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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 is launching a stealthy Scottish comeback - thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and the Daily Mail

The Scottish Labour strategy is paying off - and hard evidence that it works may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017

When I suggested to a senior Scottish Labour figure earlier this year that the party was a car crash, he rejected my assertion.

“We’re past that,” he said gloomily. “Now we’re the burnt-out wreck in a field that no-one even notices anymore.”

And yet, just as the election campaign has seen Jeremy Corbyn transformed from an outdated jalopy into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang magically soaring in the polls, Scottish Labour is beginning to look roadworthy again.

And it’s all down to two apparently contradictory forces – Corbyn and The Daily Mail.

Kezia Dugdale’s decision to hire Alan Roden, then the Scottish Daily Mail’s political editor, as her spin doctor in chief last summer was said to have lost her some party members. It may win her some new members of parliament just nine months later.

Roden’s undoubted nose for a story and nous in driving the news agenda, learned in his years at the Mail, has seen Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly forced to defend her government record on health and education in recent weeks, even though her Holyrood administration is not up for election next month.

On ITV’s leaders debate she confessed that, despite 10 years in power, the Scottish education system is in need of some attention. And a few days later she was taken to task during a BBC debate involving the Scottish leaders by a nurse who told her she had to visit a food bank to get by. The subsequent SNP attempt to smear that nurse was a pathetic mis-step by the party that suggested their media operation had gone awry.

It’s not the Tories putting Sturgeon on the defence. They, like the SNP, are happy to contend the general election on constitutional issues in the hope of corralling the unionist vote or even just the votes of those that don’t yet want a second independence referendum. It is Labour who are spotting the opportunities and maximising them.

However, that would not be enough alone. For although folk like Dugdale as a person – as evidenced in Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling - she lacks the policy chops to build on that. Witness her dopey proposal ahead of the last Holyrood election to raise income tax.

Dugdale may be a self-confessed Blairite but what’s powering Scottish Labour just now is Jeremy Corbyn’s more left-wing policy platform.

For as Brexit has dropped down the agenda at this election, and bread and butter stuff like health and education has moved centre stage, Scots are seeing that for all the SNP’s left wing rhetoric, after 10 years in power in Holyrood, there’s not a lot of progressive policy to show for it.

Corbyn’s manifesto, even though huge chunks of it won’t apply in Scotland, is progressive. The evidence is anecdotal at the moment, but it seems some Scots voters find it more attractive than the timid managerialism of the SNP. This is particularly the case with another independence referendum looking very unlikely before the 2020s, on either the nationalists' or the Conservatives' timetable.

Evidence that the Scottish Labour strategy has worked may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017. The polls, albeit with small sample sizes so best approached with caution, have Ian Murray streets ahead in the battle to defend Edinburgh South. There’s a lot of optimism in East Lothian where Labour won the council earlier in May and MSP Iain Gray increased his majority at the Scottish election last year. Labour have chosen their local candidate well in local teacher Martin Whitfield, and if the unionist vote swings behind him he could overhaul sitting MP George Kerevan’s 7,000 majority. (As we learned in 2015, apparently safe majorities mean nothing in the face of larger electoral forces). In East Renfrewshire, Labour's Blair McDougall, the man who led Better Together in 2014, can out-unionist the Tory candidate.

But, while in April, it was suggested that these three seats would be the sole focus of the Scottish Labour campaign, that attitude has changed after the local elections. Labour lost Glasgow but did not implode. In chunks of their former west of Scotland heartlands there was signs of life.

Mhairi Black’s a media darling, but her reputation as a local MP rather than a local celebrity is not great. Labour would love to unseat her, in what would be a huge upset, or perhaps more realistically go after Gavin Newlands in the neighbouring Paisley seat.

They are also sniffing Glasgow East. With Natalie McGarry’s stint as MP ending in tears – a police investigation, voting in her wedding dress and fainting in the chamber sums up her two years in Westminster – Labour ought to be in with a chance in the deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow’s east end.

Labour in Scotland doesn’t feel like such a wreck anymore. Alan Roden’s Daily Mail-honed media nous has grabbed attention. Corbyn’s progressive policies have put fuel in the tank.

After polling day, the party will be able to fit all its Scottish MPs comfortably in a small hatchback, compared to the double decker bus necessary just a few years back.

But this general election could give the party the necessary shove to get on to the long road back.

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is co-author of The Gender Agenda, which will be published July 21 by Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

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