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Like the vast majority of people in this country, I was born into a Catholic family and was brought up as a Catholic. However, as I have not considered myself a Catholic for many years, and putting down “liberal agnostic who sometimes attends services at the Unitarian church” doesn’t seem quite right, I’m going for “no religion” on the census form next month. In a country that still essentially uses baptismal records as an excuse for not providing totally secular, non-denominational education, I think it’s important that those of us with no formal religious belief or none at all make our voices heard.

However, according to Brian Whiteside of the Humanist Association, some census enumerators are actively discouraging this. In yesterday’s Irish Times, he wrote that:

on the question of religion the enumerators have been instructed to guide people to fill in the form to reflect their background rather than their current position. How does this help us plan for Ireland’s future?

How indeed? If this is true (and anecdotal evidence in the comments to the column suggests that it is), then the CSO are actively encouraging people to give them an inaccurate picture of religious practice in this country, and it’s nothing short of a disgrace. As Whiteside says,

imagine a survey on car ownership. The question “Do you have a car?” is not asked; the survey goes straight to “What type of car do you have?” And then, someone who has no car is encouraged to say they have a Morris Minor because, way back, it was the traditional family car.

What do you think? Have you encountered CSO staff giving such advice? And if they want our religious background, how far back do they want us to go? Parents? Great-grandparents? Prehistoric ancestors? Maybe we should all go for “sun-worshiper”….

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A heady mix of errrr, stuff

There is one question regarding the Libyan crisis that the Irish media so far fails to ask: what will the downfall of the Gaddafi regime imply for De Shinners? Barring the Evening Herald during the election campaign virtually none of the news organisations in Ireland (electronic and print) have raised the issue of Sinn Fein − the IRA and the strangely moss-coloured man that is Colonel Gaddafi − during the current uprising against his dictatorship.

The historical facts are already in the public domain regarding the republican movement and the Gaddafi tyranny. In the 1970s, and more crucially the 1980s, the Green Colonel’s government armed and helped finance the IRA’s campaign. Following the United States bombing of Tripoli in the mid-1980s Gaddafi took revenge on the UK (which allowed American planes take off from England to bomb Libya) by supplying the Provisionals. According to security forces on both sides of Ireland’s border the Green Colonel gave the IRA enough AK47 assault rifles to arm two infantry battalions, around 1,200 activists. In addition, Gaddafi passed on tonnes of semtex explosive which was used to [let’s not get sticky about the wording here] kill, maim and wrought physical destruction in Northern Ireland and Britain. The Libyan dictator even provided the IRA with flame throwers and surface to air missiles, although these were used only sparingly during the armed campaign in the north.

But what else will emerge if Libya goes through a DDR-style experience of lustration if and when Gaddafi is finally toppled? After the Berlin Wall fell and the communist regime collapsed the country’s secret police, the Stasi underwent democratic investigation. Thousands upon thousands of files from Stasi archives were released to the public. They included links between the regime and terrorist groups as disparate as the Baader Meinhoff-Red Army Faction gang to various Palestinian armed organisations.

If and when the forty odd year old regime crumbles in Tripoli and the archives of Gaddafi’s murderous secret police are exposed to the light, what will we find there in relation to the connexions between the state organs of his dictatorship and the IRA?  How many leading Sinn Fein figures may be named as regular visitors (secret tourists) to the Colonel’s alleged socialist-paradise-in-the-sand during the Troubles? And how will these revolutionary-tourists explain their presence in the Libyan sun to say their chums in Irish-America particularly on the conservative right of US politics?

These questions are wholly absent from current reportage and commentary in Irish newspapers or on our airwaves. Or am I missing something? Perhaps we have to wait and see if this week’s imposition of a UN no fly zone will impact on the struggle between Gaddafi loyalists and the rebels based in Ben Ghazi. If Gaddafi is unable to bomb the anti-regime forces from the air and the balance tips in the insurgents’ favour the Green Colonel’s government may finally fall after more than four decades. Then, maybe, just maybe, the Irish media will wake up and realise that there’s a massive “Irish angle” to the end of Colonel Gaddafi and his murderous tyranny, and some newly elected members of the 31st Dáil.

June Caldwell is a writer, who after 13 years of journalism, is finally writing a novel. She has a MA in Creative Writing and was winner of ‘Best Blog Post’ award at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. You can read this post on her own blog here:

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Rosaleen Mc Donagh writes about her political inspiration.

When I am stuck and lost and confused, trying to work out what it is I’m achieving by running for the Seanad; I stop, think and look for a reference point. I find her, even as I grow older and corners get tighter. She’s still there. Encouraging me. Supporting me and saying ‘Give it one more shot.’ It’s Rosa Parks. The African American woman who gave credence to the Civil Rights Movement and to the Anti Racism Movement in the 1960’s. While the boys were out shouting and roaring and trying to change the world in a public way, Rosa, a little woman in her early forties, with no education, was changing people’s lives. Being asked to sit at the back of the bus because of segregated public transport policies was one thing, but being asked to get up off her seat for a white privileged able bodied man was something else. Her resistance was strong but peaceful. She just had enough. Her comrades, the boys, who were shouting for equal rights for black people very often forgot those equal rights needed to be stretched to black and marginalized women also.

I’m not Rosa, but when I decided to give the Seanad one more go, I asked her was I being foolish putting myself out there, not just against big party political candidates, but also lawyers , barristers and medicine men. I asked Rosa what do I do when the media start criticising the way I talk, the way I use my wheelchair or when I get really passionate about Traveller identity and the lack of respect given to my people in this country of ours. Like many a time before, Rosa just said, ‘Do it. For if you don’t do it, you allow them to silence you, ignore you, but mostly by not running, you allow them to take your dignity.’

The problem is Rosa Parks’ voice fades in and out. As a Traveller woman with a disability, I look around me and I see very little, if any, people like me in public life. Not just in politics, but in business and indeed in the arts. Some might argue we’re a small percentage in the population. Others would suggest it’s due to endemic systematic discriminatory practices. I think it’s a bit of everything. Putting yourself out there to be poked at and made fun of, to have your ethnicity ridiculed takes a lot out of a person. In my world, there is no big fat gypsy weddings. There are people with no water. No sanitation. Very little educational possibility or attainment. There are huge levels of suicide among our young men. Women’s roles are still quite narrowly defined. That’s how it is. That’s the life I know. Always being subservient to settled identity.

Being an independent candidate, I’m not bound by party politics. I won’t be told what to do or have to tow a line. I’ll have respect for a reformed Seanad and not just see it as an alternative option. Lastly, the great thing about being independent is my voice is my own. That voice is strong and determined. Just like Rosa Parks when she said, ‘No. No. No.’

Rosaleen McDonagh is an activist, advocate of Traveller, disability and LGBT rights and writer who is running as a Seanad candidate for Dublin University (Trinity College Dublin). You can find out more about Rosaleen and her campaign here.

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Well done to the enlightened electorate of Ireland. We have now managed to elect a historic 25 women to our 31st Dáil, a higher number than ever before in the history of the state. This has resulted in a mere 85% of our elected representatives being men and a massive increase of 1 percentage point in female parliamentary representation. I am seething with sarcasm as I type.

Rona Ambrose is Minister for the Status of Women in Canada

Can we glibly blame the voters, half of whom are of course female, for this imbalance? It would seem not. Detailed analysis of the success rates of male and female candidates undertaken by the academic Claire McGing demonstrates that each is equally palatable to voters and that the problem lies with the main political parties who fail to reflect gender balance in their candidate selection. This distortion now seems to have been compounded by the appointment of so few women to cabinet posts and the apparent passing over of Labour Finance spokesman and vocal opponent of the disastrous bank guarantee, Joan Burton. Susan McKay of the NWCI deals with this in her hard hitting Irish Times article here.

The imbalance in our Parliament merely highlights the issue but it certainly doesn’t end there. This chronic under-representation pervades Irish society and is proving very resistant to change. One approach adopted in both Australia and Canada has been the appointment of a Minister for The Status of Women. In Australia, a society often perceived as extremely macho, the position was created as far back as 1983 and the current incumbent is Kate Ellis. In Canada this ministry is held by Rona Ambrose and has existed since as early as 1971.

So what exactly does this Ministry hope to achieve in each case? What programmes and actions are undertaken by these elected representatives in their efforts to improve the lot of women in each jurisdiction and consequently enhance society by making it more equitable and balanced? Is this something we should look at doing here in Ireland and are there lessons to be learnt and best practises to be implemented here based on the Canadian and Australian experience?    

Kate Ellis is Australia's Minister for the Status of Women

The Australian Model Is Worth Examining

The Australian model seems appropriate to the situation pertaining in Ireland and is one that would tackle the issues that women face here every day. The Australian Government Office for Women is part of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

The three priority areas for OfW are:

reducing violence against women

Increasing women’s economic security

Ensuring women’s equal place in society

OfW consults with women from a wide range of non-Government organisations to address these priorities and deliver better outcomes for women.

The role of the OfW is to:

  • influence policy, Cabinet and Budget decision-making to ensure women’s interests are considered
  • provide high level advice to the Minister for the Status of Women
  • administer programs, including most significantly programs to combat domestic violence and sexual assault
  • advise on legislative issues relating to women
  • provide the principal focus on consultation between the women’s sector and Government
  • represent Government at national and international forums on women’s issues, such as the United Nations

The appointment of Francis Fitzgerald as Minister for Children is certainly to be welcomed. Children are vulnerable in society and their interests need to be protected. However, it seems to me that women are vulnerable too and that until balance is achieved specific attention must be paid to our position in society. Kathleen Lynch has a general equality brief as part of her wide Junior Ministry for Disability, Equality and Mental Health. Does this go far enough? Should we all actively lobby for the creation of a full Ministry for the Status of Women in Ireland?

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There’s an interesting new interview with Kathleen Lynch over on Mediabite, in which the UCD Professor of Equality Studies

Professor Kathleen Lynch

discusses inequality in Ireland, her treatment on Tonight with Vincent Browne, and why some female politicians are so scared of feminism. Here’s a taster:

What do you think are the main obstacles to gender equality in Ireland and would you agree that Ireland still has a deeply chauvinist culture and that this too is a major factor underpinning the meek acceptance of gross injustice as a solution to what is essentially a crisis of and by the richest people?

KL: Ireland has an extremely chauvinist culture. I travel abroad a lot – in Northern Europe and have a lot of contacts outside the country. I have been a Visiting Professor and I work with many people in Germany and in France – which isn’t exactly devoid of sexism either. I also work in Brussels. I would say that we are going backwards because in terms of political representation it is self evident. We have only 16%. The two main parties have only 15% each and it’s almost nothing. The smaller parties have more. I think there are so many factors at play. Women are too polite. We have been socialised not to offend as women – don’t be too strident, don’t be too this or that. I suppose the backlash that you mention when I raised things that people don’t want to hear is one of the reasons that women will not put themselves forward because they are abused in a different way than men are abused. Men are abused for their ideas but they are not abused in terms of their appearance in the media if they dissent. Women are subjected to sexualised abuse. I think the political class in our society has no interest in this issue and women have not been resistant. We have been too conciliatory and accepting. My view is we should have marches on the Dáil – we should sit down in the middle of Dublin and stay there until something changes. We have no proper childcare, we have no infrastructure. Quebec in Canada has a very successful, non-profit childcare system because the women went out there and organised it. The Irish Women’s Council has no money, for example. There is no-one to organise it here. There have been all kinds of backlashes in the media against women who have dissented. The have actually been called nazis – or ‘feminazis’. A lot of women are afraid of that kind of abuse and it’s a form of violence against women that is accepted in Ireland.

MC: Lucinda Creighton recently felt the necessity to preface something she said with the qualifier “I’m no crazed feminist but…” – as if it would be a terrible thing to be thought of as a feminist.

KL: There are lots of sociological reasons that can explain that but if you have a young woman going into politics who is so fearful of that, what will she ever do? If she can’t defend herself as a woman, I’d be worried about what she will ever defend. You have to stand up for what you believe in and women are not equal to men in this country. For many, many years we have had second class citizenship. I’m not saying that I want a whole group of middle class women coming into politics. I’ve always said this – if we want gender balance we want it of men and women from different backgrounds which I think is as big an issue as gender. There is research from Norway and from a number of countries where they have gender balance, relatively speaking i.e. 40% and which shows that even women from conservative parties actually promote health, education and social welfare. It’s because they are closer to the vulnerable in society. It isn’t because women are morally superior to men – I would never say that, I think that’s nonsense. Or that men can’t care for children as well as women – of course they can. But because of the way our society is, women are the primary carers and a lot of the vulnerable people in society are cared for by women most of the time. Therefore policies that affect the vulnerable are more visible to women and they are more likely to vote for policies that are supportive of childcare, disability, healthcare and education. That is a simple empirical fact – observable from countries that have large numbers of women in their parliaments. I believe we will never get women in politics in sufficient numbers in this country without some sort of a quota system.

MC: I’ve argued before that in any other circumstance where you have such an obvious imbalance or social lack it’s only natural for some sort of remedial action to be taken to restore the situation to health.

KL: We need only have it for a period of time to overcome the problem, otherwise it’s not going to happen.

MC: And yet very disappointingly women in the Dáil – over half of them – are saying they are against gender quotas.

KL: Well you only have to look at who they are, a lot of them. Many of the women who succeed in politics in this country have family associations in politics and they get selected on the basis of their family connections – and that in my view is a form of a quota. They have already benefited from the family quota and they should remember that. And many of the others have benefited from their money. I’m sorry, but there are some women with wealthy backgrounds and that has greatly helped them. You’ve probably been to privileged schools and enjoyed all the privileges of your class and therefore of course you don’t need a quota because you belong to the privileged upper middle class. So bully for you! The vast majority of women do not. Any woman from a poor community down the country hasn’t a hope.

You can read the whole interview here.

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A couple of weeks after I’d started work in Dublin, a colleague-of-a-colleague asked to pick my brains about the British publishing industry. He’d written a few books for the Irish market and was keen to spread his wings. Could I put him in touch with someone in England?

No problems, I said. If you let me have the proposal, I’ll look through it, make any suggestions I think might help your chances in the bigger, more saturated UK market, and once you’re ready with that and your sample chapters, I’ll steer it towards the appropriate editor. Of course, since I didn’t know the publishing house’s forward schedule, I couldn’t tell him if his book would be a fit; but if the editor thought it might be, the proposal would go forward to the commissioning meeting for due diligence and then….

The would-be author, a successful businessman in his, I’m guessing, mid-fifties, cut me off. ‘Oh!’ he said (I’m paraphrasing here). ‘I don’t have any ideas for a book yet. I just wanted to work with a big British publisher. Can’t you introduce me to an editor who’d just agree to publish my book once I *did* have an idea? Doesn’t it work like that over there?’

I was reminded of this yesterday, listening to BBC Radio 4’s morning news show, ‘Today’. In a somewhere-in-the-middle news item about the Irish election, the presenter made an offhand reference to ‘the end of cronyism’. It pulled me up short. Not because of its incisive commentary (hardly) – but because it suddenly struck me, listening to the end of the report, that it’s so much harder than it sounds for the nation to achieve.

From the outside (by which, for these purposes, I mean England), it all looks so simple. Ireland got rich, people did each other favours that they really shouldn’t have; this behaviour should cease and desist instantly. Even the news I’ve seen from within Ireland seems to think this is the answer. To which I say, we’re missing the point.

The Irish mentality is hard-wired to lend a hand, to try to help each other out. To go back to my author-businessman story, I can see how it came about.  You want to write a book and become a British bestseller? No problem. I know someone who worked in that field. She’ll help you to do it. No matter if you have talent, the appropriate skills or, you know, an actual concept for a book; that’s all secondary.  From an English perspective, this looks utterly bonkers. But two successful businessmen thought this was more than reasonable, and looped me in.  Sound familiar?

(image c/o Zazzle) Right, who's first?

During my time in Ireland, I saw iterations of this ‘I know someone who can help’ mentality, in different aspects of daily life, time and again. And really, the sentiment is admirable. Why on earth *not* help someone if you can? I’ve been aided in this way, personally and professionally, more times than I can count. And in Ireland you see why the instinct is particularly strong; it’s a small country with historically large families; your degree of separation from everyone must be far fewer than the traditional six. So ‘helping someone’ in the abstract becomes, very quickly, helping your niece; or your boyfriend’s sister, or your sister’s boyfriend. Something that’ll make the next family gathering beyond awkward if you say no.

The American version of this, of course, is networking, where the emphasis has somehow shifted from how can I help others? to how can others help me? A logical consequence of arriving in the Land of Opportunity and needing the support of others to get on your feet, I suppose. But in Britain, where nepotism is a fate right up there with queue jumping, cronyism isn’t a close cousin of, well, helping your cousin. It’s wrong. And it’s absolutely not something you want in business.

We all know that whatever went on on that golf course, and doubtless in countless other situations we don’t know about, was desperate and should never have happened. But my point is this. When we’re looking to rebuild Ireland, especially those of us looking from the outside, we should think carefully before we insist the Irish give up the urge to help each other along. It’s a core component of the national  character, and when it’s not bringing down the Euro, we’re all incredibly pleased to be associated with it.

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Political art has come into its own (and moved on to the streets) in recent years. In the run-up to this year’s General Election, the excellent Upstart campaign asked for submissions from artists, illustrators, writers, designers and film-makers to come up with an antidote to the candidate election posters. Anti Room’s Nuala Ní Chonchúir wrote an election haiku (seen here, nestled cosily between posters for Labour and Independent Paul Sommerville) and gave us an idea.

Photo: Unkiedave

We want you to embrace your inner Yeats and tap that Seamus Heaney vein and hit us your best election haiku.

We’ll even offer a mystery prize for the best one.

Let the 5-7-5 syllable madness begin!

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