Adjusting 'our notions of the nature of the state': a political reading of Ireland's child protection crisis.

Author:Garrett, Paul Michael


The economic crisis that has engulfed the Republic of Ireland is inseparable from a wider international crisis (Callinicos, 2010). However, the response by the Irish government was to prove particularly disastrous.

When Lehman Brothers hit the wall in September 2008, the storm broke. Brian Cowen's panicked--and deeply compromised--government offered to guarantee the full liabilities of Irish-owned financial institutions, exposing its citizens to a potential wallop several times larger than the nation's annual GDP. Soon afterwards, the Fianna Fail-led administration moved to nationalize Anglo Irish, the third-largest bank in the state, and shore up its two main competitors with huge cash injections. (Finn, 2011a: 11; see also Allen, 2009; Lewis, 2011)

The Republic was also the first country in the eurozone to adopt a neoliberal infused 'austerity' budget. In late 2010, as the crisis deepened, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB) provided a 'bailout' package that resulted in further punitive public spending cuts and a dilution--some would argue eradication--of national sovereignty (McArthur, 2011). A budget in December 2010, the fourth in little over two years, cut even deeper into public spending (Barnardos, 2010). Following the 'austerity' budgets, the 'total fiscal tightening up' now stands at nearly 20 per cent of GDP, more than double the Tory-led Coalition cuts in Britain' (Burke, 2011: 140). What is more, in a stark 'reprise of the colonial relationship ... the major holder of Irish government debt are the British banks, with state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland at the front of the queue' (Burke, 2011: 141).

Following a general election in February 2011, a government headed by Fine Gael, with the Labour Party as coalition partner, was formed, but there is no indication that the crisis is to end or that this administration is intent on embarking on a new, more socially and economically benign course (Kelly, 2011). However, the current crisis is far more than a mere economic crisis and may be conceived as a series of interlinked 'conjunctures'. Located within a broadly Gramscian framework, the notion of 'conjuncture' refers to the emergence of social, political and economic and ideological contradictions at a particular historical moment. Here, different 'levels of society, the economy, politics, ideology, common sense, etc, come together or "fuse"' (Hall, in Hall and Massey, 2010: 59). Thus, a 'conjuncture' is a 'critical turning point or rupture in a political structure, primarily signifying a crisis in class relations' (Rustin, 2009: 18). Such a multifaceted crisis in the present order represents a potential opportunity to construct a new hegemonic settlement, which may be socially progressive or retrogressive depending on the political bloc that emerges as dominant.

This discussion is, therefore a modest attempt to analyse the state at this conjuncture. It is acknowledged that the state in Ireland is similar to those in other jurisdictions in that it is a fluid, dynamic formation whose components shift over time. Furthermore, the discussion will not seek to supplant or disrupt some of the other models of the state which have evolved in recent years: for example, the notion that the state in Ireland can be viewed as a 'competition state' (Kirkby and Murphy, 2011). It is understood that the state in the Republic is a neoliberal state and its core function is to furnish an 'apparatus whose fundamental mission [is to] facilitate conditions for profitable capital accumulation on the part of both domestic and foreign capital' (Harvey, 2005: see also Allen, 2007). Following the analysis of David Harvey, it is also recognised that here the 'state-finance nexus' fulfils a key role, confounding the 'analytic tendency to see state and capital as clearly separable from each other' (Harvey, 2010: 48). Central to this model are dynamic 'structures of governance' where the 'state management of capital creation and monetary flows becomes integral to, rather than separable from, the circulation of capital. The reverse relation holds as taxes or borrowings flow into the coffers of the state as state functions also become monetarised, commodified and ultimately privatised' (Harvey, 2010: 48). The 'state-finance nexus' functions, therefore, as 'the "central nervous system" for capital accumulation' (Harvey, 2010: 54). However, each state possesses its own 'state-finance nexus' which becomes the focus of struggle for 'defining some sort of rough consensus as to how social life shall be regulated' (Harvey, 2010: 63). In the Republic, 'social partnership' provided the key institutional mechanism for this form of regulation until the commencement of the recession (Allen, 1999). Beyond the nation-state constellation, there is also a global architecture which provides 'an international version of the state-finance nexus' (Harvey, 2010: 51): hence the operation of the World Bank, the ECB, the IMF, OECD, and the G20. Indeed, as mentioned, the ECB and IMF have been particularly important in their interventions in Ireland.

Whilst building on this analysis, the argument that follows maintains that the 'state-finance nexus' is a somewhat insufficient model to entirely account for the complexity of the Irish dimension. The Irish state can be interpreted as an integrated formation containing at least six separate, interlocking and shifting components. In both an historical and contemporary sense, these will be identified and articulated as: a class rule state; an authoritarian state; a confining state; a censoring state; a discriminatory state and containing a state within a state. This mapping of the hexagonal state provides a prism to examine a particular facet of the con junctional crisis: the disarray within child and child-protection services in the Republic.

In the early years of the 21st century, discussion on child abuse has mostly focused on that perpetrated by priests and members of religious orders (Murphy et al., 2005; Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, 2009; Commission of Investigation, 2009; Commission of Investigation, 2010). (1) Here, political, media and popular discourses have, not without reason, focused on the issue of clerical abuse, but this perspective risks producing a highly partial, incomplete interpretation of events (Garrett, forthcoming; Keenan, 2012). Moreover, the contemporary social-work literature in Ireland also tends to be rather narrow in its focus and fails to incorporate a more expansive and political reading of the crisis. Nevertheless, as the Irish Times maintained, in its comments on the Ryan Report on abuse in Ireland's Industrial Schools (Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, 2009), there needs to be an 'adjustment of our notions of the nature of the State to accept that it helped to inflict torture and slavery on tens of thousands of children' ('Editorial: The savage reality of our darkest days', Irish Times, 21 May 2009: 19, emphasis added). The paper also seeks, therefore, to respond to the task the Irish Times--perhaps an unlikely prompter--has set. In seeking to do this, the discussion will dwell on the shambolic performance of the Health Service Executive (HSE), deficits in the 'care' system and the HSE's failure to furnish reliable data on the deaths of children in contact with social workers. (2)

Mapping the hexagonal state

A class rule state

In 1914, James Connolly (1973: 275) predicted that partition was likely to result in a 'carnival of reaction' in both the north and south on the island of Ireland. Following the partition of the country, each of the separate jurisdictions was to become culturally repressive under different, dominant religious traditions. Moreover, 'the political and economic power of the large and middling farmers who have been described as the "nation building class"' in the early years of the Irish Free State (1922-37) was to prove crucial. The nation-state they built ... largely conformed to their interests and ideology: conservative, principally agricultural and dominated by the most conservative type of Catholicism imaginable' (Lloyd, 1999: 103; see also Coquelin, 2005).

Within the field of child welfare, there were countervailing and oppositional tendencies campaigning for more progressive policies. For example, the Joint Committee of Women's Societies and Women Social Workers established in 1937 and, over the last twenty years, the various child abuse 'survivors' groups. However, the direction of policy and practice has often rendered such groups marginal. In recent years, a largely compliant and politically compromised trade union leadership has hindered the potential radicalism of the labour movement, the main source of a more encompassing, alternative politics. The 'social partnership' approach has now been ditched by the government (Allen, 1999), but the upper echelons in the union bureaucracies have mostly 'resisted acknowledging this and its stop-start mobilizations, intended to secure a return to the bargaining table, have been ignored by the government. Every time a march has been called--most recently in the immediate wake of the EU-IMF deal--there has been a very healthy turn-out, followed by months of inactivity' (Finn, 2011a: 35).

Since the 1930s and into the current economic crisis, Fianna Frill tended to form, along with coalition parties, government administrations. The Republic's 'electoral hegemon', aptly described as 'the most important secular institution in the modern Irish state' (Finn, 2011a: 13-14), it has favoured dominant economic interests whilst skillfully orchestrating a populist/clientist politics to combat potentially counter-hegemonic forces. Indeed, McNally (2009: 88) refers to the 'remarkable capacity' of the party to 'adapt and rejuvenate its equilibrium to the historically changing arena of Irish politics'. However, as mentioned, this dominance ended with...

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