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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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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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