Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Author: Dr Darrell Jones, Moore Institute Opinion: 17th century philosopher Francis Bacon is playing a role in the urgent contest over the heart and soul of climate action Earlier this year, Ireland’s experiment with deliberative democracy delivered its first results. The Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendation that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution be repealed and replaced was endorsed in a referendum. The national debate was divisive and, at times, traumatic, yet a broad and informed consensus eventually emerged. For all the moral complexity of their social, medical and spiritual implications, decisions about pregnancies were ultimately understood as personal. One of the other issues that the Citizens’ Assembly discussed poses problems of a different kind. The strength of the scientific consensus about climate change was reflected in the fact that the Assembly was asked not whether something should be done, but how to make Ireland a global leader in doing it. The Assembly responded with 13 recommendations to incentivise or regulate specific socioeconomic behaviours, from managing critical infrastructure and taxation to reforming public transport and the production and distribution of food. But even if all of those measures are enacted, their practical impact is likely to depend on heightened levels of awareness, engagement, and support. None of the proposals dealt directly with the need for improvements in education or concerns about environmental literacy. Outside Ireland, an urgent contest over the heart and soul of climate action is under way. On one side of the debate is Canadian author and journalist Naomi Klein, who argued in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) that the environmental crisis can only be resolved by embracing it as an opportunity for radical political reform. For Klein, the central issues revolve around concepts of morality, justice and human rights. Her book documented the ongoing challenge of "confronting the climate denier within", the successes and failures of local and global environmental movements and her personal experiences of trying to conceive a child in an increasingly infertile world.  It also offered a brief account of the historical development of destructive and exploitative mentalities. According to Klein, the 17th-century philosopher Francis Bacon is the "patron saint" of "the modern-day extractive economy". It was Bacon, she argued, who convinced his contemporaries to abandon their concept of the earth as "a life-giving mother" and embrace a new role as "her dungeon master". And it was Bacon, she maintained, whose supposedly materialist and utilitarian schemes inspired both European colonialism and the advent of the industrial revolution. Opposing Klein from within the climate movement is the American psychologist Steven Pinker, whose latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (2018) presents a far more optimistic view of the current and future states of the natural environment. Pinker accepts that anthropogenic climate change is a problem of unprecedented gravity. He also agrees that preventing its worst effects is "a moral issue". Does philosopher Francis Bacon bear historical responsibility for a capitalist war on the climate? However, the case that he makes for "Enlightenment Environmentalism" is that practical solutions are more likely to come from increased investment in science and technology than from "moralistic" yet "misanthropic" efforts to alter the trajectory of global economic development. According to Pinker, carbon emissions plateau and then decline as knowledge and prosperity increase. As he observes, "the team that brings clean and abundant energy to the world", probably in the form of advanced nuclear power, "will benefit humanity more than all of history’s saints, heroes, prophets, martyrs, and laureates combined". One of Pinker’s heroes is Francis Bacon, whose achievements as an early modern theorist of objectivity he occasionally extols in his work. Among his villains are any and all "Romantic" and "quasi-religious" ideologists of social and environmental decline. Does Bacon bear historical responsibility for a capitalist war on the climate? Or was he a prophet of the scientific values on which the future of humanity depends? Both questions involve anachronistic and teleological assumptions and any answers will inevitably be informed by contemporary political beliefs. Even so, the fact that the questions can be asked at all is testament to the power of Bacon’s influence. Some sort of effort has to be made to engage with the content and context of his legacy. Klein’s denigration of Bacon’s intellectual character is supported by a single quotation. In De Augmentis Scientiarum (1623), Bacon explained that in experimental research, "you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able, when you like, to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again". Klein observed that Bacon’s rhetoric has often proved susceptible to feminist critiques. Yet her exercise in literary extractivism is misleading. Elsewhere in his philosophical works, and particularly in his unfinished masterpiece, Novum Organum (1620), Bacon maintained that his ultimate goal was to prepare "the marriage bed of the mind and the universe" and that "the promise of the wedding song" would be "helps for men and a line of discoveries which may to some degree subdue and mitigate their needs and miseries". He also described man as "the servant and interpreter of nature", and insisted that "nature can only be overcome by being obeyed". If some of these metaphors remain vulnerable to feminist attacks, they also show that Bacon’s respect for the agency, authority and mystery of nature ran deep.  Pinker’s dichotomy between Enlightenment and Romantic ideologies is far from new. At the turn of the 19th century, the proto-Romantic poet William Blake placed Bacon alongside Isaac Newton and John Locke in an unholy trinity of philosophers and scientists whose empiricist methods had ushered in an era of "dark Satanic Mills" and impending spiritual doom. Even so, some of Blake’s successors saw things differently. In his lectures On the History of Philosophy (1818-19), the Romantic poet and theorist Samuel Taylor Coleridge viewed mechanism and pantheism as pervasive yet opposite "evils" to which Bacon had been almost unique in remaining immune. According to Coleridge, "the true Baconic philosophy" had rarely been fully understood: only when the human mind was purified and freed would it discover, feel, and learn to revere "the necessity of that one great Being" that constantly operates as the ground and condition of the relationship between nature and itself.The fact that one of the major architects of the scientific revolution could inspire such wildly divergent responses remains instructive While Pinker argues that the "dematerialization" of technology is a "friend" to both humanity and the Earth, Coleridge attributed to Bacon the insight that "science approaches to its perfection in proportion as it immaterialises objects". If Blake’s attack on Bacon was crudely reductive, Coleridge arguably exaggerated the case for the philosopher’s defence. Nevertheless, the fact that one of the major architects of the scientific revolution could inspire such wildly divergent responses among poets at the dawn of the industrial age remains instructive. On the one hand, there is no valid reason to associate Bacon with carbon-intensive technologies rather than with the cleaner and more fundamental sources of energy that states, companies, and investors are currently pursuing. On the other, there is now every reason to take more seriously than ever Bacon’s insistence that natural and moral philosophy are mutually and essentially related. Bacon was neither an irredeemable villain nor an unconditional hero. His final legacy to the history of philosophy is probably best considered unfulfilled.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Author: Dr Maura Farrell, Geography, NUI Galway   Analysis: sport, healthcare, the environment and culture are constantly supported by rural volunteers who willingly and freely give up their time Voluntary activity is often considered the pillar of community work and it can be the glue that binds a declining economy in many Irish rural communities. The activities carried out by volunteers in areas such as sport, health care or the environment create connections and networks that build resilient Irish rural towns and villages.  As a form of social integration and way to promote the development of community relationships, volunteerism can make a considerable difference to rural society. However, individuals and organisations who carry out voluntary activities face difficulties in excess of their urban counterparts. These difficulties are largely due to a lack of facilities, funding, ongoing support and suitable transport and travel. Nonetheless, volunteerism has the ability to enhance communities and become a vital lifeline for rural regions facing dramatic change and decline. How rural Ireland is changing In the last two decades, rural areas have witnessed unprecedented change, driven largely by globalisation and changes in technology and society. Many EU countries, including Ireland, experienced rural economic decline which resulted in a rise in rural service industries and a decline in the importance of agriculture. Social change has resulted in population decline in some rural areas and an influx of new rural dwellers in others. Issues around commuting, access and mobility are currently widespread in some rural regions, with many others facing problems of isolation, deprivation and poor service provision. The means and support for dealing with such change can often be limited for rural communities, resulting in a reliance on voluntary activities and the volunteer sector. Subject to such change, many Irish communities have worked tirelessly to retain community engagement, build capacity and enhance social capital. The post Celtic Tiger era was difficult, with austerity measures severely impacting rural community funding and support services and national spending on community and voluntary activity being reduced by 45 percent (see Downsizing the Community Sector). During this period, both volunteers and volunteer organisations were under financial pressures, but persistence and dedication ensured government policy refocused its efforts in more recent years, providing additional funding and support for community and volunteer involving organisations. A somewhat reenergised volunteer sector was evident in the Commissioning for Communities report commissioned by Clann Credo, the Community Foundation for Ireland and The Wheel in 2016. This provided evidence from over 560,000 people volunteering their time every year in Ireland’s 11,500 community and voluntary organisations.  Additionally, funding has been allocated from the Department of Community and Rural Development to fund Volunteer Ireland, a national volunteer development agency and a support body for all local volunteer centres and volunteering information services in Ireland. Meet the volunteers In studying volunteerism in rural Ireland, recent research carried out in NUI Galway in conjunction with Volunteer Ireland, eTownz and the NUI Galway Community Knowledge Initiative showed that slightly more males than females are involved in voluntary activities in rural areas. The people involved come from varying backgrounds, with some being long-term residents, while others are "newcomers" to the area. An examination of the employment structure of volunteers showed that people assisting their local community ranged from professional workers to people employed in the service industry and in agriculture as local farmers.  One volunteer stated that: "volunteerism acts as a gateway for new members of a community to get involved in helping to make their new area a better place for all its inhabitants. Volunteerism, in whatever form, makes it possible for members of the community to come together in a socially positive way. With many of our main volunteers in Achill being from other locations around the country and some from different parts of the world, it really gives us a diverse view on different events and ideas to improve our community" Rural voluntary activities and Impacts The variety of activities carried out by rural volunteers is inspiring and ranges from sporting engagement to care services in local communities. Club involvement of different varieties is hugely popular in rural areas, with over 38 percent of rural people involved in a club. Although participation in GAA activities was by far the most popular, many volunteers also carried out activities with charities such as St Vincent de Paul, Foroige, Tidy Towns, Meals on Wheels and local Town Development Associations. The time, energy and effort freely given by rural people to volunteer activities is the lifeblood of rural society Undoubtedly, the services and facilities provided by rural volunteers impact dramatically on the quality of life of rural residents, but voluntary activities also have an economic impact on the state. Our research showed that 83 percent of the rural people believe that voluntary activities carried out in their rural area saved on public spending by relieving pressure on public services. Additionally, networking, cooperation and linking people together in rural communities is greatly enhanced by voluntary activities which in turn enhances the personal development of individuals within the community and improves the mental health and wellbeing of people in the community.  Rural Ireland has struggled in recent years to rise above issues of economic decline, population changes and a depletion of rural services and facilities. Nonetheless, the work carried out by volunteers in every town and village across Ireland is fundamental to the mainstay of rural Ireland. Yes, there are issues, including a lack of volunteers, an over reliance on the same people; inadequate financial support from local and state government and a need for continued support and training. But the time, energy and effort freely given by rural people to volunteer activities is undoubtedly the lifeblood of rural society. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Opinion: as UN peacekeepers return from and deploy to the Golan Heights the role of Irish soldiers in the region has changed dramatically in recent years The Defence Forces 56 Infantry Group part of the UN peacekeeping mission on the Golan Heights is currently returning home and being replaced by the 57 Infantry Group. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established in 1974 following the disengagement agreement between Israeli and Syrian forces. Although Israel continues to occupy a large portion of the Golan, both parties agreed an 80km long and narrow zone of separation which would be monitored by the UN peacekeeping force. Prior to the outbreak of war in Syria, this was a relatively uneventful UN mission, but that has now changed dramatically. UNDOF is small in terms of size, at just over 1,100 personnel, and Ireland has contributed around 138 personnel annually since 2013. Given the overall uncertain situation in the region, it might well be asked what is the point of putting Irish forces in harm's way?  UNDOF remains an important mission in an area of significant strategic importance. Under the disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel, UNDOF is the only military presence allowed in the area of separation.  It is one of the last traditional so called UN Chapter 6 missions that may only use force in self-defence and as such is reliant on the co-operation of the parties to the conflict. Therein lies one of its main conundrums: how can UNDOF rely on Syria to fulfil its part of the agreement in the current circumstances?  The war in Syria has spilled over into the UN zone on a number of occasions. As it stands, the Irish troops have not deployed fully along the Syrian side of the area of separation since 2014.  Although most commentators will highlight the out of date mandate as the critical weakness in the mission, the reality is that the volatile situation on the ground has been the most pressing problem. The ceasefire between Syria and Israel has been violated on a number of occasions and Syria has placed heavy weapons in the area monitored by the UN in contravention of the agreement. There have also been Israeli and Syrian air strikes. The UN’s options are limited in the circumstances. Established as a Syria based mission, how UNDOF operates, including the use of enhanced equipment or new technologies, is subject to the disengagement agreement. Any changes must be approved by both Syria and Israel and proposals to do so have been blocked in the past.  Both Israel and Syria still want UNDOF to remain and would prefer a full deployment of the peacekeeping force along both the Israeli and Syrian sides of the ceasefire line. The war in Syria and the unstable situation on the ground meant that this was not possible in recent times so UNDOF remains a dangerous mission. The spillover from the Syrian war is a major threat. Recently Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu made a rare visit to the Golan, much of which is still occupied by the Israelis.  He asserted that "Israel is prepared for any scenario and I wouldn’t suggest to anyone that they test us".  There has been serious clashes between armed opposition forces and pro-government forces in the bravo side of the ceasefire line that is the responsibility of Syria. Some of these opposition forces are listed as terrorist groups by the UN Security Council and are affiliated with ISIS. Such groups would have no respect for the role of UN peacekeepers and would not hesitate to attack UNDOF. The possibility of being caught in the crossfire between Israel and Syria also remains a serious risk.  Despite the fact that the troops on the ground were forced to redeploy in 2014, UNDOF still contributes to stabilty in the region. While its observation role was thus limited, it continued to play a key role in liaising with the parties to prevent a flareup in the area.  Irish troops are well equipped and trained for the mission. They have good armoured protection and mobility capabilities. This was especially evident when they effectively rescued their surrounded Filipino colleagues in 2014. While Irish troops are prepared for any scenario, UNDOF’s mission is not a combat role such as being undertaken by UN forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Irish government was correct to agree to send troops to the Golan and maintain them there despite the deteriorating situation.  However, then Minister for Defence Simon Coveney made it clear in 2014 that Ireland "would not move into the territory of peace enforcement’ or become involved in the civil war in Syria". Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict has been pivotal and this is reflected in the changed situation on the ground in the Golan and other parts of Syria today. Ireland’s support for this mission is critical to its long term viability. UNDOF does not face the challenges associated with a protection of civilian mandate and inadequate service support problems associated with other UN missions. While the overall security situation appears to be improving, an immediate challenge for the Irish contingent will be deploying in the area of operations previously evacuated for security reasons. There was no option but to redeploy at the time, due to legitimate concerns about extraction and protection. Nevertheless, many now feel that full deployment of Irish forces back in the area of separation is overdue.  This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Monday, 3 September 2018

Opinion: Ireland’s approach to the issue of historic abuse cases is a national conversation not to be taken lightly Last month, Pope Francis visited Ireland for the first papal visit here since 1979, with the contrast in attendance between then and now highlighted by many commentators. Events and official meetings held in Dublin and Knock were well-covered by Irish and international media, as were the effects of the Pennsylvania report, and protests organised by Irish groups advocating for survivors of abuse in predominantly Catholic institutions and dioceses. Protests like #Stand4Truth and the 1,000 people who attended a vigil in Tuam highlighted the anger at the Vatican’s lack of accountability about the systematic abuse of young children and women. Three aspects of the debate which have received less attention are the scale of the abuse revelations globally, the response of governments in different countries and the decades of work by survivors and activists to force the attention of media and politicians. Survivors and activists Personal stories are a large part of the current debate, yet this was not always the case. It was not the case in 1935 when John Byrne died in Artane Industrial School. Despite his parents’ best efforts to draw attention to their son’s bruised body and witnesses to a Christian Brother beating him in the yard, the coroner’s court verdict found that his death was due to "natural causes, but the origins may have been unnatural". It was not the case in 1967 when Peter Tyrrell set himself on fire in Hampstead Heath after years of trying to tell his story of abuse in Letterfrack Industrial School. Or when Nurse June Goulding’s personal account of Bessborough mother and baby home in the early 1950s was published in 1998 to legal threats by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Different states choose different models and none cover the breadth of these institutional failings in one commission or report While there are too many to list, journalists like Mary Raftery, Bruce Arnold and Conall Ó Fatharta; academics like Eoin O’Sullivan, James Smith and Diarmuid Whelan and activists such as Christine Buckley and Marie Collins have worked tirelessly for decades. Since 2014, Catherine Corless has pushed Tuam to the fore, highlighting the extremely high infant mortality rate and the burial of infants, while also keeping survivors at the centre of the debate. Previous work by Ciara Breathnach and Eunan O Halpin has similarly addressed this issue of unnamed dead infants in the coroner’s courts, while Lindsey Earner-Byrne has examined the contexts in which the homes emerged.   Tuam was a publicly funded children’s home (and mother and baby home). The women who entered were recorded on the death certificates of their children in the 1920s as primarily being "domestic servants". Many children stayed in the home until they were seven years (girl) and nine years (boys) of age before they were boarded out (fostered). To look at Tuam is to look at the many issues involved in investigating an institution in 20th century Ireland where class, geography, parentage and gender determined your lifecourse. Tuam is one of 10 such homes, connected to institutions like the Magdalene laundries, county homes (former workhouses), industrial schools and psychiatric hospitals (lunatic asylums), as well as fostering and adoption practices. To examine and understand one, we must examine and understand all. International context and state responses Dr Katie Wright and her colleagues have described the approach of states to historic abuse cases since the 1990s as "The Age of Enquiry". Mapping this global phenomenon, they have shown the sheer scale of the abuse. All of these enquiries have taken place in first world countries (Chile’s recent report not being included yet in this database). Different states choose different models, and none cover the breadth of these institutional failings in one commission or report. Some use public hearings, some have named perpetrators, some have redress schemes – but in all, once the terms and conditions are published, the direction of the commission is fairly clear. We need to listen to survivors, not only on the abuse they suffered but on the trauma they experience fighting churches and states After the publication of the Ryan Report in 2009, Ireland was held up as a model for many. Yet as numerous commentators have pointed out, it presented huge issues. What is certain is that the Catholic Church has been implicated in abuse in many countries, with more to be explored, and reparations have not been fully made for this. What next for the Catholic Church and the state? Ireland needs to lead the way on this issue because 80 percent of this state attended mass regularly in 1979. Because our education and health systems are still rigidly attached to the Catholic Church. Because we kept our church-run institutions opened far longer than elsewhere. Because as the Council for Civil Liberties highlighted, illegal adoptions and practices by the Irish state have not been addressed fully. We can learn from best practice elsewhere, where academics, journalists and activists have a platform, and where their evidence is presented and given fair hearing particularly in relation to current issues of abuse. We need to listen to survivors, not only on the abuse they suffered but on the trauma they experience fighting churches and states on a path towards accountability. We need, as one survivor Seamus Ruttledge has proposed, a National Survivor Centre. Prosecutions must be considered and indemnity deals and the withholding of records must cease. Commemoration and memorialisation needs to occur and needs to supersede property interests. The longer history of institutionalisation needs to be addressed in our secondary schools, in a permanent national exhibition and in our current approach to the State and institutions like the Catholic Church. Irish society and the Irish State need to own this. We need to corral the emotion and humanity we have seen in recent years and reflect on the context in which these institutions survived, were supported and in some instances were seen by most people to be needed. That is a national conversation not to be taken lightly, but is one we must have. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Opinion: assessing the career of John McCain must take account of both his remarkable bravery and regrettable political mistakes The death of John McCain has led to a remarkable memorialisation in America. There has been non-stop discussion of two-times presidential candidate on news channels, replete with appreciations, stories of his exploits, barbs and friendships and reflections on his significance in American politics. Details of his funeral were carefully planned by McCain and his family, including lying-in-state in the Arizona capital before a final return to Washington. After lying-in-state at the Capitol rotunda, there will be a funeral service at the National Cathedral, where two former rivals, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, will give eulogies. Not since the death of Ronald Reagan has such care been exerted to frame a legacy. Two things have been continually emphasised about McCain in commentary from the press and from his colleagues in the world of politics: first, that he was a maverick, and second, that he reached across the aisles. His capacity to find occasions to collaborate with colleagues in the Democrats does seem especially remarkable in the post George W. Bush era, when the logic of American politics is about playing entirely to the base and pursuing a strategy of nullifying the opposition, a tactic especially prominent on the Republican side (see their treatment of Obama during his presidency). The attention that this trait has received speaks to an American lament over the impossibility of compromise, with its accompanying rise in incivility. McCain was acerbic, but he had a capacity to recognise the humanity of people who differed from him. McCain’s reputation as a maverick represents a more complicated question. He traded off it politically in an appeal to the electorate as a person of sincere if unpredictable views, an unscripted politician who rode the "Straight Talk Express" on the campaign trail. On the one hand, it earned him praise for political bravery and gained him laudable independence while also boosting his national profile, enhanced by frequent appearances on leading Sunday political talk shows Meet the Press and Face the Nation. On the other hand, it ensured that he would be alternately lionised and demonised. When the rest of his party was caving in to Donald Trump, he represented a rare voice of opposition and censure, notably on Russia. He famously cast a key vote rescuing the Affordable Care Act from decimation by Trump, with a terse thumbs-down gesture on the Senate floor, but he later supported the indefensible Republican tax bill, Trump’s only major legislative victory to date. The difficulty with the maverick brand is nowhere more apparent than in his choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate in 2008, one he famously regretted. Ostensibly, he saw a reflection of his own style in her, but he signed up a grossly unprepared figure in reality who served to embarrass the ticket. The decision actually represented an act of desperation, a political Hail Mary pass, as he trailed Obama badly in the polls. Palin’s only impact was to make the advent of Trump conceivable, while McCain’s straight talk gave way to Trump’s id-like string of abuse. Maverick he might have been, but I prefer to think of McCain as a dissident figure in the Republican party, relishing the role of outsider and troublemaker, an awkward thorn in an otherwise impermeable hide. He was never a very sensible choice as a party leader and the haste and glee with which he resumed his role as contributor to political chat shows demonstrated his real comfort zone. The third thing that stands out in commentary and memorialisation is his status as hero, earned during the Vietnam war in a hellish five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in the "Hanoi Hilton" during which he suffered torture. The refrain speaks to a longing for something heroic in an era of venal and craven politics, a reconnection with concepts of service, duty, tradition and honour. There is always a risk of getting carried away with such tributes, but what makes McCain interesting and more complex was his continued reference to his own imperfect service, his mistakes and failings. His frankness was unusual and welcome. It reflected a tacit acknowledgement that he had ultimately signed a confession to his North Vietnamese captors and also that his political record was not unstained with both Palin and his implication in the collapse of Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, having lobbied on its behalf. His honesty made him at once broken and invincible. He eschewed the cant of being a winner. Of all of Trump’s outrageous remarks during his 2016 campaign, his dismissal of McCain is one of the most reprehensible: "he’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured." This from the person who received a military service deferment during the same period for a bone spur in his foot (when asked which foot, Trump instructed reporters to look up the records). In fact, McCain did Trump an unintended favour in the timing of his death by diverting attention away from the conviction of Paul Manafort and the guilty plea of Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen. What kind of president would McCain have made? Had he prevailed in 2000, he would surely have outperformed Bush (assuming that hanging chads would have gone his way in the federal election), but his bellicose approach would have led to post 9/11 retaliation (he supported the Iraq war). His response to Russian electoral interference was praiseworthy in the Trump era, but it is worth remembering his rash belligerence towards Russia in his 2008 campaign as the conflict between Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia intensified. Of all of Trump’s outrageous remarks during his 2016 campaign, his dismissal of McCain is one of the most reprehensible He deserves great credit for his legislative efforts on campaign finance reform, but we might recall that his wife’s inherited wealth financed his entree into politics. He spoke out resolutely against America’s embrace of torturing enemies under Bush, but he was a stalwart defender of massive defence spending. The record, thus, is mixed. What remains in the end is a human touch, a capacity to make contact and friendships with sometimes unlikely figures, and his mentorship of younger colleagues, particularly women entering the Senate. In a divisive age, McCain’s death has brought a reminder to America of a rare capacity in a politician to generate bipartisan affection and the potential - so difficult to imagine in this Trumpian moment - for generosity of spirit. Daniel Carey is a visiting scholar at the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame University This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Friday, 7 September 2018

Author: Ulf Strohmayer, Department of Geography Opinion: if we want vibrant cities, urban citizens need to embrace and demand different forms of urban planning and construction Sitting on a balcony in the Kreuzberg part of Berlin I can hear a neighbour practicing the guitar, a mother of Turkish background talk to her children, rubbish men removing trash bins from a the backyard of a house and the distant murmur of the U- Bahn making its way towards the Oberbaumbrücke. At night, the street begets its own rhythm of sounds and noises. Different languages intermingle in conversation, shouts and the bravado of young people leaving night clubs at 5am. Boom boxes compete with one another, often tied to bicycles and maneuvered by an African marihuana dealer from near-by Görlitzer Park. Or glass breaks following a fracas between two homeless men when the corner shop closes at midnight. Proximities galore; all of them, gentle or rough, denoting the presence of the city, its inhabitants, rhythms and desires. As I listen, I begin to wonder why such urban propinquities seem so intimately tied to living in Berlin and why living in Ireland rarely affords such distractions. The prevalence of suburban ways of life in Ireland, the avoidance of apartment-based ways of living across the generations - apartments accounting for a mere 10 percent of the existing housing stock in Ireland - a broader avoidance of urban densities and the historically late arrival of urban forms of life more generally all come to mind as reasons for that. But as I continue to gaze at a computer screen on the balcony, I cannot help but think that much of the future of Irish cities rides on these distractions. Truth be told, we dwell differently when living near to one another. Berliners either appreciate or have got used to living closely together, rubbing shoulders with other people’s ways of life, than what Irish urbanites would tolerate. In other words, the separation between private and public spaces in Ireland is harsher, less fluid and more geared towards protecting individual, private interests and property than in Berlin. The boundaries between what’s mine and what’s ours emerge with stronger accents in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. In Galway, suburban hedges, front lawns and back garden walls begin to define the urban landscape the moment you step outside the medieval heart of the city. The result is the lowest percentage of multi-family dwellings in the EU paired with a considerably less rich tapestry of experiences that emerge between private and public domains. These experience are not always pretty or nice – witness the prevalence of crude graffiti in Berlin or the sounds I wrote about above – but they involve crucial encounters with practices unfamiliar to some urban citizens and thereby instigate acts of negotiation aimed towards the reconciliation of conflicts. While there is nothing dramatic about these encounters in everyday life, they do make a difference by becoming part of urban routines, conversations, glances, directed forms of attention and, occasionally, avoidances. By contrast, the absence of such encounters within Irish urban environments have created spaces and brought about cultures that are literally inward looking. They do not articulate that most urban of sentiments: a curiosity towards alternatives to what we know already. Hence the collective "we" that is made up of numerous individual dreams and aspirations has become protective against the public, weary of that which we cannot control. This is remarkable given the exemplarily strong sense of community that prevails all across Ireland and which materialises in pubs, on each and every GAA pitch and other voluntary organisations on a daily basis. But their translation into urban practices is largely absent from Irish civil society and the way we build cities has a lot to answer for the current state of urban affairs. As a result, we fight new priority bus lanes that impact, however minimally, on the frontal buffer zone between our home and the street. We lobby to close off connecting pedestrian lanes between suburban estates and tolerate architectural monstrosities if someone can furnish the title deed to an urban parcel of land. The upshot of such practices is that the oft-criticised cookie-cutter form of urbanism continues to define the way our cities grow. It is maintained not merely through an obsession with form, but because we have become thoroughly weary of one another as public personae. We urban citizens need to embrace and actively demand different forms of urban planning and construction. We need practices that avoid established and in-built distances and walls and planning-related customs that neglect spaces for non-commercialised meetings and which are primarily geared towards avoiding spontaneous encounters. Instead of rigid boundaries between individuals and society that define both through static, unchangeable practices, it is transitioning passages, the fluidity between the two, that makes for vibrant urban living. This is also to suggest that a focus on higher densities alone will do little to bring about a much-needed sea change in the way housing is conceptualised and practiced in Ireland (or, in fact, elsewhere). The sounds we eliminate or relegate to a distant elsewhere both indicate the absence of a diverse range of encounters and experiences, and also dramatically reduce the range of what is deemed an acceptable and legitimate contribution to urban debates and practices. Returning to Berlin, any visitor will notice the astonishing range of urban experiments taking place simultaneously within the city. For-profit urbanism mixes with social housing. Co-operative forms of construction at a variety of scales co-exist with groups of private investors or Baugemeinschaften engaged in transforming heritage buildings. Squatters and voluntary "waggon forts" (Wagenburgen) dot the urban landscape. All contributing to healthy, occasionally raucous, debates about the future of the city, as well as possible interactions between its present-day and future citizens, commercial actors and infrastructures. Note, too, that these alternatives and the palatable sense of ownership that permeates Berlin take place in a city mostly populated by people who do not own but rent the spaces they inhabit. Being invested in a city’s future means wanting and being able to contribute to debates, practices and the formation of novel routines and does not need to be tied exclusively to having a financial stake in said future. Encounters of the kind invoked here play a crucial part in that ability to shape future. The result in a higher quality of urban life is tangible and well worth striving for, especially in Ireland. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Author: Patrick Lonergan, NUI Galway Opinion: high-profile unrisky summer runs and the casting of celebrity actors like Aidan Turner and Pat Shortt show the playwright's work has come a long way One of the hottest theatre tickets in London this summer is for Martin McDonagh’s Lieutenant of Inishmore, a darkly provocative satire about an Irish terrorist returning home to the Aran Islands to care for his sick cat. To people familiar with the play, its popularity might seem surprising. It was originally staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001 amid fears of IRA reprisals and protests by animal rights groups, and there were reports of audience members being physically sick during its gory finale. Almost two decades later, London theatre-goers have been forced to come to terms with new forms of terrorism, but audiences now are even less willing to tolerate on-stage violence, especially against animals. So why do so many people want to see The Lieutenant of Inishmore? There are many answers to that question. As Brexit has forced Northern Ireland back into the English political consciousness, the London theatre has shown a renewed interest in Irish work, as evident in a celebrated revival of Brian Friel’s Translations, as well as the premiere of The Ferryman,Jez Butterworth’s Broadway-bound drama about Northern Ireland's "disappeared". English theatre producers seem keen to remind their audiences of the Troubles period and its legacies – with its jokes about Bloody Sunday and the Warrington bombing, The Lieutenant certainly does that. But there’s also the casting. The lead role has been taken by Aidan Turner, making his West End debut just as season four of his hugely successful BBC show Poldark concludes. In that series, he’s everything you’d want a dashing hero to be: passionate and charismatic, impulsive but fundamentally decent. And since his famous topless scything scene, Turner now routinely appears at the top of most of the "sexiest man alive" polls in Britain. It’s no surprise therefore that the marketing for Lieutenant has prominently featured him – wearing only a vest and the kind of facial expression that makes you want to give him a cuddle. We’ve seen this kind of celebrity casting in Ireland too this summer. Dublin commuters have found Pat Shortt staring out at them from billboards across the city, advertising his appearance in McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara, currently running at the Olympia. In Cork, McDonagh’s own celebrity as the Oscar-nominated writer and director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has featured prominently in the promotion of the Everyman’s The Lonesome West. And later this year, McDonagh’s next play - A Very Very Very Dark Matter – will open in London, with Jim Broadbent in the lead role. This use of celebrity casting is usually seen as a win-win strategy for all concerned. For audiences, there’s the thrill of seeing a much-loved star in person – and for the actors themselves there’s the chance to prove their versatility. We have all known that Pat Shortt is an outstanding "serious" actor since Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage appeared in 2007, but Skull allows him to display his full range in a darkly funny play. One of the joys of this summer’s production of Lieutenant lies in seeing Turner playing so firmly against his Poldark persona. He’s hilarious in the role, but in deploying his comedic skills he also enhances the power of McDonagh’s satire: audiences can’t help but ask themselves why they are laughing so affectionately at so dangerous a character. It’s a deeply intelligent performance that has significantly enhanced Turner’s reputation But it’s worth asking whether all of this success has made McDonagh’s plays themselves seem less dangerous. When his first drama, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, was premiered by Druid in 1996, McDonagh was seen as an exciting new writer. Here was someone who was using his status as a London-born son of Irish immigrants to re-imagine the nostalgia-inflected version of Ireland’s past from a punk perspective - doing for Irish theatre what the Pogues had done for music. But he soon became a controversial if not divisive figure. First there was a run-in with the tabloids when he was criticised for telling Sean Connery to fuck off at an awards ceremony (McDonagh had been disruptive during the playing of the British national anthem; Connery told him to shut up). And then there was a growing backlash, especially in Ireland, from people who suspected that he should be seen not as an Irish dramatist who was playfully subverting stereotypes, but as an English playwright who was cashing in on the existence of anti-Irish prejudice by populating his stage with feckless stage Irish morons. While rejecting that accusation, McDonagh still seemed to embrace controversy, attacking the theatres that had rejected The Lieutenant of Inishmore for their "gutlessness" or telling The New York Times that he wanted to beat up fellow Irish playwright Conor McPherson in 2010. This seems a long way from where we are now, with McDonagh’s early Irish plays seen as unrisky summer fare, occupying slots that might have been filled by Brian Friel or John B Keane in the past. It’s true that the plays’ power to shock may have diminished. Those early Irish dramas were ruthlessly open about clerical child abuse at a time when most people in Ireland were still unaware of the scale of that problem, for example. But as Ireland has changed – and as McDonagh’s approach has been imitated by others – those jokes are now more painful than revelatory. It might therefore be tempting to suggest that the enfant terrible has almost become part of the establishment. but there is perhaps a more nuanced way of seeing things. Back then, it was suggested by some that McDonagh’s Irishness was suspect because he spoke with a London accent, a view that came from a time when Irishness and Englishness were seen almost as opposites of each other. That narrow understanding of identity hasn’t gone away, but it says much about how this country has changed that McDonagh’s success earlier this year with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, could be celebrated for its Irishness without losing sight of its English and American characteristics. The transformation in how McDonagh is viewed in Ireland could be seen as an encapsulation of how our understanding of Irishness has itself transformed during the last 20 years. McDonagh might no longer be as controversial (even an attack on the racial politics of Three Billboardsfailed to fully ignite), but audiences can still find his plays and films dangerous – not for what they say to us, but for how they make us feel. Go to a McDonagh play anywhere in the world and it’s a near certainty that you’ll hear people saying afterwards that they couldn’t believe they were laughing at such dark material. Yes, those plays provide an opportunity for us to see excellent actors like Aidan Turner and Pat Shortt at work. But fundamentally, they invite us to see ourselves and to ask why we’re drawn to jokes about things that just shouldn’t be funny. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Author:  Gearóid Barry, NUI Galway Opinion: how does Pope Francis compare to his modern predecessors and has his approach to date been marked by continuity or change?  It is not usual for popes to feature in the comedy monologues of American TV late-night talk show hosts. But in March 2014, as the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ election approached, NBC’s Seth Meyers referred to an opinion poll that found that American Catholics felt more enthusiastic about their faith thanks to Francis. Meyers added that "people like this pope", as he was like your high school friend’s cool dad "who let you do stuff". While surely not meant to be taken too seriously, Meyers’ throwaway gag reflected the wider popular narrative that this pope was somehow "different". There is a grain of truth in this perception of "difference". Five years into his tenure, the evidence for a "Francis effect" and larger numbers in the pews is patchy though a greater curiosity about Catholicism abounds. Francis, the first pope from the southern hemisphere, stands on the shoulders of his recent predecessors whose memory he reveres. Indeed, he has already canonized two of them, John XXIII (1958-1963) and John Paul II (1978-2005). How much of Francis’ approach, therefore, is marked by continuity or by change? To answer this, three essential elements of any pope’s mission should be borne in mind: providing continuity, managing change carefully and, finally, holding the centre of the Church together. The seminal event in the history of the Catholic Church in the lifetime of Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been the Vatican Council II (1962-65). Announced in January 1959 by "Good Pope John", just months into the 23 year old Bergoglio’s training as a Jesuit priest, Vatican II ushered in a period of great reform in Catholicism and remains Francis’ "greatest teacher," writes biographer Austen Ivereigh. A new pope, Paul VI (1963-78), brought the Council to conclusion in 1965 yet that was just the beginning of the arguments. In a sense, there has been a 50-year tussle (or "culture war", some would say) between progressives and conservatives within the Church over Vatican II’s meaning and about change, continuity and how to respond to secularism. In the eye of the storm is the papacy, tasked with holding the centre together.  Viewed from Latin America, Bergoglio had been an archbishop who synthesized continuity and change. Liberation Theology, a type of radical social gospel that flourished in the 1970s, had inspired but also divided the church because of its alleged Marxism. At Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, Bergoglio and the Latin American bishops produced a significant document reconciling what we would recognise as Francis’ vision of "a poor church for the poor" with tradition.  The interlinked pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI (2005-13) spanned a whole generation of Catholic life. As younger men, both Karol Wojtyla and Josef Ratzinger had been direct participants in Vatican II. The Polish pope emphasised renewal while remaining firm on challenging teachings. Ratzinger, whom John Paul appointed as chief of doctrine in 1981, has always argued that continuity is the key to unlocking the true meaning of Vatican II. With his popular touch, Francis shares John Paul II’s unerring sense of the power of gestures and an ability to be a canny politician. In contrast, whereas John Paul went "on tour" and soared above the details of Vatican administration, cardinals elected the Argentinian outsider in 2013 to "clean house", something which had defeated long-time insider Benedict. As John L. Allen, doyen of Vatican journalists, reports, this task has frustrated Francis too. Abuse scandals and the scandalous cover-ups are another test on which Francis has, to date, a mixed record. Ironically, it was champion of continuity Benedict XVI who hurled a thunderbolt in February 2013 by becoming the first pope in seven centuries to resign. Resigning was, even his critics agreed, an act of reform that put clear distance between the man and mystique of the office. The current and retired bishops of Rome are on cordial terms. Their styles differ greatly, their substance not quite as much; Francis and Benedict, in the popular narrative, are pantomime opposites, a kind of "good pope/bad pope" routine.  This inaccurate view reflects the real wounds in the church. For some, Benedict will always remain "Ratzinger", the hardline chief of police, hammer of the heretics and of gay rights. As pope, however, Benedict’s signature encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (2005), stressed that "God is Love" and that Christianity was not, fundamentally, a set of rules, but rather a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Here he and Francis are completely at one. The instinctive difference between them is that Benedict considers that the church might shrink in size to become truer in order to be the "mustard seed" planting the Gospel for a future harvest. Like John Paul, Francis instinctively sees the church as a big tent, making his own of classic "JP2-like" gatherings like the World Youth Days. For Francis, the tent is also a "field hospital" for the wounded from the drama of existence. Francis’ sense that pastoral need, "encountering" people where they are, has priority over orthodoxy, goes considerably beyond his predecessors’ boundaries. Francis has tried to lower the temperature within the Church on some hot-button issues, such as in his signals of recognition to LGBT Catholics. His hints of support for a more relaxed approach on the question of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion, particularly in his exhortation on family life Amoris Laetitia (2016), have caused stirs amongst prelates and Catholic bloggers.  At the centre of all this stands a man, the pope, not so much a global CEO as the designated pastor for a universal church of 1.2 billion members In his recent book To Change the Church, New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat says that Francis has been way too partisan on this topic and risks pushing traditional Catholics towards schism. Critics argue that the indissolubility of marriage is a difficult but core teaching which this pope risks compromising. Francis’s like-minded appointees, such as Cardinal Blaise Cupich, his choice as archbishop of Chicago, defend Pope Francis’ "revolution of mercy" as perfectly consistent with Catholic tradition. Francis’s avowed purpose at his election was to prioritize the "existential margins" and global injustice and to turn the Church away from her own internal arguments towards the needs of the world. Yet the current impasse over Amoris Laetitia risks spawning years more of internal division. The resolution lies in the Catholic future and perhaps in several papacies’ time! At the centre of all this stands a man, the pope, not so much a global CEO as the designated pastor for a universal church of 1.2 billion members. It’s no small burden, as reflected in the private remark of Albino Luciani, the humble Italian peasants’ son who became the "smiling pope" John Paul I and who reigned for just 33 days in August-September 1978: "Look, Monsignor, I smile, and I always smile, but believe me, inside I suffer." This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Friday, 17 August 2018

Author: Mary McGill, NUI Galway Opinion: to dismiss the Roses as Lovely Girls is to overlook what the event says about Ireland's past, present and who we imagine ourselves to be It’s that time of year again when attention turns to Kerry and the Rose of Tralee, a festival that is never anything less than a national talking point. This year, entrants will take to the stage in an Ireland where the repeal of the Eighth Amendment is a reality, where the Pope’s visit is an object of debate rather than unquestioning veneration and where "equality" is the buzzword du jour. Irish society’s relationship to the festival is notable for its tensions and contradictions. While sections of the media ridicule it, the televised show is consistently one of our most watched annual broadcasts. Fr. Ted’s much-quoted Lovely Girls' sketch is often used as a disparaging shorthand for the contest. Yet, far from being passive, blandly interchangeable "lovely girls", the Roses are typically very accomplished and their achievements and lives reflect the changing role of women in Irish society and abroad. Although "loveliness" is emphasised, it is the least of the contestants’ achievements In many respects. The Rose of Tralee began in 1959 as a tourist-attraction enterprise based on the celebration of a very specific type of femininity which has strong cultural connotations in Ireland. In the love song which partly inspired the contest, the Rose of Tralee is a woman named Mary. We are introduced to her entirely through the eyes of her suitor. He tells us that she "all smiling sat listening to me", that she is "lovely and fair as the rose of the summer" and "[h]er voice was a solace and comfort to me." What we glean about Mary is not her hopes, her desires or her experiences, only the male narrator’s starry-eyed interpretation of her. Mary is agreeable, "lovely and fair", but crucially, not sexual or threatening. She is eerily evocative of the "comely" or "happy" maidens of De Valera’s famous "That Ireland we dreamed of" speech, which placed women firmly within the home. In name and nature, she is also evocative of the Virgin Mary, who served as the model of respectable Catholic femininity for generations. But many thousands of women and girls failed to make this grade. For their so-called sins, they were incarcerated in draconian institutions across the country. In an Irish cultural context, we could say that the comely maiden is one side of the coin, the fallen woman the other, and that both forms of femininity inform and rely on one another. It should be stressed that these categories of womanhood were not accidental nor inevitable. Rather, they were socially sanctioned and, although Ireland is progressing, the effects of this history are still felt by Irish women today. The increasing diversity of the Roses in recent years can be read as reflecting a changing Ireland and a changing contest, yet the ethos of earlier times lingers. Unmarried mothers were barred from entry until 2008 and current rules stipulate that entrants must not be married now or in the past. Entrants cannot be older than 28 years of age. They are also expected to have a male escort for the duration of the festival. Entrenched in these stipulations are notions of femininity which give primacy to youth and traditional heterosexual relationships. In an Ireland where debates about inclusion, visibility and equality are now commonplace, it is not surprising that critics interpret such rules as regressive. The most controversial moment of the contest in recent times (or perhaps ever) came during the 2016 live televised broadcast from the Dome. During her interview with compere Dáithí Ó Sé, Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins expressed her support for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment. She faced heavy criticism, much of it centred around the claim that the Rose of Tralee is apolitical and therefore above campaigning. Those in support of Parkins argued that celebrating women should include acknowledging their rights and not silencing them, as Irish society so routinely did in the past. What this incident reflects is the tension between the idealised brand of femininity promoted by the contest to audiences at home and abroad, and the lived realities of Irish women, realities which remained until very recently largely unspoken. Parkins’ daring remarks and the subsequent public debate she inspired brought these two spheres together within a culture that had long endeavoured to keep them apart, venerating one while vilifying and denying the other, unable or unwilling to accept the complexities of women’s lives. In an ironic way, the controversy sparked by Parkins’ offers an insight into the contest’s enduring popular appeal. As a live show, it still has the capacity to surprise, although this is usually through comedy rather than political speeches. For generations of Irish people raised in two channel land, it is event television akin to the Late Late Toy Show and therefore unmissable. In an increasingly globalised and fragmented world, the contest offers a reliable albeit rose-tinted representation of Ireland and Irishness for those who desire it. It has also been easily, even gleefully subsumed into the digital landscape, where the twists and spills of the live shows light up Twitter and quickly become memes and gifs. Irish society has come a long way since the first Rose of Tralee in 1959. It is perhaps partly for this reason that the contest continues to attract the level of attention it does. To dismiss it as a mere Lovely Girls competition is to overlook how it serves as a touchstone for the tensions between Ireland’s past, its present, and who we, as a nation, imagine ourselves to be. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Friday, 17 August 2018

Report: researchers have discovered a breakthrough in the treatment of breast cancer which may reduce the chances of relapse for those with triple negative breast cancer Triple negative breast cancer is one of the most aggressive and difficult to treat forms of breast cancer which accounts for around 15 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed and occurs more frequently in younger women. Unlike other forms of breast cancer, there are no targeted therapies and chemotherapy is the mainstay treatment. Although initially successful, a large percentage of TNBC patients relapse within one to three years of treatment and have a poor long-term prognosis. Scientists have now discovered a way to improve patients' response to chemotherapy by looking at the exact mechanism of the tumour relapse. They have shown that IRE1, which is a cellular stress sensor that normally acts to alleviate short-term stresses within cells, such as lack of nutrients or oxygen, is a central driver of treatment-related relapse. Dr Susan Logue, from the Apoptosis Research Centre at NUI Galway, where the research was carried out, is first author of the study which has been published in Nature Communications journal. She said "this work has uncovered a previously unknown role for IRE1 and suggests that it may represent a good therapeutic target for the treatment of triple negative breast cancer. While further research is needed, this work is a great example of how curiosity-driven basic research can lead to translational outcomes with real potential to impact on patient treatment." The team discovered that chemotherapy can activate the IRE1 stress response in triple negative breast cancer, leading to the production of survival signals that are pumped out of the cell to support the growth of new cancer cells. Most importantly, the study showed that this process can be halted by specifically inhibiting IRE1 using a clinically-relevant, small molecule drug called MCK8866 that not only improves the effectiveness of the initial chemotherapy treatment, but also reduces relapse of this aggressive form of breast cancer.    Using triple negative breast cancer cells treated with chemotherapy, the research team found that blocking IRE1 activity reduced the production of survival signals, and in turn reduced the growth of new cancer cells by 50 perfcent. Furthermore, in a pre-clinical model of TNBC, the drug increased the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment, leading to regression of eight out of ten cancers compared to regression of just three out of ten cancers using chemotherapy alone. The combination of the MCK8866 drug with chemotherapy also reduced tumour relapse in this pre-clinical model of triple negative breast cancer. In addition to these laboratory-based experiments, an analysis of 595 patient tumours revealed that triple negative breast cancer tumours displayed the highest IRE1 activity compared to other subtypes, suggesting that IRE1 may be of particular importance in TNBC. This discovery suggests that combining chemotherapy with IRE1 inhibitors could offer substantial benefits for triple negative breast cancer patients.   Triple negative breast cancer accounts for around 15 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed and occurs more frequently in younger women Professor Afshin Samali, director of the Apoptosis Research Centre, said "this study is the result of extensive laboratory experiments, analysis of breast cancer patient samples, testing pre-clinical models of triple negative breast cancer and collaboration with our international and industry partners. "The new era of precision oncology aims to tailor treatments to individual cancer patients and we are excited to identify a new therapeutic strategy for triple negative breast cancer patients who are most in need of better treatment options. Furthermore, this strategy may benefit many other cancer patients whose cancer cells rely on activated cell stress responses to survive."  This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Author: Eugene Farrell, NUI Galway Analysis: Ireland's coastline communities need better infrastructure and more support to develop and support sustainable tourism The recent good weather has once again highlighted the dearth of infrastructure to develop and support sustainable tourism along Ireland's coastlines. Every year, visitors and local communities highlight the paucity of designated parking, legal campsites, toilet facilities, water or showers, rubbish and dumping facilities, beach and dune access points, picnic areas, seating for visitors to appreciate the views and information on local heritage that is of cultural and historical importance. These issues not only impact the visitor experience, but also continually cause resentment amongst local coastal communities who observe their land being damaged every year by trespassing visitors and campers. In many cases, visitors are simply ill-informed and do not recognise or understand the damage they are causing. In other cases, they do not care and there is a general lack of enforcement of local plans and county beach bye-laws due to limited garda resources and ambiguity in the responsibilities of the local authorities. Who dune it? The Curracloe fire On July 22, the Wexford Fire Service evacuated 800 people from Curracloe beach in Co Wexford as a fire engulfed the sand dunes. The investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing, but speculation is that a disposable barbecue accidentally started it. The fire destroyed 13 acres of the 84 acre dune area and came within 300 metres of reaching the heavily forested 1,455 acre Raven Nature Reserve. Unfortunately, stories like this are not exclusive to Curracloe and the fire is emblematic of the legacy of human actions that are destabilising our already fragile dune systems. Historically, there is a pervasive attitude in Ireland that commonage - lands jointly owned by several individuals who have grazing rights - is public land and people feel it's within their rights to trespass on these lands without seeking permission. This creates conflict on the ground and we are quickly approaching a point in time where coastal communities will close off access to their land in order to reduce the damage from visitors and reduce their liability. The consequences of this ethos change could be catastrophic to the tourist sector. Conversely, this forced exclusion approach will have a positive effect on the long term trend of degradation of ecosystem goods and services in coastal communities. Coastal dunes are an integral part of this ecosystem due to their location on the dynamic coastal fringe connecting the land and ocean. The community vision and innovation are only matched by their determination to succeed and take back ownership of their coast. Direct utilisation of coastal dunes and beaches form an important economic role in many rural coastal communities, rendering them key physical components in the socio-economic fabric. It is therefore fully within the rights of landowners to enforce exclusion until such time as appropriate facilities are provided for increasing visitor numbers. Increasing capacity for coastal visitors Ireland’s Ancient East brand was developed to deliver a new experience for visitors to the east and south regions of Ireland. Costing in excess of €20 million, the aim is to grow visitors numbers in these regions by 600,000 (21 percent) by 2020. The Wild Atlantic Way was developed at a cost of €10 million with a further €100 million invested in capital funding and, if it attains similar growth, its nine counties can expect in excess of 1.1 million extra visitors. We have to ask why no explicit plans are being developed to support the adaptive capacity of rural coastal communities to host these visitors. Adaptive capacity is not simply about having more resources, but also relies heavily on the willingness and capability of communities to convert these resources into effective adaptive action. READ: Ireland's Ancient East, when east is now always east Subsumed within our new National Adaptation Framework is the long term goal of "building capacity" and "increasing climate resilience" of our socio-ecological and economic systems. However, one of the limitations of the framework, which was developed as part of Irelands first climate change legislation Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, is the lack of guidelines to identify and engage with the relevant stakeholders for whom the policy is supposedly designed to benefit, such as landowners, residents, business owners etc.  We are at a critical juncture in time for coastal management in Ireland. We need to be cognisant that building capacity of coastal communities to develop resilient responses to changing climatic conditions can only realistically be achieved using bottom-up approaches where the communities inform the decision makers of local solutions to local problems. The story in the Maharees Researchers in NUI Galway are working closely with a rural coastal community in the Maharees, Co Kerry to support their drive to build adaptive capacity. This is done by reducing the costs of natural (storm related erosion and flooding) and human (pedestrian paths and horse trails to access beach and related activities of parking, camping, unregulated access, dune scrambling, and fires) pressures that are adversely impacting the long term health of the dune ecosystems and the preservation of the tombolo structure. The local community formed the Maharees Conservation Association (MCA) CLG in February 2016 to design and implement short and long-term coastal management solutions. They have since conducted over 200 coastal protection and conservation activities including beach cleans, dune vegetation planting, signage and access fencing, straw bales, dune fencing, cultural and heritage walks, meetings, fundraising events, media, and partnerships and outreach.  There are multiple reasons why this community has enjoyed success. The diverse leadership of their committee and local participation in their efforts has built trust and cohesion within the communities.They reached out to the critical stakeholders and developed very strong networks with key decision makers within the different management agencies (Kerry County Council, NPWS, OPW, EPA, the Heritage Council, An Taisce) and their local political representatives (TDs, councillors).  The community is working closely with staff in multiple third level institutes (NUI Galway, Institute of Technology Tralee, University of Limerick) to access key physical and social data to promote their culture and heritage and to design protection strategies. Consensus building with local landowner, residents, visitors and managers has been critical to the their ability to make impact locally and community engagement involved schoolchildren, farmers, business owners and residents and those visiting for tourism. The community vision and innovation are only matched by their determination to succeed and take back ownership of their coast. Despite the rapid progress over the past two and half years, the community still had ongoing battles with visitors this summer due to the lack of appropriate facilities in the area. However, on a more positive note, the gardaí have now become a key ally and prevented illegal camping in the Trench area of Maharees over the August bank holiday weekend for the first time in decades! The gardaí can apply their right to impound property of illegal campers on private land without landowner permission who won’t leave when asked by landowners. Previously, it was understood that the owners would have to go through the courts to obtain an order. This is a huge step in the right direction. Appropriate capacity building and resourcing can mitigate these recurring problems and ensure that the area grows new sustainable tourism opportunities for the benefit of all. This piece is based upon Dr Eugene Farrell’s research in NUI GalwayDiscipline of Geography & Ryan Institute. The research was funded by OPW and Kerry County Council and supported by the Maharees Conservation Association (MCA) CLG. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Analysis: the politician's vision, leadership and communication skills meant he gained a stature and influence rarely matched by anyone on the island of Ireland Internationally recognised for his role in making peace, John Hume was the quintessential local politician in many ways. Active in different campaigns in his local community, Hume’s leadership and communication skills, especially evident through television, brought him to national and international prominence. His was a global vision to finding a solution to the divisions on these islands and to bringing an end to violence. For this, the Derry boy gained a stature and influence rarely matched by anyone on the island of Ireland. READ: John Hume in America - the story behind the new documentary Faced by the most turbulent and violent period in the history of Northern Ireland, Hume’s political career ran over three decades and the entire period of the Troubles. His was a swift rise from involvement in the unsuccessful University for Derry Committee in the 1960s to becoming a founding member of the Derry Credit Union movement and the Derry Housing Action Committee, the role which brought him to political prominence, and facilitated his election to the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1969. During his final years in politics, he oversaw the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement from 1998, which brought to reality his vision for bringing the different sides of the conflict together. As a member of the Westminster parliament for Foyle from 1983 to 2005 and the European Parliament from 1979 to 2004, he worked through these and American channels in an attempt to internationalise the conflict and bring pressure to bear on those in positions of power. His ability to move between Ireland, Britain, Europe and America and influence public discourse was facilitated when he assumed leadership of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in 1979, the party which he had co-founded in 1970. The SDLP remained the pre-eminent nationalist party throughout Hume’s leadership, which continued until 2001 when he retired at the age of 64 due to ill health. Critical to the Sunningdale Agreement (1973), New Ireland Forum (1984), Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) and Good Friday Agreements (1998), the outlines of his vision for Northern Ireland were clear from an early stage. Steadfast in his commitment to a non-violent approach, Hume was remarkably consistent in the views he put forward. What changed over time was the priority he gave to different tenets within his vision for Northern Ireland. Early in his career, his focus was on the need to replace the Nationalist Party with a more effective nationalist organisation in Northern Ireland and for the grievances of Northern Catholics to be addressed. Later, he was criticised by many, including party deputy leader Seamus Mallon, for effectively ignoring his SDLP party in his preference for working alone in seeking to influence successive US governments and presidents in Washington. More generally, in his talks in the late 1980s with Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, Hume and others received virulent criticism within and outside of the SDLP. At significant cost to his personal health, Hume displayed considerable courage, even in the face of death threats from Loyalists, at this and other times. This was especially true in 1993 when, following a renewal of talks between Adams and Hume, the Sinn Fein leader carried the coffin of an IRA bomber who had killed 10 people. More important to Hume than who led the nationalist cause, these talks highlighted his commitment to ending violence. From the late 1980s, Hume sought to bring Sinn Féin onto a peaceful and moderate path and into the nationalist consensus which he had done so much to create. The New Ireland Forum (1983-84) had been particularly important in providing a platform for constitutional nationalists throughout the island to discuss how the cause of Irish nationalism could be progressed and, following the hunger strikes and the election of Bobby Sands and others, how to bolster the SDLP against the increasing political threat of Sinn Féin. Thereafter, what became paramount for Hume was the need to bring about a ceasefire whatever the potential cost to himself, the future electoral strength of his party or to the prospects, however difficult, of coming to an agreement with Unionists. The continued suspension of the institutions in Northern Ireland raises the question as to whether Hume and others were correct in this assessment and if more could have been done by its leadership to have prevented the SDLP being eclipsed by Sinn Féin. What remains certain is that the SDLP’s welfare was secondary for Hume, to the need to end violence. Furthermore, an IRA ceasefire was in his view a prerequisite to bringing the British and Irish governments and Unionist and Nationalist parties to the negotiating table and for a lasting settlement. For Hume, this settlement was the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Where there was a consistency in Hume’s thinking, he progressed in how he conceived of Northern Ireland and any future solution from the 1970s. Constant in his view that Irish unification could only be achieved with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, the stress Hume placed on the aspiration for a united Ireland gave way to recognition of the need to unite people before territory. Prior to the Sunningdale Agreement, the SDLP aspiration to unity caused concern from Unionists and some southern politicians including Conor Cruise O’Brien, who became a long-term critic of Hume. Hume’s ability to overcome any such problems and maintain good relations with the main southern parties as well as key civil servants was critical to different political initiatives including the power-sharing agreement at Sunningdale in 1973. Following the introduction of direct rule from London in 1972, he became involved in the negotiations which led to this agreement with an executive established to govern Northern Ireland as well as a Council of Ireland to formalise relations between the southern and northern states. This was Hume’s only experience of government where, as Minister of Commerce (January to May 1974), he had to try to deal with the fallout from the Loyalist strike which led to the downfall of this administration. Following the failure of another political initiative, the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention in 1975, he increasingly emphasised that an internal solution to Northern Ireland would not work. Especially after becoming an MEP in 1979, Hume looked towards the example of European unity for inspiration and ways to resolve the problems of Northern Ireland. At the same time, he had enlisted the support of such American politicians as Ted Kennedy and later Bill Clinton for the emerging peace process. His strategy was to build a consensus among the Irish in Ireland and America along with seeking good relations with British politicians, especially Tony Blair, the Labour Prime Minister, while all the time keeping the door open to talks with Unionists in Northern Ireland. Hume’s ability to convey his political message and to build alliances was critical to the emerging peace process. Not by any means the first to articulate many of these ideas including the principle of consent, Hume was novel in effectively bringing the different strands of the emerging peace process together and in his ability to internationalise the conflict. This marriage of the local and the global is reflected in the fact that he was compelled to approach his credit union to finance an early trip to meet Senator Kennedy in America. His perseverance and dedication to making peace was recognised in 1998 when he was jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize with David Trimble, the key Unionist leader involved in the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement. For Hume, it was only when the two traditions came together would the country and town he loved so well have a better future. In this way, and despite an abundance of tributes from across the world, John Hume continued to embody the idea that all politics is local. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Friday, 3 August 2018

The Brainstorm long read: what has the Defence Forces' involvement in UN peacekeeping missions meant for Irish troops? Membership of the United Nations (UN) has been a central pillar of Irish foreign policy since admission in 1955. Maintaining an effective UN, especially in the area of conflict prevention, forms a key objective of this policy. The deployment of the Defence Forces on peacekeeping missions throughout the world continues to provide a tangible demonstration of Ireland’s commitment to the UN and the maintenance of international peace. The 2015 White Paper on Defence indicates that it is also viewed as having enhanced Ireland’s international reputation. This is especially important as Ireland seeks another term on the UN Security Council. A history of active membership of both the League of Nations and the UN has assisted in establishing a peacekeeping tradition. Furthermore, the effects of Ireland’s policies over a range of issues including decolonisation, disarmament, human rights and its history under colonial rule and non-membership of a military alliance, combined to make it acceptable as a contributor to peacekeeping and related activities. The 2015 Defence White Paper confirms Ireland’s policy of military neutrality. This is a fundamental tenet of Irish foreign policy that underpins engagement in all peacekeeping operations. For this reason, deployment of Defence Forces’ personnel on peacekeeping missions will continue to be in accordance with relevant legislation, which contains the requirement for Government, Dáil (parliament) and UN approval, known as the "triple-lock". The story to date  It is difficult to access in general terms the impact that involvement in peacekeeping has had on the Defence Forces. Nonetheless, it is evident that what is generally referred to in Irish military circles as "overseas service" has always been viewed as a welcome respite from the day to day barrack routine at home. It also boosted morale, especially in the early 1960s when the government first agreed to contribute large numbers of troops to the peacekeeping operation in the Congo. It increased the relatively low wages of serving personnel by way of overseas allowances. However, it was the new sense of purpose that the army felt in the 1960s which provided the most significant boost to morale.  The Irish Times in 1963 summed up the effect as follows: "there had been created a better public image of the army. This had been achieved by much mention in the speeches of politicians at home and abroad. The national newspapers have given it much publicity albeit somewhat dramatic and hysterical at times ... there was the enormous benefit in experience that active service gives ... (and) ... Irish troops did at last receive adequate pay in terms of overseas allowances". The Defence Forces' involvement in UN operations has been varied and considerable since the 1960s so how have Irish soldiers been so successful? More importantly, peacekeeping operations from a military point of view have consistently provided an ideal training ground for an army of Ireland's size and resources. This is especially true in Southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights today, owing to the general operational environment of the UN Forces there. The first indication of Ireland's potential suitability as a UN troop contributor state came in 1958, when officers participated in an observer mission in Lebanon. However, Ireland's first major involvement in peacekeeping came two years later when Irish troops departed for the Congo in July 1960.  This proved a baptism of fire and 26 soldiers lost their lives (17 in action), and 57 were wounded or injured. The equipment, training and other military aspects of Irish involvement with the UN today compares very favourably with the Congo in the early 1960s. Irish soldiers arrived in the sweltering head of Central Africa dressed in heavy bullswool uniforms and armed with bolt action rifles. An Irish contingent was still in the Congo when a request was received for another unit to participate in the UN peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).  Between April 1964 and October 1973, over 9,000 Irish personnel served with this Force. In 1973, the 25th Infantry Group from Ireland arrived for a tour of duty with UNFICYP in Cyprus but, following a request by the UN, this unit only spent a week in Cyprus before transfering to the UN Emergency Force II (UNEF II) in the Sinai desert. In early 1974, the Government withdrew Irish troops owing to the deteriorating security situation in Ireland. In 1978, the UN again requested that Ireland contribute a unit to form part of the proposed peacekeeping force for Lebanon (UNIFIL). There have been 47 Irish casualties with this peacekeeping Force, 14 of whom were killed in action. The early years of Irish involvement in Lebanon led to significant tensions between Ireland and Israel and there were a number of serious clashes between Israeli-backed forces and Irish UNIFIL troops on the ground. Today, Irish troops confront a more complex regional situation than in 1978 and a major challenge is how to implement the mandate to protect civilians while avoiding becoming a party to the conflict. From August 1993 to January 1995, Ireland contributed a Transport Company to the UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia (UNOSOM II). The UN operations in Somalia have had a profound impact on peace support missions since and Ireland’s policy and legal framework governing peacekeeping was modified in response. The Defence (Amendment) Act, 1993 amended earlier legislation in significant respects and brought about an important change in policy that was not reflected in the level of public or parliamentary debate at the time. Since 2000, owing to the number, size and complexity of peace support operations, it was deemed necessary to adopt guidelines for participation in peace support operations and these are set out in the White Paper on Defence and White Paper on Foreign Policy. When the matter of contributing troops to the NATO-led operations in the former Yugoslavia (SFOR) and Kosovo (KFOR) was being considered, the guidelines were applied. In July 1999, Ireland agreed to send a transport company to Kosovo as part of KFOR.  There was nothing radical in this decision, and their role was similar to that performed by the Irish contingent with UNOSOM II in Somalia. Nonetheless, Irish involvement in SFOR and KFOR appeared to set the scene for a longer-term re-orientation of Irish participation in international peace support operations. Ireland also participated in the UN-approved international intervention in the then East Timor, operating under various mission titles. In the same year, Ireland also joined the NATO-led Partnership for Peace, thus paving the way for more significant involvement in UN approved but potentially NATO or EU-led crisis management/peacekeeping operations. The guidelines were applied in the decision by the Irish Government to participate in the UN mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) in 2001 and Liberia (UNMIL) in 2003.  According to the Minister for Defence at the time, the decision to send Irish troops to Liberia was not taken lightly. It was the biggest commitment by Ireland to any mission since participation in UNIFIL in 1978.  There are also the cost implications to the Irish exchequer, in that the costs incurred as part of UNMIL were met from UN funds. The 2007 decision to participate in an EU mission to Chad marked a significant evolution in Irish participation in peacekeeping. This was the first occasion that EU/UN cooperation adopted the model whereby an EU military force and a UN mission were combined under a single UN mandate. EUFOR was a bridging operation to facilitate the simultaneous deployment of a UN police mission and other elements under the UN MINURCAT operation. Although it did have adequate military capability, this was intended for deterrence not combat.  From an Irish perspective, the mission was seen as operationally and logistically challenging. There was also controversy regarding what was seen as the premature withdrawal of Irish forces from MINURCAT, but this was linked to uncertainty over the renewal of the mandate and logistical issues. The Irish and the Golan Heights Since September 2013, the Defence Forces have contributed a contingent to United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Golan Heights. This remains an important mission in an area of significant strategic importance. Under the disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel, UNDOF is the only military presence allowed in the area of separation.  It is one of the last traditional so called UN Chapter 6 missions that may only use force in self-defence and as such is reliant on the co-operation of the parties to the conflict. In 2014, Irish peacekeepers came under attack while serving as part of the UNDOF mission. After the withdrawal of Austria and Croatia, a company plus of well-equipped Irish troops that were called upon to rescue their besieged UN colleagues and it seems that the Irish contingent was the only one with the military capacity to do so.  READ: what are Irish soldiers achieving in the Golan Heights? Although the mission reflected well on Irish willingness to deploy and prevent the collapse of the UNDOF operation, the clash with Syrian rebel group al Nursra led to a re-evaluation of Irish participation. Thereafter, a previous almost unwavering commitment to UN peacekeeping was going to be more conditional. This can be attributed to increased expectations over military capabilities, the need for realistic mandates and the responsibility of the Irish government to ensure it respected the duty of care to Irish soldiers.  Conclusions The Defence Forces' involvement in UN operations has been varied and considerable since the 1960s so how have Irish soldiers been so successful? While the Defence Forces were organised and trained to fulfil a primary role in the defence of the state against aggression, their most important function evolved to that of providing military assistance to the civil power. Internal security tasks expanded due primarily to the conflict in Northern Ireland and these became the major operational activity.  This is one of the reasons why Irish troops adapted so successfully to a UN peacekeeping role where the duties performed up to recently have also been of a similar character for the most part. Other important reasons were the "can-do" and professional approach of military personnel and the extent to which conventional military skills were retained within the Defence Forces. Given the relatively small size of the Defence Forces, a large number of officers have also served in senior command and staff appointments with UN peacekeeping missions. The changing nature of peace support and crisis management operations has led to a demand for multinational peacekeeping forces that are fully integrated in accordance with recognised international standards for interoperability. The development of more formal bilateral relations with other states is also becoming an increasing feature of Ireland’s security, defence and international peacekeeping and crisis management arrangements. Participation in multi-national peace support, crisis management and humanitarian relief operations is one of the primary roles of the Defence Forces. The 2015 White Paper acknowledges that the degree to which Ireland is prepared to share the burden of EU co-operation and solidarity in the security and defence field, in particular through contributions to military operations and capabilities, significantly influences perceptions of Ireland within the EU. It also contributes to maintaining Ireland’s credibility in the UN which is increasingly relying on regional organisations to provide UN missions with key enablers, rapid response forces and higher-end military capabilities.  Participation also helped Ireland’s case for election to a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, which it did in 1962, in 1981-82 and in 2001-02. Irish involvement in SFOR and KFOR in the former Yugoslavia set the scene for a longer-term re-orientation of Irish participation in international peace support operations. This reflected the move from traditional peacekeeping to more complex peace support operations conducted by regional organisations with UN approval.  As such, it was a significant development for Ireland that should assist in ensuring that the prominent role played by the Defence Forces to date in peacekeeping operations is not diminished in the future.  In August 2005 the Minister for Defence made proposals for participation of Irish troops in EU rapid-reaction forces that required a series of legislative changes. This was the background to the passing of the Defence (Amendment) Act, 2006 which gave more legal certainty to participation by Defence Forces personnel in UN-approved EU, African Union and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe missions. It also clarified the situation with regard to defence force personnel undertaking training-related activities abroad. For many, this was evidence of a growing commitment to EU led operations by Ireland.  European states, including Ireland, remain concerned about putting personnel in harm’s way and their duty of care. A major weakness in many current UN operations is combat support service. UN operations can be logistically challenging, especially medical evacuation assets. There was some resistance from the UN for the deployment of armoured personnel carriers with the Irish contingent of UNIFIL. Such force protection equipment later proved vital on the Golan Heights and necessary in Lebanon to ensure the safety of those deployed.  The problem is that MOWAG armoured personnel carriers are an expensive necessity and the UN must foot the bill. The level of training and nature of the equipment among other contingents is also important. Having to rely on poorly trained and inadequately equipped contingents will not work, especially if the operational environment is dangerous and demanding. Command and control issues can also arise on peacekeeping operations. There has been a distinct lack of realistic debate concerning the role of the Defence Forces and the move from traditional UN police operations in favour of quasi-enforcement operations under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. The decision to replace the Austrian contingent part of UNDOF in Syria did much to challenge the perception that Ireland was risk-averse when it came to UN missions. READ: A controversial legacy - the United Nations and Haiti The issues are complex, and the dilemmas confronting Ireland were evident in the debate about participation in the multinational force in the former Yugoslavia. In reality, both SFOR and KFOR were NATO forces, albeit operating with the authority of a UN Chapter 7 resolution and with non-NATO member contributors. Irish involvement in these forces sets the scene for a longer-term re-orientation of Irish international peacekeeping. Although the Irish commitment to the UNOSOM forces in Somalia in the 1990s was quite small, the decision to participate had significant political and military implications. It was the first time Irish soldiers participated in a Chapter 7 peace enforcement operation and it set a precedent that helped pave the way for the participation in SFOR in the former Yugoslavia. It marked a significant evolution in Irish peacekeeping activities and a realisation that Ireland could be left behind in the changing nature of the international security environment unless it too adapted to events. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform.  Visit here

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Author: Dr John Morrissey, School of Geography and Archaeology Opinion: the current refugee crisis in the EU has much to do with prior Western interventionism over the last half century or more on the borders of Europe, in the Middle East and North Africa The Mediterranean refugee crisis is one of the most shocking exposures of the consequences of continued cyclical violence in our world today. It presents states across Europe with a common challenge: how to intervene responsibly and effectively in mitigation and support. In 1994, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) announced "human security" as its core global development goal as the 21st century approached. In the foreword to its Human Development Report that year, the UNDP’s vision heralded a "people-centred development" and centrally involved setting out a human security agenda for future Western interventions. It was security defined by "development, not arms", and its chief concern was "human life and dignity". Human security, as a guiding principle of locally-attuned interventionism focused on human-centred concerns, has been adapted increasingly in the Global South since 1994 by community leaders, NGO groups, governments and co-operative regional, transnational institutions. However, this new post-Cold War model of interventionism had limited impact in the Global North where old statist understandings of security have persisted. In fact, the "hard" security issues of borders, policing, bombs and bullets were emboldened under the auspices of the war on terror. In recent years, for example, the US model of interventionism in the Middle East led by the US military command, CENTCOM, has been underpinned by a traditional military-economic framing of security. Typically, the profound human geographical consequences are out of view As an academic working in geopolitics and international relations, I am all too familiar with the clinical and abstracted manner in which Western interventionism and security interests work. Typically, the profound human geographical consequences are out of view. The current refugee crisis in the EU has much to do with prior Western interventionism over the last half century or more on the borders of Europe, in the Middle East and North Africa. The effects of the last 15 years of pragmatic geopolitics are especially evident. Long-term refugees are a direct consequence and it is imperative to critically analyse the geopolitics of their displacement. In recent years, I have been trying to think about ways to effectively insist upon broader visions of security, and this led me to the creation of a new Irish Research Council project entitled Haven, which draws upon the UNDP’s concept of "human security". Haven is focused on Europe’s response to the Mediterranean crisis, and has involved field research in France, Greece, Hungary and Ireland, an international symposium of academic, activist and NGO speakers and an edited book currently being completed for Edward Elgar Publishing. The book, entitled Haven: The Mediterranean Crisis and Human Security, includes perspectives from leading international authors from a range of disciplines who document key dimensions of the crisis such as the legal mechanisms enabling or blocking asylum, the biopolitical systems for managing displaced peoples, and the multiple, overlapping historical precedents of today’s challenges. State-centred mechanisms of refugee population management across the EU betray an impoverished security thinking and strategy The Haven book and broader project is about presenting an alternative "human security" envisioning of Western interventionism that critiques the kinds of military and economic definitions of security that commonly involve repeated mechanisms of governmental violence and clinical regimes of population management. Human security calls for investing in, and resourcing, interventions of a different kind: in protecting human rights; in insisting upon humanitarian law; and in enabling locally-attuned rather than top-town security measures. Crucially, it involves a mobilisation of the law in coalescing human rights concerns with a human security vision. Such a vision speaks in multiple ways to the current ad hoc security system of camps, holding centres and direct provision measures – from Ireland to Greece – and its insistence upon legally-binding human rights law challenges governments across the EU to think creatively, ethically and co-operatively about a broader and more sustainable human security endgame. State-centred mechanisms of refugee population management across the EU betray an impoverished security thinking and strategy. The focus on "risk" is key, as it legitimates the so-called exceptional management of "subjects" who are not citizens and therefore not deserving of our care. Their vulnerabilities are typically not recognised, acknowledged or indeed even visible. Instead, these subjects are habitually presented as a threat and the source of insecurities, rather than their consequence, further serving to reinforce the appropriateness of governmental measures to manage such threats – and commonly in a manner that is out of sight and out of mind. There is a recurring need to refuse and challenge how the media and many political parties across Europe negatively portray migration and its effects There is a major discursive battle to be fought to render visible precarity, and to supplant a story of vulnerability in place of narratives of threat and risk. This is where a human security conceptualisation can aid us. Such a goal involves an old postcolonial concern, of course: enabling the subaltern, the marginalised to speak, those whose lives, homes and worlds have been wrecked and displaced by relentless interventionary violence, always in the name of a particular type of "security". Faced with the predominance of instrumental and technocratic research calls on security and migration supported by current EU funding, there is undoubtedly a need to advocate for AHSS-led (Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) research. Such research aims to bring together scholars, policy makers, activists and (crucially) refugees themselves, to creatively consider how to respond to what is one of the most pivotal "societal challenges" for the EU since its formation. There is a recurring need to refuse and challenge how the media and many political parties across Europe negatively portray migration and its effects. AHSS scholars can play a vital role in theorising more humane, nuanced and historically and geographically sensitive accounts of the crisis, which resist the allure of simplified responsive logics of walls, borders and separations of "us" and "them". We need to increasingly do this via engaged public scholarship, especially in a time of unashamedly post-truth politics. It must be about shared precarity, interlinked risk and cooperative security responses for all The Haven project is partially about documenting the precarious and marginalised worlds of forced migrants across the EU, bringing such worlds into view. It is also about situating critique beyond the academy in supporting a politics of solidarity with an "Other" rarely seen. One of the ways to do that is to draw upon the concept of human security and its legally binding international conventions in strategising for an alternative envisioning of a people-centred security for all. Discourses of security have always centrally involved shaping what the security problem is deemed to be – and by extension the response. In other words, defining security and acquiring resources for the kind of "security solution" deemed necessary is paramount. Recognising this compels us to formulate and communicate coherent and compelling narratives about the kind of security we all want. It must be about shared precarity, interlinked risk and cooperative security responses for all. Human security, as both a discourse and an interventionary strategy, can aid us in considering complicated questions of displacement, migration, human rights and security. It can conceptualise the intricacies of the challenges faced and it can also build a politics of solidarity in working solutions that call out the failure of top-down, technocratic security measures and herald instead the success and hopes of locally-attuned, people-centred interventions. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Author: Mary McGill, NUI Galway Opinion: if selfies are emblematic of modern trends, they are also symptomatic of major changes which have redefined Western societies Tens of thousands of years ago, our early ancestors began to draw on the walls of caves. Some of these images still survive, scattered across Eurasia in places like La Pasiega in Spain and Maros in Indonesia. Despite their different geographic locations, these ancient paintings share striking similarities. Firstly, their existence illustrates the human impulse for creativity and the desire to represent ourselves and the world across time and culture. Secondly, it is notable and moving that so many cave paintings feature stencils of the human hand, a type of primitive signature that says "I was here". It may seem odd to open a piece on the selfie phenomenon with reference to Paleolithic cave paintings. After all, the selfie is in many respects new, a text and practice enabled by digital technologies which are quickly reshaping our social, political and private lives. It is also ubiquitous and easy to produce, hardly comparable to a precious historical artefact. Yet to fully understand the phenomenon’s popularity, we also need to consider factors that are decidedly not new, factors rooted in the human motivation to express and record the things that matter most to us. This motivation is made all the more poignant by the fact that life is fleeting, change inevitable. Hence, as theorists like Roland Barthes have argued, it is unsurprising that we turn to photography as a means of preserving what we hold dear and staying connected to those we have lost. One way of exploring the selfie phenomenon is as a new form of personal photography. It is a form which is much maligned, regularly evoked as a damning example of our narcissistic age.  As a practice, it is, by definition, focused on the self, a preoccupation that is variously cast as wasteful, silly, even pathological. As British journalist Grace Dent puts it, "selfies are a mindless act available every time we need to be mindful." Yet if selfies are emblematic of worrying modern trends, they are also symptomatic of major changes which redefined Western societies over the course of the 20th century. These include increasing industrialisation along with the rise of mass media and consumer culture in which images are a powerful commodity. Collectively, these developments shaped, and continue to influence, the norms and cultures which govern our lives. Since its inception, photography has been integral to this process. As a pastime, it helped form models of travel and domesticity through the family photograph album. In advertising, it attempts to stimulate and reflect desire.  As a method of surveillance, photography has been used to justify deeply dubious notions of difference, helping to create classes of people deemed "other" or "deviant". Hence, far from being frivolous, the selfie phenomenon emerges from a history that is complex, marked by inequality and myth-making.  A key characteristic of modernity is an increased emphasis on the individual as the unit through which people experience the world, as opposed to the family or the community.  Under neoliberalism, individualism has been further elevated, particularly those kinds of individualism that harbour an "entrepreneurial spirit". For example, it is unsurprising that some of the most visible selfie-takers are the likes of the Kardashians who have built an empire by harnessing the commercial potential of social media through their astute use of femininity and its associated labour. Taking the rise of individualism into account, claims of narcissism regarding the selfie need to be carefully unpacked and contextualised. At a glance, it is impossible to tell which selfies are indicative of healthy self-esteem and those which might be classified as concerning. This is something to keep in mind when simplistic notions of vanity or self-obsession are offered as an explanation for the phenomenon’s appeal. In my research, excessive selfie-taking is often interpreted by participants not as narcissistic but as a sign of low self-worth. It is also worth noting that narcissism can have gendered implications. As cultural scholars have shown, it is a charge which is all too readily applied to women’s attempts to represent themselves in the public sphere. Again, this is not new:  Victorian women cyclists faced similar criticism, as did the earliest female artists. While narcissism is an element of the phenomenon that should not be discounted, neither should it be assumed without judiciousness. One key aspect of the selfie’s appeal is the degree of control it gives people over their image. Once again, this notion of control can be understood as a part of a long tradition. After all, a key tenet of personal photography since its inception is that it enables people to depict themselves, "as they would wish to be seen" as Patricia Holland describes it in "Sweet it is to scan: personal photographs and popular photography" from Photography: A Critical Introduction (Routledge, 2015)  How we represent ourselves depends on a myriad of factors, including our culture, personal taste, socio-economic standing and so on. It is also a highly selective process, as anyone who has flicked through a family photograph album or scrolled Instagram can attest. While selfie-practices make the doing of personal photography easier, the motivations and narratives which fuel our impulse to represent ourselves remain complicated as ever. In our rush to explain new phenomena like the selfie, we can come to rely on simplistic explanations which belie complex histories and the role of subjective experiences. Selfies may not be for everyone, but they speak to important issues like identity, representation and what it means to be human in the 21st century. As such, the phenomenon deserves careful attention that draws not just from the present, but also from the richness of the past.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Opinion: archives of where we have called home provide stories and memories of what has transpired across generations Home is something different to everyone. It is an amalgam of many elements: place, people, language, memory and culture. Home can simply mean the people you share a place with. It can also be the food you share and conversations you have. It is the familiar and certain. Home is also wherever you feel it. It can be momentary and migratory. The idea of home is often something you bring with you until you find and reach your destination. Journeying homeward is an odyssey of self-discovery and connection. Home is also a transient idea. Speaking on "Migrants and Memory" in Belfast in 2012, President Michael D. Higgins commented that "transience, after all, is the defining feature of the migratory experience all over the world". Our universal odyssey brings us all searching to locate where home may be or how we can come to find it. We must continually re-interpret our home and re-encounter it, becoming acquainted with the changes we don’t always see happening around us in real-time This year's series of First Thought talks at the Galway International Arts Festival around the theme of home has a particular resonance to society today. The idea of home is growing more complex to define. If one is looking to find information on where they have come from in order to gain a sense of who they are, an archive can provide direction, answers and often comfort. Archives are repositories of documented experiences of our home – where we have lived and where we have come from. Stories abound and memories are reanimated through photographs, maps, letters, writings and accounts of what has transpired across generations of where and what we call home. At the Hardiman Library of NUI Galway, records and manuscripts of the lived experience of Galway and of the west of Ireland are preserved, dating from the 15th century up to present day. The landscape of place and the idea of home is the common backdrop to these common memories which extend across centuries. The sustainability of our environment is dependent on all of us. Climate change is threatening the natural and physical world around us. The archive of environmentalist and broadcaster Éamon de Buitléar includes hundreds of film reels documenting Ireland’s natural heritage and environment through the latter half of the twentieth century, a digital soundscape of our waterways, woodlands, skies and the eco-systems which co-exist but are never without threat. Our artists, writers, actors, musicians and playwrights present our home to ourselves and to the world. The archives of Siobhán McKenna, Thomas Kilroy, Druid Theatre Company, Macnas, Patricia Burke-Brogan and of the Galway International Arts Festival present the culture of our locality to a global audience. The photographs of George Pickow, taken in the 1950s as his wife Jean Ritchie collected folk-songs around Ireland, document a country in transition – moving into a globalising and increasing consumerist world of modern convenience. Rural life, tradition, music, leisure, sport and customs, are captured in the backdrop to the growth of Dublin city and airport. The opening lines of John McGahern’s remarkable Memoir speak of the soil of his home-place being poor; symbolising an instability of home to retain or hold its own secure place. McGahern’s manuscript drafts illustrate the writer grappling with memory and childhood, foraging through experiences of family and the world that shaped his writing. Perhaps more than most, the archive of cartographer Tim Robinson, shows us the significance of the expanse of our common heritage. Robinson’s maps of Connemara, the Aran Islands and the Burren are gateways into our landscape. The contours of habitation and patterns of life are intricately traced and mapped, a spatial and temporal time-lapse of our world taking shape. The archive gives an aerial vantage point through centuries of development – the delicate infrastructure of what we came to call home is captured with Robinson’s maps, writings, drawings and vast amounts of local history and folklore. In his book, "Listening to the Wind", Robinson’s describes the ‘sounds of the past’ recorded in our landscapes, echoes of history of the land that lead toward the Atlantic seaboard: "the ocean, inescapable symbol of the ever-changing, almost eternal, other-than-human setting of human affairs." Home can also extend beyond the grasp of those who need it most. Home-places become classed as territories; territories are occupied and what should be sites of comfort and refuge become spaces of conflict and division. Currently across the world, as well as in Ireland, there are crises of homelessness and statelessness, an existence of parallel absence. Barriers and walls sit uneasily between communities, hindering reconciliation. Homes are also institutional – centres of containment and trauma from which order and rules are governed without empathy or concern, failing the inhabitants and enabled by a society living in silence. We must continually re-interpret our home and re-encounter it, becoming acquainted with the changes we don’t always see happening around us in real-time. Throughout the First Thought talks series, we will be sharing excerpts from the archive collections of the Hardiman Library, images which reflect the changing definition of home in today’s world in which we have inherited and which also can offer directions for reflection on where it will lead in the future. These are places, times, landmarks, events and people, which have shaped our home for better or for worse. By connecting with what home meant in the past we can appreciate it anew in the present and work to change our future home for the better. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Author: Christopher Dwyer, NUI Galway Analysis: critical thinking is essential for us to successfully adapt to both new information and situations so what is it and how can we do it better? Critical thinking is a process of thinking about one’s own thinking through a number of cognitive skills and dispositions that, when applied through purposeful, self-regulated, reflective judgment, increases the chances of producing a logical solution to a problem or a valid conclusion to an argument. Yes, it is a mouthful – and that’s only the simple version! However, when we try to simplify it even further, we run into problems. For example, research indicates that 93 percent of educators in higher education centres perceive critical thinking as an essential learning outcome of third-level education, with the "ability to think critically" ranked as the second most important graduate skill (following "interpersonal skills"). But only about 55 percent of students feel that they were actually provided with opportunities to critically evaluate their own beliefs and perspectives, with a view towards changing them, during their education. Do you know what critical thinking is? Perhaps this can be explained by subsequent research which examined the qualitative descriptions of critical thinking provided by academics. According to one university lecturer, "we expect students to do it [think critically], but now you are questioning me on my understanding of it, I wonder if I actually understand it myself." In addition to the issue of accurately describing what is meant by critical thinking, we are also faced with the effects of the New Knowledge Economy. For example, back in 2003, it was estimated that 500,000 times the volume of information contained in the U.S. Library of Congress print collection was created in the year previously and that the creation of new information is doubling every two years. To avoid decision fatigue, make sure to complete the work that matters most in the morning.  Over the past 15 years, however, it has become tougher to gauge the actual growth of information, particularly in light of internet-based advancements and social media growth, rather than knowledge growth per se. It has been suggested that approximately five exabytes of data are created each day (i.e. approximately five billion pick-up trucks full of text-filled A4 sheets). But what is even tougher to figure out is how much of this data is simply pictures of cats, videos reporting on conspiracy theories and/or paranormal activities or inaccurate and misinterpreted information. Critical thinking is necessary for us to navigate this new knowledge economy and to successfully adapt to both new information and new situations. Over the last several decades, educators, employers and organisations around the world have openly expressed concern about student preparedness for a 21st-century world. For example, President Michael D Higgins spoke last year of critical thinking’s importance and how measures need to be taken to promote it.  In my new book, Critical Thinking: Conceptual Perspectives and Practical Guidelines, my aim is to provide both a thorough description of critical thinking and instruction for improving our critical thinking ability so that we may be better able to adapt to and navigate a seemingly endless supply of information. Since the book’s publication, I’ve been asked by people looking for ways in which they can better think critically in day-to-day situations. Here are five basic tips: (1) Save your critical thinking for things that matter Critical thinking is necessary when you care about your decisions or when the consequence of a decision is impactful. But, if we were to think critically about every single decision we make (i.e. what to wear? What to eat for breakfast? What coffee do I want from the shop?), we would be mentally exhausted before we even got to work in the morning! (2) Do it in the morning Are you a night owl and do you best work at night? If you answered yes, then you’re lying to yourself whether you realise it or not. No-one does their best work at night unless, of course, you wake up in the evening! People expend their cognitive energy on decisions throughout the day, leading to a higher chance of poor decisions as the load accumulates, such as at night. Thus, to avoid decision fatigue, make sure to complete the work that matters most in the morning.  (3) Take a step back Reflective judgment is an important aspect of critical thinking. In simple terms, it’s the recognition of limited knowledge and how this uncertainty can affect decision-making processes. It's about taking a step back and thinking about an argument or problem a little bit longer and considering the basis for the reasons and consequences of responding in a particular way. Research indicates that delaying a decision by even a tenth of a second can significantly increase decision accuracy. While I’m not saying that this tenth of a second will help you solve all your problems, it is vital to take that "reflective step back" when developing or inferring a solution or conclusion if you care about your decision and use critical thinking, i. (4) Play devil’s advocate Our gut intuition is always going to offer its opinion and tell us what it thinks we should do – and we can’t turn it off. This instruction is going to be biased, reinforced by similar experiences or choices in the past. In the context of critical thinking, a good way of learning to overcome this bias and, likewise, the auto-pilot processing of our gut is through playing devil’s advocate and truly considering alternatives. (5) Leave emotion at the door. If we want to be able to think critically, we must remove our beliefs, attitudes, opinions and personal experiences from the equation, all of which are emotionally charged. To think critically, there is only room for empirical evidence, so we must remove emotions, negative and positive, from our thinking. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform.  Visit here

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Author: Tina-Karen Pusse, School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures The Brainstorm long read: how a group of professors, journalists and hard science fetishists brought the online culture wars into the mainstream Next week, Dublin’s 3Arena will be filled with an audience willing to listen to a three hour long political debate, with the opportunity to ask some carefully curated questions at the end. Similar events to Winning the War of Ideas with the same or relatively like-minded protagonists are currently filling large venues all over the US, Canada and Europe. If this event took place in a lecture theatre on a university campus, it would be filled with postgraduate students, some staff members and a handful of retirees (most strategically placed close to the exits). So why do these events attract audiences with such long attention spans? Why are people willing to pay between €55 and €200 per ticket for something they could attend elsewhere for free? Who are the attendees and what attracts them to the speakers Sam Harris, Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson? The audience will consist most probably of young men who are approaching the end of their university education or who have just entered the job market a few years ago (although some audiences have become a little more gender diverse). Many will wear t-shirts with lobster motifs or logos to make themselves recognisable as part of a tribe (ironically, a tribe that claims to resent tribalism or any sort of group affiliation). A certain cohort will have a history of right-wing internet activism on Tumblr, 4chan and 8chan, but will have calmed down and matured from trolling to debating. Another cohort will be part of a disillusioned left, whose main role has been propagating guilt in pointless and tiring twitter grudge matches and in-fights, and who are now in search of a more "invigorating" thinking paradigm. Many of them will be reasonably well educated, but unemployed, underemployed or caught in a job that turned out to be shittier than imagined. Almost all of them will likely be unable to afford half-decent living conditions in Dublin. Since Angela Nagle published her book Kill All Normies: The Online Culture Wars from Tumblr and 4chan to the Alt-Right and Trump (2017), in which she investigates how right-wing internet activists have declared war on so-called "Social Justice Warriors", the extreme fringes of the movements she investigated are no longer restricted to the dark web. Since Trump came into power, these discourses are now being held in public and are steadily seeping into the mainstream. In reaction to this, the left has become more vocal and defensive, especially in the United States. On many US campuses, the situation has become overheated (see Evergreen University, for example). New coalitions have been built between conservatives, liberitarians, classic liberals and excommunicated protagonists of the moderate left who, under normal circumstances, would not have much in common. Now they do, as they are united in opposition to their understanding of identity politics, feminism and hatred for what they confusingly call Neo-Marxist Postmodernism. They also have a common interest in extensive debates on minor differences between their largely now very much aligned views. These are often framed in rather militaristic metaphors, such as "Winning the War of Ideas" which takes place in Dublin. One should think that it makes sense if the people most affected by a specific layer of injustice in a system or institution (such as gender inequality regarding reproductive rights or bodily autonomy) become the primary agents of change and convince others of the legitimacy of their cause along the way to change policies. Ideally, the society as a whole benefits and becomes a little fairer as a result. As we have seen here in Ireland with the abortion referendum, discussions can become heated and people can feel misrepresented, but this is a process very much in line with what most citizens perceive as the essence of political change overall in a democracy. Not so the protagonists of the "Intellectual Dark Web", this loose group of professors-in-exile, podcast hosts, journalists and hard science fetishists, that are currently touring the globe. Who is Sam Harris? The Dublin show is hosted by Sam Harris, known for his Waking Up podcast, books and debates on free will, atheism and his "non spiritual" guided meditations. He became a more controversial figure recently when he invited Charles Murray, the author of "The Bell Curve" (1994), to guest on his podcast in order to rehabilitate Murray’s research that demonstrated racial differences in intelligence distribution. Harris argues that Murray was shunned as an academic, despite the fact that his research findings were thoroughly peer reviewed. He maintained in support of Murray that the research findings ("hard data") were always innocent and that, even if one could identify average differences in groups, it would not have repercussions for individual members of that group – since, individually they could be placed at any spot in that bell curve. They are united in opposition to their understanding of identity politics, feminism and hatred for what they confusingly call Neo-Marxist Postmodernism Even if scientific problems of this view were put aside, Harris is still to blame for not having challenged his guest for his involvement in a think tank with the open political agenda to inform US Republican policies to cut social welfare. This shows that Murray's research project was anything but innocent and that he himself used his findings to directly worsen the lives of some of his test subjects, something which would, by today’s standards, set the alarm bells of ethical committees ringing. Instead of challenging Murray, Harris engaged in Twitter wars with his critics, accusing them of the reputational damage that they had caused to him by pointing this out. While a certain proportion of said criticism clearly went too far, Harris's own view on this matter remains unchanged, even after lengthy debates and a follow up podcast. The Strange Death of Europe The second Dublin guest is British journalist Douglas Murray, author of The Strange Death of Europe. He is one of the most influential critics of Angela Merkel for her decision to welcome 1.2 million refugees to Germany in the year of 2015. Murray claims this decision "destroyed Germany" and "destabilised Europe" despite the fact that Germany has had the three most economically successful consecutive years since reunification, as well as the lowest crime rate since 1992, even with the inclusion of numerous hate crimes against asylum seekers. His main argument against Merkel is that German citizens of Turkish background were insufficiently integrated, despite being in the country since the late 1960s and early 1970s, and that these policy failures from half a century ago prove the general incompatibility of Muslim immigration with Western values. Ignoring the fact that Germans of Turkish background are now to be found in all social classes and professions - and the Bundestag - Murray insists that migration from Turkey, as well as new migratory movements from Syria, Morocco or Namibia, led to destructive competition for resources and state funding between low skilled native and new populations. While it is correct that less affluent urban citizens are priced out of their apartments, this is due to the AirBnB-ification of living space rather than competition with new immigrants for limited space. As with almost everywhere else, Germany has seen unregulated and limitless influx of foreign investment into a property market that can never grow with demand due to simple space restrictions  and the disappearance of rural jobs which leads to more urban concentration.  Certainly there are challenges regarding domestic violence, repression of women, homophobia, inititiations of young men into toxic versions of masculinity in Islam and insufficient treatment of  mental illness in refugee centres. But these problems will not disappear if the humans affected by them are sent to another country (especially a poorer country) - nor should the causes of conflict and fleeing be assessed without considering wider geo-political implications. Peterson's theoretical and associative framework doesn’t offer women much aside from motherhood or careers in caring positions These discussions are avoided by both Harris’s rejection of Islam from an atheist perspective and by Murray’s assessment of Europe and "the West" as a primarily "Judeo-Christian" space. This also does not acknowledge the cognitive dissonance Murray should feel when acknowledging the origins of European culture and democracy in ancient Greece and Rome - both clearly polytheistic societies. The star of the lobster show However, the main draw for the Dublin show is Jordan Peterson, known as a self-help author (12 Rules for Life), a conservative professor of clinical psychology and, since 2016, a YouTube sensation. Despite his open hatred for the "Neo-Marxist Postmodernists" and "feminist types" who have taken over academia and mainstream media, and his affiliation with the ultra-fundamentalist religious propaganda network PragerU, he is a bit of an unconscious postmodernist himself. Peterson answers questions such as "do you believe in God?" with "that depends on what you mean by ‘believe’ and ‘God’", thereby acknowledging the a priori of language and context when constructing meaning. He also is a clear master of assemblage: he creatively combines social Darwinism, biological determinism, Jungian archetypes, highly selective Nietzsche quotes, personal anecdotes, bible readings (inspired by but not attributed to Russian Formalism), Disney film clips and calculated paternal frowning into an all-encompassing theory mesh. This is mainly used to show women their traditional place and make young, depressive men feel a little better about themselves by motivating them to get up in the morning, clean their rooms and be a little nicer to their families (yet a little nastier to people they disagree with on the internet). While his rise in mainstream popularity and his efforts to come across as a paternal figure have recently resulted in also attracting a female audience, Peterson's theoretical and associative framework doesn’t offer women much aside from motherhood or careers in caring positions. If women successfully push into a male dominated field by adapting to its social rules, such as hyper-presentism, they will either regret their childlessness later in life or neglect their kids, claims Peterson. If women are ambitious and successful, they "speak from their male shadow" which makes them hostile and hyper aggressive. When women collaborate and network to change policies to challenge work cultures that don’t allow them to combine parenthood and work, Peterson believes they are part of a Neo-Marxist tyrannic force that poisons campuses and corporations, has infiltrated HR and administration and will lead to the Gulag in last consequence. Pointing out some injustices and exploitations that women have personally experienced which led to a stalling of their careers makes them, per Peterson, too comfortable in their victim mentality and will only ever lead to a further loss of power and respect. For the group of young men that will fill the 3Arena, there is a discrepancy between how they expected their future to be and how it has now materialised Considering how hostile this theory is towards women and seeing how Peterson has found a way of monetising the fact that he is protested (since every upload of a protest video increases the number of his Patreon supporters), it seems a wise strategy to ignore him until the cult has lost momentum. Yet I am afraid we can’t and we should engage in dialogue. While I strongly disagree with the majority of Peterson´s analysis - and even more with the disproportionately aggressive attitudes of many of his devotees -the vacuum that is the centre of male depression that he has identified and is trying to address is worth investigating. Between 2004 and 2016, with a peak at the height of the economic crisis in 2010/11, men in Ireland were four times as likely to die by suicide as women. They were more likely to die by suicide when they were younger and single, whereas women were more likely to die by suicide when they were older and married or co-habiting. The suffering of young single men is very real and perhaps there has not been done enough to sufficiently address it. It needs to be discussed by the left too. Otherwise, depressive men’s self-hatred, anger, contempt and immersion in the pleasure traps of addictive substances and media ("depressive hedonism" as Mark Fisher called it) is exploited by right wing and conservative movements. By doing this, these movements incite hatred in men for being outperformed by women in education, their livelihoods being threatened by affirmative action and immigration or disadvantaged in custody and alimony battles. However, their alienation as diagnosed by Peterson should be explained differently. It is true that we no longer have clear social norms, distinct career paths, reliable values or prestige indicators. Even our "good causes" of the past have been commodified and perverted by virtue signalling and greenwashing of money-making machines to such a degree that charity claims have become suspicious. Our entire human habitat has become quantified. The highest ranking scholars in academia are those that are most cited. Thinkers have become "opinion leaders" when they have the most views on the marketplace of ideas. Professions are most successful and most highly remunerated when their product "scales" and can be used by an exponentially growing number of people. Time we spend on work has been devalued as a mechanism for assessing its worth. The woes of young white men Faced with a job market dominated by KPIs, micromanagement, little autonomy, the suppression of collegiality through constant internal competition and incentive structures with constantly shifting goal posts and unclear purpose, millennials experience earning potentials that aren’t quite what they had imagined. They are often crippled by skyrocketing rents, very likely priced out of the first time buyers’ market for the foreseeable future, and, in many countries, also burdened with student loan repayments. One could now ask how the woes of young white men are any different from those of other (female, transgender, or darker skinned) college graduates, and they aren’t - with one exception. For the group of men that will fill big parts of the 3Arena, there is a bigger discrepancy between how they expected their future to be and how it has now materialised. While they often experience similar socio-economic circumstances as other well educated millennials, their alienation about precariarity and generational disadvantage (especially compared with their fathers) is larger, by comparison, than that of those who are already emotionally prepared for disrupted biographies, overcoming obstacles and constantly facing bias. What Peterson is trying to do is make the individual feel more confident and ready to take on the world without addressing any of the issues that lead to the hopeless situation they find themselves in. The social and economic hierarchies that have developed in the west, in his view, are what they are. While not perfect, they are the best of all systems up to now and every attempt to change or even to tweak them is seen as dangerous. His 12 Rules For Life are a mixture of advice on how to play the dominance game a little better, how to ground oneself with routines in times of crisis and how to improve one’s personal relationships. For many, this is by far better than nothing. But it is based on the idea that there is such a thing as a fixed hierarchy. From a study on serotonin levels and their relation to pecking order positions in lobsters, Peterson assumes that the fact that hierarchies predate capitalism and poststructuralist theories of oppression, their existence was biologically determined, or in Jung’s words, an archetype. Since serotonin works as an antidepressant in lobsters as well as humans, with higher levels corresponding with aiming for higher places in pecking orders, social hierarchies were unavoidable. Moreover, the flattening of hierarchies (more equality) leads to depression and loss of an upward trajectory. Wearing a lobster t-shirt may momentarily release some serotonin, but it will not make the alienation disappear  Even if I pretended for a moment to be a Social Darwinist, this is not very convincing. Humans have developed language as a tool to organise their social dynamics. Many species are so similar to humans that they even can communicate with us, such as cats, dogs, dolphins, chimpanzees or bonobos. But all of these species have differently organised social dynamics and hierarchies, so that even a biological determinist needs to acknowledge that social hierarchies are much more fluid than lobsters crawling on top of each other. Many anthropologists argue that human language developed parallel to a resistance against dominance structures. The ability of humans to open up towards other groups and to organise themselves in units exceeding natural group sizes while balancing complex social dynamics is what differentiates humans from other species. If Peterson believes as he claims in the primacy of the individual, this directly contradicts the view that humans happily subject themselves to dominance hierarchies. A perspective that could combine these two views would be Michel Foucault’s opinion which sees human individuation as result of a constant struggle between submission and resistance. If the current way we organise our allocation of time, chances, work, living arrangements and interpersonal relations produces such discontent and despair. what is the benefit of glossing over rather than facing the vacuum? A withdrawal to the microcosmos of one’s home and immediate family, individualism and, a renaissance of Christian values, may blow some new wine into old wineskins (Markus 2,22). It may, at best, hold things together somewhat for another while, but this will probably delay the process of finding solutions for the pressing problems at hand: long term wealth distribution, climate change, AI, how to deal with our xenophobia as global citizens, or our dependence on fossil fuels. It also acts as if equality of opportunity had already been achieved. As for Peterson’s audience: standing straight with your shoulders back and wearing a lobster t-shirt may momentarily release some serotonin and enable you over time to move one step up in the hierarchy you currently find yourself in. It will feel good in the part of your brain that stems from the time when we all were lizards or shellfish. But it will not make the alienation disappear or make your bullshit job suddenly meaningful. Wouldn’t you want to aim a little higher than just competitive self-improvement? If so, resist being manipulated. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform.  Visit here

Friday, 6 July 2018

Author: Kathy Powell, NUI Galway Opinion: Monumental challenges lie ahead following Mexico's decisive vote for a president and government committed to social and political change By Kathy Powell, NUI Galway It is difficult to overstate the significance of Mexico’s election results and the sense of possibility that they promise. Mexicans voted for a president and a government of the political left, committed to radical social and political change, and an end to the widespread corruption, impunity and violence that has blighted their lives for years. Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (Amlo) won the presidency as a candidate for the Together We Will Make History coalition. With a robust if not historic 62 percent turnout, preliminary official results put Amlo at 53 percent of the vote, 31 points ahead of his nearest rival. He won a majority of votes in 31 of Mexico’s 32 states, while his party, Morena, and its coalition partners have won a majority in both the Federal Congress’ Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate. They also won five out of the nine state governorships that were also being contested, including Mexico City, which elected its first female governor Claudia Sheinbaum. Indeed, for the first time in its history, the Chamber of Deputies has achieved gender parity. It was an emphatic and exhilarating victory across the political system and an unequivocal demand for change and for hope. This puts an extraordinary burden of expectation on Amlo’s shoulders. In some English-language press, Amlo has tended to be characterised as a "populist", a lazy label that has been thrown around all manner of political contexts recently and which has negative connotations of authoritarianism in Latin America. To the extent that populism is used derogatorily, it suggests a lack of political sophistication among supporters, and especially when they are poor. It suggests populism is not "real" politics, even when widespread movements like this one expose the extent to which "real" politics is rooted in corruption and moral bankruptcy. That Amlo is popular does not necessarily mean he is a populist. He seeks to confront social and political inequality, whereas a populist would seek to disguise it. This characterisation tends to overlook the levels of support for Amlo in previous contests and the fact that he has headed the main opposition to the political establishment for the last 12 years, during which he has worked tirelessly to expand his base. In 2006, as candidate for the centre-left PRD, he lost the presidential election to the PAN party’s Felipe Calderón, after a result so close and an election so fraught with irregularities that many called for a total recount of the vote and regarded Calderón’s victory as a fraud (not least Amlo himself). Calderón, who had ironically claimed Amlo was "a danger for Mexico", went on to introduce his militarised war on drugs, instigating the spiral of violence and corruption that continues to shatter the country. Running again with the PRD in 2012, Amlo lost to the PRI party’s Peña Nieto, the current incumbent. The result then was not as close but, at six points, much closer than predicted. That election was marred by extraordinary levels of campaign spending and vote buying on the part of the PRI, as well as many (unanswered) questions about the dubious origins of the money. Nieto’s presidency has been marked by corruption, the exposure of complicity between regional politics and organised crime, rising poverty, unpopular reforms and, over the last 18 months, a significant spike in homicidal violence. In 2006, Amlo’s supporters occupied Mexico City’s Zocalo to protest a stolen election, symbolising a politically divided nation. In 2018, a far more unified electorate flooded in to celebrate his resounding victory. There are many reasons to hope that Amlo will rein in a neo-liberal economic model that has produced increased poverty, inequality and precarity while permitting a massive concentration of wealth closely linked to the corruption and impunity that fuels organised violence and a crisis of public security. Those struggling with exclusion, gender inequality or for indigenous, reproductive and LGBT rights can expect to be heard and taken seriously. Amlo's political career began when Mexico was effectively an one party state and he has been an important figure throughout the long struggle to change it. There are also many reasons to be extremely cautious. The challenges are monumental. Mexico’s transnational capitalist elite are likely to move to protect their privileges, while organised crime will not easily renounce their regional dominance – conflict and repression have been central to the success of both. Amlo and his government are also tasked with confronting corruption in the security forces, and clientelism embedded within the political system. It is a system, though, that he knows well. His political career began when Mexico was effectively a one party state, led by the PRI, and he has been an important figure throughout the long struggle to change it. There is also, of course, Donald Trump with his documented racism towards Mexicans, his fabulist threats about the wall and his abuse of children as a means of border control. Trump was quick to contact Amlo and congratulate him on his victory. In turn, Amlo expressed his hope that the US will support him in his programmes for social development that will address the poverty and exclusion that contribute to both organised crime and to migration. If Trump has any sense – and let’s not go there – then he will. More important still is support at home. Amlo is a man of undisputed energy, but these are not challenges that can be met by a charismatic leader alone. They will require the continued, concerted work and integrity of all of those on his political team who have won office. Mexican voters have already stepped up and shown themselves to be ready and willing. Dr Kathy Powell is a lecturer in the Department of Politicial Science & Sociology at NUI Galway This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform.  Visit here

Friday, 6 July 2018

Author: Eilís Dowd, NUI Galway Analysis: how a 19th century Limerick physician played a major role in the introduction of cannabis to western medicine A little known piece of Irish medical history will be presented at a major international neuroscience conference in Berlin next week. This is the central role that 19th century Irish physician-scientists played in the introduction of cannabis to Western medicine. Most influential amongst these was Sir William O’Shaughnessy who is often remembered as the father of modern day cannabis therapeutics. O’Shaughnessy was born in Limerick in 1809 to a merchant family. He started his medical education in Trinity College Dublin in 1825, but later transferred to the University of Edinburgh from where he received his Doctor of Medicine in 1829. After a distinguished early scientific career as a forensic toxicologist in London, where his work laid the foundation for intravenous fluid therapy for the treatment of cholera, he took a position as Assistant Surgeon with the East India Company and became the first chemistry professor of the Calcutta Medical College. Whilst in India, O’Shaughnessy noted the widespread use of Indian hemp for a "multitude of affections" but he was unable to "trace any notice of the employment of this drug in Europe". Intrigued, he went on to study traditional Indian remedies as well as Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic writings to "to shew the exact state of our knowledge of the subject". From this extensive research, he concluded that "there was sufficient to show that hemp possesses, in small doses, an extraordinary power of stimulating the digestive organs, exciting the cerebral system, of acting also on the generative apparatus. The influence of the drug in allaying pain was equally manifest in all the memoirs referred to." Inspired, O’Shaughnessy initiated his own studies in animals, administering "majoon", an Arabic cannabis sweet, to a dog and reporting that "he ate it with great delight" and became "ridiculously drunk". Similarly, another dog was given "churrus", a Nepalese hemp resin, and O’Shaughnessy reported he became "stupid and sleepy, dozing at intervals, starting up, wagging his tail, as if extremely contented; he ate some food greedily; on being called to, he staggered to and fro, and his face assumed a look of utter helpless drunkenness". In all cases, the animals recovered and were "well and lively" after a few hours. This led O’Shaughnessy to conclude that "no hesitation could be felt as to the perfect safety" of resin of hemp and he proceeded it administer it to his patients. In light of Ireland’s recent pilot approval of medicinal cannabis for the treatment of severe epilepsy, and the experiences of Tristan Forde, Ava Barry and Michael O’Neill, one particularly striking report concerns a severely epileptic 40 day old baby girl. "The child of Mr and Mrs J.L. of Calcutta" had been suffering from "convulsive paroxysms" that had increased in frequency and intensity over 3 weeks in September 1839. Despite "two leeches [being] applied to the head" as well as other forms of treatment, the child was "emaciating rapidly". O’Shaughnessy had by this time "exhausted all the usual methods of treatment, and the child was apparently in a sinking state." Under these extreme circumstances, he "stated to the parents the results of the experiments [he] had made with the Hemp, and [his] conviction that it would relieve their infant." The baby’s parents "gladly consented to the trial" and the cannabis tincture was placed on the child’s tongue. As O’Shaughnessy subsequently reported "the infant fell asleep in a few minutes, and slept soundly till 4pm when she awoke, screamed for food, took the breast freely, and fell asleep again. At 9am, 1st October, I found the child fast asleep, but easily roused; the pulse, countenance and skin perfectly natural. In this drowsy state she continued for four days totally free from convulsive symptoms in any form." Later he reports "The child is now (23rd November) in the enjoyment of robust health, and has regained her natural plump and happy appearance." O’Shaughnessy reported this and numerous other case studies in the Dublin Journal of Medical Science and the London Provincial Medical Journal. "Of all powerful narcotics", he concluded, "it is the safest to use with boldness and decision. I have given Mr. Squire, of Oxford Street, a large supply of the gunjah, and that gentleman has kindly promised me to place a sufficient quantity of the extract at the disposal of any hospital physician or surgeon who may desire to employ the remedy. My object is to have it extensively and exactly tested without favour or prejudice, for the experience of four years has established the conviction in my mind, that we possess no remedy at all equal to this in anti-convulsive and anti-neuralgic power." Impressively, when these early observations are scrutinised in light of current scientific knowledge, the historical claims can be scientifically validated Not surprising, O’Shaughnessy’s endorsement of cannabis as a powerful medicinal product led to its widespread adoption by physicians in Ireland, Britain, Europe and North America. These included several trailblazing Irish physician-scientists including Michael Donovan (b. 1791), Dominic Corrigan (b. 1802), Edward Birch (b. 1840), and Richard Greene (b.1843) who variously demonstrated its efficacy for migraine, neuropathic pain, trigeminal neuralgia, chorea and opium addiction. Impressively, when these early observations are scrutinised in light of current scientific knowledge of the endocannabinoid system, through which cannabis produces its therapeutic benefits, these historical claims can be scientifically validated. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform.  Visit here

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Author: Dr Tomás Finn, History Department Opinion: the Irish presidency has been shaped by competing visions of the office often articulated in electoral contests How should Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, respond to the challenge of an election is a question almost without precedent. If, as now seems probable, one or more candidates enter the electoral fray, 2018 will only be the second occasion when a sitting President has faced a contest. However, President Higgins appears unlikely to follow Éamon de Valera’s lead and remain aloof as the latter did in 1966. But then how exactly should he campaign?  Past presidential elections can be explored for examples of not only how the president or the media have acted, but also how political parties campaigned. As for those individuals who do secure nominations to enter a contest in 2018, optimism and perhaps some inspiration can be found in the strategies used by past candidates. What is clear is the existence or otherwise of electoral contests has been critical to how the Irish presidency has evolved. Presidents and presidential elections can be divided into distinct phases. The four contests from 1945 to 1973 were dominated by Fianna Fáil, while the three from 1990 to 2011 saw increased competition between parties and independents. This reflects the evolution of the office with the early presidents Douglas Hyde, Seán T. O’Kelly and Eamon de Valera adopting a cautious approach while a more ‘activist’ role was assumed in the 1970s by Erskine Childers and Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh. Patrick Hillery reverted to a more conservative view of the functions of the president, while Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Michael D. Higgins have each adopted a broader vision for their term in Áras an Uachtaráin. According to the Irish Constitution, the President has specific powers, most notably to refer bills to the Supreme Court for judgements on their constitutionality and whether to dissolve the Dáil when the Taoiseach no longer has the support of the majority of the members of the house. However, it is how incumbents have interpreted the duties of the office which have been crucial in informing what is the role of the President. Critical to how the presidency has been shaped has been the existence of competing visions of the office which have often been stimulated by electoral contests. On the other hand, the absence of elections has invariably led to limited conceptions of the role of the President. Had there been, for example, an electoral contest in 1938, a very different individual could have been chosen to Douglas Hyde, the first incumbent whose outlook for the presidency as one who was non-partisan and ‘above politics’ has informed how each of his successors have approached the office. Equally, the early electoral contests established patterns that have been difficult to change. Costs and the difficulty of securing victory given the dominance of the main political parties and especially Fianna Fáil’s strength in both the Oireachtas and local authorities has made it difficult for smaller parties and independents to put forward candidates. An exception which highlighted the robustness of political exchanges and the extent of the dissatisfaction which then existed with the Fianna Fáil government was the 1945 Presidential election. Having secured the nomination with the support of smaller parties and independents, Patrick McCartan, an independent republican candidate, received over 200,000 votes despite being accused of being unaware of the limited powers of the President and unsuitable to the office. Would a campaign involve posters or going around the country or merely participating in televised debates? In 1959, McCartan failed to secure a sufficient number of nominations from local councils. It was not until 1997 that the local council route to enter presidential elections was successfully used by candidates, while smaller parties and independents were not to use their powers again until nominating Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness in 2011. Other strategies individuals could borrow from earlier elections include the need to have a convincing message which can distinguish one from other candidates. These include Erskine Childers speaking about a more accessible presidency in 1973 or Mary Robinson arguing that she would be "a President with a purpose" in 1990 or Mary McAleese talking of the need to build bridges throughout the island in 1997. Some of these had been borrowed from the ideas of earlier presidents: Childers certainly adapted the themes of Fine Gael’s T. F. O’Higgins who was the first to put forward a different style for the presidency in the 1966 election. Much to the annoyance of Fianna Fáil, O’Higgins challenged the incumbent President, Éamon de Valera. In contrast to the latter’s well-known priorities of unification and the Irish language, O’Higgins ran a vigorous campaign focused on the future and youth. Despite de Valera’s decision not to campaign, he had a number of advantages as the incumbent. Similar to Michael D. Higgins, de Valera had been central to the 1916 commemorations, albeit in 1966 with a much more celebratory tone. Moreover, the jubilee celebrations of the 1916 Rising had occurred shortly in advance of the election and resulted in abundant coverage of de Valera on television and radio. In that context, RTÉ’s decision not to cover T. F. O’Higgins campaign was controversial and could even have affected the result especially given that in the end the winning margin was a mere 10,717 votes. The national broadcaster’s need to maintain balance between the candidates remains ever-present, especially following the dramatic closing week of the election in 2011. Unlike de Valera who was almost blind, which could be viewed as a factor in his decision in 1966 not to campaign, Michael D. Higgins appears to be in better health now than he was in 2011 and seems unlikely to shy away from a contest. But what exactly would this mean? Would a campaign involve posters or going around the country or merely participating in televised debates? Similarly, what should be the attitude of RTÉ, the national broadcaster, given its need to maintain balance between the different candidates? If President Higgins does not campaign and decides to stand on his record in office, the public, RTÉ and other media outlets will hardly accept an absence of scrutiny of each candidate, as was the case in 1966. And yet campaigning contains risks, as the need to be above politics and be presidential remains paramount ever since Douglas Hyde set the tone as the first President. But the Irish presidency has evolved significantly from Hyde and how the early office holders viewed the constraints of the position. It is now defined by alternative visions for the office and its potential contribution to modern Ireland. Electoral contests have been crucial to this evolution. How the Irish President has acted reflects this change as well as how Ireland itself has been transformed as a country. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here

Monday, 16 July 2018

Author: Mary McGill, NUI Galway Opinion: tales of romance hold huge appeal, but hunger for content without considering the cost can have unintended and harmful consequences It had all the hallmarks of a classic romantic comedy. After a seat-switch onboard a plane, an intrepid matchmaker and her partner watch in glee as the attractive strangers in front of them - who they have inadvertently set-up - seem to really hit it off. The plane lands and the strangers appear to leave the baggage hall together. If this was the cinema, the audience might cheer, but it isn’t. The matchmaker has been tweeting and snapping updates to a rapidly growing, deeply invested online audience. Over the next few days, #PlaneBae, as it becomes known, takes a much darker turn, raising timely questions about privacy and acceptable behaviour in the digital age. Researchers working online will tell you that developing ethical frameworks to deal with the demands of such a vast and fast evolving terrain is a constant work in progress. But work in progress is always rooted in best practice. In research terms, that means studies involving human subjects must secure informed consent, where the individual is given all the information they need to understand what the study asks of them before agreeing or declining to take part. This standard is enshrined to protect the rights of the individual, including the right to privacy. #PlaneBae highlights how the Internet age is changing the way we humans navigate space and time. It also shows how norms and etiquette are in flux as we figure out the best way to deal with a rapidly changing world. Technology allowed tens of thousands of people not just to listen or read about these strangers on a plane, but to see (even though their faces were hidden) and to decipher, based on triangulating the information provided, who these individuals were. There is nothing warm and fuzzy about her attempt to retain her anonymity in the face of trolls hellbent on "outing" her Neither of the people at the centre of #PlaneBae had the opportunity to consent to their lives being turned into content in this way. While the man concerned seemed to embrace being identified, the woman did not. What this illustrates is a critical point: our expectations of privacy are often subjective. Hence, you cannot assume that your interpretation of privacy will be the same as everyone else’s, a point which further underscores the importance of consent. It should also move us to be careful about what we post and share online, both out of respect for ourselves (our notion of privacy may change over time) and out of respect for others. Tales of romance hold huge appeal but hunger for content without considering the cost can have unintended and harmful consequences. There is nothing remotely romantic about the harassment the young woman at the centre of #PlaneBae has been subjected to. There is nothing warm and fuzzy about her attempt to retain her anonymity in the face of trolls hellbent on "outing" her. Her statement on the matter should give us pause for thought, particularly the following: "I did not ask for and do not seek attention. #PlaneBae is not a romance – it is a digital-age cautionary tale about privacy, identity, ethics and consent." Words to keep in mind as we continue to grapple with this brave new world. This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform.  Visit here

Friday, 27 July 2018

Author: Mathieu d'Aquin, NUI Galway Opinion: examining the "what if?" potential of new technology like Facebook at the outset would help us think about possible implications It’s 2005 in downtown Palo Alto. Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin are sitting in the conference room in the first Facebook office. Mark puts down the pages he has been reading. Eduardo is nearly finished reading the same document. It’s a science fiction short story written by a young intern with an unlikely triple major in literature, computer science and sociology. They are intrigued by her skillset, but unsure what role she can play, so they ask her to write a story of how Facebook will have changed the world by 2020. They hope she might dream up some useful marketing material. She comes up with something wholly unexpected. It’s a story of how Facebook becomes global, and part of everyday life for millions of people. It’s a story of how the platform has become a tool for fine-tuned, highly precise political propaganda. A tool for mass manipulation, turning democracy completely on its head.  Back to 2018 and to reality. As far as we know, there wasn’t an intern who came up with a science fiction story in the Facebook offices in 2005. However, Facebook has turned democratic systems upside down. A social media platform has caused us to question the systems that lie at the very heart of our society. Let’s extend the fantasy. Let's imagine Eduardo puts down the paper on the desk, sighing. "Well?", asks Mark, "what do you think?" "A bit far-fetched?" Mark jumps at this comment: "What is? Facebook could be that big, right? We could get there!" "Yeah... but it is not a tool for politics. That's not what we are building..." Eduardo answers tentatively. "But it could... whether we want it to or not, it could be used like that." If Zuckerberg was given that fictional heads-up, would he have built measures into Facebook’s design to prevent that from happening? What's the point of this what-if scenario? Imagine what might have happened if Zuckerberg was given that fictional heads-up. If he had an inkling that Facebook could be essentially hijacked and used to undermine entire political systems. Would he have built measures into Facebook’s design to prevent that from happening? Should the data scientists, artificial intelligence experts, platform builders and designers of future technology be engaging in this kind of ‘what if’ thinking? Should they make science fiction imagining or writing a fixture of their project? I believe they should and I’m not alone. In his 2009 essay "Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction", artist and technologist Julian Bleecker argued that science fact and science fiction already have a lot in common, and speculating about a near future, when the technologies we are inventing are already in use, contributes to the design of those technologies itself. He explains that imagining the potential of technology is critical to understanding not only the technical aspects of what we are inventing, but also their cultural implications. This sort of future-gazing helps researchers to reflect upon assumptions and preconceptions they may have regarding their research. Data science research (social media, machine learning, statistical analysis, artificial intelligence, etc) moves relatively slowly. It can be conservative, safe, necessary to certain models of economic growth, even boring. And yet, it is a field that will cause extensive cultural and societal disruption – it already has.  Data scientists don’t write science fiction. Imagining the possibilities of what they do is not part of their methodology: it won't help anybody design faster, more accurate algorithms. But as Jonathan Nolan, co-creator of the TV series Westworld, puts it, what it can do is help us by "inventing cautionary tales for ourselves". In a research world where it seems anything can happen, these cautionary tales should be an integral part of the process. At the recent WWW2018 Web Conference, the Re-coding Black Mirror workshop saw researchers in web technologies use science fiction stories in the style of the Black Mirror TV series to figure out possible negative consequences of their research. They also looked at possible solutions to the issues that emerged from narrating imagined technological futures. This led to critical discussions much beyond the usual focus of computer scientists and technologists working in this area, and well beyond the usual boundaries of privacy and data protection that dominate the current discourse on data ethics. If you are a data scientist, or even if you are just using data science technologies, ask yourself this: what would happen if your vision became reality? What if what you are building or deploying or using became global and part of everybody's daily life? Or what if it didn’t and it was only available to a few? This article first appeared on the RTÉ Brainstorm platform. Visit here