The language of the abortion debate has been cruel and unfair – on both sides

Note: This article was originally published at TheJournal.ie

Tonight’s vote on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill probably won’t end the public debate about abortion – and the women we all claim to care about deserve better than the unfair language that has been used recently, writes Aisling Twomey.

TODAY, OR RATHER early tomorrow morning, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 will go to a vote in Dáil Éireann following some debate on the 165 proposed amendments to the Bill. This Bill allows for the lawful termination of a pregnancy if there is a risk to the life of the mother. This risk must be real and substantial. A medical practitioner is to carry out the procedure, with the support of two other doctors unless there is an emergency and immediacy is required.

The suicide clause allows for a termination where life is risked by suicidal intent. Three doctors must sign off on such a termination, with an appeal for the pregnant woman to a further three doctors, should she feel the need to appeal the original assessment.

This Bill is as restrictive as possible

At its heart, this Bill is restrictive. It doesn’t afford a woman a choice as to her medical care in the event of her not wanting to carry a child to term. It doesn’t afford a woman any right to choose; to say otherwise is to be misinformed. The facts are before us and Enda Kenny has said it himself: this Bill is as restrictive as it can be.

Abortion has, for the entirety of its existence, been a contentious issue. This is the case all over the world and not just in Ireland. When Savita Halappanavar died in Galway Regional Hospital last year, the entire country rose to discuss the issue once more. For the first time since the now infamous case of Attorney General v X in 1992, as a nation we debated abortion for Ireland.

I am pro-choice

I always called myself pro choice. It is my absolute belief that a woman should be able to make a choice as to her own medical care. It is her body, her life: her decision. Throughout history, we have lambasted regimes that take ownership of autonomy; we have undercut and undermined efforts to liquefy personal rights.

Not only have I considered myself pro choice, I am in the extreme of that bracket. I believe that a termination is a medical procedure and that a person should be able to seek one out should she wish to, regardless of circumstance. I believe that that is absolutely none of my business what another person elects to do with their body.

I am pro-life

I have also always identified as pro life. I firmly believe that life is an absolute miracle. I think that we have fought to protect it, to save it and to celebrate it for thousands of years. I admit openly that were I to become pregnant at this point, it would be an unwelcome development – but I also admit that I would be reluctant to seek a termination. I don’t believe that I am the only person who feels this way.

The fact is that the language we use in discussions about abortion is a crude bastardisation of realities. The reality is that everyone is pro life, because nobody is pro death. Nobody in this debate preaches or celebrates death.

In the same vein, nobody is pro abortion. Abortion is an actual tragedy. Nobody grows up wanting to have an abortion and nobody grows up wanting to give one. I can’t think of a medical professional whom might express delight at such human tragedy. I cannot name a person who has ever claimed to like the notion. If abortion is to exist, it should be safe and legal and very rare.

The language used has been crude, cruel and unfair

The language used by both sides of this debate is crude, cruel and unfair. These brash words are used to define what can’t be defined, to separate people and to put them into camps. The reality is that you can believe and invest in both sides of the argument according to your own belief.

To support abortion laws for Ireland does not make you an ‘abortionist’. It does not make you pro abortion or anti life. It does not make you a murderer.

To reject abortion in all its forms for all reasons does not make you a religious zealot. It does not make you a fascist.

The words we use to define sides of this debate are appalling. Savita Halappanavar and her husband were not abortionists or murderers. They sought to protect what life could be saved, and doubtless would have mourned the loss of their unborn child. Instead, Praveen Halappanavar must mourn both.

Every now and then, I think of the girl involved in the X case. No more than a child when she was brought before the court, defined solely as a suicidal mother to be. We neglect constantly to remember that she was a child, a crime victim and a rape survivor; we talk of her only in terms of her suicidal intention, her court case and her unborn child. She wasn’t a murderer and she wasn’t an abortionist. She was a child.

We owe more to the women we all claim to care for

As activists, our horrible definitions are backed up only by our deviant tactics. Posters with pictures of foetuses on them are incendiary. Defacing a building with excrement is literally filthy and demonstrates a severe lack of respect. Calling regular people on the street murderers is callous and untrue. Showing people photographs of allegedly aborted foetuses is a sick scare tactic and it’s upsetting. Hacking a website is a crime; publishing a full newsletter list is an invasion of privacy. Taking down posters and replacing them with others is laughable. The inflammatory mailouts to constitutents and the attacks on politicians’ homes are all intolerable. Bloody letters sent to the Prime Minister of the State? Absolutely disgraceful.

We have used this debate to incite, to revile, to hate. We have used it to undermine women, to undercut activists and to abuse politicians. In yet another example of language gone awry, the word ‘conscience’ is tossed around a lot on both sides of the debate, but many of the actions of campaigners- on both sides- have been far from conscionable.

Ireland has been a significantly single issue country for the past few months. Not a day goes by without abortion commentary coming from here or there, experts talking in the Dáil, hundreds of articles published, countless letters to the editor overtaking national newspapers. That rush may now be coming to an end but you can be sure that it will crop up again in the future. If it does, our method of campaigning has to change. We surely owe that to ourselves, to each other and to the women we all claim to care for.

Blowing the Whistle on the Darkness of Government

Note: This article originally appeared at OneEurope.

Felt, Ellsberg, Assange, Manning and now Snowden, are just names. What they have done for society is provide us with honesty.

When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were assigned to report on the burglary of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate building in Washington DC, they had no way to know what they would uncover and show the world. By the time they were finished, the President of the United States had resigned and Woodward and Bernstein were household names. As was their informant, a man who was known for over thirty years by the name Deep Throat.

Mark Felt was an Associate Director at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He had given Woodward stories at the Washington Post before. When Woodward called him after the Watergate break in, Mark Felt gave him the information he needed. He became the most notorious whistleblower in history.

He was both revered and derided in the national media when he was finally confirmed as Deep Throat in 2005. Some called him a hero, and some said he did the wrong thing. Why didn’t he go to a grand jury? It was suggested that he did it out of spite, that he wanted the Directorship of the FBI, and that he didn’t care about the morals. Ostensibly, this version of the story is the correct one.

Charles Colson, President Nixon’s chief counsel, said that Felt had violated his oath to keep the nation’s secrets. Colson was wrong. There is a huge difference between minding launch codes and telling a country that leaders have them in the first place.

Times haven’t changed too much. Felt isn’t widely known today, but his nickname is. He has been replaced by other notorious and divisive characters. Julian Assange, wanted for sexual assault or rape (depending on what government you ask), but more widely spoken of as the founder of Wikileaks. Bradley Manning, Private in the United States Army, five time medal winner, more widely spoken of as the man who leaked documents to Wikileaks from a tent in the desert. And finally, Edward Snowden, a systems administrator with Booz Allen Hamilton, now widely known for instigating the largest leak in NSA history. He is currently at large and seeking political asylum, fully aware that he has probably left the United States for the last time.

Media attention on Snowden has been, at the very least, interesting. The Guardian, where Glenn Greenwald published the details of Snowden’s leaks, is supportive of Snowden and his actions. In the United Kingdom, details are emerging of even worse infractions by the UK government. The details of the US PRISM program are still coming to light, but the point is clear; the United States, in gathering data from countless countries as well as its own citizens, broke no laws.

That is the most phenomenal part. No laws had to be broken to allow the United States to do this. Each day, we get closer and closer to 1984-like conditions, and still, the media are writing about the stickers on Snowden’s laptop and how he didn’t get his high school diploma first time around.

In Europe, there is rage. The European Union has started acting quickly, perhaps because they know the sins of the past too well. In 2011, the European Commission intended to push for the protection of EU citizens’ data by way of authorized transfer requests and adjudications. The Commission backed down after fierce lobbying by the United States.

The European Parliament is now pushing that same agenda. The Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) would require a judge or an equivalent authority to approve any transfer of data outside the EU. All non-EU countries would have to go through that adjudication.

The fact remains though, that this may not be enough. Felt, Ellsberg, Assange, Manning and now Snowden, are just names. What they have done for society is providing us with honesty. They have elected to give us truths we would otherwise not know. They have shown us, over and over again, the capacity of our governments to overreact, to go beyond the limits of the power we want them to have.

The main goal of terrorism has always been to inspire real fear. Terrorism, in the case of the United States, has been entirely successful. A country built on personal freedom, which has guaranteed personal rights and liberties, is tearing itself to pieces, corrupting its own basis as a state and alienating some of its largest allies, including those in Europe.

The United States government broke no laws- and that is possibly the most terrifying truth of all. Europe needs to be cautious and aware of the dangers. We do not want these outcomes for our states or for our international alliance in the European Union.

My generation is proving its independence and courage

Note: This article originally appeared on The Irish Times Generation Emigration Blog.

At home and abroad, young people are building their own futures, writes Aisling Twomey.

Three years ago, I wrote a piece for The Irish Times, outlining what I recognised as a huge problem for my future: jobs were disappearing like gold after the rush, opportunities seemed slimmer with each passing day, and as a student preparing to graduate, I was worried for what came next.

I was lambasted for that article. An entire thread popped up about me on politics.ie, where I was called, among other things, “a vacuous bimbo with a demand for her rights but no idea of her responsibilities”. I was called self-indulgent, smug, self-serving and entitled.

The comments were presumptive and in some places downright insulting and crude. I was accused of all sorts of political persuasions and notions. People said I wanted to provide nothing and pay zero back for the investment the state made in my education. This was, and remains, a lie.

I wasn’t without my defenders – people who said I should up and leave, that I owed Ireland nothing; that I could succeed elsewhere. Some people wished me the best of luck. Three years have passed. I committed myself to learning as much as I could, and I took on board every challenge I could have. I was frankly desperate for opportunity, for a chance to work full-time and contribute what I had learned.

The past three years have been far from simple. Despite my own ego and a determination to make it on my own, I am intensely grateful to my parents for their endless support. It would have been too hard without them. I completed my degree, and then completed a Masters. I worked part time for three years and did a legal internship, where I learned more than I ever thought I would or could; it was a golden opportunity that changed my entire outlook on life.

For seven months, I worked seven days a week. I’m not moaning about it – I literally took as many chances as I could find. There were times when it was really hard. I have no savings, I did a lot of free work, I have not earned anything as such, and there were days and weeks where it seemed nothing was coming down the line. Emigration was a serious option – I was accepted to two PhD programs in some of the best universities in the United Kingdom, but funding didn’t come through to make them manageable. That was a hard blow.

I still live in Ireland. For the most part, my friends are gone or planning to. Brussels, London, Glasgow, New Zealand and Toronto have called. They have answered in their droves.

One commenter following my original article posited that he had often worried for the Tiger generation – what levels, the user asked, of inner strength had we developed to weather the bad times?

Every begrudging comment that day made me think about myself. While I know most of them were derogatory, born of ill will and downright ignorance, they made me learn a lesson. My generation, here and abroad, have proved our own abilities – our independence and our courage. We have taken up every chance that exists, running into the water headfirst to surf a tide that is uncertain, unbalanced and risky.

My generation has learned about risk. They have left families and loved ones and they have thrived. I know of people in their early twenties who have started their own companies, sought out funding for further education, become part of the social media revolution and developed careers that didn’t exist twenty years ago- or even ten years ago. They are entrepreneurs, building their own futures from scratch with old fashioned hard graft.

My friends have demonstrated a lack of fear in the face of great uncertainty. They are innovative, capable and determined – no, stubborn – about what they want. People three years ago called it entitlement. I call it self-determination.

My generation will honour the lessons that the biting Tiger never taught us. In the bad times, we learned about our own strengths, and we shared those lessons with each other. We have emerged to take on the world in our own unique way. What we learn through adversity are the best lessons – and in the future we will bring those lessons home.

The online forum users can call me anything they want – but this “vacuous bimbo” is very aware of both her rights and her responsibilities. I have to do the best I can with what I have – but I want it to be useful, worthwhile and contributory. What sin is there in that?

Those commenters were very aware of my responsibilities – but they undermined my rights and sought to destroy my determination to succeed, instead of applauding someone who wanted to try for the best chances they could get. I learned a great lesson when the Celtic Tiger died – the question is, did they?

Encouraging Hate in Russia

Note: This article originally appeared on the Left Tribune.

Russia has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in the past weeks. Accused of further marginalising the LGBT community, the country is facing increasing international outrage.

Homosexual activity was decriminalised in Russia in 1993, at around the same time as Ireland made the same policy change. In 1999, homosexuality was finally removed from the national list of mental illnesses. Yet, in 2013, almost three quarters of Russians feel that homosexuality should not be accepted by society.

The Russian constitution clearly states that marriage is between a man and a woman. There is no debate on the topic because the constitution won’t be changed. There is no right to adoption for same sex couples. There is no civil partnership.

Russia operates an unofficial ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in its one million strong military. Officially, gay people are allowed to serve on a par with heterosexuals, but the practical reality is entirely adverse to that policy.

Hostility against the LGBT community in Russia is hitting a peak. The deep conservatism of the government is spreading through Russian society, previously seen in the censorship of Pussy Riot and the chargeslaid against members of the band for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

On June 11th, the Russian Duma unanimously passed a law banning gay “propaganda”, further enshrining those same deeply conservative values. 436 members of the Parliament, with one abstaining member, voted to ban the distribution of material on gay rights.

They voted to make it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships. They voted on the same day to approve jail sentences of up to three years for offending religious feelings. If these laws pass through the second parliamentary house, they will become an active and awful reality of Russian life.

Smaller, local legislatures already carry these laws. It has been a spreading trend throughout the federal Russian system. In 2012, Moscow’s top court upheld a ban on gay pride marches within Moscow for 100 years. The issue is due to come before the European Court of Human Rights, but the reality for now is that pride marches, widely accepted on the streets of Ireland, are a deviant, dissident operation in Russia. Almost 12 million people live in Moscow; over twice the population of Ireland is being censored in the name of furthering hatred.

Being gay, bisexual or transgender in Russia was already a reason to be targeted for hatred. Now, mere mention of gay rights or participation with a gay rights organisation can result in hefty fines.

The Russian Orthadox Church has been vocal in its criticsm of gay marriage in other states, going so far as to state that gay marriage would lead to “the collapse of the West within 50 years.”

Since gay marriage and gay rights appear to be so offensive to the Church, it is easy to see how an LGBT activist could face three years in jail for offending religious feelings. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s reality and it’s a perversion of human rights and freedom of speech.

The Russian Duma did not forget about the power of the internet and the cultivated spread of social media. Any person using the media or internet to promote “non traditional relations” can be fined. Organisations can be closed down for months at a time. Foreigners who make efforts to further the LGBT movement can be detained, finedand then deported.

 

Originally appeared on Reddit

 

With a government that repudiates the gay rights movement and a Church swollen with power, the fact is that being gay, bisexual or transgender in Russia is now to be in a dangerous position. The LGBT movement in Russia, though targeted so completely by their own government, is unafraid. Their activists will continue to fight; they will continue their struggle for equality.

But on Wednesday, photographs hit the internet from Russia of a group of children, faces hidden, beating an LGBT protester lying on the ground, covering her head with her arms, defenceless. Her government is, phenomenally, more likely to prosecute her than to punish her attackers.

Shatter’s U-turn on Asylum Seekers’ Rights

Note: This article originally appeared on Rabble.

In 1999 Alan Shatter criticised the Department of Justice for it’s ‘disgraceful reputation’ in dealing with refugees and demanded a right to work for asylum seekers. Now he sings a very different tune. Aisling Twomey asks will the real Alan Shatter please stand up?

During the passage of the Immigration Act of 1999, questions arose as to the possibility of asylum seekers gaining employment. The Bill was rushed through the Dáil and little time was given for debate, but some opinions found their way into the Dáil record.

Alan Shatter was present in Dáil Éireann on that day. He stated that the Department of Justice had a “disgraceful reputation in dealing with refugees and deportation issues.”He also outlined his belief that people entering the state should be treated with “a degree of humanity and common sense in the manner we would like our people to be treated when they seek work outside the EU.”

The Director of the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, Siobhán O Donoghue, shares the view posited by Shatter in 1999.

“When a group of people are systematically segregated, denied the right to an independent life, subjected to enforced destitution and allowed to be ridiculed through media and public channels the conditions for deep oppression are created,” she stated.

In 1999, Alan Shatter was very clear in his belief that asylum seekers should have the right to work.

“People who have come here seeking safety and asking to be allowed to stay should be allowed, within a reasonable period of coming here, to work while awaiting a decision to be made,” he said.

What a difference 14 years makes. The Alan Shatter of today believes nothing of the sort.

This year, as part of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the Minister was a key part of negotiations to further develop an EU Directive from 2003, relating to the basic allowances and human rights of asylum seekers across the EU.

When Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald asked Mr. Shatter why his Department has never opted in to that Directive, the Minister said that this was because of the provision at Article 11 which deals with access to the labour market for asylum seekers.

Article 11 of the Directive provides that if a decision has not been taken within one year of an asylum claim, Member States shall decide the conditions for granting access to the labour market for the applicant. This is contrary to the existing statutory position in Ireland which provides that an asylum seeker shall not seek or enter employment.

Mr. Shatter has promised a large immigration reform bill, the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill of 2010, which has been working its way through Dáil Éireann with snail-like agility for an absurdly lengthy amount of time , and doesn’t seem likely to come back on the radar with any immediacy.

Mr. Shatter has alarmingly forgotten his 1999 commitment to human rights.

“Extending the right to work to asylum seekers would almost certainly have a profoundly negative impact on application numbers, as was experienced in the aftermath of the July 1999 decision to do so. The immediate effect of that measure was a threefold increase in the average number of applications per month, leading to a figure of 1,217 applications in December 1999 compared with an average of 364 per month for the period January to July 1999.”

This is a phenomenally simplistic explanation of the rise in asylum figures in 1999. Minister Shatter should be able to recall the situation in Kosovo at the time, and the huge displacement of civilians in the area. Ireland actually invited 1,000 refugees from Kosovo, which would seem to put a slight dampener on Mr. Shatter’s figures.

Mr. Shatter also neglects to be entirely truthful about that right to work extended to asylum seekers in the 1999 Act. It allowed for a work permit scheme, which has widely been forgotten about, possibly because it was atrocious.

The Irish Refugee Council reported that just 67 work permits were issued to asylum seekers between July and December 1999. That number is insultingly small, when you consider that there were up to 6,000 asylum seekers, many of whom would have been eligible.

Of course, today, there is no right to work for asylum seekers in Ireland. Just 458 people claimed asylum in Ireland in 2012, out of 330,000 claiming asylum in the wider European Union. The average asylum seeker now waits in the Direct Provision system for over three years for a decision in their case. They cannot work, they cannot seek further education, they cannot settle. They are treated like dirt; in fact, they now have fewer rights than they had in 1999.

SIobhán O Donoghue remains certain that the right to work is a pivotal step to fair treatment of asylum seekers.

“They are amongst the most destitute members of society. Allowing the dwindling number of asylum seekers the right to work would be an important step towards recognising that enforced dependence has no place in a modern democracy.”

So the question is, what made Alan Shatter change his mind?

Restoring Broken Faith in Europe

Note: This article originally appeared at OneEurope.

In a past article for OneEurope, I discussed the falling trust in the European Union and revealed figures from the Eurobarometer survey that show EU citizens are at an all time low as far as faith in Europe goes. Citizens feel that Europe doesn’t represent them. They feel that it is a technocracy and that it doesn’t relate to daily problems.

The follow up question then, is exactly how this can be fixed. How is Europe going to gain back the trust of its own people? Amid debates are discussing the United Kingdom departing from the Union and talk recently of Greece or Ireland leaving the single currency. How long can it be before citizens begin to question the very foundations of the single market, the Euro and eventually, the political Union itself?

Dissatisfaction within Europe

In Ireland, 91% of people felt that things were going badly nationally in 2012. In the UK, that figure was 74%. Both were higher than the EU average of 72%.  In Poland, by comparison, 65% of people felt things were deteriorating, but in Belgium, the very heart of the EU institutional body, the figure rises to 79%.

On the other hand, just 46% of those in Denmark believed that things were going on the wrong path at home. In Germany, 75% of people believed that things were generally going well. Germany, in fact, presents as a sort of panacea. Where every other member state quotes unemployment as a significant issue (usually, in fact, tallying in first place), Germany quotes Government debt as its most important issue.

Germany has emerged from the economic crisis relatively well overall. Recognised as a core leader in the efforts to fix the rest of us, Germany’s conceptual notion of difficulty is clearly going to be different from others who find themselves in worse places. Yet, to quote a contrast, in Lithuania 70% of people believed things were good at home, but unemployment still tallied as the most important issue.

Unemployment as a major concern

After following the data through and applying it logically to the situation, the facts lie thus: Unemployment is a concern for every single member state, in some more than in others, but always is high on the agenda, save in Germany. Countries with high rates of unhappiness on a national scale, like Greece, Cyrpus, Spain and Ireland also show extremely high concern for jobs.

The problem is that this isn’t getting any better and it is not confined to the EU- Croatia, due to become the 28th member state of the European Union, registered similarly high levels of unhappiness at home (97%), and similar difficulties (72% registered unemployment as a core concern).

Across Europe, we have lost jobs en masse and we have lost faith in our national governments. These two things tie together right across the board. But for several countries, since the economic downfall began, there have been significant elections and changes in regime. Even so, we remain unhappy nationally. Clearly, changing government is not the sole answer, in fact, it may not be the answer at all, when stability seems to be the prevailing aim of the medium term.

Many respondents to the Eurobarometer in Croatia highlighted the fact that the European Union provides the freedom to travel, work and study anywhere in the EU. In EU member states, almost universally, respondents quoted the free movement of goods and services as the core strength of the Union. Not only is it something Croatia looks forward to being a part of, but it is something Europe celebrates on a universal level, through all of its diversity of culture and norms.

Restoring faith

Restoring faith in Europe is going to be extremely difficult. The saying goes that all politics is local- no matter what work is done on a vague level on Europe, more than a tenth of its citizens aren’t employed. In its creation, the European Union has enabled more people to work in more places and to have the freedom to do so as they so choose.

The answer to restoring faith is actually in front of us. It’s not vague, it’s not hard to see, not even a surprise. We need to get Europe back to work.

 

Curating @ireland

From May 13th to 17th 2013, I was the curator of the @ireland Twitter account, hosted by WorldIrish.

At the below link, you can see the archive of my tweets during those five days, which focused on social issues like racism, homelessness, prisoners’ rights and immigration. It was also the week of Eurovision, which led to hundreds of sassy tweets on that topic.

@ireland- Aisling Twomey

Failing Faith in the European Union

Europeans do not only distrust their own governments, but they are also inherently skeptical of the European Union itself, the Eurobarometer shows. This article was originally published at OneEurope

The Eurobarometer survey carried out in November 2012 was noteworthy mostly for the darkness mired in its pages.  Not only, it found, do Europeans not trust their own governments, but they are inherently distrustful of the European Union itself.

A matter of trust

68% of Europeans do not trust their national government, with just 28% trusting their national parliament. Distrust is extremely prominent in the soon to be 28th EU member state, Croatia, where 75% of respondents admit they distrust both the government and the parliament. 80% of EU citizens do not trust political parties.

In Belgium, fundamentally the home of the European Union, 76% of respondents distrust political parties. In fact, every indicator measuring trust deteriorated in this country.  A majority (56%) of respondents feel things are going wrong in their home country. In Ireland, that number is 47% – but 66% of Irish respondents feel Ireland would not fare better alone. The country is split as to how satisfied we are with our democracy; 40% are dissatisfied with democracy at EU level.

Just half of Europeans feel that their voices count in their country; a shockingly small number at 50%, demonstrating yet again the democratic deficit that often crops up as a debate topic on this website. 45% of Europeans do not trust the European Parliament; 44% do not trust the European Commission; 48% do not trust the European Central Bank. Ireland currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union; a body distrusted by 43% of European citizens. 57% of respondents feel distrustful of the European Union as a whole. 68% believe it to be inefficient; 51% believe it to be technocratic.

We could go through the numbers for years, and the point would still be the same: Europeans do not trust Europe. And in Ireland, the Irish people trust neither their own government, nor Europe – but we’re aware that we can’t make it on our own. Majorities of respondents in Ireland feel they are at least fairly well informed about the European Union, and almost 70% of Irish people feel in some way as though they were EU citizens.

Ireland’s woes

The issues are plain to see on our streets. Ireland’s current unemployment rate is at 14.1%. Across Europe, the number is 12.1%. There are 26,521,000 unemployed people in the European Union today: a figure larger than the entire population of Nepal.

For the young people, it is even worse – if that were possible. 24% of all young people in Europe – 5.69 million – are unemployed. That is a 1.5% rise since March 2012. That means that since March 2012, an additional 184,000 young people have lost their jobs.

When asked in the Eurobarometer, 48% of European citizens quoted “unemployment” as one of the most important issues in their country. In Ireland, that number was 65%.To put that into perspective, a mere 2% of Europeans quoted “terrorism” as a core concern. Ireland, a country infamously divided by terrorism during the Troubles, registered a 0% concern for terrorism, despite the notable and frightening increase in paramilitary activity there since the start of this decade.

53% of people in Ireland believe that the worst is yet to come. 41% admit that they live day to day and are unable to make plans. This means that almost half of the Irish have trouble with basic daily expenses: bills, groceries, utilities, education and so on. This means that young people are having trouble completing third level education, and that families are facing increasing debt, taxes, and charges, along with falling disposable income. With sadness, the truth must be acknowledged that thousands and thousands of young Irish people have heard the call of emigration- and they have answered in their droves.Rising above crime, terrorism, immigration and taxation, unemployment and the economic crisis are the core concerns in the collective mind of Ireland. The desperation for work is palpable nationwide; it doesn’t appear to get better but we are still making room for the continuing pain.

Ireland was an economic monster in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Celtic Tiger was roaring, with the economy growing over 9% on average until 2003 and almost 6% thereafter. In 2008, the Economic and Social Research Institute forecast that for the first time since 1983, Ireland was to experience negative growth. They were sure that recovery would come swiftly.

As we now know, Ireland was the first European country to enter recession. The property bubble burst and consumer spending collapsed. Ireland’s towering economy was a house of cards, and it fell fast. In 2009, the economy contracted by almost 7% – a burning thump to the stomach of the nation. Accepting the €67.5 billion bailout from the IMF and EU in November 2010 meant that we accepted austerity. We have paid for scandal after scandal, our banking system corrupt into depravity. Not one financial criminal has seen the inside of a prison, but we are more than happy to lock up small time thieves who are trying to feed their families.

Today, as you read this, there are 294,000 unemployed people in Ireland. It is a huge figure in its own right, and bigger than the entire population of Barbados. I am not surprised to know that Ireland does not trust its own government – and I am even less surprised to know that Ireland does not trust the EU. This hangover has been going on for five years. Doleful acceptance has brought us this far, but clearly this acceptance has come at a high price for those who seek to govern.

Why can’t I be guaranteed that my clothes haven’t contributed to someone’s death?

Note: This article was originally published on TheJournal.ie

Standardised textile labelling is vital to keep vulnerable workers safe in developing countries like Bangladesh, writes Aisling Twomey.

THE RANA PLAZA factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed suddenly on 24 April, 2013. With estimates still rising, more than 700 are counted among the dead, more than 1000 among the injured. Others remain buried, missing beneath the rubble. The search has turned from hopeful to devastating; now, the searchers are seeking remains.

The Rana Plaza collapse is thought to be Bangladesh’s worst ever industrial accident, but it is by no means the first. In November 2012, Dhaka suffered a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory, in which 117 died. It was the deadliest fire in the nation’s history. The Tazreen Fashion factory, part of the Tuba group, produced clothing for Walmart and the United States Marine Corps, among others.

At the Rana Plaza, clothes were manufactured for Primark, Monsoon, Bonmarché, Matalan and at one point, the Benetton Group. On 23 April, inspectors discovered cracks in the building and requested its closure. According to the New York Times, the shops and the lower floor bank closed but the garment workers returned to work the following day.

The Ethical Trading Initiative

Monsoon, a founding member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, is recognised as a leader in the ETI’s assessment criteria. The ETI’s slogan is “respect for workers worldwide.” Yet the factory workers reported that they were forced back to work on threat of wage withholding. Calling Monsoon an ethical trading leader clearly presents a misconception; the average garment worker in Bangladesh earns $37 a month, 60 per cent of the estimated cost of living in the local slums.

$37 is roughly equivalent to €29 – an easy amount spent in Penneys of a Saturday afternoon. Fashion is so cheap, until you realise that the cost in reality is sky high and rising every day, whether we see it or not.

Merriam Webster defines a sweatshop as “a shop or factory in which employees work for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions.” Rana Plaza fulfilled both, and nobody seems to have cared. The workers weren’t unionised, and their workplace fell from under them like a house of cards.

Why has Ireland not raised the issue?

You’d have thought that, at some point in the run of Ireland’s tenure holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, a topic like this would come up for discussion. But it hasn’t, because combating sweatshops has never been a priority for the EU. Not only does the European Union not ban trade with factories demonstrating unethical practices, the tagging procedures required for clothing under EU law fall short of what transparency should dictate is necessary.

EU Regulation 1007/2011 outlines the reason for legislation on textile labelling: “If the provisions of the Member States with regard to names, composition and labelling of textile products were to vary from one Member State to another, this would create hindrances to the proper functioning of the internal market.”

Therein lies the difficulty. The European Union functions around the single internal market and regulates only within that zone; how that internal market operates with those less fortunate in other states seems to be less of an issue. This is possibly proved by the fact that country of origin labelling, while a topic of discussion since 2005, has never been implemented at EU level.

Consumers simply don’t have enough information

A 2011 report highlights the few benefits of country of origin labelling, stating that consumers would have better information but little else, because the label would have no impact on health and safety of consumers. Further, it stated, implementing the labelling would potentially lead to increased costs. The European Union often lauds human rights and citizenship, but in this case neglects to deal with a significant problem in the emergence of a globalised world.

The average consumer simply doesn’t have enough information to hand to aid them in making a judgement call. A standardisation system is required to keep fashion trading and the people who make it safe. As a consumer, I know that I am implicated in a supply chain that reeks of badness, but I feel that there is functionally nothing I can do about it, because so many suppliers suffer these conditions for just about every major high street chain.

An Abercrombie hoodie I own bears the tag “Fabricado Nas Flipinas.” The conditions faced by Abercrombie and Fitch factory workers in The Philippines earned A&F a name on the 2010 International Labor Rights Forum ‘Sweatshop Hall of Fame.’ Brands such as Sloggi, Triumph, Spalding, Hollister, Ralph Lauren, Urban Outfitters, IKEA, Mothercare, Converse, Marks and Spencer – every one of them have been caught red handed; baby clothes and homewares are as implicated as fashion retail.

Until we stand up and take action, nothing will be done to stop sweatshops. When we wear clothes that say “Made in Bangladesh”, that doesn’t tell us whether conditions there are fair or equitable. And in my heart I suspect that they obviously were not.

Country of origin labels should be mandatory

In the end-credits of many blockbuster movies, a line proclaims that no animals were hurt in the making of the film. If we can assure that oversight for animals, why can’t my jumper guarantee on a tag that it was made in a safe and fair working environment. Why can’t I be guaranteed that my clothes haven’t contributed to someone’s death?

The dream would be a legal system of tagging. Each company should have to label clothing to state its country of origin. The factory name should be listed, and the EU should keep track of factories and how they operate. There are plenty of NGOs that already strive to do this work. When a company gets caught investing in sweatshops, a new tag should appear on their garments: Made in a Sweatshop. Punitive, deterrent measures are the only way to stop the festering carbuncle of sweatshop labour.

But – people will yell at me – it turns a profit. It keeps people working. Low paid labour is part of the developing world and that’s not necessarily a bad thing… But hang on; I don’t expect people to get Ireland’s minimum wage in the middle of Bangladesh. I understand basic economics. I want people to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. I want people to go to work and come home safely. I don’t want anyone buried under rubble for clothes I buy.

The chances are fair that you’re walking around wearing clothes that were made in Rana Plaza. And the person who made those clothes might well be dead because the floor collapsed from under her when she was trying to earn €29 a month.

It’s a House of Cards – but the floor isn’t going to fall from beneath you and I at all.

Aisling Twomey works in political communications and has a Masters in Criminal Justice from University College Cork. Her journalism work is available at aislingtwomey.me.

Democracy and Declarations: The Cost of an MEP

Note: This article was originally published at OneEurope.

The commonly known fact is that there are 754 Members of the European Parliament. What is less commonly known is how many of them show up, how often they appear and what they vote for.

Given that the European Parliament Budget for 2012 was €1718 billion, with 24% of that dedicated to MEP expenses, the importance of arriving and voting consistently cannot be undermined. One of the most commonly voiced complaints about the European Parliament is its inherent democratic deficit. So the question is: are MEPs worth the cash?

For the almost indescribably large sum of money spent on the Parliament, which is still just 1% of the general European Union budget, European citizens may not be getting value for money.

VoteWatch Europe indicates that participation is strongest by Austrian MEPs, who participate in roll call votes over 91% of the time in Parliament. On the lower end of the scale, Malta has the dubious honour of being the least participative state, present 71% of the time.

On an individual level, many MEPs are highly participative and demonstrate strong records for appearing, voting and contributing in all areas of parliamentary discourse. Iosif Matula of Romania has participated in 99.56% of votes and was elected to the Parliament for the first time in 2009.

Brian Crowley of Ireland has the poorest attendance score at 27.42%. Crowley was first elected to the European Parliament in 1994 and gained the largest number of first preference votes in the 2009 European elections in Ireland South, where he secured over 132,000 votes, pushing him into first place with ease. If Brian Crowley neglects to attend, should he then receive the €7,056.87 salary per month of an MEP?

Post tax, that salary emerges as €6,200 and MEPs may also be subject to national taxation. Further, the expenses system at the European Parliament is extensive. In 2011, each MEP was allowed expenses of €4,299 per month. MEPs are further refunded the cost of travel to and from their meetings up to a maximum of a business class air fare. There are also fixed expenses to cover the cost of additional baggage and motorway tolls. Further, there are fixed allowances for travel outside an MEP’s home country for a purpose other than official meetings- in 2010, that expense was capped at over €4000 per annum.

Finally, Parliament pays €304 per day of attendance at official meetings, which is halved if MEPs don’t fulfill more than 50% attendance. Parliament also pays a further €152 per day plus accommodation and breakfast expenses, for meetings attended by MEPs outside of the European Community.

It is quite clear that to be an MEP is to have a significant income with very little oversight from your member state. Some MEP’s elect to demonstrate their expenses and the actual oversight within the European institutions is quite good. But speaking as someone from Ireland who works in politics, the oversight system here isn’t strong and the details of these payments and expenses are not known or advertised.

Austerity is rife across Europe, and more and more people in the middle and working classes are suffering daily under the weight of new taxes, new charges, heightened contributions and pay cuts. Members of the European Parliament need to sit at the same table as the rest of us. If you’re only showing up 27% of the time, you should only get 27% of that pay. Democracy begins right here, but the deficit seems wider than ever.