook affair, in what was a masterstroke of public relations, Tescos let it be known they would no longer be advertising on Newstalk, getting a good splash on the front cover of the Irish Times in return. The following day the mighty Hook had fallen.

With so many heads rolling it begs the question: who will fill that angry space? One candidate might be RTE’s Damien O’Reilly who recently came to public attention for receiving a payment of €1,500, plus expenses, from An Bord Bia – Origin Green junket to Dubai.

RTE authorities were apparently aware of the payment, but O’Reilly has earned the enmity of leading environmentalists who see him as being to the fore in ‘greenwashing’ the role of agriculture in Climate Change.

On a recent Countrywide show he described anyone who advocated a reduction in beef and dairy production in Ireland as “critics on the extreme”; precisely the kind of imbalance we expect from a shock jock, who subtly shifts the political ground towards approval of de-regulated markets and personal responsibility; though not necessarily what we should expect from an employee of the national broadcaster.

O’Reilly has also taken aim at the tried and trusted target of cyclists in his Farmers Journal column, claiming the average Irish cyclist looks like he is heading off to compete in the Tour de France dressed from head to toe like Bradley Wiggins, before (he) “arrogantly screams to the rest of us: ‘Get out of my way”. There follows the standard, “I’m not really a racist” apology: “I am sorry if this sounds flippant, and of course there are law-abiding cyclists out there.” Again, the cyclist is the extremist.

But our own O’Reilly is unlikely to move on from his Montrose meal ticket, and sure why would he when he can moonlight as he pleases, and build up enough goodwill from agri-business for a lifetime of guest appearances and endorsements.

Then again he might find life increasingly uncomfortable in RTE as the cold winds of austerity blow through the campus, and media attention begins to focus more closely on the farming sector with the state facing hundreds of millions in fines from the European Commission. Already the Citizens’ Assembly have called on farmers to pay their share of the emissions bill after listening to expert evidence. But who listens to experts anymore?

The Leaving Certificate Mind

The Leaving Certificate Mind

It is worth reflecting on why criticism is not easily absorbed in Ireland. Tempers seem to flare easily, often excluding meaningful dialogue.

I attribute a great deal of this to a secondary education system which avoids profound interrogation of ideas. We lack the detachment gained from the French philosophical training in a Baccalaureate or even the English (or really Scottish) tradition of dispassionate rational enquiry. This is an adolescent nation that seems to have drawn selectively from Plato’s 4th century BC idealisation of a city state in The Republic.

The formative educational experience in Ireland comes from the Leaving Certificate, whose results divide students into the relative substrates of gold, silver, bronze and iron; the origin myth that Plato propagated in The Republic to keep people in their place.

In common with The Republic, the Leaving Certificate exalts mathematics above other disciplines, with bonus points attaching at higher level; you can’t attain ‘the maximum’ without an A1. This, however, is not an enquiring mathematics, at least in the 1990s, it wasn’t.

The tedium of text books was legendary; sometimes there were practical questions grounded in ‘real world’ solutions, such as calculating compound interest; subliminal messages woven through the text, aligning students to dominant ‘managerial’ values.

Abstract fields were entered, but given no context. We were supposed to shut up and take the medicine. I only wish I had been acquainted with the relationship between mathematics and beauty or astronomy. Then perhaps I wouldn’t have spent so much time drawing faces on my copybooks, or flicking paper balls at my mates.

I recall a fascination at the end of my transition years when a physics teacher – who until then seemed to speak exclusively in the mysterious language of equations – extemporised on the origins of the universe, and time travel. Alas, by that point my grounding was so feeble that any attempt to ignite a mathematical career was beyond me.

The poet most of us identify with Leaving Certificate English is W.B. Yeats, who was fascinated by Plato, although – to my consternation – Yeats did not appear on the English paper my year, as had been his bi-annual habit.

Yeats is said to have measured out metre with a metronome (although he was also apparently tone deaf). His sharply delineated poetry was sculpted with great precision into iambs and rhyming patterns, exacting labour he bemoans in ‘Adam’s Curse’ (1904):

A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

This gives his work a musical ring evident throughout his corpus, making him perhaps the leading English language poet of the twentieth century.

It is symptomatic that in my time the transgressive language of James Joyce’s equally precious works found no place on the syllabus. Thus, Leaving Certificate English inclines towards Platonic order, rather than a questioning iconoclasm. Yeats’s Platonic idealism, notwithstanding exotic heresies, also fitted with a reigning Catholicism still inhabiting state institutions, right up to the Constitution itself.

In the humanities Leaving Certificate methodologies are a debased form of Catholic scholasticism; rather than addressing concepts with Aristotelian rigour, in most subjects rote learning is demanded: mindless, increasingly secular, catechisms.

What saved me from academic oblivion and middle class shame (that came later), was a capacity to recall that raw detail, allied with a genuine interest in history. I ascended to the level of non-mathematical silver in the Platonic scale, and became an Arts student in lumpen-UCD.

The Leaving Certificate brands and stamps you with its legacy. University results do not have the same kudos, because there, it is understood, you study subjects you have chosen rather than a wide range. Years afterwards, one is aware of someone’s Leaving Certificate results, bringing flawed assumptions of brilliance, or mediocrity.

There is much to be said in favour of a broad-based approach encompassing all facets of a Liberal education. But the narrow lens of Leaving Certificate methodologies ignores the function of education, including mathematical, that Plato identifies in his Republic, which is to develop philosopher-rulers. Philosophy is not even a Leaving Certificate subject.

Another insight we may draw from The Republic is that Plato banishes unruly poets from his putative state, and imposes his own mythology. Similarly, many Irish writers have been compelled to display the Joycean qualities of ‘silence, exile and cunning’, allowing the Catholic Church to propagate a singular
Biblical mythology. The former principal of Glenstal Abbey Mark Patrick Hederman acknowledged that Irish Catholicism was ‘bullying and insensitive’ at the time of Joyce. That demand for conformity was imported into the final state examination.

The Leaving Certificate Mind is apparent at many levels of Irish society, and seems to fit people to work, submissively, in large corporate bodies. This may be economically advantageous in the medium term, but creativity, and perhaps entrepreneurship, are given insufficient scope.

Moreover, the shadow of this submissiveness is an irrational anger where a slight is perceived. This reveals an inability to fall back on dispassionate philosophical enquiry, and often what we are left with unseemly shouting matches.

Irish poets learn your application-writing-skills

Irish poets learn your application-writing-skills

Nothing quite matches the rancour of artistes scrapping for funding. They make a pack of feeding hunting dogs seem positively polite. Of late, teeth are gnashing on the pages of the Irish Times over an anticipated windfall being siphoned into a new quango: Creative Ireland. It’s not so much a call for art for art’s sake, but leave it to the Art’s Council, for f*ck’s sake.

Taoiseach Varadkar left a pretty vocal hostage when he let it be known during the Fine Gael leadership run-off that he wanted to double arts expenditure. But the literary establishment are worried this won’t be passing through their glad hands.

John McAuliff, the paper’s poetry editor, deputy chair of the Arts Council, and professor of creative writing at Manchester University wrote an op-ed dismissing Creative Ireland in symbolist terms as: ‘part-car, part-temple, part-group-hug and part-energy-drink’.

The campaign is being spearheaded by Culture Editor Hugh Linehan who took to the airwaves on RTE’s Arena to bemoan the state of affairs last week.

No doubt the government have some awful schemes up their pin stripes through Creative Ireland. They’ll be fitting out leprechaun suits, sending comely maidens to dance at crossroads, and offering throaty renditions of Danny Boy. Anything for the Yankee dollar.

But the current model of funding doesn’t make Ireland an easy place for artists to operate. A career in the arts is, overwhelmingly, a middle class luxury; and in order to survive most spend an inordinate amount of time filling out funding applications.

Here, the worth of projects often seem to be measured in abstruseness, what McAuliff refers to as the ‘painstaking annual decision-making process’. Not as painful as some of the resulting output one could say.

What most artists would settle for is a reduction in the cost of living across the board, but especially in the capital. This would make the pursuit of money a less overwhelming necessity. Most artists accept they will never be wealthy, but even a low income now is a form of penury, with dramatic rises in rents making life especially difficult. Bringing selected artists, usually already middle class, up to a middle class income does nothing to make society at large more sympathetic to art.

Most artists just want to get on with their work rather than justifying it in lengthy applications processes, and then feel compelled to promote themselves constantly among the select group who decide on funding. That means most who get serious go away.

James Joyce once playfully mused: ‘is this country destined some day to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north? Is the Celtic spirit, like the Slavic one (which it resembles in many respects), destined in the future to enrich the consciousness of civilization with new discoveries and institutions?’ Not under the current regime.

It’s hard to think of a single poet writing in Ireland today that has managed to transcend a readership of fellow-poets, or a visual artist who is really speaking to the public. As ever, most of what is good on the Irish cultural scene is happening far from the filing cabinets.