Good news is rare in Irish politics these days, sufficiently so that every crumb of comfort is a feast. This week's feast has been brought to us courtesy of the venerable Irish Times.
It should come as no surprise that with Fianna Fail having been reduced to an ideological seraglio of eunuchs (to paraphrase Michael Foot), with Sinn Fein's motley crew still lacking the intellectual firepower to produce a coherent critique of government policy, with the far left daily demonstrating its political irrelevance, with Labour exiled to the cold, unforgiving Gulag of government and with the Creighton-Donnelly-Ross axis of non-left opposition still not cohering into an actual political party, the locus of political opposition has moved from parliament to forces outside of electoral politics - principally the trades unions and the media. Few enjoy a more illustrious profile in this oppositional syndicate than veteran Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole. This week, in his regular Tuesday column, it fell to O'Toole to deliver the intellectual left's critique of the government - one which Labour can no longer deliver.
In it, O'Toole laments the elimination of government funding for community charities, which, he claims, are doing vital, largely unheralded and economically efficient work. He styles his critique in the form of an exhortation to the younger Ministers in Enda Kenny's cabinet:
"Alan Kelly and Leo Varadkar can make a good start in their new jobs by getting to grips with a cruel and completely unnecessary crisis in funding for almost every small charity for people with disabilities."
He then goes on to describe the services provided by these charities in the following terms:
"[These charities] organise the voluntary efforts, the fundraising and the advocacy that gives these vulnerable minorities some chance of having a voice in the public policies that affect them."
Note the emphasis on the A-word - advocacy. Once upon a time, charities were designed to act as direct conduits between people who had money and wished to disburse it to deserving recipients and the recipients themselves. Education charities did not lobby government departments in relation to education. They educated. Housing charities didn't campaign for more housing. They provided it. Poverty charities helped the poor, rather than campaigning for government to do it. Indeed, O'Toole shows his age in referring to these organisations as charities. The Newspeak for charity is NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) - and charity is fast becoming a dirty word. Why? Precisely because the role of the NGO is not to help people per se but to advocate for them to be helped by someone else - almost invariably the government. Indeed, were the Good Samaritan story to be written today, one suspects that the Samaritan would have set up an NGO to campaign for money from the King, the hapless wounded man would have quietly expired during a protest held on his behalf outside the Royal Palace, and twenty years after the deceased was forgotten, a staff of two dozen would be working as full-time policy and liaison officers for the Judea and Samaria Wounded Men's Support Group.
Notwithstanding his admirable attention to detail and vivid writing style, O'Toole, not for the first (or, one suspects, last) time, completely misses the point. Eliminating taxpayer funding for campaigning NGOs is a necessary first step in draining the malarial swamp that surrounds the delivery of charitable assistance and the debating of public policy in Ireland today.
The first problem with government-funded advocacy is that it implicitly discriminates between citizens. In 1996, the Supreme Court in the McKenna judgment found that government funding of the "Yes" side in a constitutional referendum offended equal protection provisions in the Constitution by structurally disadvantaging the "No" side. It is hardly a stretch on this logic to say that government funding of advocacy groups infringes the McKenna principle by publicly endowing one position or policy in relation to an issue over others. It is mystifying that in the eighteen years that have passed since the McKenna decision, the government funding of ideologically loaded advocacy groups has not been brought to heel. The greatest irony of this bizarre status quo is that people who are most inclined to lecture institutions on the importance of equality are most committed to the blatant use of taxpayers' money in such a discriminatory fashion.
However, the problems don't just extend to those who oppose an NGO's agenda but to the people who support it as well. Where an NGO receives money on a discretionary basis, from a government department, it loses its independence from that government. The pursuit of government money can and will affect the NGO's ability to campaign. For example, where the government has a choice between funding an NGO which has criticised it and one which hasn't, which one will it fund? On a day-to-day level, will an NGO which has an opportunity to criticise a government policy not think nervously about the next funding allocation? Ten years ago, I attended a lecture in the Law Society of Ireland Education Centre, where an official with a left wing NGO described being in a radio studio debating against a coalition backbencher against a government policy of the day. She described how, during the commercial break, the irate politician turned to her and said something to the effect that her organisation had a cheek taking money from the government and then campaigning against its policy. She was (unusually, I might add) able to respond to the TD that her organisation did not, in fact, receive public money. Good for her - but ask yourself this question: How many conversations like this have happened between NGO officials and politicians and how many of them weren't able to dismiss the politician's concerns with such equanimity? More to the point, ask yourself this question: Do you want the NGO you support to be accountable to you or to the very politicians that it is supposed to be lobbying?
Finally, there is an even worse problem - propaganda, the most effective form of which is not delivered on Stalin-esque government newsreels but by people who masquerade as independent advocates, analysts or observers and enjoy prestige commensurate with their perceived independence. Government funding of NGOs results in the creation of what is known in the US as "astroturf" movements - so called because while they look like grassroots movements, they are in fact secretly controlled by powerful insiders who use the respectable veneer of independence to advocate agendas close to their hearts (and normally wallets). Hence the remarkable ability of NGO-land's campaigns to reflect the intellectual prejudices of powerful interest groups within the modern corporatist apparatus - most notably, but by no means exclusively, trades unions and the public sector. Eliminating taxpayer funding of NGOs reduces the ability of governments to distort the public perception of debates by funding notionally independent advocates to influence public opinion in favour of outcomes which have been approved in advance by the very governments that the NGOs are supposed to be holding to account.
Any reductions in funding for this political lobbying masquerading as charity has to be good news - even if the first step is an immeasurably modest one. Far from advocating O'Toole's favoured policy of reversing the cuts, the young reformers (if they wish to be worthy of such a moniker) must go further. A good place to start is the tax rules on charities. Charitable tax exemptions are a fine idea for organisations engaged in the activities mandated by the Pemsel Rules: namely education, the relief of poverty and services to the community at large. However, the government - if it is serious about cleaning up the political system - must crack down on organisations which use the provision of traditional charitable services as a front for political lobbying. Political lobbying is a legitimate activity - but let the lobbyists do their business on their own dime, not the taxpayer's. Perhaps something for Simon Harris to think about in the Department of Finance...