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Irish Politics

Quangos have vanished, only to be replaced by something worse. Tangos

A radio advertising campaign on disability rights is currently under way “brought to you by the Government of Ireland”.

It carries the message: “The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities matters to everyone. Everyone who has a disability or who knows someone with a disability. We all have a part to play in building a more inclusive society. This journey is important to all of us. Because disability rights are human rights.”

Very few people would cavil with these sentiments. But it brings to mind the inconvenient fact that the advertisement “brought to you by the Government of Ireland” is brought by the same Government which recently attempted to postpone further consideration in the Seanad of a Bill introduced by Senator Tom Clonan. His Bill would impose a statutory duty on the HSE to deliver services to persons with disability rather that the existing HSE duty which only extends to conducting an assessment of the disabled person’s need for those services.

Shortly before the Seanad rose for the summer, the Government tabled a Seanad amendment to the second reading of Senator Clonan’s Bill on July 11th, postponing further consideration of his private member’s Bill for a year. This postponement, coming at this time in the electoral cycle, was in effect a form of political euthanasia for the measure.

The Government’s instruction to euthanise the Bill was deeply resented by its 40 party members in the 60-member Seanad. A number mutinied, as Miriam Lord recorded at the time.

Eventually, on my suggestion, the majority gave themselves a way out by the device of refusing to appoint tellers in the division on the Government’s amendment. In those circumstances, the amendment failed and Senator Clonan’s Bill passed its second stage unopposed.

The Government party senators did not actually vote against their own amendment and thereby lose their party whip; they simply foot-tripped it by a deft piece of parliamentary choreography, saving what could loosely be described as face.

And so now we have the radio ads on the same subject from the same Government just two months after its July embarrassment.

Am I alone in tiring of policy-promoting advertising by the Government on RTÉ radio and television? If RTÉ needs financial support (and it does need it), must that be done in part by political advertising?

People with disabilities and people caring for them don’t need a patronising message that the disabled are human or that their rights are human rights. They want delivery on those rights – not broadcast sympathy paid for by those who are failing to deliver.

It was notable that the Covid pandemic seems to have legitimised policy advocacy advertising to an unprecedented level. There is also an enhanced trend towards greenwashing by all sorts of commercial entities. Is it really the function of An Post to take full page ads – no matter how striking – to support an adult literacy drive?

This tendency to engage in virtue signalling is not confined subjects such as global warming or adult literacy issues. One bank claimed to “back brave”. Now it says: “we back belief”. Different?

These examples may be irksome. But they fade into insignificance compared to a different phenomenon – the use of State-funded NGO proxies to advance political agendas through advertising and activism. Once there was general suspicion of quangos – quasi autonomous non-governmental organisations. Remember them? You don’t hear so much about them these days.

But we now have the apparently irresistible rise of tangos – tax aided non-governmental organisations. These bodies use public money to campaign to influence public opinion on issues or to oppose those with whom they disagree.

We recently saw trans activists organise a public protest at the National Gender Service (NGS) to complain about the allegedly conservative approach adopted by the NGS enabling trans people to access healthcare, including hormone treatments such as puberty blockers.

These activists are supported by NGOs which are in receipt of State funding. Citizens who share the NGS’s reluctance to adopt in Ireland policies akin to those of the Tavistock clinic in the UK simply don’t have access to public funding to campaign for a different approach.

Use of public money to influence public opinion is deeply problematic. Already we have political parties paid millions in public funding annually to organise for the next election by reference to how they performed in the last election.

How does that stack up? While they can’t spend public money on the election campaign itself once an election is called, they can spend on all the preparatory organisational efforts. When there is such wide and free access to social media, is there not now a strong case for radically reviewing the growth of tangos as State-funded vehicles for promoting political agendas?

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