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How Ireland is reinventing itself as the best small progressive country in the world

Even the abortion rights campaigners have found new momentum. 

At the beginning of March, the Irish government formally recognised Travellers as "a distinct ethnic group within the Irish nation". Cheers broke out in the chamber and MPs stood and applauded the Traveller activists who had packed into the viewing gallery.

On the street outside and in a hotel across the road, many more Travellers had gathered to witness the historic moment of recognition, for which the community has campaigned for decades.

Although the change confers no tangible additional benefits, it is a major step forward for Ireland’s 40,000 travellers and for the whole country which, for so long, has treated this ethnic community with prejudice and contempt.

To understand why this campaign has now succeeded, after many years of effort, we need to look at two key events in 2015.

In May of that year, Ireland famously became the first country in the world to introduce same-sex marriage by popular vote and, suddenly, became the progressive darling of the world. This was a new feeling for Irish people - we’re used to being regularly reminded that our country is hopelessly religious and socially conservative - and politicians developed a taste for it.

They quite liked the idea of being "the best small country in the world" for progressive social reform.

Then, five months later, early in the morning on 10 October, a fire broke out in a ramshackle temporary halting site on the outskirts of Dublin. Ten people from two Traveller families died, five of them children.

Traveller activists demanded that the disaster be treated as a turning point, highlighting that families around the country were living in similar appalling conditions, neglected by local and national government.

Their statements deliberately tapped into the progressive momentum created by the marriage referendum, weaving Travellers’ rights into the narrative of the new, more inclusive Ireland. And it resonated. Politicians grasped that - moral arguments aside - they had an opportunity to show off their progressive credentials once again, to make a symbolic change that means a lot to one small community, but has no cost for the population at large.

Indeed, both Traveller and LGBTQ activists have identified a powerful campaigning narrative, one that’s built on a positive idea of a richer Ireland, not on the dark abuses of the past.

"We’re building a new, progressive, compassionate Ireland," the message goes. "And you need to be part of it."

But the greatest test of this message is still ahead: with the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, recognise women’s bodily autonomy and provide basic abortion services. Despite other progressive advances, this is an issue that most mainstream politicians are too afraid to touch.

And it is difficult to put a positive spin on abortion rights, in a country where the religious pro-life narrative remains immensely powerful. It’s easy to build an inspiring ad campaign around couples getting married, or a minority community celebrating its culture. It’s a lot harder to create an inspiring campaign about basic healthcare, even before you bring in painful issues like rape or fatal foetal abnormality.

That said, the Repeal campaign has made extraordinary strides in the last year or two, learning the lessons of the marriage equality campaign in particular. You can now buy impressively stylish sweatshirts and button badges showing your support for repeal. Artists, musicians, comedians and writers are using their voices and work to support the campaign, slowly turning it into a rich cultural movement.

And after decades of profound silence, more and more people are coming forward to tell their personal stories, and to paint a picture of a warmer society, in which women’s choices are respected and understood.

They’re building a new, progressive, compassionate Ireland. And pretty soon, the mainstream will want to be part of it.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is the editor of Left Foot Forward.

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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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